SO, you work at the Institute for Imagination and Ideas, family and friends in Malaysia say to award-winning storyteller Tash Aw. “‘But what do you do every day?’ they ask. They know I write novels but that name is so incredibly lofty,” he says.

When he describes what he does, he tells them that, basically, as a research fellow, he sits in his Columbia University office not in New York but Paris, ordering books from various archives, looking at online resources and formulating ideas.

The 47-year-old can see people thinking “but is that really work?” Of course, he concedes, their idea of work is much more tied to the body. “For them, work is dangerous. It destructs your body. It kills you very early. I have spent much more time in Malaysia over the past five years as my parents are getting older. While there I see labourers who are 25 but look 45 – they are broken.”

As a child, he recalls watching his grandparents hobbling around like very old people. “They can’t have been more than 40, certainly much younger than I am now. They were destroyed by hard work,” And so in the ironically-titled We, the Survivors, Aw’s latest and most powerful novel, he tells of Ah Hock, a likeable man also born into poverty and a life of back-breaking work in a Malaysian fishing village. The novel relates his dreams of a better life, his hopes of finding wealth and success in Kuala Lumpur – “the Asian dream.”

He remains trapped in an endless cycle of dead-end jobs, however, that ultimately lead him to murder a Bangladeshi migrant worker. Over several months, after serving a jail sentence for the brutal crime, Ah Hock tells his story to a local journalist, Su-Min, a sociology post-graduate who has returned to Malaysia after studying in the US. Her life, class and education could not be farther removed from his. She transcribes his tale and presents it to us as a novel, which she calls “narrative non-fiction.” But whose life is it? Even Aw confesses that he is not sure if the story belongs to Ah Hock or to Su-Min, a version of himself.

Taipei-born and Malay-raised, Aw is sure of one thing. The novel, which unflinchingly examines the immigrant experience, is profoundly personal – “the most personal book I have written” – because his ancestors journeyed out of poverty in southern China to Malaya. “I come from an immigrant background. I grew up in a family divided between town and country, between education and deprivation, optimism and stagnation.”

When we meet over coffee in London’s Borough Market, Aw, who has just arrived from Paris, where he now lives, admits he is not a fast writer. Twice longlisted for the Booker Prize, he says: “My first novel took me a very long time, the second was a bit faster – only three years! The third was much longer while We, the Survivors has been six years in the writing. My last book, Five Star Billionaire [which has been optioned for TV], is also personal but this is a much more direct book.

“It was sparked by the fact that while visiting my parents more frequently I made contact again with my cousins, some of whom I had not seen for 20 or 30 years. I realised how different our lives have become although we are from the same immigrant background. I grew up with little sense of being different from them. We spoke the same dialect, we did the same things,” says Aw, who grew up speaking Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese and English, his second language in which he writes the international bestsellers that have been translated into 23 languages.

“I was much more fortunate than my cousins. My parents, who came from very poor backgrounds, left the provincial town they were born in and moved to Kuala Lumpur. My father became an electrical engineer, my mother a quantity surveyor. They believed in the power of education to transform lives.”

Was his mother a Tiger Mom? “Was she! Listen, my father was a Tiger Dad.”

“They were determined that my sister and I would get a different education. We both went to university – in my case, Cambridge and Warwick. At 12, I started to think in a different way, my vocabulary improved. The way I saw the world was different. Then I went back recently and saw my cousins and they are at a different level of society. They are not dying, they are not starving in slums, but their children, unless they are geniuses, are not going to have the opportunity to become, say, brain surgeons or hedge fund managers unless they get an extraordinary break like I did.

“My cousins work very hard in unglamorous jobs, in factories, driving buses. They earn an income but work is their life. They were so close to me, part of my family when I was growing up, but their voices are not heard in literature. I want to change that because here I am a research fellow working on a novel and I am getting paid to research fiction in Paris and writing for the New York Times. How has that fractured in just one generation? How has Asia become a society of haves and have-nots?”

He wanted to capture that duality, to look at the difference between the classes – “the way we have failed people like my cousins.” And yet, he says wearily, people continue to believe the seductive narrative of the Crazy Rich Asians cliche. “Once we were poor, now we’re rich – oh, the fragility of the Asian dream! Everything is lumped into this narrative. It gives us confidence but it’s not true.”

There are only two people in the story, acknowledges Aw – if you discount Ah Hock’s boyhood friend, Keong, an erstwhile drug dealer and pimp now sourcing migrant slave labour for the palm oil industry, who brings the stench of corruption into his friend’s life. “I really wanted to give visibility to the people I grew up with who are still part of my family. I am not them but by virtue of my education can I still claim to be one of them?”

Yes, his ancestors worked hard but in Malaysia, he explains, you are never far from people toiling to survive extreme poverty. “Now, people who once were immigrants are happy to inflict hard labour in horrific conditions onto the next generations of migrants, to exploit them the way they were exploited. I did a lot of research into the immigrant experience. Malaysia is one of the main places for desperate people fleeing Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal. They make treacherous journeys to create a new life but they have no visibility. The only locals they come into contact with are themselves deprived, under-educated and victims of discrimination. Who suffers more? Who has the right to hatred, and towards whom? These are questions I wanted to ask.”

He writes of people smugglers who slashed the body of a migrant’s dead wife so her body wouldn’t balloon and she’d sink quickly when thrown overboard. Migrants who were so weak they were dying, and still they had to dig graves, their own graves, so when they died the smugglers would just push them in. “Violence is everywhere in southeast Asia so it is everywhere in the world of the novel.”

These are real testimonies, says Aw, who has also written an evocative memoir, The Face: Strangers on a Pier (2016), which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. His fiction, for which he’s won the Whitbread First Novel Award and a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, is often compared to that of Graham Greene and Michael Ondaatje, even Joseph Conrad – Aw’s literary idol.

When he sits in his office at the Institute of Ideas and Imagination, how does he view his own considerable catalogue of work?

“All I know is that as a novelist I want to feel that what I’m writing is relevant to the world I live in,” he replies. “I want to feel that what I write makes a difference, even if it is only for family and friends and my own community. It’s not about vanity. It is about paying tribute to the resilience of millions of people, including members of my own family, who battle to survive. I hope I’m speaking to and for people I care about.”

We, the Survivors, by Tash Aw, is published by 4th Estate, £14.99.