“The Garden of Evening Mists”
I seem to be on a reviewing roll. A month of being sick does seem to inspire navel gazing of the literary and filmic variety, does it not?
The book I just finished has such a wishy washy title, at first I sighed when I saw it was a book club choice. “The Garden of Evening Mists.” Okay. Here we go, entering the zone of Serious Fiction Sans Irony, I thought. Hah, was I wrong, and happy to be. This is an epic, painful, power packed novel by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng, and I raced through it, clutching my heart and falling into history.
My fellow Singaporeans and also Malaysians will have no trouble remembering the history lessons about the Japanese Occupation of our countries during World War 2 (British colonies at the time), and the “Emergency” of 1948 to 1960, the protracted struggle between the returned British, and the Malay and Chinese insurgents, with the goal of the latter being to free Malaya from colonial rule. As we were taught it from a colonizer-friendly perspective, we read about the intrepid, fearless British, cleverly using both troops and psychological strategies to battle the eerie communists from the jungles. Order, after all, must be restored. God save the empire and all that. Tan’s fictional work does not always escape this lens, but there is a compelling reason for his strange complicity.
In a nutshell, the novel’s main character, Teoh Yun Ling, is a judge in Kuala Lumpur, who was forced to retire due to rapidly progressing aphasia. She moves back to the Cameron Highlands, the tea growing parts where, as a young woman, she was held captive in harsh conditions at a Japanese-run camp during the occupation. She has carried lifelong trauma from the captivity. Her sister died in that camp after the years of being forced into the life of a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers, while Yun Ling could do nothing to help her. Yun Ling herself had two fingers mercilessly chopped off just because she stole food. When the Japanese surrendered, they destroyed this camp, and Yun Ling was the only survivor. The destruction of the camp is a horrifying but important reason to read this book, so I won’t spoil it for you.
The book segues between the present and the past. After her captivity and a first job, Yun Ling went back to the Highlands to work with a famously reclusive Japanese gardener named Aritomo, who stayed on after the occupation. Her intent was to get his help to make a Japanese garden in memory of her sister, who loved the style, but he refuses the project, and she becomes his apprentice instead. We are shown the contrast between the deeply reflective, inward focused life at Yugiri, Aritomo’s home and garden, and the more familial atmosphere of the nearest neighbors, a white South African man named Magnus, his Malaysian Chinese wife Emily, and Magnus’ nephew, Frederik.
For such a navel gaze-y book, there are some seriously gripping, thriller-worthy details to the plot, but yeah, I’m not ruining them for other readers. You’re just going to have to delve into it on your own. I was easily able to find the book in my local library, so hopefully you will too.
Growing up Indian in that part of the world, one cannot help noticing the affinity that many Chinese have for the colonizer culture. From converting to Christianity, to taking on their names, to excelling at western art forms, and much more. There is a kind of internalized, continued sense of looking towards one’s former oppressors for, not just validation, but identity and healing. Unlike Malays, for whom the region is their indigenous home, and Indians, who always had access to India and its various cultural and spiritual manifestations if we wanted them, the Chinese were effectively cut off from real time interaction with China after the latter became a communist country, and before it started to open up more to the world, which was not the case at all in my childhood. I always felt that that created a feeling of homelessness for some Chinese Singaporeans, and the void was often filled by adopting the next thing that made sense, which was western norms. When I was a kid, my Chinese schoolmates were pretty evenly divided between Buddhist/Confucian practices, vs Methodist/Catholic ones. But by the time I left high school, this was no longer the case, with more and more Timothys and Elizabeths and Seans.
I don’t want to give the impression that the rest of us had zero impact from the various traumas of colonization. We did. We do. We also have a comfort level with colonizer culture, what can you do. Rapacious greed and racist ideas of saviorism are quite a combo, and left their slime trail globally.
Now I am going to say something potentially awkward. But since the book faces it pretty unflinchingly, here we go: this kind of trauma sometimes manifests in overidentification with one’s oppressors, at the expense of forming trusting ties with one’s own citizenry. So Yun Ling is no exception. She speaks of the indigenous and Indian characters in alternate tones of dismissal and exoticization. Malays hardly feature at all. Communist insurgents are a terrifying threat, and don’t trust her because she fraternizes with the enemy. But the brutal actions taken by the British don’t seem to merit the same reaction from her.
Most importantly, there’s the symbolism of using Japanese gardening and cultural beliefs to heal from trauma. Again, the internalization of one’s former oppressor’s world view. Things get weird in this realm, but you’re going to read on your own, right? This is the heart and soul of the book, and I’m going to hold back because I care about your own reading experience, unedited by me.
I was strongly reminded of the therapy journey while reading. We can’t release fear unless we get comfortable with it. To do that, we have to be willing to trust our spirit guides, and who better than people who subject themselves to the same humbling process; we also have to wade in the murky depths of our darkest attributes, accepting that they are part of us. It doesn’t always feel or look cleansing. Really, it’s an ugly, soul draining search for our own truth that threatens to upend our character, the sides of us that are the most righteous, those coping mechanisms we thought were our strongest succor.
But what else can we do? The reactions Yun Ling gets from outsiders reinforce the sense that many of us prefer band aids to painful excision. We want to hide under the silken cloak of traditional values, drape ourselves in the glitter of modernity. We long to say “the pain is now over because I say it is. Look at me, living.” Isn’t that the whole idea behind nationalistic rhetoric? Rather than acknowledge what was done to us, what we did to survive, we sing songs of patriotic fervor so we can reclaim a sense of fortitude. Anesthetize ourselves from intergenerational loss.
As always, I connect everything to autism. This post has grown really long, but I was reflecting on disability justice work, and how easy it is for people to say to the disabled that they should cultivate a sense of pride, and shed any bitterness they may feel. Conquer any perceived lack. And people say those things essentially so the abled don’t have to be roiled by the relief and guilt that would otherwise plague us—for not being subject to the same systemic inequities and prejudice; and for not being a more active force in dismantling ableism, a system we benefit from.
Mostly, we expect the disabled to inspire us, don’t we? That’s sort of their raison d’etre, according to our puffed up selves. We put out the vibe that if disability rights intersect with our own personal goals, everyone wins. All Lives Matter!
Just like Yun Ling, the disabled are forced to interact with oppressor culture to survive, and achieve any justice. The very least we can do is work on fixing our own arrogance and ignorance. Not play identity politics and oppression Olympics when our job is to listen and learn. Participate in healing acts, but without bringing our horrid pity and charity into it. We aren’t the Commonwealth.
Tan Twan Eng. “The Garden of Evening Mists.” New York: Weinstein Books, 2012.