Tan Twan Eng: The Master of the Nature Metaphor with his roots deep in the Concrete Jungle

May 16 2023

From his garden in Cape Town, Tan Twan Eng shares the secrets behind his writing and his views on historical fiction

David Oakes

David Oakes


Tan Twan Eng


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About this episode:

Tan Twan Eng was the first Malay writer to win a number of key literary prizes including the Man Asia Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. David Oakes and Twan Eng first met whilst in Malaysia shooting the film adaptation of his Booker prize nominated “The Garden of Evening Mists”, and on the eve of publication for Twan Eng’s new novel, “The House of Doors”, David seeks to find the secret behind the novelist’s skill at crafting pitch-perfect nature metaphors – despite the truth of Twan wanting “…nature to be ordered”. Here we hear how Twan Eng met the Emperor of Japan’s Gardener, how one should be weary of jungle spirits and tigers should one be ‘caught short’ in the Malay Rainforest, and how Twan Eng’s heart, despite being born in Malaysia, is actually imbedded into the tow-paths of Richmond upon Thames; “I Dream in English” he says, as he shakes his gin martini…

David's thoughts:

It’s difficult interviewing people you’ve got to know over a number of years. The questions to which you want to know the answers are those you’ve already asked. You have absorbed them deep into your understanding of the person to such an extent that their answer need not be a conscious fact that one recalls – ‘it’ merely ‘is’, and ‘they’ simply and wonderfully ‘are’.

My friendship with TTE began in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. Swelteringly humid tea fields and rainforests full of tigers. He sent me off to explore. He remained behind and read and wrote.

A little later, whilst still filming his “The Garden of Evening Mists”, I found myself seated with TTE and John Hannah – who played my onscreen father – in the bar of the Majestic Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. It’s a stunning old colonial building – one revered in a way that seems odd to me having being raised to loathe British colonial heritage. Needless/sadly to say, it served as a perfect place for an Englishman, a Scot and a Malaysian who wants to be James Bond to get sloshed. We had already worked our way through perhaps X too many bottles of cold white wine at that point, and TTE suggested we sent out for genuine 100% real Durian fruit ice cream. It was a conversation that lead to TTE imploring me to visit his hometown – Penang.

I went. I ate everything he recommended from everywhere he recommended it to be savoured from. I visited his favourite food stalls, bookshops and sites of special historical interest. At the time I was merely seeking recommendations as a tourist would. I didn’t realise I was getting to know a friend. And, wonderfully, I didn’t realise I was being given a preview tour of the sights, scents and sounds that he was to include in his third novel. Buildings, gravestones, the ‘correct’ way to enjoy cendol are things I have now revisited through having read (and read aloud – I narrate half the audiobook) “The House of Doors”. I was being gifted an insight into how a truly great novelist acquires his inspiration.

Our friendship has continued through London botanical gardens and the vineyards of Stellenbosch. It is one full of new flavours and new sights, and one I cherish deeply. I look greatly forward to seeing where it takes us next.



Tan Twan Eng:

Twitter – https://twitter.com/TanTwanEng
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/tan.twan.eng/
Wiki – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tan_Twan_Eng

Buy “The House of Doors”

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