Malaysian writer fears Asian talent eclipsed by China

HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng, who made the long-list for the Man Booker prize last year, welcomes the growing recognition for Asian writers in the West, but says the spotlight on Chinese writers is a concern.

Tan, 35, an acclaimed writer whose first novel “The Gift of Rain” made the 13-book long-list for the Man Booker prize in 2007, said talented Southeast Asian voices were increasingly being overlooked by Western publishers fixated with China.

“You’ve seen publishers and even agents opening offices in China ... but they seem to have ignored places like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand,” Tan told Reuters in Hong Kong on the sidelines of the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

“Obviously, the interest in Asian writing helps somebody like me, but we sort of feel we’re on the edge, the outskirts ... A lot of the publishers have no real awareness of Southeast Asia.”

While literary festivals sprouting across Asia in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Melbourne and the town of Ubud in Bali were raising the profile of Asian writing, Tan said many indigenous voices remained off the radar.

Meanwhile, Western publishers have feted Chinese writers, including Nobel prize winner Gao Xingjian, Ha Jin, Geling Yan and Jiang Rong -- the author of “Wolf Totem”, a literary hit whose English translation rights Penguin reportedly acquired for a record $100,000.

China is one of the world’s largest book industries alongside the UK and the United States, driven by a massive domestic market.

But Tan, a Malaysian-Chinese, said other domestic factors were inhibiting writers in his native Malaysia, including the lack of government support, ethnic tensions and censorship.

“The political situation in Malaysia makes it difficult to write about a lot of things because it’s such a multiracial country. You have to be really sensitive to what you say.”

“The Gift of Rain” tells the story of a British-Chinese Eurasian man haunted by the Japanese occupation of Malaya in the 1940s, and his struggle to overcome divided loyalties and loss.

Tan said his Malaysia-inspired work with eclectic elements like martial arts and Japan’s wartime aggression proved a tough sell to Western publishers, but perseverance saw him through.

“Let’s face it, it’s a very Western world, I’ve no problems with that. There’s no point moaning about it, you find a way into it and work the system,” said the London-educated lawyer.

A small publishing house ended up taking a gamble on Tan’s work, which paid off with the surprise Booker recognition.

“There was a sense of nationalist pride. I was very happy that I could say yes, I’m a Malaysian and on the longlist.”

Tan is now working on a second novel also set in old Malaya.

Editing by Sophie Hardach