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 Paic
u Yatauyungana of the Tsou tribe and her illegitimate son Tony. Paic u 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. Paic u 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.
- Huang Chong Kai: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=377
- The Formosa Exchange: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=414