Worlds apart

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2008, 12:00am

His first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, was nominated for he 2005 Man Booker Prize and won the 005 Whitbread Book Awards First Novel Award, as well as the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Asia Pacific region). So the pressure is obviously on for the second offering from Malaysian writer Tash Aw.

But Aw says the pressure has come more from himself than his publisher. 'I think any half-decent writer will put the pressure on themselves to try new things and depart from their first work,' says Aw, 35. Now, after more than two years' labour, that second book is almost complete and set to be released in the fourth quarter of this year.

Set in Malaysia and Indonesia in 1964, Map of the Invisible World tells the story of two poor orphaned Indonesian brothers separated at an early age: one is adopted by a well-to-do family in Kuala Lumpur while the other stays in Indonesia.

'This novel is about how these two brothers find their own ways in life and, more generally, how we locate ourselves in a changing world, how we define the limit of personal freedom,' Aw says.

The author chose the 1960s as a time frame because he wanted to capture two societies in a state of flux. 'In the case of Indonesia you'd had 15 years of independence, in Malaysia seven years and we were still really confused and not sure about what to do. There were so many forces pulling the two countries in different directions and I just wanted this as the backdrop for the two characters' life stories,' he says.

The historical context, however, is merely a background for the brothers' stories. 'Far more important are the personal lives of each of the characters,' he says, adding that both of his novels so far examine 'how we de-tangle ourselves from our past and how we come to terms with it'.

Aw was born in Taipei in 1973 to Malaysian parents, grew up in Kuala Lumpur from the age of two and moved to England as a teenager. He read law at Cambridge and Warwick universities and worked as a corporate lawyer in London before resigning to write full time.

His second novel has some similarities with The Harmony Silk Factory, which centred on an infamous Chinese mafia boss who operated in Malaysia during the second world war.

'Now that I'm at the end of writing [Map of the Invisible World], I guess I can see I'm repeating some important themes, like memory, recollection, and personal history,' Aw muses. He's also interested in exploring the differences between western and Asian cultures.

'I think it's a very western thing to celebrate and remember the past, because Asian history is all about forgetting the past,' he says.

But readers can also expect some clear differences between the two novels, with Aw describing Map of the Invisible World as a 'much darker and riskier' novel than The Harmony Silk Factory, in the style and the areas explored.

Stylistically, this time around he uses a third-person narrative to give his story an objective point of view; by contrast, The Harmony Silk Factory story was told from the perspectives of three characters.

'I think this second book is a much more patient novel. Every novel has its own rhythm. This one has demanded that I take more time with it,' Aw says. 'The writing has taken me much longer; The Harmony Silk Factory took me a very long time to plan, but the writing was quite quick, a year and a half. But this one has taken me well over two years.'

Aw laughs, saying he keeps to a 'bourgeois working day' by setting up at his desk at 8am, taking lunch and then writing again until 6pm. His first novel was quickly picked up by a publisher and he admits that his life has changed radically since then - not least because royalties from The Harmony Silk Factory have made him the most successful Malaysian writer of recent years.

'No one warns you, probably because no one anticipates you're going to be successful, including yourself,' he says. 'But your life changes a lot. I actually still find it unbelievable to get invited everywhere to talk about my first book. It's a great privilege even though it's very tiring at times.'