Originally published at Openbook: https://www.openbook.org.tw/article/p-66274
Known for her literary reportage, Ku Yu-Ling has recently released Margins of Time, her first novel. The book reads like a series of memory exercises, describing Taiwan’s wounds and scars, interpersonal bonds and burdens, as well as individual pains and sorrows.
Unable to forget our grief, we live more like a collective nation than a generation.
The novel is valuable for more than Ku’s ability to stick a needle where it really bleeds. Her memory exercises also work like daily conversations that take place between the moments of meals, movements, and quiet looks. Following a plot as plain as water, the readers realize that strength and vulnerability co-exist – those lives shattered by explosive events that happened decades ago have not died, instead, they strike on the here and now quietly like aftershocks.
Fiction Fills an Unknown Past.
Speaking about her creative process while writing Margins of Time, Ku Yu-Ling said she deployed results from a life of field research, because “fiction, in fact, does not reveal what is already known, instead, the characters often go to places that are unfamiliar to us. Quite often, I had to stop and think where they were taking me.” This is all new to Ku Yu-Ling. She said with a sweet smile: “I call the time spent on the novel ‘sweet hours’. Every day, I looked forward to an unknown journey.”
These “sweet hours”, however, took thirty years to reach fruition. The phrase “field of her life” is, in a larger sense, no exaggeration. Many characters in Margins of Time took shape when Ku graduated high school; one of the protagonists, Chang Chin-Shan, is an example.
“This character was modeled after my high school geography teacher. In his youth, he endured Japanese rule. When people in my generation read history, it told us that World War Two is all about fighting against the Japanese. That conflict seemed to define everything. But the fact is that Taiwan participated in the militaristic expansion at the time. This part was not included in the materials we had read; everybody was just happy to celebrate the victory. I did not have the opportunity to read other versions beyond the history of fighting against the Japanese until after the lifting of martial law.”
Ku was so shocked by her findings that even today she can only use adjectives like “explosive” to describe the “other world” that she saw after the lifting of the martial law.
“I started to wonder what the adults I knew, and what my geography teacher, or even my father had actually gone through,” Ku Yu-Ling said. Her reflection came to a shattering conclusion: “I knew nothing about their past.”
Ku said when she was younger, she thought about adults only in terms of “the annoying and the not-so-annoying”. The onset of a new era brought all kinds of materials to light. What she “desperately wanted to know” was not just the information in history books, but the stories of individual lives. “But then you realize there is no way of knowing people simply through your intelligence, you are sometimes constrained by the framework of the era. Of course, I later also benefited from the era.”
Ku Yu-Ling recalled reading classified historical records from the White Terror together with someone who had been a political prisoner then. “We read left-wing political economy and Marx. For a child who grew up with anti-communist sentiments, a whole new world opened up, the adults around us became three-dimensional, and I began to imagine more. A novel can contain that kind of imagination.”
A Small Step Toward Reconciliation, a Big Step Toward Understanding
All the wounds and scars in Margins of Time, no matter how big or small, are caused by the aftershocks of politics and class structure. Therefore, what most concerns Ku in the midst of these aftershocks is how these people lived their lives.
In the process of reading the book, readers may be easily drawn in by the propelling plotlines of war and politics. But Ku also spends an equal amount of energy laying out pressing issues like housing, labor, and environmental protection. “If we are able to understand the constraints these people felt, the choices they made, and the consequences they had to bear, then we should also reflect on our own life.”
More than thirty years have passed since the lifting of martial law. The children born then are now old enough to start their own families. Ku Yu-Ling’s desire to write awakened those three decades ago. The characters beat in her mind day and night. And she hopes to launch a new dialogue with readers in their twenties and thirties.
“This generation is very different from ours. They have been to all kinds of memorials and museums since their youth. My greatest fear is that after they finish reading the long historical records, they would say: ‘It is good that it is over. It is good that it is different now.’ What I fear most is the perfect tense of democracy, not knowing its inadequacy, not having the strength to resist.”
In this way, Margins of Time remains unfinished. The curiosity, patience, and suspicion of the characters, though different in their own ways, ultimately reflect an era. Some cannot find the right words at the moment when something happens; time then passes on like water, and the pain becomes an unspeakable wound, a fog in the mind. I hear some are eager for reconciliation, as if the fog could be controlled or dispersed completely.
“I do not write to reconcile, far from it,” said Ku Yu-Ling. She meant that she writes to understand.
Now she understands that “sometimes, the pain of individuals cannot be relieved or reversed by other forces, but demands the whole social structure to relax in order for them to find relief.” Therefore, writing is a must, no matter how far the so-called “truth” as we understand it departs from reality. Ku Yu-Ling is willing to let her inquiry and her work become a part of the “collective” forces to that end.