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This Malaysian island offers endless stories and inspiration. Just ask Tan Twan Eng

The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in George Town, Penang. Author Tan Twan Eng says there's a story behind every door in the city.
Matthew Williams-Ellis/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in George Town, Penang. Author Tan Twan Eng says there's a story behind every door in the city.

Tan Twan Eng's latest novel, The House of Doors, is a decade-shifting epic that delves into tragedy, cultural dissonance and memory loss.

Who is he? Twan Eng is an award-winning Malaysian novelist known for The Gift of Rain and The Garden of Evening Mists, and for setting his stories in his home country.

  • His latest novel was longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize.
  • What's going on? Twan Eng's latest novel, The House of Doors, is a historical exploration of stories that all share the risk of being forgotten.

  • At the center of the novel is the island of Penang, nestled off the west coast of Malaysia, which Twang Eng calls home for part of the year.
  • The plot revolves around a few historical events that took place in the early 20th century.
  • It interweaves the stories of the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen visiting Penang at the same time as British writer W. Somerset Maugham, and the trial of a married British woman accused of killing her lover.
  • <strong></strong>Tan Twang Eng's newest book.
    / Bloomsbury Publishing
    Bloomsbury Publishing
    Tan Twang Eng's newest book.

    What's he saying? Twan Eng joined All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro to discuss the inspiration behind the novel, and the care he took with the real life legacies of his characters.

    On what it's like to walk through the streets of George Town, Penang's main city.

    It really feels like you're walking in Penang 100 years ago. The old shop houses are there. They've got the original names of the streets. A lot of the tradesmen and craftsmen are still working there, carrying on the jobs that their grandparents did. A lot of the food stalls, the street hawkers, they are still continuing the tradition started by their grandparents. So there's a sense of timelessness when you walk in the streets of Penang. And the only way you can really absorb and appreciate Penang is to walk there.

    And why it makes such an inspiring setting for a story:

    It's so rich with stories. You know, if you walk down the streets of the town, every house behind the doors, you wonder: What are the stories there? Tales of love and death and disappointment and fears and hopes. There's so many stories. Every street has a wonderful story. It's really a rich mine for any author to write about Penang.

    On the thing all of his plotlines share:

    The one thing they had in common was that these events are slowly being forgotten by readers today, especially the younger readers. For instance, the murder trial of Ethel Proudlock in Kuala Lumpur, which took place almost 100 years ago, almost nobody today knows much about it. And even I first came to know about it through The Letter, Somerset Maugham's short story.

    For more on books, listen to Consider This on how authors are fighting back against book bans.

    And being careful with the real life legacies of his characters:

    I'm quite careful about offending their descendants. Well, you know, in a way, I don't want to make people unhappy or create a lot of misunderstandings. I want to present the character as authentic and accurate. So I don't go out of the way to just highlight the negative parts. But I also try to create a fair representation of the character.

    View this post on Instagram A post shared by Tan Twan Eng (@tan.twan.eng)

    So, what now?

  • Twan Eng hopes the fact his story is told mostly from the British perspective can shed light on how colonial perspectives have shaped the motivations of his characters.
  • "We see how they felt, that they were morally superior to the people they were ruling over during that time. And that was one of the weapons they used to justify their power, because, 'We're morally superior.'"
  • Learn more:

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  • Why children of married parents do better, but America is moving the other way
  • A new graphic novel version of 'Watership Down' aims to temper darkness with hope
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    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.