Essay: Mapping the Culture and History of Taiwan
by Dan Bloom
Taiwan sits on a piece of colourful and multi-splendoured island real estate, south of Japan and east of Hong Kong and China. As an independent, sovereign nation since 1945, it has produced its share of Asian literature since the beginning of the Japanese Colonial Period (1895-1945) to the present. In this brief essay, I want to introduce two Taiwanese writers; one a novelist with an international reputation, Wu Ming-yi, who writes in Chinese, and the other a short story writer based in Taipei, Jane Wu, who writes in English and has recently published a collection of nine stories about the martial law period of Taiwan history (1949 to 1987).
Nature writer and university professor Wu Ming-yi (吳明益) wrote a popular novel titled The Man with the Compound Eyes in 2011, with translations in English and French following in 2013 and 2014. Largely ignored at first for the novel that was published in Chinese, Wu’s eco-fantasy later attracted attention overseas in translated editions, thanks for the eagle eye and savvy marketing skills of Taipei-based literary agent Gray Tan, who took Wu under his wing and introduced the novel to agents and publishers in Europe and America.
The book was Wu’s fourth publication and is set in Taiwan in the near future of 2029. It’s not sci-fi and it’s not cli-fi, but something in between perhaps, a genre hybrid. Given its added lustre, it was translated by scholar Darryl Sterk, who has long been a student of aboriginal cultures and languages in Taiwan and teaches translation at several universities around the island.
When the English-language edition was published in 2013, one critic said Wu’s 300-page novel could be compared to Canadian writer Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001).
Both novels inquire into the meaning of life by throwing the characters into the wilderness, and Wu’s novel is strongly plotted with a sophisticated vision of nature. I read it three times and each time was a new experience in understanding Taiwan’s multi-ethnic culture.
The Man With Compound Eyes is a vision of nature, a kind of metaphor, a metaphor for our age, inspired as much by noted Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan as by insect eye biology, the critic said, noting that the main character’s eyes are like video screens, and there’s a video-mosaic effect.
Wu later published another novel in Chinese, also translated into English by Sterk and published in Australia by an enterprising editor in Melbourne. Titled The Stolen Bicycle, it was nominated for the International Man Booker Prize this year. Although it did not make the prestigious gong, it added to Wu’s international reputation. I read it this summer and I highly recommend it. Wu, in his 40s, is a writer to watch and savour.
Although Jane Wu’s short story collection Impossible to Swallow: A Collection of stories about White Terror in Taiwan (2016) wasn’t published on an international platform, it’s a noteworthy book because it marks the English-language debut of new Taiwanese writer worth following.
Writing under the name of C.J. Anderson-Wu (吳介禎), the Taipei-based author publisher has brought out nine stories in the book, and they are all about the sad and tragic period of martial law long ago in Taiwan called popularly referred to as “The White Terror” when many innocent people (intellectuals and social activists with the ‘wrong’ political views) were kidnapped and “disappeared” .The authoritarian Kuomintang government ruled the island with an iron fist in those days. The White Terror period, in Chinese called “Baise Kongbu” is the nickname given to the martial law period of almost 40 years in Taiwan from 1949 to 1987. It was “an alien regime” imposed on the people by the defeated Cheng Kai-Shek of the Kuomintang as he escaped from Nanjing, China, to Taiwan.
In a recent book review in the Taipei Times, British book reviewer Bradley Winterton said Wu’s “book of short stories illustrates the range of suffering many experienced during this dark period of the nation’s history”. His clear and plain headline was: “White Terror gets literary treatment”.
I read Wu’s book this summer, too, and found several of the stories about Taiwan’s tragic and often buried and forgotten past heart wrenching.
One story, “Judge Not”, is about a group of lawyers working on the political prosecution of a magazine. Another story, “Blue Eyes”, is mostly a dialogue between a mother and her daughter about the father, formerly an American soldier based in Taiwan part of the time during the Vietnam War.
“Wednesdays” is a story about the wife of a man who had “inexplicably disappeared”. Winterton summarises it beautifully: “Every Wednesday for 17 years the woman travels to a local jail in an attempt to discover what has become of her husband. Eventually one of his former colleagues is released, and says that the man is probably dead. He and several others were detained because they were involved in raising money for a magazine in America advocating Taiwanese democracy.”
Another story in Wu’s collection is titled “Those Healed and Unhealed” in which a 90-year-old doctor deals with patients he’s known for 40 years, revealing in the process histories of arrest and incarceration on a notorious island prison off the coast of Taiwan known as Green Island
“These stories certainly demonstrate the range of those who suffered under Taiwan’s White Terror, the harsh targeting of perceived political dissidents usually dated as lasting from 1947 to 1987. They also show how different people were affected in different ways, some directly by imprisonment and not infrequently death, others by being their relatives, others involved towards the end of the period in protests that led to less traumatic results,” wrote Winterton.
“What characterises these tales is the absence of scenes of violence.There is none of the brutal assault, including murder and torture, that the White Terror regime was responsible for. Instead, we see the effects of such horrors on other people, with the implication that the atmosphere of repression was pervasive and left few Taiwanese citizens untouched,”added Winterton.
Wu, whose relatives lived through and suffered during the White Terror period, has put Taiwan on the international map with a sterling debut story collection that has legs. Not only is the writing smooth and inviting, despite the tragic subject matter, the storytelling points to a promising future for this modern Taiwanese woman.
The books discussed here by Mr Wu and Ms. Wu (not related) illustrate different aspects of this island nation of 24 million people. While Taiwan is not allowed to be a member of the United Nations, the country is a full-fledged member of the international writing community and has much to offer readers worldwide.
Dan Bloom, the man who coined the term cli-fi, received his MA in speech and communications from Oregon University and worked as a newspaper editor in Alaska, Japan and Taiwan. He is now retired and devoting himself full-time to promoting cli-fi worldwide while living in Taiwan.
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