Yesterday evening in Hong Kong, it was announced that Malaysian lawyer-turned-writer Tan Twan Eng snagged Asia’s top literary award, the Man Asian Literary Prize, for his tome The Garden of Evening Mists. Tan is the first Malaysian to snag the award, created in 2007, and his book was the second winner originally written in English.
The competition for the $30,000 prize was fierce. Other nominees – representing an impressively diverse range from across the continent – included writers from Japan (Hiromi Kawakami, The Briefcase), India (Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis, which won South Asia’s DSC Prize), Pakistan (Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Between Clay and Dust) and Turkey (Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, Silent House). It’s worth noting that Tan and Thayil were also short-listed for the Man Group’s larger Booker Prize in 2012.
Judges Dr. Maya Jaggi, who chaired the panel (see an excellent essay she wrote on the state of Asian literature here), Vietnamese-American novelist Monique Truong and Indian-American writer Vikram Chandra, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for his novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain, had their work cut out for them.
“I have experience of judging many literary awards,” Jaggi said. “But our task as a jury was exceptionally difficult, as well as gratifying, because of the outstanding quality and originality of the novels in contention from across Asia, and the strength of our shortlist.”
In The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan tells the story of a woman, once imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp, who decides to create a Japanese garden as a memorial to her sister who died while interned in the camp. But this isn’t just any Japanese garden. The woman learns the art of gardening from none other than the gardener who once tended the shrubs of Japan’s emperor. The former imperial gardener has gone on to live in Malaysia’s Cameron highlands and the two form an unlikely bond in spite of history.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Tan explained that his own international experiences – born in Malaysia, educated in the UK, currently roving between Asia and South Africa – have played a major role in shaping his writing. “It’s made me realize that to be a writer, you have to look beyond your national boundaries if you want to be read by a universal audience,” he said.
Past winners of the Man Asian prize have included South Korean novelist Kyung-sook Shin, whose book Please Look After Mom has sold more than two million copies worldwide, and previously undiscovered Filipino author Miguel Syjuco for his book Illustrado. Other winners all wrote from China: Bei Feiyu (Three Sisters), Su Tong (The Boat to Redemption) and Jiang Rong (Wolf Totem).
The Man Group announced last October that they will relinquish its sponsorship of the prize this year due to a lack of funding. The search for a new sponsor is ongoing. But the award’s six-year run has been a boon for Asia’s literary scene.
Most mainstream readers are already aware of Asia’s literary megastars like Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie (who won the Booker of Bookers before Man took over the award for Midnight’s Children) and last year’s Nobel winner Mo Yan. But for those who may wish to dig a little deeper, the Man Asian prize has shined a spotlight on many rising talents.
Professor David Parker, executive director of the award’s organizing body, told The Guardian last October, “After the runaway success of Please Look After Mother (by last year’s winner Kyung-sook Shin) the Korean government has now decided to put up more money for Korean literature to be translated into English. That’s one of the things we have achieved and I think that is an important thing.”
What’s more, this growing awareness is not limited to the world outside of Asia; it has turned on readers within the region as well. Parker added, “We are not only bringing new literature, or formerly unknown literature, to the world, but also to Asia itself. That’s a subtle but significant thing, that Asia, because of this prize, is becoming more interested in Asia. That’s something we are very happy with.”