Constant gardener

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Tan Twan Eng reveals the beauty of healing through gardening in his Man Asian Literary Prize shortlisted novel, writes Sung Bale

How does your garden grow? Malaysian scribe Tan Twan Eng knows. The Man Asian Literary Prize shortlisted author, who visited Hong Kong to meet with fans at the turn of the year, goes beyond the flora to discover the heart of human tragedy and love in his most recent of offerings, The Garden of Evening Mists – a tome which was also shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize and has been a global success.

Those familiar with Tan’s writing – his first novel, The Gift of Rain was published in 2007 and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (surely he has to win an award soon…) – will know of the glorious slow-burn his writing emits. The author’s fierce but wounded protaganist in Evening Mists, Yun-Ling, is a lone survivor of a Japanese war camp. Distraught with grief for her dead sister, she seeks redemption the only way she knows how: by learning the ancient art form of gardening from the enemy, an exiled gardener of the Japanese emperor. Through this toiling, Yun-Ling learns that, in creating an immortal garden for her sister, she can come to terms with her harsh past and heal.

Prior to Evening Mists, Tan says he knew little about the culture of gardening. “I wasn’t a keen gardener at all when I started writing,” he says, “but the deeper I delved into Japanese gardens and other aspects of gardening, the more it fascinated me.” Tan admits to actively searching out gardeners and landscape designers, and speaking to them at length. He studied Japanese gardens whenever he found a spare moment. However, it all only served as fuel for his creative fire. Once it came down to it, he forgot all those facts. “I just wrote the story,” he says.

Tan, who was born in 1972 in Penang but lived in an array of places across Malaysia as a boy, makes no bones about the difficulties in crafting the character of Yun-Ling. He says he tackles writing in a way similar to method acting. “When I’m working on a novel, I live with my characters every day. I experience what they go through,” he says. “The emotional sections in the novels affect me when I write them.”

Yun-Ling is as fierce as she is fragile. Her depression is as real as the real experiences of the women who lived in concentration camps. “It was daunting writing Yun-Ling’s character,” claims Tan. “Not because of her gender but because of what she’d experienced. It was only towards the end of the novel that she opened her thoughts up to me.” Throughout the course of the novel, Yun-Ling takes us through the second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese invasion of Malaya and the Malayan Emergency. But, in the opening chapters, we’re introduced to a much older Yun-Ling, whose memory is ailing. She says: “I have become a collapsing star, pulling everything around it, even the light, into an ever-expanding void.”

Tan says: “I’m intrigued by how memory works on our perception of regret and loss. And to explore that, one has to reach back into the past.” Tan spoke to audiences about the novel at a Hong Kong International Literary Festival dinner and talk at the end of last year. He believes the story of Yun-Ling and the gardener Arimoto will resonate with East and West audiences.

“Almost every country has this conflict between great cultural refinement and extreme cruelty,” says Tan, referring to Japanese war camps and Zen gardens. “That’s what I explore – this duality in all of us. Nothing in life is ever black and white.” Except who walks away with the Man Asian, that is… 

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