By Darryl Sterk
    Dec 22, 2021

    How did Taiwan come to be home to the world’s only rival to Sequoiadendron giganteum, the giant sequoia of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California? Why does the closest living relative to Taiwan’s only extant endemic genus Sinopanax, a small evergreen tree, live in tropical Central America? How did the South American herb genus Chaerophyllum cross the equator and the Pacific to end up thriving in alpine Taiwan? And how could Leontopodium species have a distant cousin on Yushan, the tallest mountain in Taiwan?

    In answering questions like these, the author Yu Chih Chieh, who holds a doctorate in biogeography from National Taiwan University and is now doing a post-doc in Xishuangbanna, China, offers more than just a natural history of Taiwan’s montane plants in this book. Each high mountain herb or tree he discusses is both a crystallization of a unique transnational history and a microcosm of global biogeography. Adapting the first two lines of William Blake’s poem “Songs of Innocence”, The Odyssey of Taiwan’s Montane Plants gives you a view of the World in a Wild Flower.

    In the book, Taiwan’s mountains are a Noah’s Ark of biodiversity and a meeting place of montane plants. These plants are the main characters in an international epic of biogeography, the branch of the natural sciences that explains the distribution of life on Earth historically. By relating the backstories of each of these characters, this book takes you on a journey of exploration into the distant past and around the world.

    The natural history of Taiwan’s montane plants can be traced back tens of millions of years to far-flung realms: to the Hengduan Mountains in China in the east, to Chile in the west, to Siberia in the north, and to Tasmania in the south. Taiwan is a particularly interesting setting in the story of botanical evolution for two reasons. First, it happens to be the eastern edge of the range of Himalayan plants and the southern extreme of temperate zone flora. It is also a way station for a number of antipodean plants. Second, Taiwan is an island, a place where one would expect endemic species to evolve. The Odyssey of Taiwan’s Montane Plants also explains the diversity of Taiwan’s flora in terms of a different kind of island: each of Taiwan’s high mountains – there are two hundred and sixty mountains over three thousand meters in the Central Mountain Range – is an evolutionary island. Orogeny – mountain formation – in Taiwan has isolated plant travelers and forced them to settle down in a variety of microhabitats. In the six million years since the isolation of the island, they have evolved into numerous new species. The spiky barberry, for instance, boasts the greatest genetic variation of any of the plants that grow on Taiwan’s mountains, with thirteen endemic species. Little loved by mountain climbers, it fascinates botanists.

    Taiwan’s montane plants have inspired admiration in natural scientists for over a century, starting with the Japanese father of Taiwanese plant taxonomy, Hayata Bunzō. In his Materials For a Flora of Formosa, published in 1911, Hayata wrote that a little herb called Chaerophyllum involucratum took his breath away, because it reminded him of a plant in Australia that turned out to be its closest living relative. In 1916, out of a similar appreciation, Ernest Henry Wilson, who is known to posterity as the Chinese Wilson because of his famous travels in China but who also paid a visit to Taiwan, wrote: “Formosa is indeed the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ and her crowning glory are the magnificent forests of ever-green Lauraceae and Fagaceae, the gigantic Chamaecyparis and the lofty Taiwanias which clothe her steep and rugged mountains.” Taiwania is the tallest tree in East Asia, while the “gigantic” Taiwan red cypress, known locally as a “god tree”, is the stoutest, and the world’s only rival for size to California’s giant sequoia. Wherever they originated, and however large they are, the montane plants that have gathered in Taiwan have borne witness to the sprawling epic of evolution. Each of them is a living memorial of an epochal biogeographical journey.

    This book puts Taiwan’s montane plants in biogeographical, not national, context. Plant scientists cannot respect national borders any more than plants do. Naturalists like Hayata and Wilson have been amazed to encounter plants that bear an uncanny resemblance to those they grew up appreciating. By appreciating the origins of Taiwan’s montane plants, we, too, can understand the natural history of plants not in terms of national borders but in terms of biogeographical boundaries and the ways in which plants have crossed them, spinning the endless web of life.

    With the author’s photographs and dozens of botanical illustrations by Huang Han-Yau and Ong Jin Yao, which are sampled on the cover of the Chinese edition, The Odyssey of Taiwan’s Montane Plants could be marketed as a coffee or tea table book. It should appeal to the kind of popular natural science audience for which E. O. Wilson wrote his 1992 bestseller The Diversity of Life, for two reasons. First, because of a shared interest in evolutionary islands. The Diversity of Life reprised results from The Theory of Island Biogeography, a technical monograph that Wilson co-authored for publication in 1967. Another landmark is science writer David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. Yu Chih Chieh updates the theory of island biogeography for a popular audience by focusing on “evolutionary islands” – the individual peaks of the Alps, the Andes, the Hengduan Mountains. Second, because, like E. O. Wilson, Yu Chih Chieh puts a personal stamp on the material. In every chapter, he supplies part of his own backstory, the story of his transformation from hiker into biogeographer, and recounts his travels around the world, as he retraces the odysseys of plants he first discovered as a boy on family trips to some of the soaring peaks in Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range.



    Read more:
    - Yu Chih Chieh: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=382
    - The Odyssey of Taiwan’s Montane Plantshttps://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=421

    By Darryl Sterk
    Dec 22, 2021

    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.

    By Agustín Morales
    Dec 22, 2021

    The book is a collection of short essays about the author’s father, who was a spirit medium in a small town in Taiwan. Vaguely reminiscent of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn, the book reads as an intimate letter of the author to her father, an introspective search for his life and a reflection on the author’s own self and her increasingly complex relationship with her father.

    The book consists of independent non-fiction short essays about different aspects of her father’s life. These include, but are not limited to, the author’s own childhood, her father’s relationship with her, his relationship with his other relatives and friends, the people who went to his father in order to ask questions to the spirits, and how her father’s sensitiveness towards the spiritual world affected both his life and that of his family. Each of the essays focuses on one topic, with the question “Who is my father?” as the leading thread connecting all of them. It is not so much about the job of her father as a spirit medium than about his role as a father and his attitude towards life, written from the perspective of a daughter and a woman.

    Written in a simple and plain style, with not many cultural references that are hard to understand for foreign audiences, the author reflects upon the role of the father in a family and his relationship with its members, especially herself. This is the real starting point of the book, whereas the fact that the author’s father is a spirit medium seems to be an incidental detail trying to attract the reader – in fact, this is not an aspect that is dealt with in a very profound way throughout the essays, which focus instead on anecdotes of daily life. The book is a beautiful account of the relationship between a daughter and her father, and about a man’s life. One could argue that the book serves as the link between the author and her father, in the same way that her father is as a link between the spirits and the people, giving answers to their worries.

    The main appeal of this book is perhaps the psychological deepness of the character that the author manages to build – by dissecting her father’s personality and her own relationship with him, the reader can catch glimpses of a man that has always been a mystery for the author. Apart from that, foreign readers may also find exotic the author’s account of life in rural Taiwan and Chinese traditional beliefs, as opposed to modern societies, as well as the life of people belonging to a very different cultural background. On a different note, fans of Karl Jung’s work might find the stories about the author’s dreams and the divine particularly appealing. In short, this book makes for slow, introspective reading.



    Read more:
    - Lin Che Li: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=380
    - Hosting the Divinehttps://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=419

    By Phyllis Ang
    Dec 22, 2021

    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

    By Timothy Smith
    Dec 22, 2021

    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
    By Gigi Chang
    Dec 22, 2021

    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

    By Jenna Tang
    Dec 22, 2021

    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

    By Li Dong
    Dec 22, 2021

    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
    By Jenna Tang
    Dec 22, 2021

    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