An interview with Tan Twan Eng, acclaimed author of The Gift of Rain

Tan Twan Eng

WaterBridge Review: The Gift of Rain draws from wartime Malaya, imperial China, colonial Penang, aikido, Eastern philosophy. How did you approach researching the book?

Tan Twan Eng: There wasn’t much research to do when I started writing The Gift of Rain, because I’ve been interested in those subjects since I was a teenager, and I spent those years reading everything I could on them, collecting the materials, remembering and storing away details that caught my attention. When it came to writing the novel, it was more a case of confirming the details and facts that I’d already filed away somewhere in my mind. Because I was in South Africa at the time I was writing the novel, I had to e-mail my mother in Kuala Lumpur, where my books and materials were kept, and ask her to take out certain books, to confirm some facts for me.

WBR: What prompted you to write about the Japanese Occupation of Malaysia during the Second World War?

TTE: Well, the story had to be set in the Second World War, because I wanted to write about the colonial era of Penang, and the Japanese Occupation was a major part of the war in Malaya, the turning point in the development of the country.

It’s also something that very few novels have dealt with, to view the Occupation from various sides: from the perspectives of the local people, the colonial Europeans, and also from the viewpoint of the Japanese.   

WBR: The concept of choice in circumstances over which there is very limited personal control appears to be fundamental to the book. Did you consciously decide to explore this theme?

TTE: No, there was no conscious decision to explore any themes when I wrote the book. For me the story always comes first, and I was more interested in telling the story, seeing where it would take me. The themes only revealed themselves when I came almost to the end of the writing of the novel. And of course, when I rewrote the book, I could see the parts where I could emphasize the themes or play them down, depending on the needs of the story.  

I’m a traditionalist in that I want a book to have the strongest story possible, and not have to have the novel rely on the things I hate most when I read, what I call "textual gimmicks," for example, making the font look weird, or using tricks like "His shop was full of mangoesorangesapplescokesodacupcakes." These tricks don’t work for me. The story is what the reader will remember, years after the book has been read, and not how cute the font looks, or how cleverly the writer wrote without punctuation.

WBR: What are you working on right now?

TTE: I’m working on my second book, set in 1950s Malaya. You’ll understand my reluctance to talk about a work in progress. It’s not a sequel to The Gift of Rain. 

WBR: What are some of the books waiting for you on your bedstand?

TTE: Forgotten Wars by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, Japanese Death Poems compiled by Yoel Hoffman, Matsuo Basho by Makoto Ueda and Shadow Of The Silk Road by Colin Thubron.

WBR: Is there a particular author, past or present, who has influenced your writing?

TTE: Kazuo Ishiguro is one. His novel An Artist of The Floating World is, for me, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Each time I read it I discover something new. When I first thought I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to write in his style: spare, detached, cold. But when I began The Gift of Rain, I knew I couldn’t—simply because we were different people, with different ideas and influences. 

WBR: Do you have a favorite literary hero or heroine?

TTE: Humbert Humbert, because he is so monstrous and yet so human, so filled with love and pain and humor.   

WBR: Between practicing law and writing, spare time must be hard to come by. What do you do to relax?

TTE: I’m fortunate that I’m not practicing law at the moment, so I can devote myself to writing full-time. I know I wouldn’t be able to be a lawyer and still write. After a whole day in the office, the last thing I want to do—or am able to do—when I am home is to look at the computer screen and try to write something.

I relax by reading, watching DVDs, exercising and spending far too much time on the internet, and far too much time in bookshops browsing. Kuala Lumpur has one of the best bookshops I’ve ever seen, and it’s hard to go in and not buy something.  

WBR: Is there something you regret not knowing how to do?

TTE: Playing the piano or the violin. My parents are atypical Asian parents—they never forced me or my sister to learn a musical instrument, unlike many of my friends. I remember as a child gleefully mocking my friends for having to practice their scales for hours every afternoon (not doing so would usually result in them getting a caning), while I read or played. Usually I read and ignored my schoolwork.

Now I tell my parents, "Why did you never force us to learn to play the piano?"

WBR: What’s your best personal quality?

TTE: This is difficult … a sense of responsibility, I think. If something has to be done, it will be done, without someone having to remind me or nudge me.

WBR: What’s your most aggravating habit?

TTE: I have too many of them! But foremost would be my insistence on being early for any appointment. At least 15 minutes early. I usually have a book with me when I wait. Those who have to travel with me have to adjust their habits of being late or arriving exactly on time.  Then I get unfairly irritated with people who are five minutes late as by then I’d have been waiting for twenty minutes.

WBR: Is there anything you consider your most prized possession?

TTE: Intangible possession: my freedom. Tangible one: my passport. As you can see, both are connected.   

WBR: You have traveled extensively. Where do you call home?

TTE: Home is still Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town. If I had a choice and lots of money I’d pick Sydney or London or San Francisco—any city with wonderful bookstores.

WBR: And lastly, what is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

TTE: Leaving my own home and my job to move to South Africa to do a Masters.