#NovNov22 Nonfiction Week Begins! with Strangers on a Pier by Tash Aw

Short nonfiction week of Novellas in November is (not so) secretly my favourite theme of this annual challenge. About 40% of my reading is nonfiction, and I love finding books that illuminate a topic or a slice of life in well under 200 pages. I’ll see if I can review one per day this week.


Back in 2013 I read Tash Aw’s Booker-longlisted Five Star Billionaire and thought it was a fantastic novel about strangers thrown together in contemporary Shanghai. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me to find something else by him in the meantime, but when I spotted this slim volume up in the library’s biography section, I knew it had to come home with me.

Originally published in the USA as The Face in 2016, this is a brief family memoir reflecting on migration and belonging. Aw was born in Taiwan and grew up in Malaysia in an ethnically Chinese family; wherever he goes, he can pass as any number of Asian ethnicities. Both of his grandfathers were Chinese immigrants to Malaysia, but from different regions and speaking separate dialects. (This is something those of us in the West unfamiliar with China can struggle to understand: it has no monolithic identity or language. The food and culture might vary as much by region as they do in, say, different countries of Europe.)

Aw imagines his ancestors’ arrival and the disorientation they must have known as they made their way to an address on a piece of paper. His family members never spoke about their experiences, but the sense of being an outsider, a minority is something that has recurred through their history. Aw himself felt it keenly as a university student in Britain.

After the first long essay, “The Face,” comes a second, “Swee Ee, or Eternity,” addressed in the second person to his late grandmother, about whom, despite having worked in her shop as a boy, he knew next to nothing before he spent time with her as she was dying of cancer.

When is short nonfiction too short? Well, I feel that what I just read was actually two extended magazine articles rather than a complete book – that I read a couple of stories rather than the whole story. Perhaps that is inevitable for such a short autobiographical work, though I can think of two previous memoirs from last year alone that managed to be comprehensive, self-contained and concise: The Story of My Life by Helen Keller and The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy. (Public library)

[91 pages]

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14 responses

  1. This sounds like an interesting read that could have benefited from being extended.

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    1. I’d say I would happily have read a memoir three times longer.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe a longer book is in the wings?

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  2. I thought I recognised the name and then you reminded me that I read Five Star Billionaire a few years back and quite enjoyed it! I’m currently reading Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and at 42 pages, it’s probably more of an essay to be fair!

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    1. I loved Notes on Grief when I read it last year. One to pull back off the shelf, methinks. I’ve reviewed two of her previous super-short books for NovNov before. My feeling is, as long as something has been published as a stand-alone volume, it doesn’t matter how short!

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      1. Yes, that’s my rule too 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Sounds like it’s official, then. 😃

        Liked by 2 people

  3. […] Strangers on a Pier by Tash Aw – Rebecca at Bookish Beck […]

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  4. When I was at uni, I was telling a Singaporean friend about another Singaporean I’d met somewhere on campus. “Was he Chinese or Malaysian?” she asked. For her it was obvious; I was clueless.

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    1. I happen to know about that distinction because I had a Singaporean friend on my MA course and I remember she was from an ethnic minority (not Chinese) and told me a little bit about what that was like.

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      1. If you ever go there, there’s a whole museum about a particular Chinese group and its culture, the Peranakan Museum. It is really gorgeous, but currently being renovated, so no rush.

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  5. Oh that is a little one (that gives me hope I can count a 60 page story that is in its own book for the challenge!). I would have wanted more, too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I would count it for sure!

      Liked by 1 person

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