The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng
The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

I’m about to sound either really clueless or really curious.

Here’s a sampling of some of the questions I asked myself as I read The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Why is everyone referring to Malaya, and not Malaysia? Pearl Harbor was not Japan’s “official entrance” into World War II? Why is there a South African living in Cameron Highlands? And the Boer War: What was that again? Perhaps I should be a little embarrassed to admit my ignorance about the Eastern World despite, I think, being reasonably informed about general global history and geography. But my reading of Tan’s lushly and quietly beautiful novel about the Japanese Occupation and its lasting effects on protagonist Yun Ling took me constantly to Google; the result of my reading was not just another wonderful story embedded in my heart, but also a small step forward in understanding a greater world.

The Garden of Evening Mists presents one picture of what happened in British Malaya from World War II, to the early 1950s, to the late 1980s, which is when the story commences. Readers get little peeks into a world of Aboriginal tribes, the Japanese civilian internment camps where Yun Ling spent three years and where her sister died, and the CTs (Communist Terrorists) who ambush the areas around Majuba, the tea plantation where Yun Ling apprentices with Aritomo, the former gardener for Emperor Hirohito. Got it?

Cameron Highlands, in present-day Malaysia
Cameron Highlands, in present-day Malaysia

Despite the fact that some reviewers believed that Tan’s debut novel, the Man Booker-long listed The Gift of Rain, was preferable to this 2012 novel, I was more than satisfied reading this one. From a historical perspective, I wish I could have read something like this in high school. And I say this because I was lucky enough to learn from an outstanding English department where the breadth of literature that was presented to me was apparently—judging from conversations with my peers—not commonplace.

About a month ago, the British educational system made big news because Minister of Education Michael Gove proposed dropping American classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from its English literature GCSEs. The majority of the new syllabus will be comprised of works from the British canon, mostly pre-20th century. I have to admit that I feel a bit disconnected from the outrage, for besides the obvious reason that neither I nor my children have anything invested in the GCSEs, “good” fiction still makes the list. On the one hand, I think it’s a pity that British youth won’t have the option to read these books as part of a curriculum, but on the other hand, it’s not as if Lee and Steinbeck are banned from the country. I know that part of the outrage stems from a general disdain for the conservative Gove himself. However, a quick look at reading lists for American high school students demonstrates that national-centric literature is the norm in a nation, such as Great Britain, that produces a lot of fiction.

Kids, what did you learn today?
Kids, what did you learn today?

I’ve read the aforementioned books more than once; I understand why they are on reading lists. What seems to get lost in the melee of this particular debate, however, is the fact that Anita and Me, Meera Syal’s 1996 semi-autobiographical novel about a British Punjabi girl in the Midlands, and DNA, Dennis Kelly’s 2007 play about bullying, are rumored to have made the list. With the influx of immigrants to Great Britain—and the controversy that migration brings—as well as the nation’s lack of immunity from issues that affect teenagers all over, these contemporary works strike me as nothing but appropriate.

First look in, then look out. Students have to have a solid sense of their homeland’s general place in the world—how others perceive it, its history, how it has worked or not worked with others—before starting to understand other lands and the people who call them home.

So, is America successfully giving its students an opportunity to “look in”?

According to a recent story in The New York Times, American educators have started to examine why James Baldwin, author of the classic 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, has “faded from the classroom.” To be fair, American students reading Baldwin is not akin to American students reading international literature. I’d suggest, though, that for a portion of these students, reading about early-20th-century Harlem will feel as foreign as reading Sanskrit. The article argues that Baldwin, who died in 1987, has had to “share space” (as if it should work that way) with other African-American writers, such as Toni Morrison and the late Maya Angelou.

In other words, educators are examining how best to “look in” to one aspect of American culture. The article notes that in some circles, a fear of Baldwin’s language, sexuality, and opinion about racism in America may be driving the “fade.” If so, I would argue all the more reason to keep his works alive and taught: The “safe” way to learn about a particular group of people isn’t always the best.

And then there’s the Common Core, the US Department of Education’s controversial attempt to standardize educational benchmarks throughout all 50 states. Again, at this point in time, I have no horse in this race, so I don’t have much of an opinion. However, as I was helping a friend compile a “recommended reading list,” I started researching what American high school students were reading. I was surprised—and disheartened—to read that by 12th grade, “informational text” will comprise the bulk of students’ reading. Although, in theory, this principle is supposed to span several classroom subjects (reading the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in Social Studies, for instance), according to a Washington Post article, the “burden” of teaching these non-fiction texts is falling to English teachers at the expense of literature. Apparently, this is not Common Core’s intent, but a misinterpretation by administrations implementing the changes. Regardless, it’s still reported as happening in this fashion.

A trio of important books, whether or not they appear on reading lists
A trio of important books, whether or not they appear on reading lists

Figuring out texts to mandate to upper-level students is causing consternation on both sides of the Atlantic. Should students—and the greater population—be encouraged to read only what they know? Or should the “foreign” (however one chooses to define that word) be an active part of learning? And most importantly, how does an educational system pick these works of fiction?

Why does one even read fiction? That’s a question that will produce as many answers as respondents. Massachusetts English teacher J.D. Wilson, quoted in the Washington Post article, said this: “Reading for information makes you knowledgeable — you learn stuff. But reading literature makes you wise.” Like others, I read fiction for many reasons. (Although I never read it in order to be whisked away to vampire territory.) Not that anyone is ever done learning, but I feel fairly confident in my knowledge of literature that allows me to “look in.” So where to next? I closed The Garden of Evening Mists knowing a bit about Japanese gardening, the topography of the Malayan peninsula, the art of tattoo, relations between different groups including Chinese peasantry and Europeans in Asia, and a few more details about and perspectives on World War II. Bonus: Tan’s novel not only had me relishing his language and the precise ways he described the settings, but it pushed me toward a little independent historical research.

That’s a pretty good educational tool.

{Check out A Year of Reading the World to learn about one woman’s [successful!] attempt to read a book from each of the 195 UN-recognized sovereign states plus former UN member Taiwan. Her book, Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, is forthcoming in 2015.}


3 thoughts on “A Real Education: On Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists & What We Read in School

  1. Another winner. I really enjoy reading your observations and commentary. Way to go Amy.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Amy, I love your Blog!
    You wet my appetite to do more reading than I normally do.
    I also enjoyed your information regarding the different educational systems. I have never been to Ireland.
    However, I know it must be a wonderful adventure for you and your family!

    Nancy Barnes

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