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From the Boston Book Festival: Tan Twan Eng on Defiance and the Power of Stories

At the 2023 Boston Book Festival on Oct. 14, Tan sat down for a conversation with Rachel Cantor and Virginia Pye on “Defiance: Literary Imagination and the Power of Stories.”
At the 2023 Boston Book Festival on Oct. 14, Tan sat down for a conversation with Rachel Cantor and Virginia Pye on “Defiance: Literary Imagination and the Power of Stories.” By Courtesy of Cindy Zhang
By Cindy Zhang, Contributing Writer

Tan Twan Eng, a Malaysian author born in Penang, is renowned for his writing that merges sensational fact with intimate fiction. At the 2023 Boston Book Festival on Oct. 14, Tan sat down for a conversation with Rachel Cantor and Virginia Pye on “Defiance: Literary Imagination and the Power of Stories” and presented his third book, “The House of Doors,” recently longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize.

“A story, like a bird of the mountain,” Tan writes in the prologue, “can carry a name beyond clouds, beyond even time itself. Willie Maugham said that to me, many years ago.”

Tan opened the talk by sharing the opening lines of “The House of Doors” with the book festival attendees. Tan’s narrative, set largely in the federated Malay states of 1920s Penang, reimagines W. Somerset Maugham’s two-week stay with his ‘secretary’ and longtime clandestine love, Gerald Haxton, at the stately waterfront home of an old friend from London.

In regards to why he chose this plot, Tan mulled over his own experiences in coming across a spark of inspiration. Drawing upon Maugham’s short story “The Letter” and the trial of Ethel Proudlock as the source of inspiration for his new book, Tan shared that the most helpful way to write stories was to do research. He first encountered “The Letter” in his mid-teens, and was captivated when discovering its basis in a lesser-known, real-life trial. As monotonous archives bore him, Tan’s gaze often travels to footnotes in search of the “quirky stories,” as Tan puts it, of history. While Maugham was intrigued by the trail of an English woman he encountered in Malaya, Tan was curious about how Maugham crafted this renowned story.

Tan started writing the novel, having faith that he understood most things about Penang; however, Tan shared that he felt a growing “dismay of horror” for not knowing much before his research. It ultimately took Tan a total of 8 years to finish “The House of Doors.” Though the journey to publishing was lengthy, the story is undeniably fresh.

“Every book is about defiance in some way — or otherwise there is no story,” Tan said. “We are only interested when the character who wants to get or tear down something achieves some sort of self-satisfaction in the end.”

Tan’s focus on defiance originated from his career path and relationship with his family. When his parents were at first hesitant to let him pursue writing, a career that was not seen as a reliable source of income, Tan chose to study law. Before committing to writing full-time, he was an advocate at one of the leading law firms in Kuala Lumpur while he wrote on the side.

As he began to publish his writing, the most valuable lesson he learned was to “dig for yourself and defy what people tell you.” Rejected by nearly every publisher in the U.K., his debut novel “The Gift of Rain” nonetheless made it to the Booker Prize longlist in 2007 and has since been translated into many languages. His second novel, “The Garden of Evening Mists,” also received international acclaim and won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize and the 2013 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

Tan’s background is also unique because of his multicultural experience: He was born in Penang, a coastal city of Malaysia, grew up in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, and now lives in South Africa. During the talk, Tan was specifically asked how the history of the places in which he has lived affects his life and writing.

“If we don’t know any bit of our own history, it’s very easy for other people to use history to manipulate you and the way you think. Especially in current times when leaders resort to historical examples to lend legitimacy to what they want to achieve for their own reasons,” Tan said. “Being knowledgeable about history is one way of building up our armor against the manipulation and influence.”

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