• Let’s Be “Muggles”– Taking a Trip to East Asia: Interview with Author of WISH YOU WERE HERE Essay Liu
    Sep 20, 2022 / By Anting Lu ∥ Translated by Serena Ye

    Most Taiwanese readers know screenwriter Essay Liu from the 2010 film Seven Days in Heaven. Over the years, she has continued to write scripts, essays, and novels, bringing works that have captured people’s hearts and attention. But whether her subject is love, food, or life, her readers can often glimpse elements of travel and exotica in her writing; now, the avid traveler has finally decided to write a story about traveling.


    Fiction Close to Life

    Kyoto, Japan; Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet in China; Hualien, Changhua, Taichung, and Taipei in Taiwan. After reading Wish You Were Here, readers will have followed the protagonists on a full-circle tour of East Asia. When asked whether her writing was based on lived experience, Liu smiles and says, “I have to say that if I haven’t been to a place, I doubt I would be able to write about it.” As a novelist, she is well accustomed to turning life experiences into creative fuel, and this fuel often comes from travel.

    In the opening chapter on sky burial, “Shmashana (Charnel ground)”, one can almost see the swooping vultures and smell the stench of corpses permeating the air through her words, which immerse the reader in intense and unsettling sensory information. The sky burial ground left a profound impression on Liu; she describes bodies on the burial ground left for anywhere between two to seven days, assaulting the nose with an odor stronger than any excrement or waste she had ever smelt. It was also the first time that she realized, “So this is what death smells like,” and decided to write this visceral experience into the book.


    A New Kind of Travel Brings Unexpected Inspiration

    When she first decided to write Wish You Were Here, Liu, who is used to basing her writing on personal experience, originally planned to revisit all the places in the book and write while traveling, integrating old memories with new discoveries. However, the disruptions of the 2020 pandemic forced her to forego her travel plans.

    Staying in Taiwan to write, she turned to Google Maps for inspiration. She went online to the cities she had traveled to, and while using Street View and its timeline to browse what places looked like past and present, she suddenly wondered: “Could I be captured by Google cameras while walking on the street one day, and become a part of Street View?” Therefore, having done her “fieldwork” via Google Maps, she gave her protagonist Hsieh An-Te the ability to check Street View, which becomes a major clue in the journey to finding his mother in the narrative.


    To Broaden Your Writing, You Have to Broaden Your Horizons

    The travel-loving Liu loves stories about journeys, including classics like On the Road and Eat Pray Love. Although these “grand trip” stories ostensibly write about travel, their focus is ultimately the fundamental changes effected on the traveler’s state of mind through interaction with people, events, and objects on the road. This sense of transformation fascinates Liu, so when she thought she had enough travel and emotional experience to accomplish this type of work, Wish You Were Here was written.

    But even though the focus is on self-pursuit, the biggest difference between Wish You Were Here and traditional travel and on-the-road works is that Liu spends more time dealing with the family experience of the characters. “I wanted to audaciously explore the idea of ‘don’t be restricted by your family’ in the story.” She says that dealing with family dynamics is the biggest issue for every character in the book, and only after letting go of their attachments and reconciling with their families can they truly embark on their own life journey.


    A Journey on Paper Through the Eyes of the Traveler

    As the interview nears the end, we discuss the work’s potential for international development. Liu mentions that themes of travel and self-discovery have no borders, and hopes that international readers can temporarily forget about the author’s nationality when reading the book, and travel around East Asia, like “Muggles”, through words on the page.

    So which of the places in the book is the most worth visiting? Liu smiles, “If it was a place that you could visit again and again, I’d recommend Kyoto, but if we’re talking a place you have to visit at some point in your life, it’d definitely be Tibet!” Given its complicated entry process and the dangers of traveling at high altitude, Tibet particularly tests people’s physical condition – it’s a place you “may not be able to go to even if you wanted”. Before tourism in East Asia revives, and you can pay a visit to Kyoto or Tibet, why not first read Wish You Were Here and embark on a journey of self-discovery with the characters! 

  • CASEY AND HIS GAS SHOP: A Gasman’s Daughter Tears Off the Mask to Expose the Cruelty in the Saying “Jobs Are Neither Noble Nor Humble”
    Sep 20, 2022 / By Hong Chee Shan ∥ Translated by Dong Li

    Originally published at The News Lens: https://www.thenewslens.com/article/158988


    The Guerrilla Female Perspective: Breaking Through the Monotone of the Masculine Narrative

    Casey and His Gas Shop is based on the story of three gas shop owners: Casey, a newcomer to the city of Yilan; Wang Zi-Jian (“Prince”), whose business is going downhill; and Lin Tu-Tou (“Peanut”), whose business is booming. The book tells of their conflicts and the local customs of Yilan. One expects a story featuring three male characters to be masculine, but author Hao Ni-Er does not stop there. She expands the narrative to include the perspectives of Prince’s wife Yeh Shu-Ching and daughter Wang An-Ni; Peanut’s wife Lin Su-Yu; Grandma Fang, a customer, her son Fang Hsiang-Chun, daughter-in-law Hsiao Mei, and granddaughter Fang Huai-Hisang.

    Amid this cacophony, the female perspective stands out: Wang An-Ni’s teenage adventures, Yeh Shu-Ching’s housekeeping, Lin Su-Yu’s quiet observations, Hsiao Mei’s struggles with her desire and infidelity, Fang Huai-Hsiang’s bewilderment at Casey’s pursuits. These scenes come alive in Hao Ni-Er’s narrative to paint a holistic picture of the ecology of each company. For instance, here’s a scene in which Yeh Shu-Ching urges her husband Prince to collect the money from their customer:

    “Yeh Shu-Ching told him over and over again not to take credit. Halfway there, he received a call. It was her repeating: ‘Get a deposit at least.’” But at the doorstep of the less privileged, Prince cannot hide his soft spot: “Though embarrassing, a gas bottle that is worth a few hundred dollars would allow these people to last a few more weeks, to have hot water and warm meals, as if it would prevent their life from tilting too fast.” Thus, he assumes his wife’s reprimand. Seeing that she is about to scold him, he quickly thinks up some excuse, but does not expect that “she just picked up two bags of fruits and walked away. As she turned around and saw that Prince had not stepped out of the car, she asked, ‘Everything alright? Could you give me a hand?’ He says of course and helps her carry the vegetables and fruits.” Unannounced, a family drama ends. It is touching to read the couple’s tacit understanding of each other.

    Instead of accepting a typically masculine portrayal of women as being focused entirely on petty profits, the novel offers a realistic and unpretentious restoration of familial interactions, making the otherwise stiff and sweaty gas shops wonderfully human. This is what makes Hao Ni-Er’s novel so powerful. The novel goes at length to set up the story, but ends in a precise and beautiful way, reminding us of all the compromises and helplessness in life. These last scenes give us a truthful close-up of the locals’ daily lives.


    Jobs Are Neither Noble Nor Humble: Grinding Matters for the Workers

    In her afterword, Hao makes clear that “I was raised not to believe ‘jobs are neither noble nor humble’.” As the daughter of a gas worker, she wants to describe in writing the cruelties of that particular world. This makes Casey and His Gas Shop special in that it pierces the facade of appearance. Wang An-Ni, the daughter of Prince, has to face all kinds of gossip and suffers great humiliation because of her father’s profession. “Good grief! He works so hard to earn a living, but look at his daughter!” However, Hao Ni-Er deliberately allows her character to have the resilience of resisting this flawed and stereotypical narrative: “If I were a daughter of a civil servant, would anyone say such things? What if I were a banker’s child? What’s wrong with a gas worker?” On reading this, readers might loosen up and feel sympathetic toward the cruelties behind a phrase like “jobs are neither noble nor humble”.

    Although workers need more respect, they often remain silent. In fact, at the very beginning of the novel, Hao Ni-Er already provides such an insight – Prince thought that his daughter’s rebellion is “because of the gas smell all over me?” To everybody’s surprise, the daughter rebelled only because her father’s name sounds like the name of a brand of instant noodles, and she worried that he would be ridiculed by her schoolmates. The smell of natural gas permeates the novel; before he delivers gas bottles to restaurants in Dongshan, Peanut always bathes, noting: “The boss detests the smell of gas, so I cannot go without a shower.” When Casey stands before someone he likes, he has nowhere to hide the smell: “Casey certainly knows what he smells like. The gas workers, no matter how thoroughly they wash themselves, have nowhere to hide the smell, when the others wrinkle their nose.” That odor, a constant, baleful presence in Casey and His Gas Shop, is a reminder to the novelist herself as well as to the readers that matter how much you want to maintain a peaceful surface, it is better to admit that some smells cannot be washed away.

    This is what makes Casey and His Gas Shop so special: it is honest, straightforward, and unapologetic. Hao speaks for the workers, not just to harvest popular acclaim, but also to make us reflect on whether we are being hypocritical when we blurt out “I understand” and “I know” in response to every observation, and whether we overlook the importance of honesty and sincerity. “Sincerity is the most moving sound,” the author writes; this is precisely what Hao Ni-Er’s Casey and His Gas Shop has taught me.   

  • The Characters of Her Novel Beating in Her Mind for Thirty Years, Ku Yu-Ling Exhausts the Field of Her Life to Capture the Unspeakable: An Interview with Ku Yu-Ling on Her Novel MARGINS OF TIME
    Sep 20, 2022 / By Hao Ni-Er ∥ Translated by Dong Li

    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.

  • Lai Hsiang-Yin’s STILL LIFE IN WHITE: A Three-Part Book on the White Terror, Collective Trauma, and the Enforcement of Silence
    Sep 20, 2022 / By Hong Chee Shan ∥ Translated by Kevin Wang

    Originally published at The News Lens: https://www.thenewslens.com/article/165931



    Finding Deeper Nuance in the Rewriting of “Mr. Soo”

    According to interviews with Lai Hsiang-Yin, “Mr. Soo” took on earlier forms in “Fathers” from her book Afterwards and her 2016 story “Rain Tree”. In other words, she has been writing and revising “Mr. Soo” since 2012. The version of “Mr. Soo” that appeared in Springhill Literati collection additionally emphasize on how the power of the state apparatus, as seen by Mr. Soo during his military career, can transform a person. The story opens with a mention of Chiang Kai-shek’s Annex to the Principle of People’s Livelihood on Matters of Education and Leisure, which guided national artistic production under the banner of anti-communism since the 1950s. Still Life in White expands on its description of Mr. Soo’s life is like as a school teacher after his military service and how he manages to dodge the stray bullets of the White Terror while working in the education system.

    In the chapter titled “1987: Zoo”, Mr. Soo’s observations of an elephant in the Taipei Zoo are followed by reflections on the whitewashing of information under martial law. He speaks to Mrs. Hung, a teacher whose husband was arrested after the Kaohsiung Incident. Since then, the close watch of the state has washed away the peak of Teacher Hung’s youth. Mr. Soo reads the newspaper everyday but has never seen the name of Teacher Hung’s husband in its pages: “Such incidents seem to spread out like waves. If implicated, even the most inconspicuous person will be carried away.”

    In the allegory of Mr. Soo’s life, insignificant figures either escape the machinery of the state or get caught in its beak and talons. For example, the young and beautiful girl Chun-He becomes a military training instructor after the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis. And one of Mr. Soo’s old classmates from the teacher’s college is driven insane and forced into an asylum by the Party-state. Another friend who loves photography captures the image of the burning police station during the Zhongli Incident. Mr. Soo himself, while seemingly carefree, takes great pains to evade the sight lines of the state, though he does everything he can to care for the less fortunate. As an insignificant figure under martial law, he can only watch the times unfold while remaining hidden, and wait for the flood of history to flush away, which is no easy matter.


    A Song of Many Languages: Miss Cassie

    After the short story “Bun-hui” comes “Miss Cassie”, a novella of well over a hundred pages. This story describes the lives of overseas Taiwanese in Europe, which are less commonly discussed than Taiwanese townsfolk in Japan and the United States. Miss Cassie was born with a good voice and can sing in Taiwanese, Mandarin, English, and French. Lai Hsiang-Yin has carefully crafted song lyrics to embed into the story, deepening our reading experience through meticulously wrought details that highlight the writer’s superb literary techniques and narrative ability.

    Miss Cassie’s life follows the 1960s slogan: “Come, come, come to NTU; go, go, go to America.” But wandering far from her homeland through the 1970s also makes her feel like a “rootless orchid”. She experiences the gloom of political changes in the 1980s, a new era beginning with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and even the turn of the millennium, when tensions between post-1949 Chinese immigrants and local people evolve into a showdown between the Blue and Green Parties. The story, which spans fifty years, is more than just a “mixing of fragmented historical material and individual memory” as Lai Hsiang-Yin states in the afterword (titled “White, Do You See It?”). It is in the depiction of characters who pass superficially as indifferent shadows that the author demonstrates her narrative ability.

    Downplaying the White Terror is one way in which characters express their fear. Witnessing student strikes in Paris, “Miss Cassie thought long and hard about freedom and it seemed to her to be a very complicated business.” Her teacher Yin Hai-kuang once said they lived in “an age without ideology, in which everything floated unattached; should one or two things happen to come to prominence, they’d soon be quietly wiped away.” Miss Cassie, who flees from Taiwan to France, eventually chooses to go to Berlin: “She does not want to live her days jumpy and on edge. She wants to go to an unfamiliar place and thinks vaguely of Berlin as a forgotten cave, an inaccessible city that the hand of the Party-state would not be interested in reaching.” But in the end, she was there at the wrong time. The Party-state can extend its claws and teeth even past the walls of liberal West Berlin. During a trip back to Taiwan, she is stopped at the airport and then let go. A few months later, the death of Chen Wen-chen sends all overseas Taiwanese people a brutal message.


    What is the Color of White?

    Let us go back to the White Terror – the unbounded reach of this white, a color of collective trauma and silence. In Still Life in White, characters who brush against the White Terror must be first to escape the site of catastrophe before being wiped away. Even after martial law is lifted, Miss Cassie still seems stuck in the old times: “Upon each return to Taiwan, she felt that there were eyes watching her from behind.” White is the color of wordless public executions. In her afterword, Lai Hsiang-Yin speaks on the process of “painting white with white” by adding brushstrokes to dyed cloth, producing images which can only be discerned through close attention. Someone must be able to see it. Someone must remember it. Only then will the white portrait see the light of day again.

    White is a color we must learn to discern.