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  • Book Report: GROWING UP IN A TREE HOLLOW
    Dec 22, 2021 / By Darryl Sterk

    Growing Up in a Tree Hollow is a collection of literary essays by a gay Truku Indigenous farmer-intellectual named Apyang Imiq. The collection can be characterized as a personal and ethnographic memoir: after obtaining a master’s degree at Taiwan’s top graduate school of geography in 2011, Apyang Imiq stayed in Taipei for a few years after graduation, but never felt at home there; so he decided mid-decade to return home to the village of Ciyakang on the east coast, to turn himself into a farmer, and to chronicle Truku life past and present.

    Six of the 27 essays in the collection won him recognition at the Mandarin-language Indigenous literary awards from 2015 to 2020. The rest were completed on a composition grant awarded in 2020. Published in May 2021 by Chiu Ko, the collection won Apyang Imiq a best new author award at the 2021 Taiwan Literature Awards at the end of October. The author has made a coherent whole of the essays by arranging them into three sections, about labor, local geography, and cultural development respectively, and via a leitmotif: overcoming Marxist “alienation”.

    As he later realized, he was alienated from his culture growing up. His ancestors were hunters, but as a boy he couldn’t tell a muntjac from Bambi.[*] When he started feeling alienated from his hometown as a graduate student, he decided to set off on a quest for roots. He’d hunted for a job as a college graduate, now he hunted with an old-fashioned muzzle-loaded rifle in his own hunting ground. He’d eaten hamburgers made of beef from Brazil, now he planted millet and raised chickens on his own plot of land. He’d worn t-shirts made of Xinjiang cotton, now he spun ramie fiber into yarn, which he wove into garments of his own design. Raised on Disney and Doraemon and later on Stephen Chow, he now turned his attention to the larger-than-life Truku characters, both living and dead, in his community. Growing up speaking Mandarin, he took a Truku language class and began using his ancestral language in daily life.

    He also uses Truku in his essays. By the end of the collection, the reader will have built up a basic Truku vocabulary, including the words for mother/female, father/male, grandmother, grandfather, tree, hollow, name, river, bird’s nest fern, pigeon pea, millet, banana, betel nut, hoe/work, work-share, house/home, wind/spirit, ancestral spirit, boulder, stone/rock, other shore, path/road, boundaries (both personal and territorial), body/flesh (of his crops, of prey animals, and of his boyfriend), penis/dick, vagina/snatch, and culture/morality.

    He dwells on the derivations of some of these terms to develop a vocabulary for overcoming alienation in Truku. Powda, the word for ritual pig slaughter derives from the verb mowda, meaning to go along or across. When there isn’t an owda, a way, to mowda, people make one, and when the state puts up a “No Thru Road” sign, they ignore it. The author traces the river that flows along the village, a metaphor for his investigations of tribal history. Along the way, he has to cross the water, which to him represents both same-sex desire and the flood of opinion about its supposedly antisocial effects. He ultimately makes it across the yayung, the river, to the sipaw, the other side. His step-father, who was horrified when he came out of the closet on social media, eventually helps him repair the pipe that draws water from the river to irrigate his field. The last essay is about a powda held to celebrate a same-sex union on this bank of this river – the Rangah Qhuni, literally “tree hollow”, an image he associates with freedom, shelter, and eros: the hollow is an open space, a refuge for a drowned classmate, and the crack of his boyfriend’s ass.

    In ending the collection with this riverside powda, Apyang Imiq suggests that he has gotten himself and his boyfriend woven, tminun, into the local social fabric. As represented in the collection, the social fabric of Ciyakang is constantly changing as local people weave their own and alien threads into a new garment. The author’s grandmother participated in the process by reweaving a woolen sweater she had received from an American missionary into a shawl decorated with a traditional pattern, the dowriq utux, the eyes of the ancestors, keeping watch on the living to see that they are living according to the all-encompassing gift economy of Gaya, meaning morality or cultural tradition.

    The author has a piquant sense of kari, speech or language, which, as he notes, sounds like “curry”. He spices up his Mandarin style with Truku syntactic patterns, for instance a title that might be translated: “Shoot that bhring(spirit, vital energy)-filled gun of yours at me.” He also has a taste for irony, particularly as concerns interethnic and intergenerational relations. When archaeologists turn up jades on a nearby hilltop, they get the dig declared off limits to the local descendants of the people who, several hundred years ago, traded for the jades. Bird’s nest fern is associated with Taiwanese Indigenous cuisine, but it used to be a famine food and is now only cultivated in Indigenous villages like Ciyakang as a cash crop to sell to Han Taiwanese and Japanese gourmands. A previous generation of Han Taiwanese agronomists convinced local farmers to use pesticides and herbicides, and now a new generation, of do-gooders, comes to persuade them to go organic; the only organic farmer in Ciyakang, Apyang Imiq hears from his elders about how he is going about it all wrong until he harvests his first bumper crop. Having pursued Taiwan-style middle-class aspirations – his step-dad is a retired local official, his mother an insurance agent – his church-going parents enjoy lecturing him about “Truku tradition”, but the tradition that they claim was hostile to homosexuality turns out to be anything but: when the author discovers that hagay, meaning something like fag, homo, or sissy, was originally the word for shaman, the villager who communicated with the utux, the ancestral spirits, he reclaims it by translating it affirmatively as two-spirit person.

    A modern-day shaman, Apyang Imiq is a cultural translator, in the sense that he is well aware that most of his readers are not Indigenous. The fact that the collection is written partly or mainly for a Han Taiwanese audience speaks to its translatability into English. But what is the potential market for an English translation of the collection? As a collection of literary essays, it might not have the reach of novels about gay Indigeneity like Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko, The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich, or Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway, but it should appeal to readers interested in Indigenous issues around the world, and could appear in a list of must-read queer essay collections compiled by anyone committed to diversity and inclusivity. As the essays in the collection can be read in isolation, they could easily be anthologized. Scholars of Indigenous literature around the world like Qwo-Li Driskill and Daniel Heath Justice could study it and more importantly assign it, or essays from it, in college courses. It should have a particularly strong appeal in Hawaii and New Zealand, English-speaking territories with Austronesian peoples, the native Hawaiians and Māori, who are distant relatives of Taiwan’s Indigenous First Nations.

     

     

    Read more:
    - Apyang Imiq: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=381
    - Growing Up in a Tree Hollowhttps://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=420


    [*] The “b” in banbi, the romanization of the Mandarin transliteration of Bambi, is actually a [p], so that Bambi alliterates with pada, the Truku word for muntjaq, also known as the barking deer.

  • 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: 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