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

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.