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  • Book Report: THE DISASTER INTERVENTION AGENT
    Dec 22, 2021 / By Phyllis Ang

    The Disaster Intervention Agent is a page-turning fantasy novel about a daughter looking to absolve her estranged father of a crime he may not have committed, the exploration of emotional ties, and combating environmental disaster from one of Taiwan’s hottest young fantasy writers. With the epic scope of Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings and the dystopian gaze of Jasper Fforde, it tells of the psyche of how traumas shape people even in unusual circumstances. This layered mystery that relies on reasoning out interspersed clues fits general and fantasy audiences.

    Natural occurrences called Disaster plague the city of Taipei. Science cannot explain what these disasters are exactly, but we know that they are caused by an energy called KING.

    Chung Hui is an unemployed young girl living alone in the City of Taipei, estranged from her painter father after the death of her mother, who died due to the outbreak of a disaster ten years ago. She loses her home in a minor disaster, forcing her to go to her father to ask him for shelter. She learns that there have been numerous strange cases of teenagers disappearing recently. Witnesses claim that the victims were all brought into a white fog and vanished by a criminal the tabloids call the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Shih-fei, a student of Chung Hui’s father, ask to meet Chung Hui to share what she’s learnt about the identity of the Piper, but vanished when she arrived. Chung Hui and her father are dragged to the police station, where a pale woman in black suddenly appears and announces that she will be taking over the case. She is a member of the Countermeasures Unit, and she has an offer for Chung Hui – join her team to track down and uncover the true identity of the Piper.

    The author uses familiar themes and images in modern society and puts her own spin to them. There is a subtle weaving of the theme of family and its influence on self-identity, allowing the concept of family relations be both a background and key concept of the story. There is no true good or bad people, except a few bad ones, and there is no standard answer to the making of a decision.

    The plot builds slowly. There is a lack of information in the beginning, and the clues that explain the state of the world are interspersed in conversations, interactions, reminiscences, conflicts, and narratives for the reader to piece everything together in the end. The reader witnesses the growth of the characters in the story as they reconcile themselves with the past by sharing, and understanding each other.

    It presents the city of Taipei in a different light, and those familiar with the setting will be delighted to see it featured. The long build-up and scattered telling of the story requires more focused reading, especially with its length. On the other hand, when all the groundwork has been laid, the reader will be fully immersed in the plot and characters and gain an understanding of them that will allow them to sympathize, and see reflections of humanity in them.

     

     

    Read more:
    - Xerses: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=112
    - The Disaster Intervention Agenthttps://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=418

  • Book Report: VALI: THE LOST STORY OF TAIWAN
    Dec 22, 2021 / By Timothy Smith

    The novel starts off with a nameless boy adrift at sea in a dugout canoe, starving and wasting away with no land in sight. He’s visited by an apparition of a Formosan clouded leopard who, upon the boy’s agreeing to paddle in the direction of a massive typhoon, hands him a cylindrical piece of jade. On shore, Tailas, the daughter of the chieftain of Hacying village, Kataw, is at the house of Yafo, the leader of the tribe’s hunting party and hunter training. Her father rushes over and tells Yafo that his daughter, Pana, has gone missing and a hunt for her ensues. Yafo finds her at the beach, a taboo place for their people. She keeps calling out that there’s a boy in the water and convinces Yafo to go off into the waves to rescue a boy in the surf, just barely clinging to life. The boy is rescued but slowly regains consciousness days later only to say in his newly acquired language that he is Vali, the deceased son of Pana. He’s clutching the jade cylinder which has a huge significance for Yafo.  

    After describing the first few weeks and months of adjustment to his new life after the new Vali comes ashore, the novel fast-forwards by five years to a crisis. Vali is out hunting, and after successfully hunting a prize deer, he’s surprised by Tailas. Suddenly though, things aren’t right when they then stumble upon a corpse-walker who isn’t supposed to have crossed over the river from the “valley of death”. The appearance of such a heinous creature is a harbinger of things not right in the (super)natural world. They escape and warn Yafo and a select few others who then form a search party to confirm the sighting.

    Matters only get worse as more people begin to disappear and the villagers realize that more corpse-walkers are crossing over the river. What’s worse is they realize the corpse-walkers are impervious to regular weapons. Weapons disintegrate at the slightest touch of the corpse-walkers – until they figure out that jade, or the tears of the Earth Goddess, are just one of two ways to vanquish these ghouls, the other being water. There’s just one problem though – Hacying village has no jade of its own, and the village, under duress and ever-increasing walker incursions. A battle ensues where the three generations of sorceresses in the village, Tailas among them, conjure a seven-day flood to keep the shambling corpse-walkers at bay. After this battle and the rescue of the village with several tragic deaths, the elders of Hacying Village decide that they must trade their rice with the Deep Valley settlement to replenish their jade weapon supplies. The village sends off an entourage to trade with their allies in the Deep Valley tribe, but on their way, are ambushed by the not-so-friendly head-hunting raiding parties of the Giant Stone tribe. Problems ensue when love trysts and younger, unhappy villagers who contest Yafo and disbelieve his tales of the coming of the corpse-walkers. More tragedies strike again. The entourage races back to Hacying village with little time left to spare before Hacying is overrun by the corpse-walkers. A miracle occurs though when Vali joins in with Tailas, and the other shamans to invoke their ancestor’s protector spirits – clouded leopards.

    To paraphrase the author’s own words, she wanted to bring light to a part of Taiwan’s neolithic history through the creation of a fantasy version of a village belonging to the Beinan culture that existed near Taitung, in southeastern Taiwan from between 5,200 to 2,300 years ago. One of the hallmarks of this prehistoric culture are the adornments fashioned from jade. One of the underlying messages, written a handful of times by Kuzuha, is the idea of greed and its consequences. At the end of the novel, she writes that the “corpse-walkers” are those ancients who were punished for their own attempts at gaining immortality and an insatiable greed; their punishment being turned into corpses that feast on living flesh, siphoning off the spirits of the living at the simplest touch; this is contrasted starkly with those who accept their own mortality and are blessed with eternal slumber, being transformed into clouded leopard spirits, meant to be awakened in times of crisis such as with the coming of the corpse-walkers. On a related note, Kuzuha’s world-making also includes support for environmentalism and an undercurrent of resistance to over-consumption is present throughout Kuzuha’s work. Sustainability, not taking more than what’s needed, and recognition of limits are present throughout the book.

    Apart from conceptualization of the consequences of greed, the novel presents ample examples of our heroine, Tailas, standing up for herself and breaking all the rules that would normally be enforced and limit any other girl. My one disappointment is that even though her grandmother explains to Tailas that everyone in Hacying knows she’s better than all the boys in so many ways, she still pushes her granddaughter into the role of the future sorceress for the tribe and this may reinforce a concept that nobody can really escape their lot in life and must play out the fate that accompanies one’s status at birth. To be sure though, several times throughout the novel, Kuzuha writes scenes where Tailas plays a decisive role or proves martial prowess just as well as, if not better than the male characters. The focus on matriarchy is also something worth noting, and this is a reference not just to Taiwan’s Indigenous context but within the global historical context as well. From distant antiquity and beyond around the globe, matriarchy has been theorized to have been the main trend, only shifting away to patriarchal systems beginning within the last couple thousands of years. Many Indigenous Taiwanese have long had matriarchal hierarchies even up to the present moment, and Kuzuha’s writing is a sort of homage back to that. Within Hacying village, and their allies deep in the mountains, the sorceresses in particular play an all-important role within the succession of the tribe. Whomever marries the sorceress in these societies becomes the next chief. In many ways, Tailas reminds me of the heroine from the Studio Ghibli classic, Princess Mononoke – regal, puissant, courageous, and dutiful, tasked with an impossible mission.

    While most of the fighting in the novel are nondescript mentions of corpse-walkers being pierced in the skull or chest with jade tipped spears, the most memorable description of martial acumen to me is the fight between Yafo and Poyak, the next chief-to be from the Deep Gorge tribe from where the jade for Hacying’s survival is precariously sourced. The two, old master and young buck, fight off against each other in a duel using spears following Poyak’s arrogance and grave misunderstanding about the jade trade the elders of the tribe have permitted, as he aims to stop the entourage from Hacying from returning to their village with their hard-negotiated deal. I’m a big fan of martial arts novels and this work heavily reminded me of several of the fight scenes in Yoshikawa Eiji’s Musashi. Although not a long-standing rivalry to the extent between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro, the suspense from Kuzuha’s writing gave me a lot of joy when reading the descriptions of dodges and feigns, and the ultimate surprise ending of the fight.

    For those readers searching for a work that reminds them of martial arts novels of yore with supernatural twists, this book is for you! If prehistorically set survival stories are your niche, this story is your jam! If you’re searching for strong female characters, you can’t miss this book!

     

     

    Read more:
    - Kuzuha: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=379
    - Vali: The Lost Story of Taiwanhttps://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=417

  • Book Report: SKIN DEEP
    Dec 22, 2021 / By Gigi Chang

    A Subtle Foundation in Eastern Philosophy

    Skin Deep has all the favorite sci-fi tropes – a future where a hi-tech invention changes every aspect of life; where technology is omnipresent and all-powerful; where the world is harsh, cold and lonely; where the big tech firm and the government come head to head. But these aren’t what make the novel refreshing, nor are they the beating heart of the story. It is the debates and discussions of life, death, time, existence, memory, parallel universe, the real, the virtual, the soul, the body, the consciousness, the will, the self, perception, identity and more within the structure of hard science fiction and a thriller that makes the book stand out.

    As the best-known science fiction classics originate from Europe and the US, they are inevitably steep in “Western” mentalities and concerns, inspired by the turbulence and trauma of the 20th century – the decline of imperialism, the reality of colonialism, the horror of war, the threat of annihilation – and their underlying worldview are informed by the relatively dualistic nature of monotheistic Abrahamic religions. As such, risking gross generalization here, many are stories of Us Against Them (be it aliens, AI, the powerful, etc) and “Them” are always the Other – “They” are not just different, but often the opposite of “Us” (usually humans) in terms of values and beliefs, thus threatening and menacing.

    Whereas for Isaac Hsu, although grew up on a diet of the Western sci-fi classics, the outlooks and points of view he explores in Skin Deep are “Eastern” at the core, though these influences are never overtly stated or name-checked. His AI creations are not feared because of their ability to approximate human behaviors, emotions and thought processes – in fact, their humanity and intelligence are cherished and encouraged. It is human greed and the grapple for power that poses threats to their existence and tries to corrupt their sympathetic nature.

    Hsu’s view of the world is also not absolute or in a dichotomy. One of the biggest revelation in the story is that Z-Yee is G-Na’s AI training subject, upturning every assumption the reader has made, and he continues to drop hints up until the end of the book, pushing the reader to rethink what is real and what is virtual and what is genuine and what is in existence. In this, it feels certain that the author is drawing from Chinese philosophy as well as Buddhism – whether consciously or subconsciously – including the allegory of Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly, which spurs the thinker to question whether it was he who dreamt of becoming a butterfly, or whether it was the butterfly who dreamt of becoming him. This ever-shifting perception is also at the heart of Buddhist beliefs, for there is never just one viewpoint, one world, one absolute; there are always overlapping multiples; and no-one has the full view of anything because nothing is constant and unchanging.

     

    A Comment on Beauty and Appearance

    The defining technology of the story – the liveskin suit – is a powerful comment on modern society’s obsession with beauty, the pressure of putting the best face forward at all cost, and the desire to chase after the beauty standard of the day. In the story, the definition of female beauty is represented by a celebrity called Sister Apple, and there are faces throughout the story that resembles hers, including the character Apple, who is named thus because of the similar appearance.

    Other than purchasing expensive technology to mask the real self, in the additional conversations between G-Na/Apple and Z-Yee after the end of the novel, there are also speculations that wearers of liveskin are taking plastic surgery to create the best bone structure for optimization. And cosmetic procedures – to replicate the common notion of beauty (often represented by celebrities) or to get closer to the airbrushed effect of filters on photo apps – are increasingly common practice today, especially in Asia.

    The author also touches on the blurring of reality and make-believe in the pursuit of beauty, and by extension, fantasized expectations of gender behaviors. Z-Yee, being a teenage boy, shapes the AI G-Na in the image of the dream woman in his fantasy, which is part informed by anime, giving her the unrealistic Barbie-like combination of huge bust and tiny waist, big doe eyes that are disproportion to the face, a kittenish voice and inviting mannerism. And in Z-Yee’s “real world” these features can become a reality with changing legislation of liveskin. The reactions of Z-Yee to G-Na’s physical allure – sometimes sparked off by a mere change of outfit – are poignant observations of the today’s objectifying gaze towards women as perpetuated by popular media, as well as the awkwardness of the average-looking person in a society obsessed with beauty and youth.

     

    A Contemplation on Life, Death and Loss

    The most distinctive feature about Skin Deep is its ability to meld substantial discussions of heavy philosophical or existential subjects with the thrill of unravelling a mystery – the plot to assassinate the President. The two AI training programs – Z-Yee’s mentorship of G-Na, and G-Na’s coaching of her mysterious student – unwittingly play the key role in trying to overcome the base code in AIs that forbids them to harm humans, and the intended result is for G-Na to murder the President. Part of the conditioning to kill is for G-Na to understand death and betrayal, and the process begins with the Corporation forcing Z-Yee to choose between the two AIs he has been training, G-Na and B-Li. He has to decide which one can continue to live in the virtual Manor world, while the other will be deleted from the system. The disappearance of B-Li makes G-Na challenges Z-Yee, and they debate on the possibility of bringing back or traveling back to the past, on dealing with loss, on clinging onto memory, on the origin of life, sentient and the “soul”, and these considerations are expended further in the three short stories and conversations between Z-Yee and G-Na/Apple at the conclusion of the novel.

     

    A Short, Engaging Novel to be Savored

    With such serious subjects, it is natural to assume that the book may not be the most diverting, but in fact, Isaac Hsu’s writing is engaging and sparkling. He expounds on these weighty discussions with a light touch that one feels compelled to whisk through the short chapters – fascinated by the conversations while eager to find out the mysterious of the worlds the characters are in. Hsu does live up to his reputation as one of the foremost sci-fi writers from Taiwan with his skilled and effortless balancing of plot and concepts. The experience of reading Skin Deep recalls watching films like Inception, Synecdoche, New York, or The Truman Show – your heart is hammering to the excitement on screen while your head is spinning to catch up with the bursts of ideas. It is a novel that invites more than one reading.

     

     

    Read more:
    - Isaac Hsu: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=321
    - Skin Deephttps://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=416

  • Book Report: FANG SI-CHI'S FIRST LOVE PARADISE
    Dec 22, 2021 / By Jenna Tang

    Lin Yi-Han’s is one of the titles that speaks directly to survival from sexual abuse, echoing with the global #MeToo Movement, hitting the Mandarin-Chinese speaking world with its compelling emotional narrative. Lin Yi-Han’s literary fiction ​Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise ​was originally published in 2017 by Guerrilla Publishing House in Taipei, Taiwan. The publication was during a heated political time when the South Korean government launched multiple trials fighting for the rights of women who suffered from ferocious sex crimes during the second World War. This, alongside the election of the first Taiwanese female president Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, fueled conversations about gender identities, diversity, and equality. Sexual assault became a haunted, yet impactful topic across Asia.​

    Fang Si-Chi, a thirteen-year-old girl born in a upper-class family from southern Taiwan develops an intimate friendship with her next-door neighbor, a girl of the same age named Liu Yi-Ting. They share everything together, both material and emotional. Living in a luxury apartment building, they spend most of their time reading literature from all parts of the world at their upstairs neighbor Hsu Yi-Wen’s place, who is well-read, yet mysterious with her seemingly happy marriage. ​When Li Kuo-Hua, a respected cram school Chinese literature teacher who lives in the same building, offers the girls free lessons at his place, Fang Si-Chi’s parents, thinking only of her advancement, gratefully accept. What her parents don’t know is that their expectations are exposing their daughter to a predator at the prime of her teenage sexual awakening.

    The novel is strange, surreal, and full of literary imagination. Written in a non-chronological form, the novel echoes John Milton’s “Paradise” sequence via the tripartite structure Paradise, Paradise Lost, and Paradise Regained. The story is told through a close third person omniscient narrator with character-shifting perspectives. Throughout the book, readers experience each character’s mentality, the alternating perspectives take a closer look at each of the characters’ experience with desire. Much of the story follows the protagonist Fang Si-Chi, who suffers and survives from sexual abuse that lasts throughout her teenage years. The character-shifting perspectives take place among victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and a sense of unbelonging. The author does not avoid bringing readers into the abuser’s crooked mind to witness the darkness stemming from his Lolita fantasy and the continued violence it inspires. Through piercing insight into Fang Si-Chi’s mental state and her suffering, the novel reveals the chilling impact of sexual abuse, which intertwines with people’s willing blindness and systematic corruption from the Taiwanese society under desperate circumstances.

    Part autobiography, this novel is author Lin Yi-Han’s debut and final book, as she passed away in 2017, three months after publication. The novel found instant success when it was first released in Taiwan only months before the global #MeToo movement, instantly raising awareness of sexual violence, once an unspoken topic, and giving voice to survivors who had been repressed. It deeply explores Taiwanese female identity and introduces readers from all parts of the world to the culture of an island that houses unique voices with urgency to be heard.

    Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise is an unconventional gem that breaks both traditions of narrative form and taboos surrounding stories of abuse. The story features beautiful prose with dark and groundbreaking use of lines from Chinese literary classics. Narrative polyphony enables the reader to delve deeper into the lyrical tradition of Chinese in order to appreciate how Lin Yi-Han’s style incorporates dark language into emotional narratives that burst with elegance. Although the story depicts a fractured vulnerability, it is told with unsparing emotional honesty that never leans on cultural stereotypes. It not only gives voice to women and survivors but also offers a lens through which a global audience can reexamine sex education, desire, mental health, and belonging.

     

     

    Read more:
    - Lin Yi-Han: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=378
    - Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradisehttps://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=415

  • Book Report: THE FORMOSA EXCHANGE
    Dec 22, 2021 / By Li Dong

    The Formosa Exchange takes the inhabitants of Taiwan to Cuba and those of Cuba to Taiwan in the year of 2024, just after the first half-Indigenous President of Taiwan was sworn in. What follows is neither chaos nor anarchy, but a surprising story of nationhood in a state of emergency, as if Lévis-Strauss walked into Lord of the Flies and took notes. Braiding history and fantasy into a sweeping speculative panorama, this book is an urgent inquiry into colonialism, imperialism, geopolitics, and ultimately, humanity. 

    The book begins in the year 2024 with the Havana-based installation artist Duvier del Dago Fernández as he anticipates going to Taiwan for an artist’s residency. As he prepares his trip, he remembers his residency at the Vermont Studio Center eleven years ago. Through the flashback of this residency, we get to know how Duvier came to art and the general situation of Cuba (i.e. lack of food supplies, the popularity of baseball, slow internet and the inadequacy of the internet coverage, free health care to all) and its conflicts with the US. As Duvier wakes up and plans to go to the airport for his flight to Taiwan, he notices something has changed. He finds himself in Taipei.

    A great exchange has taken place. Duvier is not alone in this. Almost the whole population of Cuba has been moved to Taiwan and that of Taiwan to Cuba. The Taiwanese girl Yuan-Yuan finds herself in Cuba with her two roommates. As a young girl, Yuanyuan acted in an R-rated film. Now fifteen years after that film, the director contacts the former actors, in order to gather them all to make a quasi-documentary of how he tries to find them for a sequel film, in the new setting of Cuba. Through Yuan-Yuan’s boyfriend, further details of this miraculous exchange between the Cubans and the Taiwanese surface. We come to understand that an inauguration of the new President Kuo of Taiwan took place just one day before this exchange of people and country. The sequel film accompanies this exchange and operates as a mirror of how the Taiwanese are adapting to their new environment in a state of emergency.

    The book then imagines the life of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, the author of Guantánamo Diary, after his decade-long imprisonment, as he comes back to Guantánamo for the Friendship Day event, in the hope of overwriting his memory of gruesome experiences. His friendship with the former guards Steve and James is recounted, as they reunite in the Taiwanese-occupied Cuba. Meanwhile, a companion chapter tells the tragic story of Paicu Yatauyungana of the Tsou tribe and her illegitimate son Tony. Paicu Yatauyungana, already marginalized due to her tribal origin, had Tony with a US Air Force officer, who promised to take them to the US but disappeared afterwards. Paicu Yatauyungana becomes a popular club singer of foreign songs. Her son Tony comes of age in an entirely confused fashion. It is revealed at the end of the story that this is part of a podcast by the new President Kuo, who is a mixed child of Han and Tsou origins. In the following chapter, we hear the story of President Kuo in the form of an interview. Kuo intends to be a different kind of president, who lives close to the realities of normal people and modern media and technology. In face of this sudden exchange, he puts out the idea of a “National Airbnb” to promote equality and trust with Cuba, and plans to help use Taiwan’s strength to improve Cuba’s infrastructure. He does not hesitate to lament the difficult situation of Taiwan, struggling between two super powers, namely, Mainland China and the US, as well as that of the Indigenous people in Taiwan and their misplacement and mistreatment. Then we come across a positive picture after the exchange and how the Taiwanese and Cubans thrive in their new life settings. But this exchange seems to come to an end soon, as Cuba declares its return after its own presidential election in 2028.

    The great exchange between Taiwan and Cuba triggers another greater exchange, albeit fictional, between China and the US. This new fictional exchange is narrated through the perspective of Hsu Tai-Sheng, a Taiwanese who gives up his PhD studies and comes back to Taiwan to lead a non-academic life, but now finds himself in the US again. He contemplates the impact of the double exchange, and insists that the “Taiwan Element” will persist, namely, continuing its course of a “dissident” in international geopolitics.

    The chapter “Ramón, Adolfo, Ernesto and ‘Che’”, recounts the story of Che Guevara in a magical realist manner. All the names “Che” used in his lifetime become real characters that often meet each other. Ramón comes to Taiwan for a business trip; Ramón meets Adolfo in Paris. What’s most interesting here is that “Che” wanted to turn Formosa into another Vietnam. In the following chapter, the book shifts back to Duvier’s last few days in Taipei before taking up his residency in the countryside. Along with a photographer and a novelist, Duvier contemplates what if Taiwan and Cuba became united states, and even sets out to collaborate on an installation project of visual narrative that takes another course of history beyond the death of Che Guevara. In this narrative titled “Wrong Histories”, “Che” died in Formosa along with a young guerilla fighter from the Tsou tribe. Meanwhile, Taiwanese and Cubans become dual citizens of each other’s countries.

    The book ends with the story of Iyas Zingrur, a Han, but who was given an indigenous name. After failing to complete his PhD in anthropology, he engages in causes to fight for the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, while translating Tristes Tropiques by Lévis-Strauss, which seems to be the guiding spirit of the whole book.

    The Formosa Exchange employs a wide range of language registers and styles, which mirror the extended scope of the book. The book lacks no romantic, funny, intellectual, trivial, intense moments to draw the readers in, despite its at times dizzyingly complex structures, underneath which we can sense a deeply moving homage to contemplation and human freedom. The book also uses various forms, literary or not, i.e. political manifestations, interviews, book reviews, film scripts, as well as multiple perspectives and the layering of facts and fiction to generate panoramic and palpable insights of nationhood and peoples, land and country, colonialism and imperialism. These insights provide possibilities, if not alternatives, in thinking about our current geopolitics as well as what it means to be a reflective human being in today’s world. The experiment of The Formosa Exchange is a daring political statement and a fun literary ride, as if Lévis-Strauss walked into Lord of the Flies and became a novelist of magical realism.

     

     

    Read more:
    - Huang Chong Kai: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=377
    - The Formosa Exchangehttps://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=414

  • Book Report: AURA OF THE SOUTH
    Dec 22, 2021 / By Jenna Tang

    Photography is a visual language that can capture cultural history, technological achievement, and the transformation of individuals and communities in a single moment. But what about the heart behind the lens? Chu He-Chih’s novel brings readers deeper into photographers’ perspective, their passion in capturing the fleeting instant – a facial expression, a moment of deep emotions, a religious ceremony – and depicts what pursuing and preserving these images means to a constantly changing world.

    Aura of the South tells the story around Teng Nan-Kuang (鄧南光), an iconic figure and pioneer of Taiwanese photography. Readers follow Nan-Kuang’s profound passion for photography through Taiwan’s turbulent transformation from Japanese colonization and the one-party Kuomintang dictatorship all the way to the present day. The story burgeons with the diversity of cultures on the island, especially portraits of the Hakka community, which withstood major challenges of cross-strait immigration, the transition from Qing dynastic rule to Japanese colonization, and the times after the second World War. It also reflects what languages and tongues mean during years of substantive cultural transformation: Hakka being a disappearing language since colonization, and what learning Japanese means to Hakka-Taiwanese community that lives in this in-between island. The story also shines light on significant contributors to photography in Taiwan, including Li Ming-Tiao (李鳴雕), Lang Ching-Shan (郎靜山), and Chang Tsai (張才), who contributed their artistic energy to memorialize Taiwan’s everlasting historical moments.

    The language of Aura of the South is gentle, classical, bursting with resonances of Hakka, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and the language of photography and passion. As readers are guided through the past, we watch the evolution of cameras and the intersection of the photographic gaze with the rapidly transforming world. Teng Nan-Kuang’s camera takes us back to the first sight of a world-traveling spaceship crossing through the heavens; his observations of the prosperity of Tokyo streets, of Taiwan, the island, of Hakka families, life and death, and the beauty of women’s faces, bodies, and emotions during that era. The perspective of the story mainly follows Teng Nan-Kuang, but also shifts to every photographer who stands out in this era, and does not shy away from bringing women’s voices, bringing photography, art, and a sense of wonder in witnessing the evolution of technology and the transition of the island’s fate.

    The novel is a winner of the prestigious 2021 Romain Rolland Literary Prize in Taiwan. Throughout the years, Chu He-Chih has won various literary awards with his historical fiction, investigating and exploring the history of Taiwan in deep nuances, bringing readers with immersion of everyday life in the island’s past and reflecting on our identity, living in a land full of various cultural influences that shifts our languages constantly. Aura of the South especially brings a story that amplifies disappearing languages, highlights the underrepresentation of art in Taiwanese society, and demonstrates how colonial history generates complex cultural intersections that still influence Taiwan to this day.

    Aura of the South is a novel that travels across the world and through time, shining a light on the artistic treasures we seldom glance at nowadays. It invokes a spirit of devotion and enthusiasm for art in an attempt to speak to the identity of islanders who inhabit in-between cultural space. Chu He-Chih’s narratives incorporate in-depth exploration of the Taiwanese history, especially for those of the underrepresented voices. Facing the danger of erasure under colonization, dictatorship, and lack of attention nowadays, the story gives photographers, women, and Hakka communities a space to be seen. It is one of the most compelling novels that emphasizes the reality of Taiwan across time and urges readers, time and time again, to try to remember the art that comes across history, while exploring ways to make them everlasting.

     

     

    Read more:
    - Chu Chih-Hsien: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=376
    - Light of the Southhttps://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=413

  • Book Report: TAMING THE BLUE SHEEP
    Dec 22, 2021 / By Jim Weldon

    Hsu Chen-Fu’s first full-length work, Taming the Blue Sheep, is a tapestry woven of travelog with fiction embroidered with natural and human history, ethnography and reportage that shows us Tibet past and present, and lives lived on its high grasslands, both human and animal. A meditative traveler in the vein of Bruce Chatwin, Hsu’s prose narrative rises to become a wider inquiry into the relationship between Man and Nature even as it goes down deep into particular places and people, while his fiction brings alive the human detail of Tibetan lives under Chinese rule and the sweep of the tumult of change since 1949.

    Ostensibly a diary of the author’s several trips to the Tibetan Plateau in a quest to see the fabled snow leopard, we are soon introduced to the multiple narratives that will be employed in the form of an earlier traveler’s diary Hsu “translates” in excerpt. It is that of a fictional Japanese scholar of religion who comes to Tibet in the 1940s and stays to bear witness to “peaceful liberation”, the flight of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan uprising and Red Guard faction fighting on the streets of Lhasa. Hsu’s own journal begins with his journey to and residence at a research station where the search for the leopard reveals only tantalizing traces and second-hand accounts; here, the very high plateau itself perhaps features larger than the elusive big cat. We follow Hsu on visits to Lhasa and its wealth of monasteries and palaces, or idle time away waiting in Xining for the next excursion back to the grasslands. One such begins as an ill-fated car trip into the deepest parts of the plateau but ends with him spending the Tibetan New Year with the family of the shepherd who rescues him from breakdown in a snowstorm. He joins village youth returned from city jobs to scale a sacred mountain and light a New Year fire, then stays on to try his hand at shepherd’s work and investigate the cause of a mystery disease plaguing local flocks. We experience Hsu’s frustrations at the numerous official barriers a foreign traveler encounters off the tourist trail in Tibet and his delight and interest in those locals he does get to meet. Some of these latter feature as protagonists in their own fictional expansions from the main text, such as the ageing Tibetan opera master navigating personal loyalty to his art, faith and patrimony with performative gratitude to the modernizing state, as we share his first encounter with motion pictures both as audience and subject. Hsu’s journeys have met with numerous setbacks and end when he is expeled from his shepherd host’s village by the police; he decides it is time to return to Taiwan, yet to encounter a snow leopard in the wild. He does see a captive specimen in Xining Zoo on the morning of his flight home, underscoring our realization that it is always the quest that matters most.

    Hsu Chen-Fu is already well-known as an award-winning essayist and writer and the maturity of his craft is in evidence here, seamlessly blending the various narrative formats. The writing is tight with no longueurs, capable of expansive explication when the topic is natural science or subtle suggestion in the internal monologue of a fictional protagonist. The diversity of the content might easily descend into a mere ragbag of disparate parts but the strong authorial voice and sustained themes never leave this book feeling less than a whole. Hsu has a background in the sciences and his discussions of environmental themes benefit from this solid grounding but he is clearly also a gifted fiction writer and excels in that format too – his characters feel real and his descriptive writing is unforced. Better still, he is a good traveling companion not averse to humor when appropriate.

    The book includes an afterword by Wu Ming-Yi, author of The Man with the Compound Eyes, who we learn has known Hsu from the latter’s youth, always expecting great things from the younger writer. In Taming the Blue Sheep we see Wu’s judgement was not misplaced, this linked medley of fine writing addresses compelling themes for our times, bears witness to history, celebrates a culture, and takes us among people and places dear to the author’s heart in a style that keeps us constantly engaged.

     

     

    Read more:
    - Hsu Chen-Fu: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=375
    - Taming the Blue Sheepnhttps://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=412

  • Book Report: THE PIANO TUNER
    Dec 22, 2021 / By Sylvia Lichun Lin

    A musical genius turned piano tuner, a self-made wealthy businessman, and his young pianist wife are brought together by a piano that refuses to be tuned. Does the tuner fail at his job? Are the pianist’s ears playing a trick on her? Or is the piano off-key because the marriage is in trouble? When promises are broken and trust betrayed, where does one find a tuner to restore the timbre of life?

    The Piano Tuner, a novel by award-winning Taiwanese writer, Kuo Chiang-Sheng, is narrated by the eponymous title character, a one-time child prodigy whose potential earned him free music lessons and scorn from his peers and his own family. His father does not understand music and his classmates bully him – no macho boys play a sissy instrument like the piano. He would have given up if not for his persistent elementary school teacher, who finds him tutors and pays for his lessons. When one of her former students, now a renowned concert pianist returns to Taiwan for a brief stay, she arranges for the narrator to study with the pianist, who one day suggests a four-hand piano recital with the narrator. Growing up with inadequate love and few positive experiences, the narrator is overwhelmed by the attention, but an invitation extended too easily should never be taken seriously, he quickly learns. The pianist’s lover arrives in Taiwan and together they perform the four-hand piano piece. Feeling betrayed, the piano tuner leaves a deep scratch on the surface of the pianist’s expensive piano before storming out; he quits the lessons and turns to the more anonymous refuge of tuning pianos.

    Mr. Lin, the wealthy businessman, meets his wife, Emily, during a dinner with business associates at a restaurant that offers post-meal whisky tasting, accompanied by live, classical music. One of the dinner guests asks Emily to drink with them, a crass request that is out of line for a refined place, but which is finessed by the manager. And so they meet. Eventually they marry, and Lin begins to learn about classical music, attending concerts and later planning a recital for Emily. Then he helps her open a music studio that offers lessons. She later dies of cancer, leaving a roomful of pianos, and the Steinway he bought for her at home.                    

    Grief-stricken Lin must decide what to do with the pianos. In the meantime, the tuner continues to maintain the instruments in the studio and at Lin’s house. In one of his trips to the house, he reveals to Lin that Emily was never happy with how the Steinway sounded, to Lin’s great surprise. Why had she never told him? What else had she concealed from him? The tuner knows; she was in love with someone else, a former student. Being privy to the secret lets the narrator feel that he’s leveled the uneven relationship between Lin and him.

    The two men, with their disparate relationships with Emily, decide to form a quasi-partnership to sell second-hand pianos. In addition to those currently housed in the studio, they need more inventory, which takes them on a buying trip to New York. While in Manhattan, Emily’s former student/lover happens to show up at the same restaurant. Oblivious to the affair, Lin is happy to see someone who once knew his wife, while the narrator is put off by the younger man’s insincerity and forced pleasantries during the brief encounter. Without knowing it, the narrator is on the precipice of a downward spiral.

    As snow falls in New York, the narrator continues to slip into a mental state similar to the snow-blanketed world outside his hotel room. The two men drive to the outskirts of New York to visit a piano grave yard, where used pianos are either repaired, cannibalized, or turned into firewood to heat the massive space. In a semi-delirious state, the narrator picks up a hammer and smashes a piano waiting to be restored, a display of his mental decline. Lin has second thoughts about the joint venture and decides to spend time with his son in the city, sending the piano tuner home alone. Another promise broken.

    The novel ends with the narrator traveling to Moscow to visit the former residence of Sviatoslav Richter, a Soviet pianist whose 18th piano sonata informs many of the relationships in the second half of the novel, and whose life sheds lights on the narrator, a piano tuner, and a metaphorical broken piano.

    The Piano Tuner is an exploration of unfulfilled dreams and unkept pledges and their consequences, as well as a meditation on life, love, and friendship. Kuo writes in unadorned and yet elegant Chinese, which is beautifully rendered by an award-winning translating team.

     

     

    Read more:
    - Kuo Chiang-Sheng: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=374
    - The Piano Tunerhttps://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=411

  • Book Report: BECOMING BUNUN
    Dec 22, 2021 / By May Huang

    Becoming Bunun is a coming-of-age story by acclaimed Taiwanese novelist Kan Yao-Ming, widely regarded as the pioneer of neo-nativist Taiwanese literature. Set in the aftermath of World War II, Becoming Bunun revolves around Halmut, a young man from the Bunun tribe, whose dream of playing professional baseball with his childhood friend Hainunan is dashed when the latter is killed during an American air raid (the two boys are more than just friends, though their forbidden and unrequited love ends in tragedy). The book is heavily inspired by the Sancha Mountain Incident of September 1945 – during which an American bomber carrying newly-liberated prisoners of war crashed into Hualien County. In Kan’s fictional retelling of the incident, Halmut is part of the rescue team that searches the mountain for survivors. While doing so, he finds an American pilot alive but hesitates to save his life, still grieving Hainunan’s death at the hands of American troops. The moral quandary Halmut confronts and ultimately resolves is part of what makes Becoming Bunun a classic bildungsroman, a journey of self-discovery and personal reckoning.  

    The novel takes its name from the Bunun language (the original title “minBunun” means “to be a Bunun”), which feels particularly fitting as Kan draws from Bunun heritage and culture throughout. The folklore and rich, mythological imagery Kan weaves throughout the story inform our reading of the text, deepening the novel’s exploration of man’s relationship with nature and Indigenous beliefs. Kan is a writer known for his historical fiction, and Becoming Bunun is no exception; throughout the book, he turns his attention to Taiwanese history and the real lived experiences of Taiwanese people, outlining the local tensions during and after the Japanese occupation, the challenges of healing from post-war trauma, and the barriers queer folks faced during a time when same-sex relationships were stigmatized – Halmut and Hainuan’s short-lived and unreconciled relationship is tender though ill-fated, extending the magnitude of Halmut’s grief.

    By creating space to explore Taiwanese history and its kaleidoscope of different identities, Becoming Bunun also amplifies the stories of Taiwanese residents during and after World War II, giving voice to narratives that may have been sidelined in the global theater of operations. Every character, no matter how minor, is brought to life with vivid detail – from the  powerful hundred-step snake river, personified through Kan’s imagination in a way that makes Taiwan’s topology itself a core part of the story; to the sambar deer he encounters at a cathartic moment towards the end of the novel, which he believes to be the “Deer King” from Bunun legend; to the clouded leopard he sees as himself in a dream, an instance of the importance that Bunun culture places on divining the future through dream interpretation.  

    Becoming Bunun is many stories within a single novel, as Kan brings different genres (historical fiction, bildungsroman, poetry, elegy) and even languages (Bunun, Chinese, Japanese, English) together to tell a broader story about love, mourning, and self-understanding. Suffused with suspense, heartbreak, and loss, Becoming Bunun is a window into a lesser-known chapter of Taiwanese history, intertwined as it is with deadliest and most destructive war to ever take place. Rooted in Bunun culture yet universal in its exploration of grief and desire, Becoming Bunun is a timely reminder that diverse traditions and beliefs are worth protecting; and a powerful testament to the way storytelling allows the people we care about to live on in personal and collective memory. 

     

     

    Read more:
    - Kan Yao-Ming: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=49
    - Becoming Bunun: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=410