This is a book where the author has consciously made it her mission to write a children’s novel that also serves as a form of feminist literature. The story begins with the disappearance of a group of grandmothers and is narrated by eleven-year-old Kai-ting (granddaughter of Su-ying) who accompanies them on their journey towards self-discovery. We see the whole thing unfold through Kai-ting’s precocious but childish perspective and her witty, eccentric descriptions.
Let’s Hit the Road!
For Eastern women, the process of individualization is extremely challenging because a lot of women absorb the cultural values recognized by their families and societies as they grow up, so their appearance and sense of self is built on the idea of being a “good woman”. Once a woman begins to listen to her inner voice, she starts to face resistance from her family and society, experiencing a mixture of inner conflict and self-doubt. In this book, the author draws on female consciousness and considerations about life to create a story about a group of grandmothers who run away for nine days, and I personally see it as a journey of self-discovery with Su-ying’s transformation at its core.
While each of the four grandmothers might have their own reasons for joining the secret plan to visit Taitung, the main cause is that Achu has discovered something bad in her breasts. This news shocks the group of elderly female friends and the leader, Granny Ten Yuan, thinks to herself that she’s turning seventy and isn’t sure if she’ll live another decade, so she decides to put her innermost thoughts into action. Achu’s life-threatening news is what gives the whole group the chance to change.
Breasts: Thank You and Farewell
From a narrative standpoint, the story involving Achu’s suspected breast cancer isn’t just the catalyst for the plot development but also serves as the core function of the text. How women perceive their breasts can hold a lot of psychological meaning in terms of how they perceive their own value. The characters in the novel range from a young girl going through puberty to a group of elderly married women, which the author deliberately uses to explore the physical experience of being a woman.
At the end of the book, the grandmothers are all wearing bikinis as they perform a “Thank You and Farewell Ceremony” for Achu’s breasts on the beach in Taitung and the ritual symbolizes how the women have freed themselves from their inner prejudices. Kai-ting helps Achu write a letter to her breasts thanking them for a lifetime together. In the letter, Achu expresses how her breasts once represented love and her ability to nurture, but now that they’re sick it’s time to say goodbye. Then they burn the letter in a fire on the beach.
While Achu is melancholy on the eve of her mastectomy and there’s a sense of regret at the loss of her female body, from here on she can let go of the attachment she feels towards the “beautiful, God-given gifts” of her breasts. The ceremony marks the women’s rediscovery of their own inner strength as it allows them let go of their identities as mothers and wives.
The bikinis in the title of the novel are also an important symbol in the book. Different clothes can often represent different identities, and we can use them to decorate or hide ourselves. Fearless under the gaze of others, they no longer hide their bodies which have become stout over the years, instead they wear the most revealing item of clothing possible: bikinis. This can be seen as a brave declaration that they have peeled away their outer selves and faced their true selves.
The group of women relinquish their attachment to the idea of a perfect female body and let go of their old roles and identities as they run wildly towards the vast ocean together, brimming with the joy of rebirth and also symbolizing the freedom of spiritual liberation. That moment shows the grandmothers becoming the people they didn’t get to be and that they now finally get to become themselves.
We Are Not Alone on the Road to Growth
The main characters in the book all have certain traits that we might see reflected in our own personalities. Maybe we’re like the young girl Kai-ting who’s embarrassed about her round figure and well-developed breasts; or her grandmother Su-ying who is always making sure that her husband and family are satisfied but suppressing her own true inner voice in the process; or Achu who has to play the role of mother and wife to find the central core of her life; or the elegant grandma Shu-nu who places too much value on her image and physique, hiding her lonely, hollow heart behind a veil of bravado; or maybe we’re like the seemingly confident, decisive and sharp-tongued Granny Ten Yuan who’s actually holding onto some complicated unresolved issues. In this way, these women’s stories become our stories, as different readers apply the characters’ insights and realizations to their own life experiences.
Through these characters, I can see that we’re all still just stumbling along the road crying, laughing, feeling frightened but continuing to grow. We make mistakes and constantly doubt ourselves or feel useless or occasionally even hurt other people. While these might not be traits that we are fond of, they are part of our true selves and I am willing to cherish and accept them. Even if we grieve and blame ourselves, we still need to be willing to welcome life’s challenges and let our wounded souls choose to live a second life.
The real, three-dimensional female characters in books like this make us see that we are not alone, that we have so many sisters with us as we embark on the journey towards becoming ourselves.