03/14/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tan Twan Eng: The reluctant gardener

Tan Twan Eng, the winner of this year's Man Asian Literary Prize, says he came up with the title of his book without much fuss or drama.

"The Garden of Evening Mists -- it's exactly what it says it is. There's a garden and it's in the mountains so it gets misty. It's not false advertising," says the 40-year-old lawyer-turned-author who picked up the coveted prize at a glitzy black-tie dinner at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong on Thursday.

Set in Malaysia following the Japanese occupation, The Garden is narrated by Teoh Yun Ling, the sole survivor of a Japanese prison camp. She has spent her life trying to forget the wartime horrors, but now learns that she's suffering from aphasia, a degenerative disease that means she's losing the ability to read, write and communicate.

Knowing that she has little more than a year before she loses her memories, she returns to the Cameron Highlands and the Japanese garden where she met Nakamura Arimoto, the former gardener of Emperor Hirohito. There she tries to piece together the unanswered questions from her past.

There was only one problem when it came to writing the novel - he didn't much like gardening. "I'm a city boy, I grew up in KL -- I had zero interest in gardening," he says.

But there was no way around it. The garden is central to the novel, he even thinks of it as a character in its own right. So he did what he'd done with his first book -- he researched. A lot. He even got his hands dirty in the soil.

"I went through the whole history of Japanese gardening," he says. "How they are made and the philosophy behind them and the terms -- it wasn't easy research."

And as he got closer to his subject and learned how the seasons shape a garden with different plants, flowers, feels and smells he made a curious discovery: gardening is like creative writing.

"The pruning is deciding where to put your sentence, your comma, where to begin the next paragraph. You decide whether you want to break up a paragraph. I'm very much aware of the shape on the page. Ok, this looks very long, should I break it up? I like to be as clear as possible when I write to convey the meaning to the reader."

But he doesn't mean clear as in obvious. If he'd wanted to make every character's meaning and motives obvious, he would have. But not everything is neatly sewn up. If you were to reread the book - and it does bear rereading -- characters will shift in the light.

"You find a different answer each time," he says. "Your idea of the people or what happened will slightly change. I hope so."

A little like revisiting a garden, the second stroll through it will be different - the seasons will have shifted it, you'll notice different things.

And that's how Tan works. He begins with something big -- a large subject, a big event - but it's the small things that he's interested in and he digs his way in from there. That's how he was with aikido -- it's a martial art and can be used for self-defence, but it's more sophisticated than that, it's a philosophy. Tan took it up aged 16.

"I became obsessed with it, doing it two or three times a day. I was living in Kuala Lumpur and I would think nothing of driving an hour or two to a small town because there was a good instructor," he says.

Part of the attraction to aikido was for self-defence. His father worked for a bank and the family moved around, bouncing between Penang and Kuala Lumpur. He didn't have any close friends through school or university and he was bullied.

"It was very strange, I kept getting picked on. Even outside the school. I'd be waiting for a bus and people would come up, I think it was like the local triads. After a while I got quite tired of being afraid. I just realised I didn't like being afraid and I had to do something about it."

So he studied aikido for 10 years -- but he never hit anyone. Never came close. He's not the aggressive sort. Instead he took from it the philosophy -- of never meeting an attack head of, of guiding the force away and redirecting it.

"Aikido -- it really teaches you to walk away from a potential fight, it really is not worth the fight and the problems with the fight," he says.

Although his childhood memories weren't great, things took a turn for the better when he got his first job at one of Kuala Lumpur's best law firms finally found a good set of friends. He enjoyed the company of his colleagues so much that he looked forward to going to the office.

"I think memories are the most important things to us, even bad ones. You can't separate bad from good, they are all in this huge pot and different things come up whenever you stir them. I'm interested in memory, the idea of it," he says.

The Garden of Evening Mists is in many ways a meditation on memory -- on remembering, forgetting and forgiving. The narrator Yun Ling fights against the tide of her aphasia, rekindles her memories, to discover what really happened to the people in her past.

"If a person has only happy memories, how boring would that be -- they'd be pretty dull."

Dull characters are as bad on the page as they are in real life, which is why Tan doesn't have any "Mary Jane" characters. They're all flawed. They've all got pasts and secrets.

"I enjoy writing unlikeable characters, I think there's a challenge to writing unlikeable characters, writing them without passing judgment on them. They are certainly more interesting. It's challenging yourself as well, to make them unlikeable and yet keep the readers attention riveted on them. And its also a challenge to entice the reader spend time with them, to find out more about them. My view is that the reader has to do a bit of the work in all books."

The Garden of Evening Mists is worth putting in the work as a reader and even taking a second stroll through those well pruned pages.

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