Interview With Tash Aw, Author Of 'Map Of The Invisible World' Set in the buildup to Indonesia's 1965 civil war, Tash Aw's Map of the Invisible World is the story of a 16-year-old boy on a quest to find his stepfather.

Clinging To The Past And 'The Invisible World'

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

It's 1964, the start of the anti-communist purges in Indonesia, and a teenager named Adam is hiding in the bushes near his home. Soldiers arrive in trucks, and they drive up to his front door. And he watches as they take his father away.

Mr. TASH AW (Author): (Reading) They hesitated as they approached the steps going up to the veranda, talking among themselves. They were too far away; he couldn't hear what they were saying. Then two of them went up to the house and when they emerged, they had Karl with them. He was not handcuffed; he followed them slowly, walking to the truck with his uneven gait before climbing up and disappearing under the tarpaulin canopy. From a distance he looked small, just like them, just like a child, too, only with fair hair and pink skin.

RAZ: That's Malaysian author Tash Aw. He's reading from the opening scene of his new novel. It's called "Map of the Invinsible World."

And Tash Aw joins me now from London. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Mr. TASH AW: Hello, it's great to be here.

RAZ: Before we get to more of the story, I want to ask about Indonesia in the year 1964. Why did you choose that year in particular to set the story?

Mr. TASH AW: Well, 1964 was a time of great turbulent in Southeast Asia. For 300 years, countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, have existed on the colonial rule. Now, they are independent, and people are finding that both on a national and a personal level, freedom is actually something that's very hard to do with.

RAZ: Now, the book takes place during a movement that was being pushed by the Indonesian leader at the time, Sukarno, with the name George Orwell could not have invented, and it was called guided democracy. What was it all about?

Mr. TASH AW: It was eventually Sukarno's pushed to make Indonesia into a cohesive nation. By 1964, the wheels are slightly coming off this rather rickety bandwagon, and Sukarno's losing grip on the situation and things are tumbling into disarray, and was sliding very swiftly into civil war.

RAZ: As you described in the book, during this period, he begins a purge of communists and of any remnants of Dutch colonialism. Caught in the middle of your story, of your novel, is a 16-year-old named Adam.

Mr. TASH AW: Yeah. He's orphaned. He was abandoned very early on in life. He gets adopted by a Dutchman who spent most of his life in Indonesia who - of course, as Indonesia teaches on the brink of civil turmoil, he's adoptive father has taken away. And so Adam finds himself orphaned yet again. And so, he has to face, like his country, questions of identity, questions of where he's from, where he's going to, who his family really is. And so the novel is really about how he finds his father and therefore how he finds himself.

RAZ: What - one of the main characters in the book who is part of a major plot twist, he's name is Din.

Mr. TASH AW: Yeah.

RAZ: He is a student and a revolutionary. I mean, he sees Malaysia as the ultimately enemy. He wants to destroy any remnants of what he describes as neo-imperialism.

Mr. TASH AW: Yeah, absolutely. Din doesn't really belong to any of the main political groups. He becomes seriously radicalized. And in fact, in that way, he released a precursor to a lot of what's going on in Indonesia now. As it were in the '60s, the great radicalizing element was communism. Today, it's much more likely to be Islam.

But I think that there a lot of similarities to be drawn. I think when large numbers of young people, young men in particular become disillusioned and have no hope, they will turn to whatever is out there that will radicalize them.

RAZ: Your descriptions of Jakarta, the city of Jakarta in the mid-1960s are incredibly evocative. Obviously, you weren't around at that time to witness because you're a young man.

Mr. TASH AW: No.

RAZ: But, I mean, you described the incense smell in the alleyways, the blocked drain pipes, the cooking sounds. Did you spend much time in the city while writing the book?

Mr. TASH AW: I did. I did. I've spent a lot of time in Jakarta over the years. I visited ever since I was about 9 or 10 and continued to do so. And although Jakarta has obviously changed a lot in one way, I think, the atmosphere of the street hasn't. For me, coming from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Jakarta is always felt incredibly crowded, very grimy, very dusty and quite dangerous and mysterious at the same time. And so what I did was just to capture that element that I've always felt and just transposed that into a 1960 setting.

RAZ: Tash Aw, you were born in Taiwan. Your parents are Malaysian. You grew up in Kuala Lumpur. And now you live in London.

Mr. TASH AW: Yeah.

RAZ: It's hard not to draw some comparisons between you and the character Adam, who, you know, of course, as a boy who's drawn from all of these different worlds. Were you, sort of, thinking about those things when you were writing this story?

Mr. TASH AW: It's never something I think subconsciously. I mean, there's never a day when I wake up thinking, goodness, I have a very fragment cultural (unintelligible).

But, of course, as you say, inevitably, one's upbringing, one's cultural DNA filtered into one's work. And I guess, for that reason, a lot of my characters are looking to find out who they are. All of them are looking to try and discern a notion of home where they belong. So I guess, in that way, my own life does have certain parallels with my characters' lives.

RAZ: That's Tash Aw. He is the author of the newly released book "Map of the Invisible World."

Tash Aw, thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. TASH AW: Thank you very much.

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