Tan Twan Eng talks about being a voracious reader as a child - and why, as a judge of the International Booker Prize, he is looking for novels that speak to both the head and the heart
Tan Twan Eng is a Booker-shortlisted Malaysian novelist. He is of Straits Chinese descent and speaks English, Penang Hokkien, and Malay, as well as some Cantonese.
His debut, The Gift of Rain, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007. The Garden of Evening Mists, his second novel, was shortlisted for the prize in 2012. Tan Twan Eng divides his time between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Cape Town, South Africa.
Why do you think the International Booker Prize matters and what’s special about it?
The International Booker Prize is probably the most well-known prize for literature translated into English in the world. It places a magnifying glass over books which are often sidelined or ignored in the English-language publishing world, books translated from a wide variety of other languages. Even to be just longlisted will help to make a book more widely known to tens of thousands of readers around the world.
Tell us about your reading habits under normal circumstances. What type of books are you usually drawn to?
Well-constructed, well-written and unpretentious novels that don’t waste the reader’s time. I normally read novels by authors like Julian Barnes, Penelope Lively, Anita Brookner, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift, Alison Macleod, Yiyun Li, Colm Toibin.
Tell us about your path to becoming a reader - what did you read as a child? Was there a book or author that made you fall in love with reading?
I read everything I could lay my hands on when I was a child. I read even when I was in the classroom, the book hidden under my desk while the teacher was going through the lessons in front. I used to fail all my subjects in school except for English. I read all the usual books children read: The Wind in the Willows, Enid Blyton books, Biggles, the Narnia books, the Adrian Mole diaries, the Tintin and Asterix books. I was fortunate that my parents never restricted what I read - I could read anything I wanted to, even novels like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, although of course I had only the vaguest idea of what was going on in that book. That’s one reason why I abhor censorship of any kind.
It places a magnifying glass over books which are often sidelined or ignored in the English-language publishing world, books translated from a wide variety of other languages.
Tell us about your favourite International Booker Prize-nominated book from previous years, and why you like it.
War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans. It’s a lyrical and heart-wrenching account of the first decades of the 20th century, of love and family and grief, and the healing power of art. It unearthed something new in the well-trodden pastures of First World War history.
Judges of the Booker Prizes have to read several books multiple times. Away from this year’s prize, is there a book that you’ve re-read more than any other and, if so, what makes you keep returning to it?
There are a few books I keep returning to. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, for the way he uses language. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. The short stories of W. Somerset Maugham. Waterland by Graham Swift. I often discover something new there every time I read them again – about the art of writing, and also about how one looks at the world.
What are you particularly looking forward to or already enjoying about the process of judging the prize, and is there anything you’re not looking forward to?
My third novel will be published soon, and I was keen to start writing my fourth novel, so I wasn’t looking forward to having to set aside a huge amount of time in order to read over a hundred submissions. But being invited to be a judge of the International Booker Prize is an immense honour, so turning it down was never even a consideration. I’m enjoying my discussions with my fellow judges.
Translated fiction is a doorway into the lives of people from a different culture. It forces readers to look outwards, to the world.
What does translated fiction offer readers that fiction written originally in English doesn’t, and how can we encourage more people to read it?
Translated fiction is a doorway into the lives of people from a different culture. It forces readers to look outwards, to the world. When you read a book that has been translated from another language, I think it alters the circuits of your brain, however slight and however brief the alteration may be. But it does change you. And for authors who write only in English, it might even motivate them to experiment with different ways of using the English language.
We can encourage more people to read translated fiction by bringing it to the attention of English-language readers, by giving the authors and translators more visibility in the media. This is what the International Booker Prize is doing, and doing well.
What are you hoping to find in selecting books for the International Booker Prize longlist? Are there certain qualities or attributes that you’re looking for?
The weightier the themes a writer wants to explore, the stronger the story needs to be, because the story is the vehicle that has to carry his or her ideas from the first page to the last. I’m looking for luminous writing woven into a powerful story. Novels that appeal not only to the head, but to the heart. Novels that are not just clinging desperately by their fingertips to the latest and overcrowded fashionable bandwagon, but novels that will still speak to readers two, five, twenty years from now. I’m looking for novels that are not timely, but timeless.