Happy Tuesday everyone! As it is Tuesday, it is time for a Top Ten Tuesday update. Top Ten Tuesday is an original blog meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and is currently being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.
This week’s given topic is Freebie
This week is a freebie. I don’t have any particular topic in mind but I opted for Taiwanese literature. I realized that I have not read any work of any Taiwanese writer. Yet. Interestingly enough, I work for the local branch of a Taiwanese branch. One of the Taiwanese emigres even asked me for a Filipino literature recommendation. As such, I deemed it an appropriate subject for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday. It is also lamentable how lacking my knowledge of Taiwanese literature is. I am hoping I can redress this, perhaps this year. Without more ado, here are works of Taiwanese literature that I have added to my reading list.
Title: The Old Capital: A Novel of Taipei
Author: Chu Tien-hsin
Chu T’ien-hsin’s The Old Capital is a brilliant evocation of Taiwan’s literature of nostalgia and remembrance. The novel is centered on the question, “Is it possible that none of your memories count?” and explores the reliability of remembrances and the thin line that separates fact from fantasy.
Comprised of four thematically linked stories and a novella, The Old Capital focuses on the cultural and psychological realities of contemporary Taiwan. The stories are narrated by individuals who share an aching nostalgia for a time long past. Strolling through modern Taipei, they return to the lost, imperfect memories called forth by the smells and sensations of their city, and try to reconcile themselves to their rapidly changing world.
The novella is built on the memories and recollections of a woman trying to make sense of herself and her homeland. After a trip to Kyoto to meet with a friend, she returns to Taipei, where, having been mistaken for a Japanese tourist, she revisits the sites of her youth using a Japanese colonial map of the city. Seeing Taipei anew, the narrator confronts the complex nature of her identity, embodied in the contrast between a serene and preserved Kyoto and a thoroughly modernized and chaotic Taipei.
The growing angst of these narrators reflects a deeper anxiety over the legacy of Japan and America in Taiwan. The titles of the stories themselves-“Death in Venice,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Hungarian Water”-reveal the strong currents of influence that run throughout the collection and shape the content and texture of the writing. In his meticulous translation, Howard Goldblatt captures the casual, intimate feel of Chu T’ien-hsin’s writing while also maintaining its multiple layers of meaning. An intertextual masterpiece, The Old Capital is a moving and highly sensual meditation on the elasticity of memory and its power to shape personal identity.
Title: Notes of a Desolate Man
Author: Chu Tienwen
Winner of the coveted China Times Novel Prize, this postmodern, first-person tale of a contemporary Taiwanese gay man reflecting on his life, loves, and intellectual influences is among the most important recent novels in Taiwan.
The narrator, Xiao Shao, recollects a series of friends and lovers, as he watches his childhood friend, Ah Yao, succumb to complications from AIDS. The brute fact of Ah Yao’s death focuses Shao’s simultaneously erudite and erotic reflections magnetically on the core theme of mortality. By turns humorous and despondent, the narrator struggles to come to terms with Ah Yao’s risky lifestyle, radical political activism, and eventual death; the fragility of romantic love; the awesome power of eros; the solace of writing; the cold ennui of a younger generation enthralled only by video games; and life on the edge of mainstream Taiwanese society. His feverish journey through forests of metaphor and allusion–from Fellini and Levi-Strauss to classical Chinese poetry–serves as a litany protecting him from the ravages of time and finitude.
Impressive in scope and detail, Notes of a Desolate Man employs the motif of its characters’ marginalized sexuality to highlight Taiwan’s vivid and fragile existence on the periphery of mainland China. Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin’s masterful translation brings Chu T’ien-wen’s lyrical and inventive pastiche of political, poetic, and sexual desire to the English-speaking world.
Title: A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers
Author: Hsiao Li-Hung
Winner of the 1980 United Daily Literature Competition, this novel about love, betrayal, family life, and the power of tradition in small-town Taiwan was an instant bestseller when first published in Taiwan.
At once a bittersweet romance and a vividly detailed portrait of life in a southern Taiwanese coastal town in the 1970s, A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers captures the intimacy of agricultural life in the midst of an increasingly industrialized society. At the heart of the story is Zhenguan, a sensitive young woman whose coming of age is influenced by new experiences in the city, the wisdom of her elders, and her strong, unique identity. In Zhenguan’s journey of first love, suffering, disillusionment, and–ultimately–zenlike triumph, Hsiao Li-hung celebrates the values and traditions that have sustained and nurtured life in Taiwan through the centuries.
Hsiao traces the relationship of Zhenguan and her childhood friend Daxin against the background of daily existence and festival celebrations in their extended family. Daxin, in many ways Zhenguan’s male counterpart, is fascinated by ancestral worship during Lunar New Year, riddle-solving during the Lantern Festival, and the noontime water and sticky rice dumplings of the Dragonboat Festival. These rituals, part of a rich cultural heritage, add charm to their romance while shedding light on the reasons for their eventual separation.
Hsiao uses simple lessons taught in the garden and prayers uttered in a mountaintop temple to enrich and temper the story with the spirit of Buddhist teachings. The novel masterfully interweaves Buddhist maxims, poetry, folk songs, and puns with the dialogue, capturing the integral nature of tradition in the characters’ lives as they search for meaning and solace in life’s unpredictable fortunes.
With understated elegance, Hsiao Li-hung’s lyrical work affirms a way of life both fleeting and enduring. For readers interested in Chinese literature and culture, and anyone who enjoys a rich family saga, this is a unique and beautifully told story.
Title: Love and Revolution: A Novel about Song Qingling and Sun Yat-Sen
Author: Ping Lu
“Death is inevitably the end of a journey. Death also allows the journey to go back to the beginning.”
In this bold novel, one of Taiwan’s most celebrated authors reimagines the lives of a legendary couple: Sun Yat-sen, known as the “Father of the Chinese Revolution,” and his wife, Song Qingling.
Born in 1866, Sun Yat-sen grew up an admirer of the rebels who tried to overthrow the ruling Manchu dynasty. He dreamed of strengthening China from within, but after a failed attempt at leading an insurrection in 1895, Sun was exiled to Japan. Only in 1916, after the dynasty fell and the new Chinese Republic was established, did he return to his country and assume the role of provisional president.
While in Japan, Sun met and married the beautiful Song Qingling. Twenty-six years her husband’s junior, Song came from a wealthy, influential Chinese family (her sister married Chiang Kai-shek) and had received a college education in Macon, Georgia. Their tumultuous and politically charged relationship fuels this riveting novel. Weaving together three distinct voices–Sun’s, Song’s, and a young woman rumored to be the daughter of Song’s illicit lover–Ping Lu’s narrative experiments with invented memories and historical fact to explore the couple’s many failings and desires. Touching on Sun Yat-sen’s tormented political life and Song Qingling’s rumored affairs and isolation after her husband’s death, the novel follows the story all the way to 1981, recounting political upheavals Sun himself could never have imagined.
Title: Notes of a Crocodile
Author: Qiu Miaojin
Set in the post-martial-law era of late 1980s Taipei, Notes of a Crocodile depicts the coming-of-age of a group of queer misfits discovering love, friendship, and artistic affinity while hardly studying at Taiwan’s most prestigious university. Told through the eyes of an anonymous lesbian narrator nicknamed Lazi, Qiu Miaojin’s cult classic novel is a postmodern pastiche of diaries, vignettes, mash notes, aphorisms, exegesis, and satire by an incisive prose stylist and countercultural icon.
Afflicted by her fatalistic attraction to Shui Ling, an older woman who is alternately hot and cold toward her, Lazi turns for support to a circle of friends that includes the devil-may-care, rich-kid-turned-criminal Meng Sheng and his troubled, self-destructive gay lover Chu Kuang, as well as the bored, mischievous overachiever Tun Tun and her alluring slacker artist girlfriend Zhi Rou.
Bursting with the optimism of newfound liberation and romantic idealism despite corroding innocence, Notes of a Crocodile is a poignant and intimate masterpiece of social defiance by a singular voice in contemporary Chinese literature.
Title: Masked Dolls
Author: Chiung-Yu Shih
An Australian woman, burdened by the original sin of her Caucasian ancestors, and a Taiwanese woman, haunted by the memories of 100 years of conflict in her homeland, meet as backpackers while travelling in South Korea. As they live and travel together, two women in flight, one from the East and the other from the West, struggle to find a way out of their personal dilemmas.
Shortly after the dawn of the new millennium, Judy and Jiaying are thrown together in a youth hostel in Seoul, both having escaped long-term relationships. Their arrival in Seoul in the first year of the 21st century coincides with passionate anti-American demonstrations on the streets of the city, as South Koreans protest against US troops being stationed in their country, western hegemony and the manipulations of arms dealers. Anti-American sentiment spreads like wildfire.
Judy’s parents hail from Britain and France, meet in Paris during a volatile period in French history – the student movement of 1968 – and later migrate to Australia to begin a new life. After her parents part, Judy abandons racial and cultural prejudice and, while studying in Tokyo, falls in love with Zhou, a Chinese student from Beijing. But this stormy relationship eventually culminates in violence and Judy, fleeing its demise, escapes to Seoul.
Jiaying’s family are from war-torn China, which, in the 19th century had suffered invasion and colonisation by the British and French; in the 20th century had been occupied by the Japanese, under the pretext of liberating Asia from Western imperialists; and was then convulsed by a Communist revolution propped up by the Russians. Having both fought in and sought to escape the wars, Jiaying’s grandparents and parents eventually settle in Taiwan, carrying with them the scars of a century of conflict. Attempting to begin a new life on this island of exiles, they struggle to come to terms with the humiliation that generations of Chinese people had suffered.
Jiaying, twelve years older than Judy, becomes her only confidante, as the younger woman pours out her frustrations. Judy still loves her Chinese boyfriend, but could never really understand him. In Judy’s painful struggle to come to terms with the past, Jiaying is reminded of her own history, from which she still seeks an escape. Nationalism that has wounded and distorted history time and again over the last hundred years; violence as a consequence of sexuality repressed by Confucianism … as Jiaying began her relationship with a European man, these things had begun to seep into her life. Judy’s story gives Jiaying a channel to sort out her own thoughts and gradually begin the healing process.
And yet, even as the women forge new paths through the emotional jungle of their lives, violence once again shatters the potential for peace of mind.
Title: Last Words from Montmartre
Author: Qiu Miaojin
When the pioneering Taiwanese novelist Qiu Miaojin committed suicide in 1995 at age twenty-six, she left behind her unpublished masterpiece, Last Words from Montmartre. Unfolding through a series of letters written by an unnamed narrator, Last Words tells the story of a passionate relationship between two young women—their sexual awakening, their gradual breakup, and the devastating aftermath of their broken love. In a style that veers between extremes, from self-deprecation to pathos, compulsive repetition to rhapsodic musings, reticence to vulnerability, Qiu’s genre-bending novel is at once a psychological thriller, a sublime romance, and the author’s own suicide note.
The letters (which, Qiu tells us, can be read in any order) leap between Paris, Taipei, and Tokyo. They display wrenching insights into what it means to live between cultures, languages, and genders—until the genderless character Zoë appears, and the narrator’s spiritual and physical identity is transformed. As powerfully raw and transcendent as Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Theresa Cha’s Dictée, to name but a few, Last Words from Montmartre proves Qiu Miaojin to be one of the finest experimentalists and modernist Chinese-language writers of our generation.
Title: The Third Son
Author: Julie Wu
In the middle of a terrifying air raid in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Saburo, the least-favored son of a Taiwanese politician, runs through a forest for cover. It’s there he stumbles on Yoshiko, whose descriptions of her loving family are to Saburo like a glimpse of paradise. Meeting her is a moment he will remember forever, and for years he will try to find her again. When he finally does, she is by the side of his oldest brother and greatest rival.
In The Third Son, author Julie Wu has created an extraordinary character, determined to fight for everything he needs and wants, from food to education to his first love. The Third Son is a sparkling and moving story about a young boy with his head in the clouds who, against all odds, finds himself on the frontier of America’s space program.
Title: The Membranes
Author: Chi Ta-wei
It is the late twenty-first century, and Momo is the most celebrated dermal care technician in all of T City. Humanity has migrated to domes at the bottom of the sea to escape devastating climate change. The world is dominated by powerful media conglomerates and runs on exploited cyborg labor. Momo prefers to keep to herself, and anyway she’s too busy for other relationships: her clients include some of the city’s best-known media personalities. But after meeting her estranged mother, she begins to explore her true identity, a journey that leads to questioning the bounds of gender, memory, self, and reality.
First published in Taiwan in 1995, The Membranes is a classic of queer speculative fiction in Chinese. Chi Ta-wei weaves dystopian tropes–heirloom animals, radiation-proof combat drones, sinister surveillance technologies–into a sensitive portrait of one young woman’s quest for self-understanding. Predicting everything from fitness tracking to social media saturation, this visionary and sublime novel stands out for its queer and trans themes. The Membranes reveals the diversity and originality of contemporary speculative fiction in Chinese, exploring gender and sexuality, technological domination, and regimes of capital, all while applying an unflinching self-reflexivity to the reader’s own role. Ari Larissa Heinrich’s translation brings Chi’s hybrid punk sensibility to all readers interested in books that test the limits of where speculative fiction can go.
Title: The Stolen Bicycle
Author: Wu Ming-Yi
On a quest to explain how and why his father mysteriously disappeared twenty years ago, a writer embarks on an epic journey in search of a stolen bicycle and soon finds himself immersed in the strangely overlapping histories of the Japanese military during World War II, Lin Wang, the oldest elephant who ever lived, and the secret world of antique bicycle collectors in Taiwan. The result is a surprising and moving meditation on memory, loss, and the bonds of family.
Award-winning novelist Wu Ming-Yi is regarded in Taiwan as the leading writer of his generation. His work, noted for its depth, complexity and vividly observed natural detail, has been compared to that of distinguished writers as diverse as Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, W.G. Sebald, David Mitchell and Yann Martel.
Interesting list, I added many of these books to my TBR. I’m currently reading Solo Dance by Li Kotomi. While it is a Japanese novel, the author was born in Taiwan, and the novel is also partly set in Taiwan and has a Taiwanese protagonist.