Tan Twan Eng on Making Readers Angry About History
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Tan Twan Eng about his new novel, The House of Doors.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: There was an undercurrent in the story, which probably does not feel like an undercurrent when you’re living in Malaysia in this time period, of racism. There was the difference between the Europeans and the Chinese and the Malays and Indians? In this trial you’re portraying the European woman is convicted of murder and set to be hanged. And she has a way out, which is to ask the sultan to for a pardon. And there’s a line in there that says, “How can we allow an Asiatic potentate to exercise the power of life and death over a European and English woman?” It was so terrible. I was so angry.
Tan Twan Eng: Well, it’s meant to make you angry. So, I’m glad you have that reaction. If you didn’t have that reaction, I would start to doubt you. A lot of the stuff intentionally in there but also not overt, part of that sentence is real. That sentence was on one of the records in one of the letters which people wrote to the newspapers after the trial as well, when they found out that she was going to throw herself upon the mercy of the Sultan. I’m writing about the society 100 years ago, so I had to be true and authentic to the times. When my American publishers first read the manuscript the editor was a bit uncomfortable with some of the words I used, phrases like Chinaman or cooley, and they asked me if I could change the words and I said, I don’t want to because those were the terms which were thrown about in those days and in fact, those are the words which Somerset Maugham himself used in his stories. I wanted those words in there just to show how far things have changed. So, I wanted those words in there and again, I told them if you feel uncomfortable, that’s great because I want you to feel uncomfortable. So, they saw the point of it. And yes, it should make everyone feel slightly squirmy when they read that and to understand the sort of things that the Malaysian people had to endure in those times from the Brits. They were very condescending, very superior. So, I wanted all that in to reflect accurately what they experienced.
Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007 and has been widely translated. His second novel The Garden of Evening Mists won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 and the 2013 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Tan divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town. His new novel is called The House of Doors and was long listed for the Booker Prize.