The Tapestry of Voices: On Tash Aw’s Novels

By Richard M. ChoOctober 14, 2020

The Tapestry of Voices: On Tash Aw’s Novels
PUBLISHED A CENTURY AGO, in 1920, Joseph Conrad’s novel The Rescue begins by describing the geography of the Southeast Asian country Malaysia: “The shallow sea that foams and murmurs on the shores of the thousand islands, big and little, which make up the Malay Archipelago has been for centuries the scene of adventurous undertakings.” The fictional depiction of Malaysia and nearby countries, and of their people and culture, also made appearances in Conrad’s other novels such as Almayer’s Folly and Lord Jim. He spent his younger years on several transoceanic voyages to exotic lands, and his effort to faithfully reproduce on the page what he had encountered was admired and lauded by many literary critics. However, according to Hugh Clifford, a renowned administrator of the British Empire and a close friend of Joseph Conrad, the novelist’s take on

the Orientals […] are much less successful. To me they are interesting, not because they are really Asiatics, but because they represent the impression scored by Asiatics upon a sensitive imaginative European mind. Mr. Conrad had seen them and known them, but he had seen as white men see — from the outside.

During the 19th and early 20th century, major European writers’ accounts of nations outside of their continent were marked with notes of condescension, as in Flaubert’s account of Egypt. In Conrad’s take on Congo, there was more than an inkling, according to Chinua Achebe’s widely read essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness,” which accused the novel of racism and utterly Eurocentric portrayal of Africa. Although his novels were valuable records of the native lives in far-flung nations, his place in the European, socio-literary milieu must have skewed his vision, like a view through a tinted window: outlines of bodies he could see but not the nuanced characteristics and capabilities they possessed. Representation is crucial to attaining cultural hegemony, and Conrad’s novels were an inadvertent part of the discipline by which the Orient was approached as a topic of learning and discovery, only to be appropriated and exploited by the Europeans, as Edward Said’s acclaimed book Orientalism centrally argues.

If Conrad’s affected vision grazed the surface of Malaysian ways of life, Tash Aw, who knows its language and culture intimately as someone who grew up in the country, is in a different position to represent the turbulent lives of Southeast Asians in his novels. His portrayal of Asian-specific customs and sentiments through his characters is immaculate. Aw writes in English, his second language, although it has to be mentioned that English was introduced to Malaysia as the language of government and education in the colonial period, and many Malaysians feel comfortable expressing themselves in this adapted language. He has four novels to date, whose settings all take place in Asia (two in Malaysia, one in Indonesia, and one in China.) His second novel, Map of the Invisible World, reveals the significance of its title when a communist activist in Indonesia during the Suharto dictatorship says, “It’s as if the history of Southeast Asia started with the discovery of the sea routes from Europe to Asia. Everything begins at this point in time, but in fact so much had already happened.” He claims that the country needs the map drawn by an Indonesian because the map drawn by a foreigner (mostly likely a white European) does not capture the whole view, rendering certain parts of the country “invisible.” In an interview with Channel NewsAsia in 2018, Aw said, “I write because I feel that I have — rightly or wrongly — stories to tell, that I have a particular point of view that I feel captures a sense of being Malaysian, being Malaysian of Chinese origin.” It is reasonable to deduce that one of Aw’s impetus for writing novels is to make those “particular points of view” represented along with those of Europeans.

But how to do so effectively? Aw is careful not to discard a certain viewpoint imperative to understanding Malaysian history, which is inextricably interwoven with European countries for their centuries-long colonialism (by Portugal, by the Dutch, and by the British Empire). Understanding that the democracy of narrative voices would present an unbiased portrayal of his story, Aw wrote his first two novels, which heavily deal with the unmistakable legacy of European colonialism in Southeast Asia, by allowing characters from different ethnic origins to speak in turn. Firmly equipped with cross-cultural awareness (although he grew up in Southeast Asia, he nurtured his postsecondary education in England,) he aptly speaks for both the colonizer and the colonized. In fact, the most conspicuous literary device in all of Aw’s novels is his use of multiperspective narration, a cacophony of voices that, although disharmonious from time to time, emits from their heart and soul.

His debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, which won the Whitbread Award and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, employs three different voices that circumnavigate the legend of Johnny Lim, known as the Elder Brother of the valley town full of mines owned by British businessmen, the commander of the Malayan Communist Party, the chief informer to Japanese army, and the autodidact who reads Percy Bysshe Shelley and Karl Marx. Johnny survives brutal English colonialism and Japanese invasion, not to mention several assassination attempts even after the country’s independence. He is one of those rare species who “made it” against all odds, similar to the Indian protagonist Balram in Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize–winning novel The White Tiger. Both Balram and Johnny betray and murder their own countrymen in order to write their own rags-to-riches story, as if that is the only way to achieve wealth in countries that were once under the British colonial occupation. “When a child like Johnny ends up being a textile merchant, it is an incredible story. Truly, it is. He is a freak of nature.” Interestingly, Aw deprives Johnny Lim of the authority to tell his own account in the book; rather it is his son (in the form of personal research), his wife (in diary entries), and his white English expatriate friend (through a reminiscence from a hospice), who speak for the enigmatic character that is Johnny Lim. Each narration is tainted by the teller’s own personal viewpoint and conviction.

To Johnny Lim’s son Jasper, his father is a monster. He can never forgive his father’s betrayal of his comrades during the Japanese occupation. In contrast, Johnny’s European friend, Peter Wormwood, says of Johnny: “His face was suffused with an unspoilt innocence that I had never seen in all my Occidental years. […] It spoke of instinctive trust, communicated by an intimacy that we in the cold West lost many years ago.” Speaking of Johnny’s betrayal, Peter says, “During the war, principles are one thing, survival is another.” Jasper’s and Peter’s narratives bookend Johnny’s wife Snow Soong’s diary accounts, the most captivating narrative of the three because, naturally, her private writing is full of secrecy and emotions, especially toward the Japanese secret police officer Kunichika Mamoru, that distract her from impending calamities. (In fact, the reader is bound to wonder whether Jasper is Johnny’s son or Kunichika’s son.) Snow’s untimely death during the childbirth is revealed early on in the novel, and Jasper has no clue about the existence of his mother’s diary, the relic that Peter has kept for 40 years and hands to him at Johnny’s funeral.

The multi-voice narrative paints a kaleidoscopic landscape, both historical and psychological. We hear from someone who grew up in independent Malaysia and could only speak of the colonized period from secondary research, from a woman of Chinese descent living in Malaysia during the Japanese invasion, and from a European who peers in as an outsider. Even after independence, the extent of the Western influence can be manifested by the names adapted by rich Malaysians: Jasper says,

It is not unusual for men of my father’s generation to adopt the unfeasible names of matinee idols. Among my father’s friends, there have been: Rudolph Chen, Valentino Wong, Cary Gopal and his business partner Randolph Muttusamy, Rock Hudson Ho, Montgomery Hashin, at least three Garys […], and too many Jameses to mention.

If the threads of different voices were connected by knotting them together in his first novel, the narrative threads in his second novel, Map of the Invisible World, are rather held together by weaving. This narrative complexity, using a limited third-person point of view, incorporates diverse perspectives from both Asians and Europeans.

Taking place during the time when General Suharto’s incipient dictatorship was bathing Indonesia in blood, the novel follows three characters: Adam de Willigen, an Indonesian orphan adopted by a Dutch man named Karl de Willigen; Johan, Adam’s brother adopted by a rich Malaysian family in Kuala Lumpur; and Margaret Bates, a European professor working at a university in Indonesia. The novel begins as 16-year-old Adam (described as “neutral Indo-Malay features with a suggestion of Minangkabau-Malay ancestry, an essentially clear complexion darkened by the Spartan life of the south-eastern islands. It was as if a Sumatran nobleman had copulated with a tribeswoman from Irian, and this was the result.”) witnesses the kidnapping of his father, Karl, by a military gang. The story is driven by his search; he enlists Margaret’s help after finding out Karl and Margaret were once lovers.

The legacy of colonialism is, once again, a central theme. The communists aim to deracinate the last vestiges of Dutch colonialism (hence the kidnapping of Karl de Willigen, who is from Dutch Batavia). White professors, journalists, and diplomats are accused by the natives of retaining “disgusting privileges of being white in a place like this.” On the street lined with “mee bandung stalls,” packed with people “dressed in sarongs,” and filled with the jingle of “bells of the becaks,” the walls are replete with graffiti carrying sentiments of national fervor such as “Crush Christian Imperialists!” and “Commies Die!” Another theme of the novel involves the idea of “home” in a country with numerous distinct native ethnic groups (e.g., Javanese, Madurese, Sumatran, etc.). Characters in the novel casually comment that not all Indonesians are “real” Indonesians. The phrase “Let’s go home,” when uttered in turn by the three protagonists, imparts different meanings for each. Once again, the core strength of the novel lies in its use of disparate narrative threads that adapt admirably to the psychological state of each character.

Aw’s two subsequent novels focus more on class tension and social inequalities caused by the burgeoning capitalism in Asia. In fact, people in Asian countries jokingly infer that capitalism, along with Christianity, is the disease spread through European invasion.

“Some time ago — I forget exactly when — I decided that I would one day be very rich. By this I mean not just comfortably well off but superabundantly, incalculably wealthy…” Thus begins Aw’s third novel, Five Star Billionaire, which takes place in Shanghai, China. It is ingeniously framed as a self-help book (coincidentally, another novel under the same formal guise was published in the same year by Mohsin Hamid, titled How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia), whose chapters are titled: “How to Achieve Greatness”; “Pursue Gains, Forget Righteousness”; and “Move to Where the Money Is.” Scattered throughout those didactic pronouncements are subchapters entitled “Case Studies” that follow the lives of four protagonists who yearn for stability and meaningful human connection, attainable only after achieving a certain level of wealth, or so they think.

Once again, the narration rotates through multiple characters: Phoebe, a factory girl from Malaysia who arrives in Shanghai on the promise of a job; Gary, a pop singer whose meteoric rise and ultimate downfall reminds us of Icarus; Yinghui, who abandons art for commerce; Justin, an adopted son of a wealthy family in financial collapse; and lastly the eponymous billionaire who is supposedly writing this very book. Toward the end, a filament that ties together the central characters is revealed. Five Star Billionaire is poignant, exotic, and suspenseful in its depiction of the human cost of progress.

In 2016, Aw published a short, autobiographical nonfiction titled The Face: Strangers on the Pier. The title refers to the frequent phenomenon in the late 19th century when a large group of people from Southern China migrated to the pier in Singapore, waiting to meet their relatives or to find work. Aw’s grandfather was among those strangers, and a similar migration story has appeared in his fiction. He also recounts how he became adept at modulating the colloquial speech to match the dialect of the listener, mentioning there are at least 56 recognized ethnic groups in Chinese-speaking communities, all of whom speak their own dialect. Their culture is anything but homogeneous. His propensity for recognizing and using disparate voices in his fiction may have stemmed from such practice.

In 2019, Aw published his fourth novel, We, the Survivors, which portrays the struggles of common people in economically advanced, contemporary Malaysia plagued with ethnic tensions and other social ills wrought by relentless urbanization. The travails persist, although the country now has a GDP per capita of over $10,000: “But they worked for the big corporations, the ones the government took over from the British. New owners, same rules. Times change but the workers’ lives never improve.” Immigrant workers without papers are aplenty; they come to Malaysia from Indonesia, Bangladeshi, and Cambodia. With no secure future in sight, they toil away at a palm-oil plantation, yet soon will be out of jobs because “[s]ome politicians in America decide that they can’t buy Malaysian rubber gloves; suddenly ten factories in the area have to shut down. The Europeans want to save the fucking planet so they ban the use of palm oil in food; within a month the entire port is on its knees.” Although the country is independent, its workers’ lives are still dependent on the decisions of Westerners.

The novel is framed as a series of interview sessions between Ah Hock, a murder convict, and Su-min Tan, a journalist with an American education, who wishes to turn Ah Hock’s story into a book. Contrary to Aw’s trademark storytelling technique, a single voice, that of Ah Hock, overwhelmingly dictates the entire narrative. The beauty of the book lies in its simplicity, as it is told by an uneducated man, and his lifelong hardship is conveyed without a filter. Su-min is a foil to Ah Hock. There clearly is a difference between experiencing the poverty-stricken life and studying the poverty-stricken life.

Ah Hock, born with nothing to boast about, aspires to a quiet life in the middle class. Poverty stalks him. Yet, through persistent hard work and occasional wit, he acquires a semblance of economic security in his 30s: a job, a wife, and a modest abode. Then, Ah Hock commits a murder, crushing the skull of an undocumented immigrant with a tree branch. The mystery surrounding this seemingly senseless killing is the engine of the novel.

The motive for Ah Hock’s murder remains nebulous even after the last page is turned. Most likely, the rampaging social inequality has frustrated him all throughout his life and his patience snapped at an unfortunate moment. Ah Hock himself doesn’t exactly know his reasons either; he merely says, “God’s will.” He seems to admit that his power of agency has been depleted under the weight of relentless capitalism and crude policies that favor only the rich.

Aw has consistently produced a book in every three to four years since his debut in 2005. His art of literature lies more in the telling, whose power is cumulative in effect and less in what is told. How can we expand the limited understanding of colonized countries in the Western society, undoubtedly influenced by the practice of Orientalism? Aw is perennially playing around with the question in his fiction that is, like a tapestry of colorful voices, carpeting the open path ahead for more inclusive and comprehensible understanding of others through literature.


Richard M. Cho is a research librarian for Humanities and Literature at University of California, Irvine. He is the founder of the book and movie review website,

LARB Contributor

Richard M. Cho is a research librarian for Humanities and Literature at University of California, Irvine. His writing has been published in Tint Journal, Asymptote, LA Review of Books, and more. He is the founder of the book and movie review website,


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