Tag Archives: taiwan

Bestiary

Surreal novel about a Taiwanese family in the USA

Content warning: family violence, child abuse, racism

I first saw this debut novel being promoted on Twitter back in 2020 when author events were being cancelled left, right and centre. Now that we are starting to resume some in-person events here in Australia, I was very keen to go back to Asia Bookroom’s Book Group. Members can nominate books and volunteer to lead the discussion and I proposed this book. Unfortunately I missed the previous meeting but I was excited to prepare to present the book and facilitate a discussion. There is a lot going on in this book, so I will adapt my presentation to inform the review below to highlight some of the many themes and stylistic choices as well as to share my own thoughts.

Image is of “Bestiary” by K-Ming Chang. The paperback book is resting on muddy ground next a navy blue shovel. The cover is of a yellow stylised tiger that appears to be battling a garden hose that looks like a snake gaainst a navy backdrop with a moon and leaves.

“Bestiary” by K-Ming Chang is about three generations of women in a family: Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. Grandmother moved from Taiwan to Arkansas, USA with her second husband and two youngest daughters (including Mother), leaving her three eldest daughters behind. Years later, Mother has her own children including Daughter and her brother. The book goes back and forth between perspectives and stories of the three, linking them together with their shared history, shared heritage and shared experience as migrants in America. After becoming obsessed with digging holes in her backyard, Daughter begins to receive letters from the ground written by Grandmother to each of her daughters, sharing stories about their family history and revealing what happened to her four aunties.

This is a rich and complex book that is surprising and original at every turn. The book is divided up into chapters, each told from either Grandmother’s, Mother’s and Daughter’s perspective. Some of Grandmother’s chapters are told in the form of translated letters, with annotations by Daughter and her girlfriend Ben. There are parables, poetry, family histories and first person accounts all drawing on oral storytelling traditions and leaning into extreme subjectivity bordering on unreliable narration. I really felt that this book transcended what we would usually consider ‘magic realism’ and arrived squarely in surrealism. Chang certainly drew on plenty of examples of mythology and brought them to life in a literal way. I felt that the style and the structure were both chaotic in a complimentary way, and both served to highlight and obscure what was happening with the family. 

I think one of my favourite parts of the book was Daughter and Ben’s relationship, and how parallels are drawn between that and Grandmother’s Grandfather (the pirate and his lover) and even Grandmother. I really liked how mythology and queerness are woven together, especially with children being created from queer love in quite fantastical ways. Chang said of writing queer relationships in her interview with LitHub

they are transformed by each other, that they are literally alchemizing each other. I wanted their desire to feel fully embodied and sometimes even mythic, world-defining, almost supernatural, completely defying any definitions of what’s real or possible. Everything they want is possible. Their relationship felt like pure potential to me—while I was writing Ben in particular, there was this sense of rebellion and irreverence and redefining the rules she’s been given. Their desire is literally magic, and I wanted to channel that hunger. It felt so liberating to write them into the past and the future, to write them in a way that felt boundless.

I think one of the most striking (and honestly quite shocking) things about this book was the role bodily functions played in the story-telling. In addition to her characters frequently creating water (by spitting and urinating) like they enter water (lakes, rivers, the sea), Chang also writes a lot about digesting. The holes that Daughter and her brother dig in the yard consume offerings and vomit up letters from Grandmother. In an interview with the Rumpus, Chang says that she grew up talking openly about bodily functions and that she likes to balance the beautiful with the grotesque. She said something interesting about deciding what is clean and unclean is often a question of class. She also talked about how stories are told through the mouth, and so too is everything processed by the body. Stylistically, the way Chang engaged with bodily functions reminded me a lot of “The English Class” by Ouyang Yu, which was the first Asia Bookroom Book Group I attended.

Family violence is a significant part of the book and hand-in-hand with this is abandonment. In many ways the family is fractured and at times there are even threats with knives and thoughts of how to best defend oneself from violent family members. I think family violence ties very closely with the intergenerational trauma experienced by the family, not just because of the war and the occupation of Taiwan (set out with far more clarity in “Green Island“!) but also as immigrants in the USA. There were some very compelling moments of Mother and Daughter experiencing racism in schools. I also wondered if the surrealism style was a way to cope with some of the things that happened; treating trauma “irreverently” (like Chang says in an interview) and focusing on seemingly trivial things rather than the bigger, more traumatic memories. 

As you may have extrapolated, this was not an easy book to read. As a reader, you have to put in a lot of time and thought into understanding this book and the things Chang is trying to convey. There are so many layers of metaphor, parable and surrealism that at times it is hard to know what should be taken literally and what should be taken with a grain of salt.

A challenging and at times confusing book full of colourful stories interlaced with beautiful poetic writing.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism

Green Island

Historical fiction novel about family and political upheaval in Taiwan

Content warning: torture, mental illness

I bought this book in keen anticipation of attending one of my favourite book clubs: the Asia Bookroom Book Group. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend on the day, but I nevertheless was very keen to read one of this year’s set books.

Image is of “Green Island” by Shawna Yang Ryan. The paperback book is resting flat on a wooden shelf with its green and yellow spine visible. On a lower shelf is a jade bangle, and in the foreground is a glass cup of bubble tea with a paper straw siting in a woven basket.

“Green Island” by Shawna Yang Ryan is a historical fiction novel set initially in late 1940s Taiwan. Shortly after delivering his fourth child at home, an attentive and energetic young doctor called Dr Tsai is disappeared by Chinese Nationalists after speaking at a community meeting in favour of democracy and Taiwainese representation. Years later, he returns a different man to a family who almost don’t recognise him and a community who shuns him. Nevertheless, he forms a close relationship with his youngest daughter and takes a keen interest in educating her. As the years progress, the unnamed daughter finds herself married and in a comfortable situation in America. However, the tension and surveillance of mid-century Taiwan is not over, and as she is forced to revisit her father’s decisions and ask herself what she would do to protect her family.

This is a well-written and challenging novel that says as much in the scenes we don’t see as it does in the scenes we do. Rarely do people who have been disappeared return home alive, and Dr Tsai’s experience challenges the reader to consider the impossible situation a person is placed in, the extremes they are pushed to through torture and threats, and how far they will go to survive. There was a pivotal scene in the book where Dr Tsai is convinced that he is being followed and kept under surveillance, and his family dismiss his concerns as paranoia. However, it transpires that his instincts were correct and he was being watched, and this experience is repeated for his daughter.

Yang Ryan also explores the idea of betrayal and living with your decisions long after they are made. I also quite liked the juxtaposition between the narrator’s life in Taiwan and her life in America, and how in some ways it seemed so easy for her to slip into this sophisticated, erudite, American lifestyle and yet how difficult it was to escape the reach of Taiwanese politics. Yang Ryan weaves in themes of intergenerational trauma and the impact of tension in households on children. I found that the sessions with the psychiatrist were some of the most illuminating in the book and they leave you wondering what difference access to mental health support and financial security would have made to the narrator and her family back in Taiwan.

However, this was not always an easy novel to read. The focus is certainly on the characters and themes of family and while I certainly could understand the impact of the Martial Law Era, I found it difficult to understand the history of it. This is almost certainly a result of my ignorance, and I think if you are reading this book it would be worth doing a bit of background reading to help understand the broader historical context. Although a key character in the book, I found Jia Bao quite unfathomable and there were a number of tense scenes involving him, the narrator, her husband and Jia Bao’s family that I struggled to make sense of. The narrator has a complicated relationship with him and as a reader, I was left with a disconcerting sense of missed opportunity.

A compelling and tense novel that explores the emotional and moral toll of living under an oppressive regime.

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The Stolen Bicycle

This was the set book for the March Asia Bookroom book club. It has a beautifully understated cover design that hints at the contents but gives away very little. However something that is very telling is that it has been longlisted for the Man International Booker Prize.

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“The Stolen Bicycle” by Wu Ming-Yi and translated by Darryl Sterk is a literary novel set in and around Taiwan and explored over several decades. The narrator, an established author and bicycle enthusiast called Cheng, tells the story of his family. However, to tell the story of his family, a family whose history is made up of a succession of stolen bicycles, there are some things he has to track down. While he searches for answers about his father’s disappearance and unaccounted-for bicycle, he meets many interesting people along the way with their own usual stories.

A lot of people have recommended Murakami to me over the years as a master of storytelling and magic realism. This is better. Wu has an uncanny eye for finding the humanity in everything. This book draws out the heart of Taiwan and its history, but also goes to the soul of the human condition. This is a book about trust, kindness, loss, obsession, generosity and, above all, bicycles.

There are few criticisms to make about this book. However, I think some people may find it a little slow-paced and meandering at times. There are lots of stories interwoven throughout this book and it sometimes can be hard to find a common theme. However, ultimately, the reader’s attention is drawn back to the narrator’s favourite topic: the bicycle.

An excellently-written book and a brilliant insight into the diverse history and people of Taiwan. This book will linger with you for a long time and teach more than you ever thought possible about bicycles.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism