HONG KONG Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize on Thursday for a novel dealing with the aftermath of Japan's wartime occupation of his country, becoming the first Malaysian to claim one of Asia's main literature prizes.
Tan, born in 1972, beat out four other authors, including Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, for the $30,000 prize in what was described as a "far-ranging and intricately layered novel".
"The Garden of Evening Mists", which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, tells the story of Yun Ling Teoh, the survivor of a Japanese prison camp who in her old age looks back at the early 1950s and her relationship with the mysterious creator of then-Malaya's only Japanese garden.
"It's partly about the co-existence of cultural refinement and artistry, and terrible barbarity," chair of judges Maya Jaggi told reporters, noting that Japan's occupation of Asia remains a raw issue even today, decades after the war's end.
"What this novel is doing is looking at that, but in such a subtle way, I think. It's not glib, it's about guilt and atonement and how love transforms people's conceptions of themselves and what they've done."
Tan published his first novel, "The Gift of Rain", in 2007. It also dealt with the Japanese occupation and its aftermath.
He told Reuters in 2008 that he welcomed the growing recognition for Asian writers in the West but that talented Southeast Asian voices were sometimes overlooked.
"Obviously, the interest in Asian writing helps somebody like me, but we sort of feel we're on the edge, the outskirts," he said. "A lot of the publishers have no real awareness of Southeast Asia."
The prize, first awarded in 2007, is for works by Asian writers written in or translated into English, and is intended to widen exposure of Asian literature in the English-speaking world.
This year's shortlist spanned Asia from Turkey to Japan and included Indian Jeet Thayil, who, like Tan, was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize
The Man Asian Literary Prize said in October that it was seeking a new sponsor after the Man Group Plc withdrew its title sponsorship. An announcement is expected in April.