Tash Aw’s latest work paints a grim picture of social inequality and the immigrant experience in Malaysia


By Su Fen Tan

Tash Aw’s latest work paints a grim picture of social inequality and the immigrant experience in Malaysia

Born in Taiwan and raised in Malaysia, Tash Aw later studied in the U.K. and relocated to London, where he lived for many years. Now you’ll likely find the Malaysian author in Paris, where he is based as a research fellow at Columbia University’s Institute for Ideas and Imagination. Evidently, Aw’s roots and background have, whether subconsciously or otherwise, a great influence on his writing, which usually revolves around the themes of identity and migration.


After novels set in British Malaya (The Harmony Silk Factory), post-colonial Indonesia (Map of the Invisible World) and China (Five Star Billionaire), Aw’s latest work is anchored in Malaysia, painting a grim tale of social inequality and the immigrant experience. It is “A murderer’s confession—devastating, unblinking, poignant, unforgettable—which reveals a story of class, education and the inescapable workings of destiny.”


Here’s a quick synopsis:

Ah Hock is an ordinary, uneducated man born in a Malaysian fishing village and now trying to make his way in a country that promises riches and security to everyone, but delivers them only to a chosen few. With Asian society changing around him, like many he remains trapped in a world of poorly paid jobs that just about allow him to keep his head above water but ultimately lead him to murder a migrant worker from Bangladesh. 

In the tradition of Camus and Houellebecq, Ah Hock’s vivid and compelling description of the years building up to this appalling act of violence—told over several days to a local journalist whose life has taken a different course—is a portrait of an outsider like no other, an anti-nostalgic view of human life and the ravages of hope. It is the work of a writer at the peak of his powers.


In an in-depth interview with The Guardian, Aw shared that this is “the most personal novel” he’s ever written. Both of Aw’s grandfathers and his parents were brought up in rural Malaysia, but later moved to Kuala Lumpur where they worked as professionals. The characters in the novel are almost like a reflection of his divided self. “One could easily have become me if I had been born to different parents, to parents who remained in the village. Su Min (the journalist) is the foreign, educated part of me.”


We, the Survivors also highlights the discomforting reality of the less fortunate; people who lived from day to day, as well as refugees and illegal immigrants. It was reported that the number of deaths of Nepalese migrants to Malaysia was the highest of any country between 2006 and 2014, and more than 10% of these deaths were suicide. The novel is Aw’s way of giving these stories visibility in literature.


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