Tash Aw’s Strangers on a Pier

I think I’ve been lucky this year : within three months, I’ve read two books that have touched me so much so that they have stayed with me for more moments and too many whiles. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, I wrote about recently; and recently I finished reading Tash Aw’s Strangers on a Pier. The former a work of fiction of epic proportions (700+ pages) and the latter, a more personal essay that struck a more specific chord, of only 37 pages (if you don’t count my re-readings).

When I read the first chapter of Aw’s Strangers on a Pier, his missive on identifying his identity struck a chord with me. So much so that I began making notes and drafting ideas on an essay I was to write as inspired by his story. He talked about his grandparents making it onto Malayan shores from China, and it resonated with me because despite being told that I was Malay, I have since learnt that my roots are only, at best, 1/8th Malay – 1/4 if you consider being Javanese as Malay. My other 3/4 are Siamese, Chinese and Indian – with lineage from these parts coming to roost in Malaya as recent as the mid 1800s / early 1900s.

Such deliberations in my mind often wander into the political. The more I think about being a ‘Malay’, the more I realise that ethnically I am not purely Malay, that at least half of me disqualifies me from being a ‘son of the soil’ and it often makes me wonder how, by chance and legislation, I became ‘chosen’ – chosen to attend the best school, chosen to receive a scholarship, chosen to obtain discounts on property purchases – not by way of need or being the best, but by way of birth. From there my thoughts wander into missives of entitlement and the woes that brings with it, and I saw my essay wander slowly into that territory.

Aw does not go there, though. Nowhere in his beautiful story of a Malaysian Chinese boy, exists any trace of resentment, bitterness or politics. While a reader familiar with the Malaysian position will not resent a discussion of racial discord and malcontent, Aw does not descend into this (although he has touched upon it in another essay written for Granta a few years earlier). Instead, through this work he has created a beautiful and pensive deliberation of what it means to be a child of Generation Mahathir – kids and teenagers growing up as the country was growing up: nation and people sharing the same growing pains, the same awkwardness of fitting into a world that didn’t seem to have a suitable mould for it; yet lacking the flexibility of being able to slot into whatever pigeonhole it was prescribed.

Could you write about contemporary Malaysia without mentioning race and politics, when racial politics is the very thing that defines the country in so many ways today? Perhaps you could say that dismissing this aspect over-romanticises a country that is in sore need of healing: that ignoring it means we obscure the very root cause of our discontent. But by keeping it in the background and giving it barely a mention, what Aw has managed to do is to ‘unify’ the experience of a particular class of Malaysians: children of first-generation middle-class professionals. It is not a sob story, it is not a rags-to-riches story that Malaysians so often love, but a matter-of-fact observation that many can relate to: Malay, Chinese, Indian dan lain-lain. This is a different narrative and yet, despite being an essay rather than a work of literary fiction, it is almost a natural progression of the narrative that Abdullah Hussein brought in Interlok, where that was a story of a country in its infancy and trying to find its feet.

Aw, in describing his schooling experience, observes that “we have divided and subdivided ourselves, and it is class, not race, that has created this schism“. This is far from being a Malaysian, East Asian or an Eastern phenomenon – societal divides running across lines run deep the world over. In the streets of Britain, the private-schooled elite passing out-of-touch policies that affect the working and middle class masses continue to be the state of play; dynasties determine both political power and financial prowess the world over whether we would care to admit it or not. I think that by highlighting class  rather than geo-specific politics that also divide, Aw manages to bring his story – my story, our Generation Mahathir story – to a level of a more global appeal.

And still the specifics resonate. The verbal portrait of his father –  a Guardian interview around the time of the publication of his third novel, Five Star Billionaire, cites the elder Mr. Aw to be an electrical engineer – reminds me of my own : a university professor from humble beginnings: his parents, my late grandparents, were both illiterate. Aw’s vacations spent at his maternal grandparents in Parit is one I could relate to all too well: trying hard to fit in with my cousins and their friends in Kelantan by affecting a deep Kelantanese drawl, while at night sneaking away to read the thick English books I packed for the holidays. What complicated this more was the fact that a large part of my childhood was spent abroad, and so I lost out on the cultural references: catching up on rock kapak however was quite a pleasurable experience.  A different face for a different tongue: a fitting-in mechanism I affect to this day. His school stories, not so much, because I was plucked out of the generic system and placed in a government-run boarding school: that in itself, though, fraught with square-peg-in-round-hole stories of its own.

If the Great Malaysian Novel of the 21st Century is to be written, I think Aw has the makings of what it should be: a story no longer about race because we can no longer afford to view race as the sole divide – it no longer is. Our story today is one about class – the fallout from money and profit as a measure of success; a struggle that no heteregenous society has, to date, managed to deal with equitably. Our story today is the divide between the elite and the dregs and everyone else in limbo in between, because opportunity has afforded us the luxury of having wealth – and poverty – transcend race.

If the Great Malaysian Novel of the 21st Century is to be written, I think Tash Aw should write it.

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