William Tham Wai Liang was formerly Senior Editor at Ricepaper. His newest book, The Last Days, is set in 1981 and covers the continuing legacy of the Malayan Emergency. His first book, Kings of Petaling Street, was shortlisted for the Penang Monthly Book Prize in 2017 and will be republished shortly. He edited Paper & Text, a collection of essays on Malaysian literature and the book trade. While at Ricepaper, he worked on several projects including Currents: A Ricepaper Anthology, Vincent Ternida’s The Seven Muses of Harry Salcedo and Immersion: An Asian Anthology of Love, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction.
Your latest novel, The Last Days, follows an aging Communist revolutionary in Kuala Lumpur, 1981. How did you trace the experiences and memories of your characters?
While in Vancouver, I grew interested in the multiple histories of Malaysia, particularly those that had been written out the main narrative or largely forgotten. While the main character was largely imaginary, my inspiration was drawn from a variety of sources (colonial, nationalist and subaltern), in turn based on the shadowy and vague events of those particular points in time. Alias Chin Peng, the memoirs of the Secretary-General of the now-defunct Malayan Communist Party, proved a most useful resource, which I eventually adapted and pieced together into an imagined history of a fictitious, forgotten sleeper agent.
Your debut novel, Kings of Petaling Street, examines the tumultuous and gritty world of crime in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. How and why did you decide to pivot to a political drama for your most recent novel?
I started out writing pulp fiction, but got tired of it after a while. However, it does remain a powerful tool for expressing important questions in so many ways (despite or even because of the genre’s conventions), but I transferred the mood and feel to The Last Days. Hence the haze-shrouded city, people who never go by their real names, a shadowy assassin and characters operating in various shades of grey, adding a noir atmosphere to an examination of politics, history and the creation of narratives. I am reworking this novel though — I’d like to use it to explore the myth and power of secret societies and to use it to also tell a story of immigration, class and power (political and otherwise).
What was your experience like as a past Joy Kogawa House writer-in-residence? What did you work on and learn during your tenure?
At the Joy Kogawa House, I had the time and space to think and reflect on my work, and where I was headed. I think it may still be too early for me to say what its eventual effect has been on me, but the connection to a past and a community, albeit briefly, were some of my best months, and Ann-Marie Metten and the friends of the Kogawa House must be credited for having such a space available. I worked on a manuscript titled Lost Voices Record, which followed a group of activists, writers and burnt-out idealists in Vancouver in 1981 (incidentally the same year that TLD takes place), although I’m still searching for a publisher (hint hint).