Writing History Within/Outside of Taiwan: A Postcolonial Perspective on Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island (2016) and Wu Ming-yi’s The Stolen Bicycle (2015) – Part 1

Written by Ti-Han Chang.

Image credit: Bicycle by bear_kuma /Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

 Narrating from Within/Outside

From a global perspective, today’s Taiwan is known for its cultural and ethnic diversity, its complex political relationship with China, and its recent achievements in socio-political democratisation (for instance, the Sunflower student movement and the legalisation of same-sex marriage). Yet, not many people have come to know contemporary Taiwan through its postcolonial literature, which, for me, is an important field that foregrounds Taiwan’s significance in the geographical context of the Asia Pacific in modern time. Postcolonial literature is in many ways relevant to our contemporary world because it unfolds its historical complexity and collective memories of the people. However, how do we tell the tale of Taiwan? How do we tell a story of its past and present (or even future), especially to those who choose to sit down and turn the pages of a book? Moreover, what sort of narration can bring forth a wider understanding among different readerships and can even appeal to people who are unfamiliar with Taiwan?

In an article recently published by Chiu Kuei-fen, a Taiwanese literary critic, “‘Worlding’ World Literature from the Literary Periphery: Four Taiwanese Models”, she suggests that to understand Taiwanese literature in the contemporary context of world literature, the outdated conception of “world literature”, which sought only for canonical works that inscribe transcendental meanings to the world, no longer pertains. World literature, in Chiu’s understanding of David Damrosch’s position, should be regarded as “a mode of circulation and of reading”, and it widely includes literary works that “circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language”.

In this sense, contemporary Taiwanese literature, especially translated works that have been widely circulated beyond the cultural origin of the intended readership, is worthy for our attention. Wu Ming-yi is one of the prominent Taiwanese writers who rises amongst the “the Sixth Grade 六年級生 (liunianji sheng)” and has successfully achieved in circulating the literary specificity of Taiwan beyond its culture of origin. According to Steven Cook, it is only after the 1980s, that translations of Taiwanese literature, especially fiction, began to thrive and enjoy its reputation in the international literary market (n.p.). In this respect, Wu Ming-yi happens to be the author who rides this new wave of “worlding” Taiwanese novels to the world. Being longlisted in the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 for The Stolen Bicycle (original title: 單車失竊記Danche shiqieji), a number of Wu’s postcolonial fictions, cli-fi novels or short stories have also been translated into English, French, Japanese, Korean, Czech, Turkish and even Hungarian languages.

However, in my opinion, it is not only postcolonial literary works that are “made in Taiwan” and have been further disseminated could be accounted as a method of “worlding Taiwanese literature”. Works that speak from a migrant perspective (i.e. a perspective “from the outside”) that scrutinise the colonial past of Taiwan retrospectively are equally important in its contribution to the “worlding” of Taiwanese literature. Shawna Yang Ryan’s postcolonial novel, Green Island (translated Chinese title: 綠島 Ludao), which was initially written in English and then translated into Chinese for Taiwanese readers, can be said to make such contribution. As an American born Taiwanese writer, Ryan’s writing “from the outside” questions the fundamental problem of the national boundary that is traditionally imagined and often re-instated by the postcolonial nation-state. The entire novel is divided into three places and four temporalities. When the story goes beyond what was taking place in Taiwan and shifts the focus to the Taiwan independence movements and anti-KMT political activists overseas in America, a critical question of how we imagine a postcolonial-society-yet-to-come beyond its geopolitical boundary was raised. The question was put forward via the conflicts between the main characters, particularly when they confront a dilemma situation to choose compatriotic feelings towards a non-exiting or imagined postcolonial “nation” (i.e. Taiwan) over their kinship or friendship. In short, Ryan’s writing contributes to the “worlding of Taiwanese literature” by engaging its readers with an overseas migrant’s perspective on the history of Taiwan.

Linear Narratives vs Postmodern Metanarratives

Looking at these novels from the aspect of postcolonial narrative is interesting because one author writes mostly for the Sinophone readers and the other targets, initially, a readership in the English-speaking world. In this regard, one would expect that these two authors write from very different positions. Indeed, they are quite different, especially when it comes to establishing a postcolonial narrative. Wu’s The Stolen Bicycle embraces the technique of postmodern metanarratives that is much celebrated amongst various postcolonial writers in the world. The novel contains multiple story lines that overlap one another, and it does not shy away from creating meta-fiction (i.e. a story within a story) which renders certain historical moments more complex and ambiguous. Ryan’s Green Island, on the other hand, adopts a straightforward chronology, which facilitates the understanding of significant historical moments. For instance, the novel begins with the critical moment when the February 28 Incident took place in 1947, and most of the chapters are opened with a year that is essentially tied with a key historical or political event in the White Terror era.

[To be continued]

 Ti-han Chang is a lecturer of Asia Pacific studies at University of Central Lancashire. Her research interests cover a wide-range of topics, including postcolonial environmental literature, ecocriticism, environmental and animal ethics, socio-political movements, political identity, political censorship, migrant and aboriginal studies.

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