“Strangers on the Strike”, by Tash Aw: the elusive identity

Malaysian writer Tash Aw in 2012.

“Foreigners on the Strike. Family portrait” (The Face. Strangers on a Pier), by Tash Aw, translated from English (Malaysia) by Johan-Frédérik Hel Guedj, Fayard, 128 p., €17, digital €12.

Since traveling in Asia, Tash Aw knows that from eastern India his face looks like anyone – or everyone. In Nepal, in Thailand, in China, in Japan: nobody seems to suspect that he comes from elsewhere. “My identity becomes malleable, it molds itself to match the people around me”, he notes with renewed perplexity from country to country. But is it his face that seems to “dissolving into the cultural landscape of Asia” Or an unconscious attitude that pushes him to blend into the crowd? The question remains open throughoutForeigners on the strike. Family portraitalthough obviously the answer lies somewhere in between.

Of Chinese origin, born in Taipei in 1972, but having grown up in Malaysia and living in London, Tash Aw, an English-speaking writer, indeed tells an exemplary story. His two grandfathers were born in southern China (one on the island of Hainan, the other in the province of Fujian). Both emigrated and settled in Malaysia, fleeing via Singapore their country ravaged by famine and civil war in the 1920s. There they joined the established Chinese communities of the shifting geopolitics of Southeast Asia. THE “strangers on strike” of the title, they are them.

A less skilful author than Tash Aw would have contented himself with a fairly linear chronicle of the various family figures – something the author seems to want to avoid here at all costs. His novels, like The Notorious Johnny Lim (Robert Laffont, 2006) or We the survivors (Fayard, 2021), worked on these same themes of immigration, social success and identity, but then approached from the angle of complex polyphonic fictions.

This story puts the writer at the center, with a form of permanent modesty and sincerity, in particular to express his frustration at not knowing exactly where he comes from. His parents and grandparents are indeed part of these “forgetful” who prefer to ignore difficult times, poverty, the past, to look only to the future. The conversations with his father reflect this difficulty in confiding, in expressing his doubts, his weaknesses: “Vulnerability is shameful, even taboo. » This is what makes the trajectory and attitude of Tash Aw’s family exemplary and universal: all the children of immigrants, all the children of the poor, share this experience.

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