A Conversation With… Carol Ajuni Tan on Asian Literature and How She Teaches Her Children to Read

A pattern I’m noticing from your postings on the B:Read Bookswap group/fan page and your attendance during our bookswaps is your interest in Asian literature. Where does the fascination come from?

What I actually enjoy are books with rich cultural setting – preferably traditional and definitely historical. Asian, because it’s our heritage – it’s interesting to learn why we, coming from and living amongst multi-ethic families and communities, think and behave in certain ways.

My Asian fascination began after I watched The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan in the 90s – then read the book. My favorite parts was where she described the lives of the 4 women in China in the early 1900s. It’s like reading a history, cultural, travel, language and cook book all at once!

Since her, I have always seek other Asian authors and was happy to discover Amitav Ghosh, an Indian author. In fact, I am currently alternating between my 3rd Amitav Ghosh and 5th Amy Tan!

I have not been exposed to a lot of Asian literature, but more with literature written by white people who lived in Asia. For myself, personally, I’m more in touch with non-fiction regarding Southeast Asia than the fiction. What does Asian literature offer more to you that you cannot find in the environment you live in?

Asia is such a fascinating continent – with the different tribes, way of living, traditions, customs, history etc. I am more partial to Asian culture in fiction setting as oppose to other equally fascinating cultures e.g. South Americans or Africans because it is easier to relate to them.

It’s like reading a non-fiction on cultural/historical studies but in selected and most interesting doses that later on, if I so incline, I can research further once I have finished the fiction – and most of the time, I do that. I get lead on names of tribes or towns or traditions and I will do a quick read up. One interesting thing I learn was that headhuntings are not limited to Borneo – there are many other tribes that do this in the olden days, and I find this sort of information fascinating!

And I must clarify that I am not interested in Asian literatures that are Westernized – no characters in Gucci outfit sipping latte in a Starbucks cafe somewhere in Singapore because this scene is “us” now – I’m not interested to read about us.

Do you have a particular setting or issue that you like to read in Asian literature?

No issue in particular but I am keen on reading more on novels set in olden India or at least where the characters still practice traditional customs. Currently I am also reading a book on the opium industry and India’s involvement in this part of Asian history, namely Amitav Ghosh – Sea of Poppies.

I am also looking into more Burmese work of fictions; I read an interesting story on colonial Burma a few months ago from which I came to know a little bit of the history of the racial upset that is currently going on between the Rohingyas and ethnic Burmese (Amitav Ghosh – Glass Palace).

Why history – it’s my favorite subject but I don’t have the reading capabilities to devour history books and prefer to get snippets of history when they are used to set a fiction.

Why India and Burma – because I have read several on China but still have not found any on other Asian countries.

What do you hope to see with publication in Brunei?

At this very moment, I would  love to read fiction set in Brunei, during a royal wedding where we get insights into all that takes place; to “hear” and “see” the unique words/vocabularies/traditions used by royal family and their kin and the people affected/involved in this occasion – things that even us, just 100km away are not privy too.

I also wish to read stories set in olden day Belait, the lives of the people who live before us; the story of their migrations, their hardship, their pride, their way of life – local history. Why do they certain things which are still practiced till today e.g. dinner at 5pm? How are wild boars caught and what do people do with monitor lizards – situations that seem ancient and extinct but still take place sometimes.

Coming from an in-between generations; from a time where people still live in bamboo houses without electricity to an era where iPhone 5 is just a card-swipe away, I look forward to the future but I enjoy reading and learning the useful lessons of life as well as knowing what shaped our surroundings, our people, our dreams and aspirations and us.

So, I am really hoping that we will have aspiring local novelists who will look into our own culture, delve into our own history and keep our stories for the future generations.

How are you teaching your children to love reading?

I grew up surrounded by books. My father grew up in an era where he was taught by British school masters and they inculcate the reading habit in him and he in turn, made books a part of our family lifestyle, although I think I am the only one who takes after him in this regard…

He invested in whole sets of encyclopedias for us, and in those days, these are thousands of dollars kind of investments which we don’t really have lying about but he believed in their value. So I grew up reading encyclopedias, although I can no longer retain much of what I read anymore, old age!

And this is what I am doing with my kids now. I invest in books more than anything else – not toys, not clothing, and I make their books so accessible, they are everywhere in the house. Bedroom: check; dining room: check; living room: check; hallway: check; car: check!

Their books are everywhere and they are so used to seeing books it’s second nature to them.

I also read books to them before bedtime. There are times when I try to escape doing it – by pushing my husband to do it instead, but it is their bedroom ritual and they enjoy this. We also make it a point to visit libraries and during our holidays – a few years ago, we went all the way to Tampines and Hougang libraries in Singapore to catch their story-telling sessions! Weird family, I know!

I did try to teach my eldest (8) to read when she started school but didn’t continue with my second (6) and yet, the second one reads faster and earlier than her. I am not teaching the youngest to read but I am teaching her to voice different characters differently – or rather, she insists that when I read, I voice the characters differently. Her father often fails in this part!

I can’t say if they love reading but I can definitely say that reading is a part of their life right now.

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