The Garden of Evening Mists
by Tan Twan Eng


West Maui Book Club Discussion Questions

Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Aloha and mahalo for visiting our site!
Any page numbers refer to iPad edition.

1. Eng provides a lot of food for thought in “The Garden of Evening Mists”. One of more intriguing was the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, and her twin sister with no name. Themis, however, should come to mind. She was a Titaness (Wikipedia) and “described as ‘of good counsel’ and the personification of divine order, law natural law and custom. Themis means ‘divine law’…”
     Applying Themis to the unnamed sister, how now can you view Yun Ling after retiring as a Supreme Court Judge and her journey to write down all her memories before her battle with aphasia is complete?

2. At a dinner party, Yun Ling gets into a discussion with Enchik Hamid about the changing country of Malaya. She argues, “Old countries are dying and new ones are being born. It doesn’t matter where one’s ancestors come from. Can you say – with absolute certainty – that one of your forebears did not sail from Siam, from Java, or Aceh, or from the Islands in the Sunda Straits?”
     Hamid argues that everything was stolen at which she counters that it was the Chinese who built the towns and commerce through the tin industry.
     Can you argue for or against Yun Ling's and Hamid's positions? (Aside: Does this sound familiar to any other country or state of which you know?)

3. Eng throws in a delightful mix of legends, history and events such as: Yamashito’s gold -- the art, history, and meaning of tattooing and wood blocking -- the Art of Setting Stones and its meaning to the creation of Japanese Gardens -- Japan's Golden Lily plan -- and the Lantern Ceremonies. Discuss all and share which most resonated with you and why?

4. Pg 91 – “Just before going back inside, my eyes turned toward Yugiri again. I searched for the light among the trees but could not find it: it had been extinguished while I was looking elsewhere.”
     What image does "extinguished" conjure for you? Do you think this is what Yun Ling intended when she said it? (Aside: How often does this happen in your life? Some fleeting moment is lost while you are looking elsewhere?)

5. Eng writes about moon cakes and their secret messages. What other objects come to mind with secret messages? For example, intricate Turkish rugs? Christians and an ichthus drawn in the sand? What are some others throughout history?

6. On the subject of tattoos, Tatsuji is a seller of horimono skins. As you learned what that was all about, what was your reaction? Did you see the beauty in it through his defense or the revulsion of it as Yun Ling first declares? (Sub note: How does this compare to other cultures and their idenitity with tattoos? Where else in history have we heard of human skins been taken? The Indians and their scalping of the enemy? Hitler and the making of lampshades from his victims? And even as recently as Vietnam and the removal of an ear as a souvenir? What is it about the human desire for this?)

7. Let’s talk more about tattoos and horimono’s in particular. Did you think in the end, momentarily, that Yun Ling’s horimono would actually be a map to Yamashita’s gold? That Aritomo was the keeper of that gold and that was how he paid his workers and kept his home and garden? Or perhaps Magnus Petorius was involved as well?

8. Yun Ling’s horimono is a accumulation of all that was Aritomo: his love, trust and belief in her, his skills as an artist/tattooist/wood blocker/illusionist and even her wish to honor her sister’s death. It all comes together just as Tatsuji is completing his understanding of Aritomo’s work as a whole. The only missing section is a small square on her left hip (pg 310) that is left blank to symbolize the artist’s work is never finished, never perfect. But we learn that even that is an illusion…
     What was your reaction to learning the space was left for the inclusion of the garden at Yugiri? And would you consider it shakkei (pg 25) the art of “borrowed scenery”, taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral to a creation?

9. In the end, what do you think happened to Aritomo?

Questions from the Man Book Prize website as found at

1. Memory is one of the main themes of The Garden of Evening Mists. How does Tan Twan Eng use the garden as a metaphor for memory?

2. Tan Twan Eng said his novel was difficult to write ... because Yun Ling very much wanted to keep her secrets to herself. Because of what she had gone through, and what she had become, no one was allowed into her head. And yet at the same time she wanted to—she had to—reveal those secrets. It was a constant battle for me to crack her open.
Given this statement, do you get the sense that Yun Ling is a reluctant narrator?

3. Does Yun Ling’s disposition towards Aritomo and towards the Japanese in general undergo a significant shift in the course of the novel, or does she rather maintain a constant though compartmentalised attitude throughout?

4. How and to what extent has Yun Ling’s capacity for intimate love and affection in later life been affected by her experiences in the internment camp and or her shared time with Aritomo?

5. Although containing many violent scenes, readers have commented that they found the story comforting, leaving a feeling of calm and tranquillity. What feelings are you left with having completed the novel?

Excerpt from “An Interview with Tan Twan Eng” by Nicole Idar, Asymptote Journal

Let's talk about The Garden of Evening Mists. It has an intricate structure: it begins in the present, just as Yun Ling, a Supreme Court judge in Kuala Lumpur, is retiring from the bench. It flashes back in time to the years of the Communist insurgency, when Yun Ling apprentices herself to Aritomo, a former gardener to the Emperor of Japan. It jumps further back in time to the period when Yun Ling was imprisoned at an internment camp during the Japanese Occupation. How did you work out the structure for the novel—did you write it chronologically, and rearrange chapters later?
     I started writing it chronologically. I started with Yun Ling as she is now, and tried to follow her story all the way through to the end. When I finished it I felt certain scenes—like what happened to Yun Ling in the camp—revealed the story too early; in the first draft Yun Ling's revelation of what she did in the camp came in Chapter 3, and that let out the narrative tension too soon. It took a lot of rewrites: six, seven, eight, I lost count. That was the hard part.
     I had no idea about the risks I was taking when I started writing the novel. If you were to tell me I would write a novel with all these different historical periods, I would say: "I can't pull it off, how do you bring it all together?" So when I started writing it, I was blissfully unaware.

Did the novel begin for you with Yun Ling?
     It did. I had a picture of a woman, now old, and I knew something happened to her during the war. What was it? At first I thought—she's been in a prisoner-of-war camp. As I started writing, I did more research. I read about comfort women in Malaya, and a few years ago I came across the Golden Lily Operation [a secret wartime initiative to smuggle artifacts stolen from Asian countries to Japan]. I thought: if I could bring these things together, I could build up the story of this hard, scarred woman.
     Again, I thought: I've created this character, whom should she interact with? I had no idea how to bring all these elements together—the location, the Communist Emergency, Golden Lily, the camps—and then I met an actual gardener of the Emperor of Japan at a cocktail reception in South Africa. I was introduced to him, I said hello, and five minutes later he probably forgot about me, but I remembered him. I thought about it for a few days, the evocativeness of his job description. I started creating [the character of Aritomo] from the ground up: if it's the 1950s, he has to be this particular age, and I worked backward...but I didn't have his full story until I started writing. Sometimes it's a requirement of the narrative, and I work my way backwards. You can't just make a character an expert in woodblock prints. You have to build up his story.

Both Endo-san (The Gift of Rain) and Aritomo are capable of doing terrible things, yet they are both refined men, artists; Endo-san has his aikido, Aritomo has his gardening and his woodblock prints. Were you interested in showing the human side of these characters?
     Always. That's what makes literature interesting—it's all so complex, nuanced. They're not just baddies, they're people. I've often wondered, would I betray someone to save my own life? How brave would I be?

I noticed that the story of Tatsuji, the kamikaze pilot, was originally published as a short excerpt in the Asian Literary Review [Autumn 2007, Volume 5]. Did Tatsuji's story begin as a short story?
     [The Asian Literary Review's literary festival] was the first one I was ever invited to, and they said they were commissioning writers appearing there to write something, so I wrote this short story. I was interested in what would motivate someone to become a kamikaze pilot, so I read up on it. Their stories were heartbreaking: they were kids, sixteen, seventeen years old, manipulated by authorities—there's my hang-up again [laughs]. All the old generals sent these kids away, and told them they were "falling blossoms," they tried to glamorize it. So much is unknown about these pilots, so I started writing about them. Again, I saw them as people. I was interested in their personal sacrifice, not this jingoistic thing—about honor, family—but something personal, and the most personal sacrifice is love.
     When I was thinking of a past for Tatsuji, I wondered why he would be interested in Malaya, and I wondered what he'd done in the war. At first he was just a common soldier, in Manchuria, or Nanjing, and then I thought—what if he was a kamikaze pilot? I took out this short story, but the tone was wrong, it was too flowery. Tatsuji is dry, he narrates in a very detached way. So I had to simplify the story to fit the tone of the novel.

I've never read about kamikaze pilots in Malaya before, it's a unique story. As a fiction writer, you're free to imagine scenarios that could have happened—in The Gift of Rain, for example, you note that the official ceremony to mark the surrender of Penang to the Japanese never took place; that was invented.
     My rule is I can add, but I can't subtract from an event. If an event happened, or if there was a particular building, person, or road somewhere, I leave it, I don't wipe it away to fit the story. I work around the existing facts. If there's a historical building and I add a wing to it, I don't think there's any harm. I invent, but I don't eradicate—that's disrespectful.

As I was reading The Garden of Evening Mists I thought about how the work of creating a novel, like the work of creating a Japanese garden, is very much an exercise in creating order out of chaos. In the writing of a novel as complex as this, how did you create order out of chaos, how did you keep track of all the narrative threads?
     I tried to keep a notebook and scribbled in it, here and there, a reminder to write about this or that, or if I thought of a sentence that was pretty I wrote it down, though sometimes later I'd read it and think: "What was I thinking?"
     I also drew a map of the garden, because I was getting lost. The map was just for me; I wanted readers to find their own way. Originally there was a smaller pond outside the house, because I wanted to write about these birds hunting fish in this little pond. I found this South African gardener who protected his koi fish with spiked wire, and I saw the birds walking around looking frustrated, and I thought: Oh, there's an interesting image. But eventually I took the small pond out; it was too confusing with two ponds.

What about the heron, it has a symbolic role in the novel...
     Ah, the heron was there from the start. I saw this heron, and I liked how elegant it was, and I wanted to have it in the book. They're very solitary birds, herons, I've never seen two together. When I brought in the kamikaze story I incorporated the motif of the two herons chasing each other, always in pursuit, never catching each other.

How was the experience of writing The Garden of Evening Mists different from writing The Gift of Rain?
     My first novel, I wrote in about a year and a half, maybe two years. The rewrites took another six months. [The Garden of Evening Mists] took three years. During this time I was traveling a lot, but it was also harder to write. I was always second-guessing myself. I would write a pretty sentence, and then I would do a word search [on my manuscript]. I caught myself using the same descriptions two or three times. So when I finished the novel I had to go through every sentence!
     In The Gift of Rain the past and present ties up more smoothly, but in this novel I wasn't so concerned with that.

In an interview with Asymptote last April, the writer Igor Stiks describes literature as an artistic form that is "cosmopolitan in its essence." Your novels underscore his point—they are set in Malaysia, but they have a global feel. The Garden of Evening Mists, for example, is about a Malaysian woman attempting to build a Japanese garden next door to a tea estate owned by a veteran of the Second Boer War. Can you tell us about these South African characters, Magnus and Frederik, when did they enter the story?
     Well, I love Cape Dutch houses, and I thought: Let's have some fun here, let's put one in the book. And I wanted to write about a South African [Magnus] who lives outside the country—in South African literature at the moment, there are a lot of stories about exiles coming home, but I wanted to write the reverse—what would happen if you took a traditional, conservative, nationalistic South African and put him in this new environment? The fact that I wrote about this character as a human being, and didn't just criticize him for the past, I think South African readers found that refreshing. Weirdly enough, nobody else has commented on the appearance of these characters in a novel set in Malaysia outside of South Africa.

I love that Magnus explains what brought him to Southeast Asia, and to Malaysia in particular. Why was Magnus's past a story you wanted to tell?
     It gives readers a way of understanding him. Magnus travels to Malacca and sees a gravestone that is Jan van Riebeeck's, a former governor of Cape Town. Even South Africans don't know what happened to van Riebeeck—he was exiled as punishment for something he'd done, and for him to end up in Malacca is a surprise, and it shows how interconnected we all are. I think more should be done to connect Malacca with Penang, with Cape Town, and with the history of other colonies as well.
     You know, some people ask me for writing tips, how to be a better writer. I always say, "Watch more stand-up comedy." Good comedy writers are funny because they look at life at a slightly slanted angle, and they show us how life is both painful and funny, and that's what writers are trying to do. We have to look at the world slightly differently; we have to see connections others might not see.

You mentioned interconnectedness, how does it feel to see your books translated into other languages?
     It's a strange feeling—I have no control over the translations. Sometimes translators change the title: the Italian version of The Gift of Rain is The Girl Who Came with the Rain, and the Spanish version of The Garden of Evening Mists is just Garden of Mists, which isn't the same.
     The Garden of Evening Mists is also coming out in Chinese, Korean, and Indonesian, which is great. It's because of translations that I've been able to read other Asian writers I might not have read otherwise.

Questions & Interviews compiled by: Elaine Gallant West Maui Book Club June, 2015