Tag Archives: Taiwanese

Book Playlist: Want by Cindy Pon

WANT

So this is my first time attempting to put together a playlist of songs to complement a book. Not surprisingly, I chose Cindy Pon’s Want as the inaugural title for my playlist experiments. Most of the music I listen to is in either Mandarin Chinese or Korean, so I ended up with a combination of mandopop and kpop. These songs span quite a few years in terms of release date, so hopefully for those who aren’t familiar with the genres, it will make a brief introduction to some East Asian pop music (plus some #cuteasianboys!).

WANT Track List

Note: I can’t embed videos on WP, so you’ll have to click the links to go to YouTube and listen to the songs.

風雲變色 – KOne+5566

The song title literally means “Wind and clouds change color,” and it’s an idiom for a changing, volatile situation. This song is the theme song for Top of the Forbidden City, a very old Taiwanese idol drama from 2004 full of tacky dance battles (performed by the artists of this song, both Taiwanese boy bands from the same label who starred in the drama). I chose the song because it represents the high-stakes, tense atmosphere of Want and the complex, shifting feelings that Zhou experiences as he infiltrates the ranks of his sworn enemies.

Lyrics of note (translated by me, please do not repost or claim as yours):

Each era has a new legend/I have already changed history
Bearing whatever divine mission/Consigned to whatever capricious fate
Perhaps you and I have nearly forgotten/How to prove the truth
In the lightning and flame, I can’t make out your silhouette
What should I do to win this battle?

Is my courage heavy enough?/Determined to ruthlessly decimate the enemy
Are you an enemy or a friend?/The winds keep changing
Yin and yang are about to fuse/The universe is watching me
I’m standing at the top of the forbidden city/Searching for an escape

Bad – Infinite

This song is from a 2015 album by my favorite kpop group, Infinite. The lyrics tell the story of a guy who falls for a girl who is ostensibly bad for him, yet alluring all the same. There’s a sensual tension conveyed by the song that I felt was perfect for Zhou and Daiyu. Also, the line “betting on you” maps onto the story in Want so well, in a very literal way, as Daiyu is the key to success for Zhou’s mission.

Lyrics of note (translation credit: popgasa)

You come to me like you have me,
you wrap around me
Then you disappear like a dream
With no time to touch, I’m captivated by you

I’m afraid that I’m being ruined by you
Though you’ll shake me up and turn around

Betting on you
I’m betting on you
Betting on you
I can’t just let you go like this
Whenever I see you, you’re such an unfamiliar girl
You always make me so nervous

迷魂計 – 183 Club

183 Club is yet another Taiwanese boy band, also under the same company as KOne and 5566. This song was the opening theme for the Taiwanese idol drama, The Prince Who Turns Into a Frog from 2005. The English name for this song is “Enticing Trick.” It’s a less serious song than the others and expresses the feeling of falling for someone that you shouldn’t because you can’t help but be charmed by them.

Lyrics of note (translated by me, don’t steal, thanks):

Hurry and wake up/There are no miracles on this earth
Hurry and see clearly/Don’t fall for her enticing trick

It’s already determined by Fate/I’m just too hopelessly smitten
I love your courage/More steady than anyone
It’s already determined by Fate/Don’t disbelieve it
A few words from you/Become my scriptures
Your importance to me/No one can replace it

One Shot – B.A.P.

Another kpop song, this one from 2013. Although the lyrics are actually referring to a different context/situation, the focus on there being “one shot” to determine your future, plus the dramatic orchestral instrumentation and dark tone to the song, felt perfect for Want and Zhou’s mission that everything hinges on.

Lyrics of note (translation credit: popgasa)

I can’t step back
On this endless path
Woo woo woo, don’t be shaken
I can’t trap myself
In this time of confusion
Woo woo woo, there’s only one chance

Only one shot only one shot
Bite down hard and go against them, one shot
Only one shot only one shot
Throw yourself at the world, one shot
Only one shot only one shot
You only have one chance, you know?

西界 – 林俊傑 (JJ Lin)

For those who don’t know, JJ Lin is a Singaporean Chinese singer-songwriter who’s active in Taiwan. Released in 2007, this song  has the English title “West Side.” The main theme of the song is living in a different world than the person you love, and it’s symbolized by two places that are opposite as day and night. The speaker of the lyrics is trapped in the dark and reaching toward the light. This felt like an apt way to characterize the stark class divide between Zhou and Daiyu.

Lyrics of note (translation by me, please do not repost/claim as yours):

I can only look toward the east side/Your world is too distant
Enduring until the limits of my imagination/A happiness so sweet
But the night has already consumed me/I just can’t reach your hand

Review for Want by Cindy Pon

want

Note: My review is based on the ARC I received from Simon & Schuster. The book will be released on June 13th.

My Summary: Taipei is coated in smog, and the line between the privileged you (“haves”) and second-class mei (“have-nots”) is stark. While the you wear suits that shelter them from the pollution, the mei are left to slowly die from a poisoned atmosphere. Worse, the Jin Corporation that manufactures the suits may be actively destroying the environment to reap the profits. Jason Zhou and his friends are determined to take down Jin Corporation and put an end to the corruption. To do this, Jason needs to pose as a rich boy and get close to Jin Daiyu, the spoiled daughter of Jin Corporation’s CEO. But the closer he gets to his goal, the less he is able to separate the act from reality.

Review:

There were three major reasons I was super excited about this book. The first is that I’ve read Cindy’s previous books and was interested in seeing how she would tackle a different genre than usual. The second is that I’ve read “Blue Skies,” the original short story that Want was based on, so I wanted to see how the novel version builds upon it. The third is that it takes place in Taiwan, where my family is from, and there is basically no Taiwanese representation in YA, so I was glad that my motherland was finally getting the spotlight in the fiction I love so much. There was a lot pinned on this book, and by and large, Want did not disappoint.

An alternate version of the Taipei I know and love comes to life in this story, familiar in many ways, such as its night markets, karaoke joints, 7-Elevens, and landmarks (Taipei 101 included), but also different, having evolved into a near future dystopia where high tech commodities and abject poverty brush against each other in stark juxtaposition. The sights and sounds, smells and tastes give the setting texture and presence. In particular, the descriptions of food will leave you desperate to take a trip to Taiwan to indulge multiple cravings.

Want is a great example of diversity within diversity when it comes to the cast of characters. Although our protagonist, Jason Zhou belongs to the ethnically Han majority, we also have supporting characters who reflect some the increasing ethnic diversity in Taiwan. One is the dapper Victor who works and sends money back to his family in the Philippines, and the other is the pragmatic Arun, who is Indian and comes from a family of brilliant research scientists. In addition to the ethnic diversity, we have two Asian girls in a relationship: bisexual glasses-wearing hacker girl Lingyi and silent but deadly and athletic Iris. Together, the five of them form the perfect team and supportive family to one another.

In order to accomplish their mission, Jason and friends have to break through both physical and social barriers. The latter means that Jason must pass as a rich boy to infiltrate Jin Corporation, and this is by far the toughest part of the mission. Jason comes from a poor family, and his mother died of sickness because they couldn’t afford healthcare, and he has to adopt the mannerisms and attitude of the wealthy elite for whom money has never been an issue, of the people he resents the most. His disorientation and discomfort and heightened class consciousness while navigating privileged spaces are visceral and tangible and portrayed very well.

Jason is a very relatable character for me. His love for books and use of books as escapism resonated with me and show in his references to both Western and Chinese literary classics. His struggle to trust others, especially those in the privileged class that treats him as disposable, is familiar to me as well. Also, his desperation to do something to change the toxic system he lives in is basically the story of my life. I empathized with his frustrations, doubts, disgust, and conflicting feelings.

Much of the conflict of this story centers on class tensions. In particular, it explores systemic oppression and how privilege affects someone’s worldview. This conflict is played out in Jason’s interactions with Daiyu, who is sensitive and kind but also sheltered and ignorant due to her upbringing. Her individual niceness and good intentions don’t negate her privilege or complicity, so Jason struggles with his affections toward her as an individual while he is plotting to destroy the foundation of her unearned privilege.

If you’re looking for a slow-burn, angst-filled romance, this book has that. Jason and Daiyu manage, in spite of their differences in class, to gradually find common ground and let down their barriers enough to be vulnerable around and real with each other in key moments. For those who live for it, there is an abundance of unresolved sexual tension that both frustrates and entertains.

The story balances the heist with the romance and character arcs, stringing the reader along with a mix of suspense and action. The final one-third of the book ups the stakes and packs an emotional punch several times over with twists and revelations and a heart-stopping climax. The ending ties up enough loose ends to satisfy but is realistic in its developments as systemic change doesn’t happen overnight.

My one minor critique of this book is the mixed treatment of beauty standards. Although it recognized the ever-changing nature of fashion and beauty trends, it also uncritically described certain people’s bodies as “perfect” in one or two places without addressing how factors like racism, colorism, sexism, cissexism, ableism, sizeism, etc. affect what society views as aesthetic/physical “perfection.”

Recommendation: Highly recommended for the thrills, the feelings, and the food.

P.S. If you haven’t read my interview with Cindy, go check it out here!

Author Interview: Mina Li

This is the fifth in my author interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week. Today’s special guest is Mina Li. In this interview we will be talking about two of her published short fiction pieces and her writing experiences.

As usual, my comments and questions are in bold and labeled with “SW.”

SW: Asking this of everyone: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (Feel free to list as many as you like if you can’t pick one.)

Mina: This is going to be a really disorganized list, so in no particular order: scallion pancakes, bubble tea (50 Lan has this oolong bubble tea that is just the right amount of smoky, creamy, and sweet), aiyu jelly, sheng jian bao, pineapple cakes with actual pineapple bits in the filling, custard apples, wax apples, and beef noodles.

Oh, and one thing I was introduced to in the US from my mom: green mango pickles. I have some in my fridge right now.

SW: Scallion pancakes, bubble tea, pineapple cakes, and beef noodles are also among my favorites. I’m sad that there are no Taiwanese bubble tea chains anywhere near me. 😦

So I just finished reading “Of Peach Trees and Coral-Red Roses” and loved it. It strikes me as a very Asian American story, with a heroine who has been displaced from her homeland and is fighting to preserve her connection to it. What inspired this story?

Mina: There was a fairy tale meme going around with a writing group of mine, where we could request retellings starring our OCs. A good friend of mine requested Tam Lin with the heroine of another story I had, and a side character that she had Unresolved Romantic Tension with. As in, the only story that had them remotely as a pairing was a drunk kiss during a wedding reception.

And then it turned out some of the readers were into that pairing, so I took it and ran. That was back in 2012 or so. The story written wasn’t “Peach Trees” since it was mainly for readers familiar with my OCs, and also, it was from “Tam’s” point of view.

Around 2013-2014 I was really considering submitting my work, and I thought of rewriting that story from “Janet” (now Kairu’s) PoV. It really does strike me that you liked the diaspora aspect of it, considering an editor I’d spoken to at the time said they wouldn’t have taken the story. I still remember their words: “Why can’t it take place in her own country?”

It does bother me that there are those out there that don’t recognize that Asian diaspora characters aren’t white people with Asian faces, that we’ll have different experiences that aren’t quite the same as our white or Asian-in-Asia counterparts. So when I was writing “Peach Trees,” I took special care in how Kairu perceived The Borders v. the kingdom of Yue. That took more work than I was anticipating, since there were a lot of internalized things I had to confront, like beauty standards and perception of environment. I suppose one of the points I was trying to make was that an Asian character in a Western environment isn’t necessarily going to be the same as a white character in a Western environment. There seems to be a notion that when people immigrate to the West, they abandon their culture and adapt right away, and when it comes to my immigrant family, immediate and extended, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Warning: SPOILERS for “Of Peach Trees and Coral-Red Roses.” Highlight to read:

Jumping off of that point, that’s actually where the peach tree came in. Fairies are weak to iron, but in Chinese folklore, if you want to keep away demons, peach branches and peach wood are used in exorcising demons. The original weapon I was going to have for Kairu would have been some MacGyvering of iron and a peach branch. A beta reader, R.P., suggested a different idea where the peach tree was magic, and the rest is history. (I really, really owe her for suggesting that–it was such a good idea that I managed to rewrite the draft in two weeks!) I like how it has Kairu triumphing over the faerie queen using a weapon from her own folklore, and what that implies for diaspora–that despite their new surroundings, their culture is still viable and valid. (End spoilers.)

SW: To be honest, I’ve been wanting to write secondary world diaspora stories because diaspora seems to be missing from a lot of high fantasy. In most fantasy stories, racial/ethnic groups tend to be very self-segregated, which feels unrealistic given that the migration of people has happened since as long as there have been people.

I also read “Dreaming Keys” because I bought the An Alphabet of Embers anthology a while back. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the main character/narrator was Taiwanese American and that the story used actual Chinese characters (hanzi) in dialogue, as opposed to pinyin and/or translations. What motivated this decision, and how would you say your multilingual background plays into your writing?

Mina: A good friend of mine showed me John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere,” and that was really the first story I’d seen that had hanzi instead of pinyin or translations. It was revelatory, in a sense, because before that, I would have thought “no, I can’t do that, it’s simply not done, how are readers going to understand what the characters are saying?” Chu showed that it could be done, and extremely well, too–that story won a Hugo! So I’d have to say that that story had a major influence in writing hanzi dialogue in “Dreaming Keys.”

Prior to that, a lot of my multilingual background was trying to directly translate proverbs or hanfu items into terms that non-Chinese/Taiwanese readers could understand. I remember adding notes at the end of stories that explained the proverbs or any terms/items that readers might not be able to get.

When it comes to Bethany being Taiwanese-American, I guess the motivation in its simplest terms is that I don’t see a lot of Taiwanese protagonists in books or stories outside of Taiwan. Fresh Off the Boat was a big deal for me when it aired (despite the first season finale where they apparently thought the mainland and Taiwan were interchangeable) because it was the first TV show that immediately felt familiar and like home.

SW: Yeah, I can practically count on two hands the number of Taiwanese protagonists I’ve come across (book list coming soon) in my years reading Anglophone lit. Which is why I always jump for joy when I see another.

One of the things I’ve experienced during my years writing as a Person of Color and Asian American is a shift from writing European-esque settings (for fantasy) and white characters (mostly for contemporary) to writing fantasy inspired by my own Taiwanese heritage and characters who look like me and share parts of my identity. Did you ever go through such a phase or transformation? How would you say your approach to writing has changed over time?

Mina: I think I always leaned toward Asian characters, when it came to fanfiction or RPs. The few times I’ve written sympathetic protags that aren’t explicitly Asian, it feels…off to me, for lack of a better word. I have to work a bit harder at getting inside their heads from time to time. With Asian characters, it’s easier, for lack of a better word.

When it came to fantasy (the genre I write the most), I don’t know if I ever thought of writing Western-style high fantasy? I’ve done urban fantasy with Western settings and Asian protagonists, and I have an wuxia fantasy story that takes place in both fantasy versions of Asia and Europe. The main character is Chinese, and it’s basically four years of her growing up in those circumstances. It’s currently on ice now, but if/when I do go back to it, I’d probably redo a few backstories and try to be more inclusive on marginalizations. I’m still rather fond of it.

SW: When I was younger I wrote high fantasy with European-esque settings, but a lot of my stories had dark haired characters who were coded as Asian. As I got older I converted over to writing explicitly Asian characters and #ownvoices narratives.

For marginalized writers, writing #ownvoices stories is often a means of speaking back to a society that others us and erases us. How do you approach writing #ownvoices narratives, and what are your goals, if you have any, when writing them?

Mina: I don’t know if I have any goals at the moment. When it comes to writing #ownvoices narratives, I tend to pull from my own experiences, which tend to come from the majority in some cases (Taiwanese Mandarin is the only dialect I speak, and my parents immigrated to the US for grad school, for example). It does bother me from time to time when outsiders are all, “this is just another narrative of X” sometimes. I did see a book review critiquing the fact that the main character was another high achiever kept from her artist dreams, and the author commenting quite politely that while she could understand that, that those were her actual experiences she was writing about.

I think we have to be careful not to internalize the myriad demands of what diverse audiences wants–that it’s totally okay if you yourself cannot provide them. I think what we could do instead is that if there is someone writing #ownvoices from PoVs you can’t provide, to support them by boosting their work and purchasing it. But even if your voice falls within the majority or the mainstream, it’s still important and deserves to be heard.

SW: I think as Asian Americans we get our writing policed as either “too Asian” or “not Asian enough,” and in my case I always wonder if people are going to question the authenticity of what I write because I’m not writing oppressive Asian immigrant parents.

Although Asian American literature is often pigeonholed as being about “the immigrant struggle,” there’s so much more to it than that. What aspects of Asian America and Asian American identities and experiences do you find yourself drawn to? What kinds of Asian American stories do you want to write about?

Mina: So the “immigrant struggle” doesn’t do a lot for me personally; my folks had no tragic backstories, and their memories of growing up in Taiwan aren’t particularly hardship-filled or tearjerking. They go back every now and then and seem to have a grand old time, so.

I’m a bit more focused on Asian American stories that don’t take place on the coasts, where there isn’t a Chinatown–we certainly have a strong Taiwanese community here, but there’s no area in my neck of the woods that would be considered a Chinatown, you know? And of course not all Asian-Americans are raised in California or New York.

I have a novel planned that’s got a Taiwanese-American protagonist. She wasn’t the perfect daughter in high school because she didn’t get straight As, never really smiled, and basically had interests that were outside the mainstream. At that age, she discovered certain powers that she had, but due to bullying, used them to hurt instead of help. The novel begins when she’s in her thirties, where she’s tried to bury that really hard, but also still isn’t the perfect daughter (unmarried, occupation is respectable but doesn’t pay a lot, body issues, etc). Another character in the novel is her rival, someone she was unfavorably compared to growing up, and how his boyfriend comes to her for help.

When I was a kid, one of the things I hated most was being compared to other kids. It really made me feel inadequate, like I would never be good enough. So and so spoke better Mandarin; so and so smiled; so and so was better looking; so and so excelled in sports/math/whatever. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that they’ve had their own issues growing up, or actually were really cool people. And it surprised me a lot later to hear from one of those kids that his mom had been comparing him unfavorably to me!

SW: I’m totally with you on wanting to write (and read) Asian American stories that aren’t on the coasts, having spent the majority of my life in the South in Texas (14 out of 24 years, welp), where it is a very different environment than, say, the Bay Area.

I’m also on board to read this Taiwanese American novel if/when it happens. In many ways I was very much a model Asian student in high school. Now that I’m out of college, I’ve fallen into a not-so-perfect Asian life, off the beaten path of conventional success that I once envisioned for myself. Because of this, books that explore Asian Americans’ quarter-life crises in their 20s and 30s appeal to me.

But enough about me. Next question…Are there any writers who have influenced you, and if so, who are they?

Mina: John Chu has been an influence with the hanzi, at least, although I’m still trying to find my way with that. (It’s been noted when I write in hanzi that the dialogue sounds very waishengren, so make of that what you will!)

David Mitchell has been one as well. I remember getting Ghostwritten at fifteen and just reading it over and over until the spine cracked. My copy of Cloud Atlas has the cover coming apart from the binding. I just love how he writes his prose, and I’d love to write like that one day.

SW: I think I need to read more John Chu since you’ve mentioned him twice now. I’ve only read one of his short stories to date.

Last but not least, because I’m a youngster looking for guidance, I have to ask: if you could give your younger self writing and publishing advice, what would you say?

Mina: You don’t need an MFA or to take a ton of creative writing classes to get published. Even if you have a day job, you can still write, and you’ll be grateful for the stability. And if you keep at it, you’ll find your folks will come around.

Also, no matter how off the wall an idea sounds, just…just write it. People are more receptive than you think, really. More often than not they’ll think the idea is cool.

Also also: don’t self-reject. Send in the story anyway–the worst they can say is no.

SW: I’m definitely going to keep these words in mind as I continue on in my writing career and graduate to submitting things. Thanks a ton for answering these questions so thoughtfully! I look forward to reading whatever you publish next.


Mina Li’s Self-Intro/Bio: I’m a Taiwanese-American writer, Michigan born and raised. When I’m not writing I like to knit my own sweaters and socks, try out new recipes, and go for long walks. I’ve also got a thing for mermaids, considering The Little Mermaid came out when I was six. Also, a guilty pleasure of mine is watching online reviews of bad movies.

You can find her online at https://minasli.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @CodenameMinaLi.

Author Interview: Emily X.R. Pan

This is the fourth in my author interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week. Today’s special guest is Emily X.R. Pan. Her debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After, is coming in spring 2018!

Since there’s almost nothing out in the wild (i.e. Goodreads) about the book, we’ll get an exclusive first look at what it entails through this interview. But first, an aesthetic collage to represent the story that I put together.

The Astonishing Color of After aesthetic collage

Since I haven’t read the book, this is based on what I gathered from the interview below. As usual, my comments and questions are in bold and labeled “SW.”

SW: First question is mandatory and the standard for this interview series: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (You are welcome to list multiple because it’s probably impossible to choose just one.)

Emily: Ooooh. I think it would have to be the breakfast dan bing. But I’ve been vegetarian for quite a long time now…if I were to go back to my non-vegetarian days it would probably be a toss-up between oyster omelettes and ba wan.

SW: Danbing is the ruler of all breakfast foods, in my humble opinion. I eat so much of it when I’m in Taiwan. Simple but satisfying.

Since the Goodreads synopsis that’s available is rather cryptic, can you tell us a little more about your upcoming book, The Astonishing Color of After?

Emily: Sure! So the Goodreads synopsis says: “A girl is convinced that her mother has transformed into a bird after committing suicide, and attempts to find her in Taiwan.” Well, the main character is named Leigh Chen Sanders, almost sixteen years old, and she’s dealing with quite a lot. She’s a dedicated visual artist, butting heads with a father who’s not exactly supportive of that pursuit. She’s navigating the complications of falling in love with her male best friend. She’s also biracial, and has never met the Asian side (her mom’s side) of her family, and has no idea why. It’s in the midst of all this that she loses her mother. So Leigh goes to Taiwan to find the bird, and there she meets her Taiwanese grandmother and Chinese grandfather for the first time, and starts to uncover all these deeply buried secrets that help her connect the dots of her broken family history.

SW: I was already sold when I first read the book deal announcement, but now I’m even more invested. I’m honestly super excited about this book because it’s set in Taiwan, where my family is from. Which part of Taiwan does it take place in, and why did you pick that particular location?

Emily: It’s all in the north. Leigh’s grandparents live in an unnamed part of Taipei that mostly feels like Shilin but in its fictionalization has elements of Beitou, and at one point Leigh also makes a trip up to Jiufen. My grandmother lives in Beitou and she was such a huge inspiration for the story that I knew I wanted to draw from her neighborhood. But also, I made a research trip to Taiwan, and when I was picking an Airbnb to be my home base I wanted somewhere that would feel just like where Leigh was staying with her grandparents. I asked friends and family to help me figure out a neighborhood that felt right, and ultimately landed with Shilin. So it was partly the places I went and saw during my research trip that dictated where the various pieces of the story happened, because I wanted to have a really solid feel for the setting.

SW: I actually visited Jiufen in 2015 and while it was pretty, I was also kind of scared because the elevation is high and everything is steep and built into the mountainside. I’ll admit I’m not super familiar with either Shilin or Beitou since the part of my family that’s in Taipei lives in Xinyi district.

What other research  did you do for the book?

Emily: In previous drafts, some of the novel was set in Shanghai (where I’d lived for a year in college) and for the sake of the book I made two research trips back to Shanghai. Later when I changed it so that all of the time in Asia was spent in Taiwan, that was when I made the aforementioned trip to Taipei to help me rework the book. (I’d been to Taiwan to visit family before, but not in a long time.) All the (non-historical) steps that my characters take, I actually walked myself in effort to really capture the atmosphere.

I’ve also done a lot of character research over the last several years; I interviewed several Asian American friends and biracial friends about their experiences both inside and outside the states. Many of those conversations happened for the sake of other projects I was working on, but what I learned from them made its way into this book all the same. And since so much of the novel is inspired by my family, I spent quite a lot of time interviewing relatives, collecting their stories. Even within just my family there’s so much variation from person to person in their customs and religious activity and level of superstition, for example—I gathered up every bit of detail I could.

Probably the most difficult and time consuming aspect was that I did a lot of sociological / cultural research through books and documentary films and various articles on the internet, for example about people’s beliefs surrounding ghosts and Ghost Month in Taiwan, and about various Buddhist and Taoist ideas and practices, both in history and currently. I wanted to get a lens on this stuff outside of any potential bias from my family, and even the material that didn’t actually make its way into the book still informed how I told the story.

SW: It sounds like you learned a lot from your research. What was your favorite part about writing the book?

Emily: My favorite part is that I got to know my family on a completely new dimension. Even with my parents—I’ve always been incredibly close to them (like we talk on the phone every single day and really struggle to keep our calls short). But in the course of writing and revising this book, I kept asking them about things we’d never talked about before, and from that I was constantly learning something new about their beliefs and values, and even their own histories.

SW: I’m glad you got to deepen your bond with your parents. On the flip side, what was the most challenging part about writing the book?

Emily: The hardest part was figuring out what the story actually wanted to be. I started writing this in 2010 as a very different novel. It was originally an adult literary / historical fiction project spanning the first forty years of this woman’s life beginning in 1927 in Taiwan—that woman being a fictionalization of my waipo (maternal grandmother), who’s lived a fascinating life. But all the historical stuff grew unwieldy and overwhelming, so I reframed it as a contemporary story with a teen narrator discovering the stories of her family. After that it still morphed several times—I’ve lost track of all the ways I tried rewriting it but the various iterations spanned the realistic and the fantastical across middle grade, young adult, and adult literary—until finally in January of 2015 I wrote a new opening, and the rest of THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER poured out from there.

SW: I can only imagine the amount of effort that went into rewriting the story. In my experience, finding the heart of a story can take a while, but once you find it, it’s usually much easier to write.

Now, the last question: What are some writers or books that have influenced your writing?

Emily: As one might guess based on the kind of book I’ve written, I love writers who explore human instincts and experiences through the lens of something weird or perhaps slightly magical. Some of the amazing authors who immediately come to mind: Nova Ren Suma, Anna-Marie McLemore, Aimee Bender, Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Laura Ruby. I also love the writers who just tell a story so sharply I can’t get it out of my head. I’m thinking of Celeste Ng, Emily St. John Mandel, Alexander Chee, Jandy Nelson, Hanya Yanagihara. But really my writing is influenced by everything I consume, whether it’s an advertisement or a graphic novel or the libretto of an opera.

SW: Time to bookmark a few titles for my TBR. Thank you very much for participating in this interview. I can’t wait to read The Astonishing Color of After next spring!


Emily X.R. PanEmily X.R. Pan is the author of THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, coming in spring 2018 from Little, Brown in the US and Orion in the UK. She is also a 2017 Artist-in-Residence at Djerassi. During her MFA in fiction at NYU she was a Goldwater Writing Fellow and the editor-in-chief of Washington Square Review. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Bodega Magazine and lives in New York, where she also practices and teaches yoga. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @exrpan.

Author Interview: Judy Lin

This is the second in my author interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week. Today’s special guest is Judy Lin, who is currently agented and hopefully soon to be published.

Since there isn’t a cover for Judy’s novel [yet], here’s a visual teaser in the form of an aesthetic collage she made:

Dead and Waiting aesthetic collage.jpg

That collage is imposing and mysterious but also hunger-inducing. Pork belly buns and mango shaved ice are among my favorites. Now, on to the interview! As with previously, my comments and questions will be marked in bold and labeled “SW.”

SW: I’m asking this to all of the authors I’m interviewing for this series, but since the protagonist of your novel is a food blogger, it’s perfect for you: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food? You are allowed to choose more than one!

Judy: My favorite Taiwanese snack is pineapple cakes. Buttery pastry outside and pineapple/winter melon jam on the inside. I’m also fond of fresh made egg/biscuit rolls. I love how they’re warm and crunchy and then crumbles into sweetness. My favorite flavor is original with black sesame seeds, but they come in tons of flavors like matcha or taro. I can probably write an essay on my favorite Taiwanese foods, but I’ll stop there!

SW: I would read said essay if you wrote it, ha. Tell us a little about your novel.

Judy: My novel Dead and Waiting is about a foodie named Lydia who goes back to Taiwan with her cousin to attend summer language camp. She accidentally summons a vengeful ghost with her fellow campers and they have to make their way off campus alive.

It’s filled with lots of descriptions of Taiwanese food, cousins who are more like sisters, and a dorky love interest. As well as a murderous ghost lurking in the hallways! I’m convinced all schools are haunted.

SW: So YA horror edition of Love Boat (a documentary on a famous summer camp for diaspora Taiwanese) or Seoul Searching (a dramedy film about diaspora Korean teens at summer camp). I’m very much looking forward to reading this. To be honest, I haven’t read much horror because it’s not my usual genre. What does the publishing landscape look like for the YA horror genre? Would you say it’s more or less diverse than other genres, for example, contemporary or SFF?

Judy: I wouldn’t say that YA horror is a very popular genre. It was difficult to think of comparable titles when I was querying my book, and even more difficult to think of horror novels set outside of North America. The Girl From the Well by Rin Chupeco draws from Japanese legends. A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith is more of a dark contemporary fantasy with horror elements set in Japan. That’s the two that come to mind. Which is too bad because I grew up with Chinese and Japanese stories about hauntings and spirits and demons. There’s lots of creepy material there for inspiration. I would love for there to be more horror stories set outside of North America.

SW: For me, horror brings to mind the 1987 Hong Kong romantic comedy horror film (yes, it is all of those things) A Chinese Ghost Story, which is kind of a classic and features Leslie Cheung (R.I.P.) and Taiwanese actress Joey Wong, who rose to fame playing otherworldly maidens. The film is based on an 18th Century collection of supernatural stories called 聊齋誌異, which is translated as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. From yaoguai to jingling to jiangshi, there are so many creepy creatures and beings in Chinese culture.

Your novel is specifically about hungry ghosts. Ghosts, especially the spirits of our ancestors, are an integral part of Taiwanese culture, which is why families burn paper objects for their relatives in the afterlife to make sure they’re living comfortably. To stay up-to-date with modern technology, some families even burn paper iPhones or computers. If you were a spirit in the afterlife, what kinds of paper objects would you want your descendants to burn for you to keep you happy?

Judy: I would need a notebook and pen so that I can keep on writing stories and won’t be bored in the afterlife! Other than that I need a music player with 90s music and then I’ll be happy.

SW: I would probably want a laptop because writing by hand in the afterlife sounds like too much work, ha. Which authors have inspired you and influenced your writing?

Judy: When I was a teenager, I first fell in love with horror because of L.J. Smith. I devoured her Night World, Dark Visions, Secret Circle and Vampire Diaries books. I loved the idea of secret societies and people with magical/superhuman powers. I also loved the romance in those books.

Another author that I loved as a teen was O.R. Melling. She’s a Canadian author who was born in Ireland and writes books filled with Irish and Celtic folklore. Her books have a great sense of place and wonder. I hope one day a reader will tell me that my stories make them feel the same way.

I talk about this a lot, but seeing the cover of Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix was the book that made me realize – Hey, someone out there is writing stories featuring people who look like me and are from my culture! It made me feel like I might have a chance at pursuing my dream of publication, and it also made me less afraid of writing stories inspired by myths and legends I grew up with.

SW: Ooh, I’ve read O.R. Melling’s Chronicles of Faerie series as a teen, and I have to agree, they were atmospheric and richly imagined. I’m also in the same boat in that Silver Phoenix was the first fantasy YA with a main character that represented me. Seeing that plus subsequent Asian speculative YA getting published has been a great source of encouragement in my own writer’s journey, and I’m now at a point where I’m considering querying agents soon. What advice do you have for aspiring authors who are looking for an agent?

Judy: I think it’s so important to write the book of your heart. I didn’t know how marketable my story would be, but I knew it was the story inside me I wanted to tell. And I think it’s important to not self reject either once you finish the story if it might not be the current trend or a popular genre. I found my agent via a contest called Pitch Wars. I submitted my manuscript to Pitch Wars thinking that it wasn’t ready and that no one will ever pick it. But my mentors Axie and Janella picked my story and worked on it with me and helped me with my manuscript and beyond.

Contests like Pitch Wars contributed so much to my growth as a writer. I believe all writers should find their people. Writing doesn’t have to be a trek down a lonely road even though at times it seems like it. Find others to talk about writing, share stories, critique each other’s work and celebrate each other’s successes. Seeing people work hard and achieve their dreams is extremely inspiring to me and encourages me to work harder.

SW: I agree that finding friends and community is so important. Even as a blogger, that’s really sustained me and my work.

Now, back to horror. What is your favorite Asian horror movie?

Judy: I can’t pick one! My favorite is probably Shutter, a Thai film. It tells a great story and is spooky without being gory.

The scariest one I’ve ever watched is the Japanese version of The Grudge. Gave me nightmares for weeks. My childhood is filled with memories of being scared of creepy children (seems to be a popular concept in 80s and 90s horror novels and movies) and that fear has stayed with me still!

I recently watched Train to Busan and loved it. It was not a traditional horror film, but I was on the edge of my seat the entire time and cared a lot about all of the characters.

I think Asian horror movies are a wonderful blend of scary and heart. They are character driven instead of relying on jump scares, which makes them a lot more memorable than a violent slasher film.  

SW: I actually watched Train to Busan recently as well because my friends were watching it in the room I was in at the time, and I couldn’t concentrate with the noise in the background, so I joined in. I was not expecting to be hit with so many feelings, but that’s exactly what happened. I think I may need to give horror a chance from now on. Do you have any YA horror recommendations?

Judy: The Girl From the Well by Rin Chupeco as mentioned above. I love how it plays with structure and tells the story from a different perspective.

Ten by Gretchen McNeil was a fun read. Flashback to the Fear Street novels by R.L. Stein that I devoured as a teenager.

 Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake is one of my favorite YA horror novels because it has a great cast of characters, especially Anna.

Finally I want to recommend The Mall by S.L. Grey. Really creepy South African body horror. I’ve never read anything like it and don’t think I ever will. It’s not quite YA but it has “YA sensibilities.” Has commentary on consumerism and pursuit of youth and conjures up my teenage fears of being trapped in a mall.

SW: I’ve actually read other books by both Rin Chupeco and Kendare Blake (The Bone Witch and Three Dark Crowns, respectively), so I guess this is my sign from the universe to read their other books, among others. Thanks a bunch for participating in this interview. I wish you all the luck in getting published!


Judy Lin was born in Taiwan and moved to Canada when she was eight years old. She grew up with her nose in a book and loved to escape to imaginary worlds. She now divides her time between working as an occupational therapist and creating imaginary worlds of her own. She lives on the Canadian prairies with her husband, daughter and geriatric cat.

You can visit Judy’s website here and find her on Twitter @judyilin.

Author Interview: Cindy Pon

Welcome to the first in my author interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week! Throughout the week I will posting interviews with diaspora Taiwanese authors about their work. Today’s special guest is Cindy Pon! She’s making her sci-fi debut with Want, which releases June 13th. Before we get into the interview, let’s take a look at the beautiful cover of Want and the synopsis:

want

The cover art is by Jason Chan, who is a gift to Asian SFF. He also illustrated the covers for Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn, which are super kickass.

And the synopsis from Cindy’s website:

From critically acclaimed author Cindy Pon comes an edge-of-your-seat sci-fi thriller, set in a near-future Taipei plagued by pollution, about a group of teens who risk everything to save their city.

Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits, protecting them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.

With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.

Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgment, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO.

Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is, or destroying his own heart?

Now, on to the interview! My comments and questions are in bold and labeled “SW.”

SW: Since your book takes place in Taiwan, and food is essential to Taiwanese culture, I’ll have to ask about it. What’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (You are more than welcome to list multiple foods as I’m sure it is impossible to choose just one.)

Cindy: It IS impossible to choose. And there are always so many new Taiwanese eats, and I have not been able to visit enough. *crying* I do love stinky tofu. I prefer the soft tofu cooked in giant vats of spicy broth that singe off your eyebrows in the night markets. In fact, I wrote that into the beginning chapter of WANT. Ha! Other than that, anything sticky rice. I’m a sucker for it. Sticky rice intestines come to mind as well as migao. I’m drooling just thinking about it. I also love iced and fresh sugar cane juice, and fresh made bite sized mochi.

SW: I feel like a bad Taiwanese person for not liking stinky tofu. Sticky rice, on the other hand, is the best. And mochi is amazing, especially mochi ice cream! Now that we’ve gotten past the appetizer, let’s talk about the main course, which is your book. Want is your first venture into science fiction. Has your writing process for this book been significantly different from the process for your previous ones?

Cindy: I’m not sure if significantly different, but it was definitely different. It is my first novel written in the first person and in a contemporary teen boy voice. The research was more tech involved, and the whole book just challenged me a lot. Because of that, I decreased my daily writing goal from the usual 1k words to 500. I’m all about going easy on myself when it comes to writing and a lot of pats on my back for even the smallest victory. No one else is gonna cheer me on like I have to cheer myself on. Ha!

SW: Speaking of research… Writing a book that’s considered “own voices” means you’re writing about a character whose identity or experience you share in some way. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that no research is required. What kind of research did you do for Want: that is, for what topics, and what form did it take (e.g. reading, traveling, interviewing people, etc.)?

Cindy: I think my main form of research was actually going back to visit Taipei in 2013. It was a mother-daughter trip (with my mom), and it was lovely. I tend to naturally be a very sensory writer, and nothing is more sensory than to be on location of the place you are writing. I really wanted to bring Taipei alive in WANT—it was an ode to my birth city. In the end, I wound up using many locations in actual scenes of places I had visited. I had taken hundreds of photos, visually, everything can be an inspiration, a moment captured in time that I could relate to the reader. For me, it was a trip of a lifetime (seems strange to say because I was born there, but it was), and this book holds a very special place in my heart!

SW: I visited Taipei in both 2015 and 2016, and both times I took tons of pictures because there’s so much to take in. If I ever decide to write a book set in Taipei, I’ll probably already have half the hard work done. Which brings me to the next question… What would you say was the hardest part about writing Want?

Cindy: I would say the tech stuff, which thank goodness I had friends who could help me with, and also most definitely writing in first person contemporary teen boy voice. I can much more easily fall into the narrative voice of my Xia titles. Fantasy is what I have written for years and what I’m comfortable with. Grasping Zhou’s voice was a challenge, but when I did manage, I loved what I heard from him.

SW: You’ve mentioned in the past that you faced barriers in getting published because you wrote about Asians. Do you have any advice for aspiring Asian authors who are writing about Asians?

Cindy: F ‘em! 🙂 ha! Is that not good to say? Seriously though, it was a very personal choice on my part. And as a writer, and especially someone who wants to be published, you are going to be faced with hard and difficult choices all along your journey. I knew that I wanted to stay true to my stories and the characters in my head. I knew that I wanted to write what I loved and what drew me. Because writing is so damned hard already! And there are no guarantees in publishing. So why NOT write what you love? It’s too easy to lose your way in the craft as well as in the business. So my inner compass was always: Is this the story you want to tell? Are these the characters that matter to you? That simplified things for me.

SW: I’ll keep this in mind as I work on my own Asian stories. ^o^

Speculative YA seems to be your genre, but have you ever considered writing a contemporary YA? Contemporary YA could definitely use some more cute Asian boys. ;D

Cindy: #cuteasianboys 4evah! I always say never say never, but I honestly and truly cannot imagine NOT writing genre. I mean, I love to read to be whisked away, to be transported. It’s not that contemporary stories do not do that, it’s just that I want literally more magical journeys, I guess? So I don’t think I would? But again, never say never!!

SW: Well, if you ever do venture into contemporary, I will be first on the list of people demanding to read it! Now, for the last question. Do you have any hints as to what’s next after Want?

Well… I’m headed to Shanghai mid-May to do research for the sequel? I’m very excited about this trip. My first ever visit to China was in 2014 when I was asked to be the resident artist for a private school in Hangzhou. I was able to stay in Shanghai for just two nights, and the city totally captivated me. It just felt like the right location for the WANT sequel to take place. I won’t say anything else, other than I’m excited to write this story!

SW: Excuse me while I scream with excitement!!! I’m probably going to die waiting for more news about this sequel. But in the meantime, I’ll keep myself busy with a bunch of other amazing diverse books. Thanks a bunch, Cindy, for doing this interview! Can’t wait for my copy of Want to arrive! >o<


cindyauthor1dCindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. Her most recent duology Serpentine and Sacrifice were both Junior Library Guild selections and received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. WANT, a near-future thriller set in Taipei, will be published by Simon Pulse in June 13th, 2017. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Learn more about her books and art at http://cindypon.com.

You can add Want on Goodreads here.

You can find Cindy on social media:

Cindy is doing a pre-order giveaway through her local indie bookseller, Mysterious Galaxy. If you pre-order Want from Mysterious Galaxy, you can get a signed and/or personalized copy of the book, and you’ll receive the following art prints:

a post card featuring illustration of Zhou and Daiyu by Jason Chan

WANT_postcard01a

and a peach blossom brush art card by Cindy herself

peachblossoms1

The 228 Massacre: A Brief History and Book List

It’s been 70 years since February 28th, 1947, a day that marked the beginning of a very dark and bloody era of Taiwanese history. For those who don’t know, Taiwan has a very complicated history involving multiple waves of colonization. Taiwan was home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years. (The indigenous Taiwanese are Austronesian and have linguistic and genetic relations with the indigenous people Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Oceania.) In the 17th century, the Spanish and Dutch established bases on Taiwan for a time, followed by Ming Dynasty loyalists under Koxinga after the fall of the Ming Empire. The earliest waves of colonists came from southeastern China, mostly the Hokkien-speaking Hoklo people from the Fujian province and some Hakka people, who eventually became the majority due to many indigenous people’s intermarriage and/or assimilation into Han communities and society. The Qing Dynasty claimed Taiwan despite never fully controlling the island and after the second Sino-Japanese War, ceded Taiwan to Japan. From 1895 until 1945, Japan governed Taiwan and touted it as their model colony.

Following Japan’s surrender in World War II, Taiwan was ceded to “back” to China. At the time, China was still under the rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party (a.k.a. the KMT, from “Kuomintang”) and was referred to as the Republic of China (present-day China is known as the People’s Republic of China, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP). The KMT installed a government in Taiwan that soon drew resentment from Taiwanese people due to its rampant corruption. On February 27th, 1947, a scuffle between a woman selling contraband cigarettes and a KMT soldier resulted in the soldier hitting the woman on the head with his pistol. In the ensuing chaos, another official fired a shot into the crowd, killing a bystander.

This event sparked protests and riots starting on February 28th that resulted in violent crackdowns from the KMT. Starting in 1949, the KMT instituted martial law on the island that lasted 38 years (until 1987), which is the second longest period of martial law after Syria’s (1963-2011). During the period from 1947 to 1987, otherwise known as the White Terror, anyone suspected of being against the KMT in words, ideologies, or actions was persecuted, tortured, murdered, or spirited away, never to be seen again. The persecution even crossed the Pacific Ocean to the United States, including the murder of Henry Liu. The total estimate for people who died ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 and remains a topic of debate.

Until the lifting of martial law, nobody spoke of what happened. The truth was dangerous, and it was heavy. In recent decades, a formal apology was issued by former President Lee Teng-hui, and a museum and memorial park were created and dedicated to memorialize 228 and the White Terror. However, some of the people involved in perpetrating the killing and persecution (e.g. government officials and soldiers) are still alive and have never been held accountable for their crimes. Until today, documents related to 228 were classified, thus impeding transitional justice. Without justice, there cannot be peace for the dead and the wronged. That is why it’s important to keep telling this story over and over and remembering the injustices that were committed.

That’s why I’ve created this book list for people who want to learn more about Taiwanese history, politics, and 228/The White Terror. The list includes four nonfiction titles and four fiction titles. The hyperlinks in the above paragraphs are for various Internet articles and sites.

Nonfiction

wealth-ribbonWealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound by brenda Lin

This autobiographical essay collection explores the author’s transnational identity as a Taiwanese American whose life has been split between countries. It tells the stories of three generations of her family, from her grandparents’ generation to her own.

my-fight-for-a-new-taiwanMy Fight for a New Taiwan: One Woman’s Journey from Prison to Power by Annette Hsiu-Lien Lu

This is the autobiography of Taiwan’s former Vice President from 2001 to 2008. She came from humble origins but eventually became an activist and leader of feminist and pro-democracy movements in Taiwan during the late 20th century.

maritime-taiwanMaritime Taiwan: Historical Encounters with the East and the West by Shih-Shan Henry Tsai

This book maps out the complex history of Taiwan and the various powers that claimed and influenced it throughout the past few centuries.

taiwans-struggleTaiwan’s Struggle: Voices of the Taiwanese edited by Shyu-tu Lee and Jack F. Williams

In this essay anthology, “leading Taiwanese figures consider the country’s history, politics, society, economy, identity, and future prospects. The volume provides a forum for a diversity of local voices, who are rarely heard in the power struggle between China and the United States over Taiwan’s future. Reflecting the deep ethnic and political differences that are essential to understanding Taiwan today, this work provides a nuanced introduction to its role in international politics.”

Fiction

miahMiah by Julia Lin

This collection of interrelated short stories traces the lives of generations of a Taiwanese Canadian family, from the time of Japanese occupation of Taiwan, to the White Terror under the Kuomintang government, to modern Taiwan and Canada.

the-228-legacyThe 228 Legacy by Jennifer J. Chow*

In this historical fiction novel set in the 1980s, three generations of an all-female, working-class Taiwanese American family struggle with their own secrets: grandmother Silk has breast cancer, daughter and single mother Lisa has lost her job, and granddaughter Abbey deals with bullying at school. When Grandma Silk’s connection to a shocking historical event in Taiwan comes to light, the family is forced to reconnect and support one another through their struggles.

the-third-sonThe Third Son by Julie Wu

Growing up in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Saburo is the ill-favored third son of a Taiwanese politician. By chance, an air strike brings him into contact with Yoshiko, whose kindness and loving family bring hope and light to Saburo’s world. Years later, Yoshiko reappears in his live but at the side of his arrogant and boorish older brother. In order to make something of himself and win Yoshiko’s respect, Saburo pushes the boundaries of what is possible and winds up on the frontier of America’s space program.

green-islandGreen Island by Shawna Yang Ryan (review at hyperlink)

Told through the perspective of an unnamed first generation Taiwanese American woman, Green Island chronicles the life of the main character from her birth on March 1st, 1947, the day after the infamous 228 Massacre, to the year 2003, marked by the SARS outbreak, intertwining her personal, family history with the political history of Taiwan.

*Jennifer J. Chow is a Chinese American author married to a Taiwanese American. I’ve read the book and as far as I can remember, the facts checked out with the exception of a minor anachronism (regarding the year bubble tea was invented, ha).

Review for Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan

green-island

Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find my list of books that I read and the links to the reviews for those books here.

Note 2: Parts of this review were originally published in and adapted from my Favorite Books of 2016 post.

My Summary: Told through the perspective of an unnamed first generation Taiwanese American woman, Green Island chronicles the life of the main character from her birth on March 1st, 1947, the day after the infamous 228 Massacre, to the year 2003, marked by the SARS outbreak, intertwining her personal, family history with the political history of Taiwan.

Review:

Trigger/Content Warnings: mentions of death, murder, torture

One of the last books I read in 2016 but also one of the best, this book was an intensely personal read for me because it focuses on a dark, tumultuous, and bloody era of Taiwanese history, called the White Terror, that my own family lived through. Taiwan was under martial law for 38 years, from 1949 to 1987, surpassed in length by only Syria (1963-2011). My parents (and maternal grandparents) grew up during that time; they immigrated to the U.S. before martial law was even lifted.

The main character was born in 1947, the year my paternal grandparents got married. My maternal grandmother was born in 1944, and my oldest paternal uncle was born in 1948, so the main character is somewhere between my grandparents’ and parents’ generations. My paternal grandfather was trained to use firearms from his time serving in the Japanese military (Japan ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945), and he’d thought about joining the protests against the provisional government set up by the Chinese Nationalist Party (a.k.a the KMT and the loser of the Chinese civil war). If not for his marriage, he would have gone, and probably been spirited away, never to be seen again, in all likeliness shot to death by a firing squad like so many men were.

The main character’s parents are part of the intellectual elite of Taiwan; her father is a doctor, her mother was educated in French literature and art. This makes them prime targets for persecution. After the 228 Massacre, her father attends an assembly called by the provisional government and asks for democratic rule in Taiwan. Days later, he is dragged away by KMT officers to be tortured and interrogated on Green Island, where he is imprisoned for eleven years before returning, a changed man.

At the core, Green Island is a story of the psychological and intergenerational trauma of such continual, relentless political persecution. The narrative explores the effect of Dr. Tsai’s absence and his return on the main character and her family throughout her lifetime. Even after his return, the government is not done with him or their family. After she moves to America and settles there, the surveillance follows, eventually placing her in a harrowing situation that echoes that of her father years ago. There is almost no facet of the her life that isn’t touched by her family’s past and Taiwan’s politics.

Far from being removed or objective, the story entreats readers to empathize with the difficult moral dilemmas that arise when you are forced to choose between saving loved ones and standing up for your beliefs. That the main character is never named does not make her less complex or emotionally compelling. The first-person narration immerses you in her world with all its sights, sounds, textures, cultural and sociopolitical forces, and, of course, her inner emotional landscape, in all its subtleties and extremes.

Overall, this book is a great fictionalized account of 20th Century Taiwanese history. Aside from a few minor changes made for the sake of a more cohesive narrative, it’s a very accurate depiction of Taiwanese history, according to the author herself and compared against my own knowledge of the subject.

On top of being mostly accurate, event- and timeline-wise, the story rings true to me in the details: from the terms of address among family (the Romanization was weird to me because I learned the Pe̍h-ōe-jī/Church Romanization system, but I was able to figure it out), to the pejorative phrases like “mainland pigs” (used to describe the KMT and the Chinese people who immigrated to Taiwan post-1949), to the metal bento boxes that kids took to school, to the descriptions of shaved ice stands. Although I myself did not live in Taiwan during that time period, I’ve heard enough stories from my dad to have a decent mental picture of what it was like.

Toward the end of the book, the 228 Memorial Museum is mentioned and described. I actually went there with my family back in 2015, and it was a sobering experience, to put it lightly. My older sister was crying while reading the stories of the dead and missing. I mostly just felt numb inside, weighed down by unspeakable pain and horror. It’s hard not to think about how my own family members could have been on those walls, in those pictures, how a small twist of fate spared my family the experiences of Green Island‘s main character.

Recommendation: I’ve read a number of fictional depictions of the White Terror, and Green Island is by far the most vivid and powerful of them. If you’re going to read any historical fiction book about Taiwan, Green Island is the book to read.