Strangers On A Pier by Tash Aw

In this illuminating and engaging memoir, Aw takes us on a journey through his personal and cultural history, reflecting on migration, identity, family, heritage, race and home. He fills this slim volume with intimate stories of his grandparents’ journeys to Malaysia and his own experiences in Asia and in Britain (where he went to university) as he ponders upon the hold our ancestral and cultural heritage has on our lives. Aw's British schoolmates boast of their “aristocratic” ancestors, tracing back several generations. Comparatively, how many of us know our great-grandparents' names, and more importantly, their stories.

Aw’s strengths are definitely in the clarity and sharpness of his words, with a great ability to hone his ideas to cut through all the noise. In Strangers On The Pier, Aw is sure to make the spaces between his words more impactful than the words themselves. From regrets to stories untold to silences that linger, you might find similarities to your own family stories and of pasts so uncompromisingly avoided. Which legacies do we carry with us and which do we push aside in the name of progress or because they're easier forgotten?

We’ve often been told to look forward into the future, as that “is what it means to be modern in Asia today: you are required to detach yourself from the past and live only in the present”. As the past (and all “unexamined trauma”) is neatly swept away, it is this “casual vagueness” that makes the book’s length so poignant. Aw could have easily written a full-length memoir (or several!) uncovering his family history, but it felt more important that the book posed more questions than it answered. Reading Strangers On A Pier has been a cathartic experience in considering our complicated histories, as Aw is sure to remind us: "we need to know that messiness in order to know who we are."