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Tash Aw's newest novel; 2021 Booker Prize shortlist

Tash Aw's newest novel; 2021 Booker Prize shortlist
Tash Aw's newest novel; 2021 Booker Prize shortlist
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Following the harrowing narration of protagonist Ah Hock’s tale in whydunit We, The Survivors, novelist
Tash Aw continues to contemplate Malaysia as a key setting in Strangers on a Pier: Portrait of a Family.
You would be forgiven for experiencing a brush of déjà vu at the title, as it closely resembles his 2016 memoir, The Face: Strangers on a Pier. Via a vignette of memories, anecdotes and observations stitched together, Aw examines his family’s inherited stories, handed down across generations, and the influence of his own experiences in shaping his identity, expressed on the cover by way of his face.

This riveting collection of personal essays is expanded and updated in the just-launched Strangers on a Pier: Portrait of a Family.
“The new version takes the form of a long letter to my late grandmother — things I would have liked to say to her, things I’ve learnt over the years, perspectives I’ve gained now that I’m much older,” says Aw in an email interview with Options.
“But it’s a letter that isn’t really a letter — it branches out to incorporate the experience of living abroad, of trying to establish a notion of ‘home’ in other places than Malaysia. I talk about my time as a university student in Britain in the 1990s, of travelling as a professional writer, of encounters that made me think of my position in relation to Malaysia.
“The original edition was an extreme distillation of my thinking about several Big Ideas relating to home and belonging at the time. I didn’t have any answers then, so it ended up being a set of questions, more than any kind of solution.”
Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the pandemic that gave him the chance to reflect on and edit the original memoir.
“I always wanted to expand on it, and lockdown — being forced to choose where ‘home’ was — was the perfect opportunity to reflect on how my thinking had evolved since The Face,” says Aw. “I don’t think anyone’s views on the world and their position in it could have remained static over the last five years.
“So much of the world has felt upended. Like everyone else, I’ve been forced to confront questions of identity and belonging, of narrowing borders, even though I haven’t really wanted to. Friends who’ve read [Strangers on a Pier] say that it’s spikier in tone, angrier, but to me, both old and new editions are underpinned by a sense of melancholy, and even, dare I say it, of love.”
These emotions are familiar to many of us who struggle to find our own place in a country caught between hang-ups of the past and progress. Aw captures this conflict beautifully in his latest introspection while trying to see if the footprints of his life orient him towards or around a place he could unequivocally call home. Dividing his time between Asia and Europe blurs this distinction, as any global citizen or migrant can testify, but Malaysia still occupies a significant place in his heart.
“It wasn’t until I started living and travelling in other countries that I realised that virtually no other country has the depth of multiculturalism that we do,” he says. “Yet we don’t seem to realise what we have. It is this that I miss and appreciate the most — being in a place where there is a profoundly deep experience of how to live with others, even if that experience is not always happy (for how can it be?).
“I still don’t have a clear answer to the questions people ask me, such as, ‘What does home mean to you?’ I’ve just learnt to live a little more comfortably with this lack of clarity.”

Six shortlisted titles to vie for Booker
Original stories told in individual voices and styles characterise the 2021 Booker shortlist, with love, loss, trauma and bereavement as recurring themes among the six books. They are No One Is Talking About This (by Patricia Lockwood), The Fortune Men (Nadifa Mohamed), A Passage North (Anuk Arudpragasam), The Promise (Damon Galgut), Bewilderment (Richard Powers) and Great Circle (Maggie Shipstead).
Panel chair Maya Jasanoff lauded the books for their ambition and intelligence, which led the judges to “engage in rich discussions about the quality of any given title, but often about the purpose of fiction itself”. Their comments were weighed alongside appraisals by one of the five judges for each of the novels, on how the works spoke to them, or did not.
The winner, who will receive £50,000, will be announced on Nov 3 at a ceremony hosted by the Booker Prize Foundation and the BBC at Broadcasting House’s Radio Theatre. For the third year, BBC Radio 4’s Front Row is running its Booker Prize Book Groups with the shortlisted authors. To join the groups, email [email protected].
Foundation director Gaby Wood applauded the intense reading the panel, “strangers of disparate backgrounds”, undertook over nine months.
“They proved that the best literature is elastic … and the best of fiction can make you feel as though your mind, or heart, are a little bit larger for having read it.”
Over in the US, the National Book Foundation has announced the 10 longlisted fiction titles for the 2021 National Book Award.
The contenders are Cloud Cuckoo Land (by Anthony Doerr), Matrix (Lauren Groff), Abundance (Jakob Guanzon), Zorrie (Laird Hunt), The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois (Honorée Fanonne Jeffers), The Prophets (Robert Jones Jr), Intimacies (Katie Kitamura), The Souvenir Museum: Stories (Elizabeth McCracken), Hell of a Book (Jason Mott) and Bewilderment (Richard Powers).
The finalists will be named on Oct 5 and the winner, on Nov 17. The prize is US$10,000, plus a bronze sculpture. Other categories for the National Book Awards, established in 1950 to celebrate the best writing in America, are Nonfiction, Poetry, Young People’s Literature and Translated Literature.

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