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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.

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

On the thing all of his plotlines share:


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:

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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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.