Tash Aw, We, the Survivors, Fourth Estate, 2019. 336 pgs.
“There are only rich Chinese, and potentially rich Chinese,” writes Malaysian author Brian Gomez in his short story “Mud,” featured in Fixi Novo’s 2013 anthology KL Noir. While the remark is meant to be taken as tongue in cheek, it underlines the common perception that Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese community is uniformly affluent. This is of course simplistic, inaccurate and entirely representative of the type of racially tinged discourse that is so common in Malaysia (which appears to be entirely Gomez’s point).
Poorer members of Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese community are often ignored when it comes to national narratives and even policies surrounding poverty. But the truth is that when it comes to the (not-insignificant) portion of Malaysia’s population that is affected by poverty no ethnic grouping is exempt. Tash Aw’s novel, We, the Survivors, refreshingly gives voice to this under-represented demographic of poor and working-class Malaysian-Chinese. Indeed, Malaysia’s other dominant ethnicities are almost entirely absent in the narrative arc, while the more recent Bangladeshi and Indonesian migrant communities (which can be measured in millions) play a significant role.
Coming from a modest background himself, the writer is obeying the oft-written edict of “write what you know”—and perhaps the more recent, and arguably unhelpful, proscription to “stay in your lane,” which at its hard edge would dismiss anything other than auto-fiction. In interviews, the author has credited luck as being a factor that allowed him to escape the conditions of his humble origins. But given that he studied law in Cambridge, and has written four internationally best-selling novels, it is clear that hard work and natural intelligence have as much, if not more, to do with Aw’s success than the difficult-to-define quality of “luck.”
We, the Survivors follows the fate and struggles of protagonist Lee Hock Lye, aka Ah Hock, who also sometimes goes by the name Jayden. He briefly rises from obscurity into the public eye by murdering a man. Right from the outset, Ah Hock’s guilt is clear, even if his motives aren’t. Those who are thinking of Camus’s L’étranger might be nodding their heads now, but while We, the Survivors does share its inciting incident, and its theme of alienation, most resemblances stop there.
Given the author’s legal background, it is interesting that he has chosen a framework that veers away from the traditional courtroom drama. In fact, the few court scenes are perfunctory and limited to a few lines. Instead the story is told as a series of interviews with a young US-educated writer/researcher named Su Min, given over several months, and interspersed with brief sections where the protagonist observes his interviewer and the socio-economic distance that separates them.
The latter part of the novel deals with Malaysia’s chronic overdependence on cheap (and often illegal) foreign labour and points out that the type of manual work that might once have been available for non-academically inclined Malaysians is simply no longer an option, since wages are undercut by those willing to endure the harshest of conditions for what amounts to starvation pay. In effect, as a result of these labour practices, a portion of Malaysia’s working class have by default become a non-working class, with nefarious activities in the informal economy—whether falling into the thrall of the treacherous appeal of toxic pyramidal multi level marketing schemes, selling counterfeit goods, running drugs, prostitution or engaging in gangsterism—becoming tempting and sometimes the only realistic options for many.
The pernicious issue of human trafficking is a major theme here, with Malaysia scoring high for the dubious honour of being one of the world’s busiest hubs for modern slavery. Added to this is the complication of refugees, who are both unrecognised and legally unemployable in Malaysia since Malaysia has yet to ratify the UN Convention on Refugees, something that given the current political climate seems unlikely to change anytime soon.
Some of the situations the characters encounter evoke the mass graves of more than one hundred and fifty people found in 2015 near Malaysia’s northern border, where smuggled economic migrants and Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar/Burma were held in captivity in deplorable conditions, leading to death through starvation, disease and torture.
The novel also visits the theme of climate collapse, with rising sea levels flooding and destroying Ah Hock’s mother’s vegetable farm and home.
The endemic corruption that characterises so many facets of Malaysian life is another issue that appears repeatedly throughout the novel. The precarity brought about by globalisation, and the environmental and social costs of Malaysia’s palm oil and rubber industries, which thrive on cheap labour, feature too:
Some politician in America decides that they can’t buy Malaysian rubber gloves; suddenly 10 factories in the area have to shut down. The Europeans want to save the fucking world so they ban the use of palm oil in food; within a month, the entire port is on its knees.
With respect to the protagonist’s status, the use of language is plain and unadorned, giving We, the Survivors an easy and unambiguous immediacy that might not be said to characterise Aw’s previous work. As such, the novel is very accessible for readers of any level, and would lend itself very well to being studied in schools or universities, perhaps in some future liberal Malaysia, where issues of social justice are given due and deserved consideration.
Knowing people, in fact being related by marriage to people whose lives and stories are eerily close to some of the characters here, I found We, the Survivors to be unflinchingly accurate and authentic. It is certainly my favourite among Aw’s novels (though admittedly I haven’t gotten around to reading Five Star Billionaire yet, a title which suggests that it might be the antithesis of this book).
In sum, We, the Survivors is a nuanced and thought-provoking read that shines a light on many aspects of the difficulties faced by a nation struggling with the economic and social challenges of the complicated age in which we live.
Marc de Faoite was born in Dublin and has lived in Malaysia since 2007. His short stories, articles, and book reviews have been published both in print and online. Tropical Madness, a collection of his short stories, was longlisted for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.