Making Narrative out of History: Green Island and the White Terror

Written by Shawna Yang Ryan.

Image Credit: 人權紀念碑 by Abon/Flickr, license: CC BY-SA 2.0

Green Island, part of the archipelago of Taiwan, lies roughly 33 kilometres off Taiwan’s east coast. During Taiwan’s martial law period, this was the site of a notorious prison for political prisoners. In my novel, Green Island, the narrator’s father is imprisoned by the KMT for advocating democracy during the transition to KMT rule, but the title also functions as a metaphor for Taiwan itself during the martial law era. 

My experiences of Green Island were tonally mixed in ways that left me amused, unsettled, and deeply moved. In my research, I found it striking that although historical novels fix stories in time—as a sodium thiosulfate bath sets an image on photo paper—the places I write about are dynamic, more film than photograph. And so, even as I wrote about the past, I had to look through a lens of the active present to do so. And no less with my writing set on Green Island.

On my last trip to Green Island, I travelled with my aunts and cousins on a loud ferry that reeked of gasoline. My fellow passengers braced themselves against the lurching waves. Many gripped plastic bags as insurance for their nausea. At the port, not far from a large, chrome-glossy duty-free store selling liquor and cosmetics, a large bank of scooters-for-rent greeted tourists. Using these scooters, one by one, travellers set off for their respective hotels and guesthouses, just a short distance away along the central road of the small town of Gongguan. 

After sundown dissipated the heat, people ventured out of their air-conditioned rooms to roam Nanliao, wandering into shops selling seashells and bathing suits and diving equipment. A few stores played with the theme of incarceration, offering prison-related tchotchkes and t-shirts. Inside a jail cell photo prop, a toddler held up a wooden sign declaring her crime while her mother cooed and snapped photos with her phone. Another shop set up a mock re-education class with small wooden stools for tourists to pose on. A shaved ice shop looked like a police station. A black-and-white striped tea shop—emblazoned with the same slogan that greets prisoners at the entrance to the prison— “I love my country”—played on the pun of 茶/查 in its name. 

Later that night, crowds descended on the Zhaori saltwater hot springs, set in rock pools beside the sea and boasting a beautiful sunrise view. Swimsuit-clad people boiled bags of shrimp and eggs in the hottest springs. I watched a stray cat, with call-and-response cries, lead a blind fellow cat deftly around the pools and to the scraps. 

The next day, a short scooter ride led us out of the bustle of town to the quiet of the old prison. It stands as it did decades ago, and not much has been done to protect it from the ravages of saltwater-wind and time, so the paint molders, the propaganda slogans fade, and the door hinges rust. The isolation rooms—narrow and padded so their single desperate occupants could not harm themselves—are still marked with human grease and sweat. Though it no longer holds prisoners, the site feels unrelenting. 

On the ocean side is the Human Rights Monument (pictured above), where a curving stone walkway embedded in bright green grass leads visitors along a long, sombre grey wall of etched names—Green Island’s prisoners. The length of incarceration—or if they died by execution—is carved beneath each name. The mere profusion of names is grief-inducing. Against the sound of crashing waves, we fell into silence as we took in the names surrounding us.


French critic Hélène Cixous speaks of “the desire to speak in a language that heals as much as it separates. Fiction writer Carole Maso says this desire is narrative itself.

Taiwan’s White Terror era was marked by two narratives—what the Kuomintang government said was true and what the people experienced. Green Island was an attempt to bring a narrative of Taiwan into “a language that heals” by building out of scraps and stones and government-enforced silences a breathing world of colour and muscle and breath. Green Island is the story of a family in Taiwan surviving under martial law and the authoritarian government of Chiang Kai Shek despite attempts to turn citizen against citizen, friend against friend, child against parent. 

For decades, the Taiwanese had their lived experiences of the era labelled as lies or sedition. For example, one woman I interviewed said her KMT-supporting friends and colleagues called her experience of Taiwan’s 1947 2-28 Massacre a fiction made up by the Taiwanese. This idea of history’s erasure came up in many of my interviews with survivors and relatives of survivors. 

Silence, what will not or cannot be spoken, became a theme of the novel. Green Island’s narrator says of the 2-28 Massacre: “The event had not even existed until I’d heard the story. It happened this way for each of us, one by one, across the island, a structure suddenly exploding onto the placid empty plain of our history.”

During my writing, I often thought of my mother, born in Taichung in the early 50s, growing up under martial law, when neighbours spied on neighbours, and everything from posters to the back of movie tickets warned citizens to keep watch. Such fear instilled obedience to authority. An aloof politeness. A belief in secrecy and discretion. 

It took me years to understand my mother’s story and others of her generation in Taiwan. It took years to understand how the trauma had been carried down through families and communities, reflexively—in habits of body and mind—unseen to even those who held it. Now, however, I also see how people have enacted resistance to that trauma. Many times, that resistance looks like talking, like storytelling: bearing witness to a history denied for so long. 

In 2016, Green Island was published. At the book’s events, during the post-reading Q&A sessions, first-generation Taiwanese Americans stood up and, instead of asking questions, began sharing stories of their lives as if they had been waiting for an opportunity to give testimony before an audience. Waiting to be heard. 

“Commemoration,” says novelist Hillary Mantel, “is an active process.” Indeed, engagement with the White Terror era and the meaning of its history is a dynamic, ongoing process, from the simultaneous commercialism and solemnity of Green Island to the testimonies of survivors. As a writer and as someone who cares deeply for Taiwan, I hope that more and more perspectives will explode out of the monolithic story of Taiwan’s past and allow its history to blossom in all its multi-hued complexity. 

Shawna Yang Ryan is a former Fulbright scholar and the author of Water Ghosts (Penguin Press, 2009) and Green Island (Knopf, 2016). She is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Her writing has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Asian American Literary Review, The Rumpus, Lithub, and The Washington Post. Her work has received the Association for Asian American Studies Best Book Award in Creative Writing, the Elliot Cades Emerging Writer award, and an American Book Award. Find Green Island here (TW) and here (US).

This article was published as part of a special issue on The Outlying Islands

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s