Tash Aw: "It's a very complex form of bigotry"

The Malaysian novelist on fiction, immigration and the Shanghainese.

On a bright weekday morning in the lobby of the Aldwych Hotel in central London, the frequent flyers are talking shop. While I wait to interview the Malaysian novelist Tash Aw, pushing my teaspoon around a heinously overpriced coffee, an American businesswoman is boasting to an elderly British man about her one-day roundtrips from New York. "I leave the house around four, take a cab to JFK, fly, then nap and freshen up in what I call the no-tel-mo-tels at Heathrow – you can pay there by the hour. I get the train into the city, sit through five or six meetings (one over lunch, another during dinner), take the train back to Heathrow and arrive home around 2am."

The old man raises his strigine eyebrows in amazement. When I am introduced to Mr Aw a few moments later, I tell him what I have overheard.

"How does that make you feel?" he asks me.

"Nauseas," I reply.

Tash Aw is no stranger to travel. Born in Taipei and raised in Kuala Lumpur, he moved to the UK to study law in the early 90s and has lived in London ever since. His first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), centred on the life of the enigmatic textiles magnate Johnny Lim, and was set in 1940s British-controlled Malaya. His second, Map of the Invisible World (2009), examines Malaysia and Indonesia post-independence, at a time when the maps were being redrawn and multiple voices aimed to rewrite the historical record, freed from the influence of foreign rule. He travels regularly around south-east Asia to research, teach, explore and visit relatives. It was on one such journey that his new subject presented itself.

"People of my generation, born in the 70s, think of Malaysia as a country built on immigration. Everyone came from somewhere else at one time or another. It's in the genes. Previously, people gravitated to the big cities of the west, but about ten years ago I started noticing that people were leaving, as they had always done, but now to China. At first it tended to be people in low-skill work, waiters or construction workers, but gradually it became bankers and lawyers and now yoga teachers and lifestyle coaches."

Five Star Billionaire, Aw's most recent novel, is a long, sprawling work assembled in the Balzacian mode: distinct narrative strands weave together the experiences of Malaysian migrants (shifting and tumbling up and down the socio-economic ladder), trying to make new lives for themselves in rising China.

"Ultimately, what I wanted to show in the novel is that immigration is often a lonely thing, a difficult thing. It doesn’t matter how rich you are."

Of course the movement north has more intimate cultural implications, as many migrants are ethnically Chinese. Their families have been living overseas for generations. What they believe to be "traditionally Chinese" has long been wiped away in the Cultural Revolution and the emergence of market-driven economics.

"I’m currently teaching at Nanyang University in Singapore, where there has been a huge influx of mainland Chinese people encouraged by the government. Singaporeans blame them for rising costs. They exhibit the same xenophobia everyone else does. But what I find interesting is that these are ethnically Chinese people being xenophobic towards other ethnic Chinese: it is a very complex form of bigotry."

The point of convergence for Gary Gao, a pop star whose career is falling apart, as much as for Phoebe, the factory worker who adores his music, is Shanghai. Arguably there is no greater symbol in Asia for the collision of cultures and competing histories – and for the creation of the new China.

"In Beijing, everyone is very cynical of Shanghai," Aw says. "They call it a city of foreigners – but I think that gives Shanghai a real edge. It has always been a place people have arrived, thinking they could make their mark."

"A lot of what Shanghai is, is tied up in the language. It gives the city a certain independence. There is a popular stand-up comedian there who does shows in the Shanghai stadium to 50,000 people who's very anti-government, very satirical. But a lot of it is ignored by Beijing because it’s in Shanghai, and the sophisticated Shanghai-dweller isn’t representative of the rest of China at all."

When Phoebe starts dating, the ideas she was raised with in Malaysia appear outmoded, particularly with regard to modesty and dress.

"One of the first times I lived there, I had my parents over to visit. My mother was so shocked to see how much flesh young Shanghainese women showed. It’s not like that back home. People are conflicted in Asia – China particularly – about what social values should be. Many see themselves as the polar opposite of Americans, but I see a lot of similarities in that you have a country which is so big and diverse, it really doesn’t need the rest of the world, economically or culturally."

The novel delves into disputes about land appropriation, heritage and pop culture – the book’s chapters are given headings such as "Move to Where the Money Is", "Forget the Past, Look Only to the Future." Yesterday’s propaganda has been displaced by the self-help mantra.

"It’s a novel about how people see China, not just how western people see China, but how the various Chinese people see China. People from Shanghai and Beijing don’t even see each other as part of the same race."

Aw is reluctant to cohere to the dominent presentation of China as a monolithic culture. The novel refuses to see any individual's story as being anything but his or her own. "We are dealing with a country that is really a continent. You can’t summarise it. When the Chinese government vetoes the vote on Syria or pulls out of the climate change talks even the BBC, who are normally neutral, say something like ‘the Chinese don’t like being pushed around’ and I think, do they mean me? The denial of difference is damaging in any context, but particularly so in China. The differences in China, what it respresents, is what I am keen to explore. We don’t see enough of it in literature."

Five Star Billionaire is out now (Fourth Estate, £18.99)

The novelist Tash Aw. Image: Aradhana Seth.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for New Statesman
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From Harry Potter to Jimmy Savile: Jack Thorne on the darkness that defines his dramas

The writer who brought Harry Potter to the stage talks about a difficult childhood, his hopes for Labour, and his new production of Woyzeck.

At 9am each day, most days of the year, Jack Thorne climbs the stairs of his house in Barnsbury, north London, and sits at his computer to write. He has a one-year-old son, so he finds the odd excuse to sneak down and play, but after bathtime and bedtime he returns faithfully to his desk and stays there until 8pm or beyond. He aims to write for at least ten hours a day, but if he has a deadline he does more.

When I suggest that this seems pretty full-on, Thorne looks genuinely surprised: time was when he wrote for 16 hours a day, seven days a week. “I really do love working,” he explains, sounding apologetic about the insufficiency of the excuse. “There’s no day where I don’t want to write.”

Sometimes his wife, the comedy agent Rachel Mason, kicks him upstairs for his own good. “It’s when she thinks I’m not in a mood to deal with other people. If I get some writing done, I can come back down and she’s like, ‘Ah, you’re back with us.’”

Whatever a psychologist would say about all this – my hunch is rather a lot – it’s proof that inspiration counts for little unless it’s combined with industrial quantities of perspiration. At 38, Thorne is one of the most intimidatingly successful writers in Britain. Many will know him from his work for television, where he came of age writing Skins and helped transform Shane Meadows’s film This Is England into a miniseries that worked on a Shakespearean scale. He has since turned his hand to everything from supernatural thrillers (The Fades, for the BBC) to murder drama (Glue on E4), and in the past month he won a Bafta for National Treasure, his clear-eyed and chilling take on Operation Yewtree, broadcast last year.

His stage output is equally prodigious – 14 dramas in print, plus a handful for radio, though Thorne reckons there were “about 22 more” before that, most of which he would rather never see again. His most recent play is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Mounted only 11 years after his first professionally produced script, it is well on its way to becoming the most commercially successful stage work of recent times.

The first time we meet, in an aseptic office somewhere in the rafters of the Old Vic theatre in London, it’s not quite 48 hours since the Oliviers, at which The Cursed Child won a record-breaking nine awards, among them Best New Play. Though no stranger to prizes, he still seems faintly bamboozled. “I stuck around until 2am, which I almost never do, because I wanted to talk to everyone. It was ridiculously bonding, that show. Generally I’m out of there as soon as I can. I find small talk exhausting, and I don’t like myself when I’m around people.”

He seems worried about how that sounds, and clarifies: “It’s not that I don’t like other people – I do. I just don’t like me.”

Despite incessant protestations that he’s an idiot at expressing himself when it’s not on the page, Thorne is extremely good company – fizzy, funny, so gabby it’s sometimes hard to keep up, but charm and solicitude incarnate. Wearing a livid green hoodie, his long limbs coiled awkwardly into a chair, he scrambles to answer my questions before they’re halfway out of my mouth, and his gaze barely leaves mine for the entire time we talk. Perhaps it’s those limbs, but there is something of the Labrador about him: a wide-eyed eagerness never to disappoint.

We’ve arranged to meet at the theatre while he is on a lunch break here from yet another new project – an adaptation of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, with John Boyega (Star Wars: the Force Awakens) in the title role. Based on the pulverising true story of a barber-turned-squaddie who lost his wits and murdered the woman he loved, the play was left unfinished at the ­author’s death in 1837 and not performed until 1914. It has since inspired countless reworkings, among them Alban Berg’s 1920s opera, Werner Herzog’s 1979 film and, more recently, theatre productions by David Harrower and Neil LaBute.

Thorne’s version takes a different tack, locking Woyzeck into the suffocating atmosphere of a British garrison in early-1980s Berlin. It isn’t only the hero who seems to be losing it: the army has long since forgotten why it’s there. As one character blandly observes, “Your occupation mostly consists of you guarding another country’s nuclear weapons.” That some of the platoon, Colonel Woyzeck included, are fresh from the nightmare of Northern Ireland only tightens the screws.

The idea to revive the play came from the director Joe Murphy, but Thorne latched on to its portrayal of a hero grappling to find his place in the world. “I wanted to do something about someone going mad. I thought a lot about the kids I went to school with who were in the army: they were often the kids who were a bit bullied, and that’s how they got control. That’s what he’s struggling with.”

John Boyega as Woyzeck in Jack Thorne's new production. Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

Adaptations have become something of a speciality, from Harry Potter to a 2013 stage version of the Swedish horror novel and film Let the Right One In. With Woyzeck, though, the sheer quantity of previous reimaginings must have felt overwhelming. “Not really. I tried to read every translation I could.” He shrugs. “I’m going to feel intimidated whatever: that’s just my natural state. So I may as well embrace intimidation.”

His involvement in Potter came through Let the Right One In’s director, John Tiffany, and the producer Sonia Friedman, who recommended Thorne to J K Rowling. Tiffany and Thorne trooped off to see Rowling and find what new material they could develop for Thorne to script. They came up with the idea of a sequel tracking the adventures of Harry’s son Albus and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy.

On working with JK Rowling: “You go, ‘OK, I can make some choices. If they’re the wrong ones, she’ll say.’ And she did. I’m pretty sure I could have been fired at any time.”

Thorne had long been a Potter addict and his anxiety about treading on such hallowed ground was assuaged by Rowling’s involvement. “I had a big advantage – my first reader was John, and my second was Jo. If you’ve got the person out of whose head these characters came, then you go, ‘OK, I can make some choices. If they’re the wrong ones, she’ll say.’ And she did. I’m pretty sure I could have been fired at any time.”

The offstage adaptations continue: in 2015 he signed up to make a multi-part adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for BBC1. He is scripting this at the moment and hopes it will begin filming next year. Concurrently, he is writing an episode for Bryan Cranston’s ten-part Amazon series of Philip K Dick shorts; his script is based on Dick’s 1953 story “The Commuter”.

He finds it difficult to say no, he admits: “When His Dark Materials came up I was in the middle of Potter, a bit exhausted by it and wanting to do my own stuff – but how often do you get the chance? You can’t not do that. It’s too exciting!”

I do eventually winkle out of him that there is a downside to this ceaseless productivity: he still hasn’t written the ambitious, large-scale play he feels he would like to. TV is more straightforward, somehow. “When you see your contemporaries writing [Duncan Macmillan’s] People, Places and Things and [Lucy Kirkwood’s] Chimerica and that stuff, you do go, ‘Why haven’t I done that? What have I not got in me?’”

Isn’t it more that he’s barely given himself a spare moment? He frowns, “No no no, I don’t think it’s that. It’s not like I haven’t been trying to write it. I haven’t been sitting at home doing nothing. There are a load of attempts. But no one will ever see them, ­because they’re just not very good.”

***

Thorne grew up in Bristol, one of four children. His father, Mike, was a town planner and his mother, Maggie, was a carer for adults with learning difficulties. Both are now retired. As well as doing voluntary work, his parents were involved in amateur theatre; Thorne took the interest with him from comprehensive school to Cambridge University where, despite struggling to fit in (he has written that he felt like “a failure”) and having to take a year out to treat a medical condition, he wrote plays at a furious pace. By the time he left, he’d done ten, and somehow also got a degree.

The playwright Laura Wade met Thorne at the Royal Court Young Writers’ group a few years later, in 2003, and has since become a friend. Despite his shyness, she remembers him being surprisingly robust when it came to his work: “Oh, always. I was impressed by his ability to tear something up and start again. He’d get notes, listen to them, not get defensive, and try again in a different form. It seemed to pour out of him. That’s unusual.”

Thorne once wanted to be an actor, “but I knew I wasn’t good enough”. His best role was Edgar in King Lear – “the one who pretends to be mad”. He has notched up only one performing credit since: in the TV versions of This Is England, in which he played a dorky and unappealingly named loner, Carrot Bum.

“They were auditioning, and Shane said he couldn’t find anyone lonely or weird enough, so I’d have to do it.” He fiddles absent-mindedly with his wedding ring. “It was when I was living in Luton on my own, and I was a bit Carrot Bum, it’s true.”

There is a bleakness to Thorne’s work that sits oddly with his personality, which seems almost self-destructively eager to please. He reckons they are part of the same thing. “When you’re extremely shy and ­insecure and you struggle to get your words out, there is a sense of slight . . . rage at the world. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. But there’s darkness in there.”

Few writers are able to evoke with such ease the offhand brutality of teenagers, or conjure the pain of that most mundane and cruellest of human experiences, not quite fitting in. His first professionally acted play, When You Cure Me (2005), focuses on a teenage girl, called Rachel, who has been subjected to a vicious sexual attack and left immobile. The monologue Stacy, written concurrently but first performed a few years later, is spoken by a young man whose best friends appear to be his slide projector and some alarmingly intimate sexual imaginings. There has barely been a script of his that hasn’t touched in some way on the subject of isolation, mental or physical.

Thorne reflects that some of this relates to his medical condition, cholinergic urticaria, in which his body reacts allergically to its own temperature, creating a kind of chronic prickly heat. It left him bedbound for extended periods in his early twenties, and in pain for long afterwards.

“I know everyone feels they’re not very good at childhood, but I was spectacularly bad.”

But the sense of dislocation goes back much further. “My family is wonderful, but I had a pretty terrible time as a kid. I know everyone feels they’re not very good at childhood, but I was spectacularly bad. People weren’t particularly unkind; they just didn’t know what to do with me. A lot of my stuff is about wanting a best friend. I didn’t find a best friend until I was 32.” He brightens. “And then I married her.”

One thing childhood did give him was an abiding interest in fantasy. A voracious reader of teen novels by Susan Cooper (“Oh yeah, I was the lonely, weird kid”), Thorne has mined the seam deeply, uncovering the painful realities that lie beneath other-worldly stories. His version of Let the Right One In brought sensitivity to the relationship between a vampire and a gawky teenage boy. And for all its high-wire, gee whiz, magical theatrics, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child finds pathos in the travails of Albus as he attempts to grow up in the shadow of a too-famous father.

“There’s a line in the play: ‘People say parenting is the hardest job in the world; they’re wrong – growing up is.’” He laughs. “Noma [Dumezweni] and Poppy [Miller] cornered me the other day and asked if I still believe that, now I have a kid. I conceded they had more of a point than I thought originally.”

Did his own anxieties about fatherhood filter into the writing? He clutches his head in mock horror. “Oh yeah, all the stuff I wrote around that time was like, ‘Argh, I’m going to be a dad, I don’t think I’m going to be a good dad’ – all that.”

Compounding the complexity, the process of getting pregnant was anything but straightforward: he and his wife ended up going through seven rounds of IVF. Thorne poured some of these experiences into his 2015 play, The Solid Life of Sugar Water, which focuses on a couple struggling to deal with a miscarriage. Rachel reads all his work. “There are times she goes, ‘Ouch, are you sure you want to say that?’ but mostly she doesn’t. And she always said that the IVF cost so much, I’d have to find a way of writing about it.”

***

Thorne’s darkest work so far is National Treasure, a four-part series that ran on Channel 4 last autumn, and the first broadcast TV drama inspired by the ongoing police investigation into accusations of historic sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile and others. It relates the story of Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane), a fading comedian whose career collapses abruptly under a deluge of allegations, followed by the breakdown of his marriage to Marie (played by Julie Walters). Although the drama leaves open the question of exactly what Finchley has done, there are enough creepy-crawlies under this particular rock to hint at what viewers might find if it is lifted any further.

He spent months doing research, talking to victims as well as legal experts, trying to weave a storyline that cleaved to real-life cases without being defined by them.

“When you talk to people who have been victims of those crimes, you go, ‘How the hell do I do justice to you and also find an angle that works?’” 

“The big thing was responsibility,” he says, when we meet again a few weeks later at a café around the corner from his house. “When you talk to people who have been victims of those crimes, you go, ‘How the hell do I do justice to you and also find an angle that works?’ You could tick all the right boxes, make something very earnest, but you have to challenge the audience. The more time I spent, the more complicated the issue became, particularly in terms of how many resources are available to powerful people, private investigators and the rest. It’s so easy to destroy people.”

I wonder if he’s talked to anyone who has been accused. No, he says. “I felt like I had enough insight into that. I’ve spent enough time in the celeb world to know how something like that might operate – the power and manipulation.”

One thing that has remained constant over the years is Thorne’s commitment to politics, and to the Labour Party. His parents remain activists; he has been a member since the age of 16 and was the Young Labour officer for Newbury in 1997, becoming the secretary of his local branch when he moved to Luton. This, too, has provided fodder for work in drama, notably his 2014 play Hope, about cuts to local government, which drew closely on his experiences on the political front line.

Thorne was dissatisfied with Hope (“I felt like I didn’t quite make it; it was two drafts away from being OK”) and seems itchy to return to the subject somehow. You sense that if that big play emerges, politics will be its bedrock.

One clue might lie in his early script 2nd May 1997, which dwells on the sun-struck day 20 years ago when finally Tony Blair had secured a landslide and British left-wing politics looked as if it might have a future. Written in three parts and describing three pairs of people dealing with the aftermath of the election (a Tory and his wife, a Lib Dem and his intended one-night stand, and two sixth-form Labourites), it beautifully combines the intimate and the epic, the historic and the human. “It’s ‘we’,” one of the sixth-formers says in disbelief on seeing the overnight results. “It’s ‘us’.”

On the wall in Thorne’s home there is a poster of Blair, pictured with his hands in his pockets, beside the slogan “Because Britain deserves better”.

“No one has broken my heart more than Blair.”

“No one has broken my heart more,” Thorne says. “I keep it because he was literally the biggest hero I had, and so it tells a story – not necessarily about false idols, more just about trust, I think. Rach hates it.” He is disenchanted with Jeremy Corbyn, though he voted for him in the 2015 leadership election, and is positively depressed about the effect of Momentum.

“But I don’t know, the party has done all right so far. It’s been a better campaign than I was anticipating, so it’s not a total . . .” He trails off into silence. “It annoying that we live in a country where the press can propagate May’s narrative.” He lives in Emily Thornberry’s constituency but will be out canvassing elsewhere.

Politics aside, he seems remarkably well. Marriage is largely responsible for this, as is fatherhood. His son is “the only thing that’s been a proper distraction from work. I’ve got to stop worrying about what he’ll be like when he’s 15.”

Thorne returns repeatedly to the subject of happiness. He often seems to have been trying to write himself out of sadness and frustration, I suggest. Does he worry that he’ll run out of fuel? No, he says. “I do what I do, and hopefully that’ll change and then it’ll be a different story, a different paranoia – or
maybe, um, no paranoia. That’d be lovely.”

A few days after our final meeting, I email him to check a few things – dates, facts, minor details. It’s a bank holiday, so I apologise for disturbing him. The reply arrives almost instantly: no worries, you’re interrupting nothing, he writes. “I’m working like an idiot.” 

“Woyzeck” is at the Old Vic, London SE1, until 24 June

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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