Written by Chee-Hann Wu.
Image credit: 國立臺灣文學館National Museum of Taiwan Literature by 花落/ Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
On 12 March 2023, Taiwan lost to Cuba in a World Baseball Classic qualifier, eliminating the former from the tournament.
For most people, Taiwan and Cuba are like two parallel lines with almost nothing in common except their passion for baseball. If you use “Taiwan” and “Cuba” as keywords for a quick Google search, the first ten pages are all about baseball, with a few random advertisements from travel agencies. What if the relationship between the two is more than that? What if the fate of the two countries is intricately intertwined?
Huang Chong Kai’s The Formosa Exchange begins with such a premise.
On 20 May 2024, one day after the inauguration of Taiwan’s first Indigenous president, the entire population of Taiwan wakes up to find that they have suddenly swapped places with the residents of Cuba – the Taiwanese are now physically present in Cuba, while the Cubans land on the island of Taiwan (with the unique exception that people living outside the main island, such as Kinmen, Mazu, Penghu, Green Island, and Orchid Island, remain where they were).
This event is then referred to as the Great Exchange. However, there is no explanation in the book as to why or how the exchange occurred. Instead, through several vignettes depicting different people’s experiences with the incident, Huang opens up conversations about race, colonial, postcolonial, and settler colonialism, nation-building, geopolitical marginality, and, most importantly, the reimagining of the present and the future.
In Huang’s magical realist narrative, the destinies of Taiwan and Cuba are inextricably linked; meanwhile, more similarities between the two are revealed and emphasised in the novel. For example, both have been colonised under authoritarian regimes, have similar subtropical climates with rainy, hot weather in the summer, and are neighboured by the world superpowers of China and the United States, respectively. Most importantly, as mentioned above, they both consider baseball their national pride. However, those from Cuba severely crushed teams from Taiwan when a new league was formed with teams from both countries after the exchange (ironically, echoing the outcome of the 2023 World Baseball Classics game).
One of the most intriguing links between Taiwan and Cuba, highlighted in Huang’s novel, is the similarity of their geopolitical situations. The Great Exchange not only throws domestic affairs into turmoil but also upsets already complex international relations and (post/new-)Cold War realities. First, hypothetical questions are raised: Would the Exchange ease the economic sanctions the US and other Western countries imposed on Cuba? Would China use the exchange to work with the Cuban government to invade Taiwan with the support of other communist allies? These fanciful suppositions are then juxtaposed with actual events, such as Taiwan’s severing of diplomatic relations with several countries over the past decade and the Hanban (漢辦 the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language at China’s Ministry of Education) asking the European Association for Chinese Studies (EACS) to rip out a page about the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange from its 2014 brochure. The mixture of fictional and real incidents makes the improbability of the exchange somehow feasible and relatable for readers.
The Formosa Exchange reimagines what Taiwan is and raises critical questions about the factors that make Taiwan Taiwan. According to international law, sovereign states require a permanent population, a defined territory, a government that is not subordinate to another, and the capacity to interact with other sovereign states. When the sovereignty of Taiwan, or the Republic of China, has always already been contested, what would happen after the Exchange? Is the island of Taiwan still Taiwan without the Taiwanese people on it? Through a series of events brought together by the Great Exchange, the book looks at Taiwan and its geopolitical realities from beyond. It also shows how Taiwanese literature is never confined to the island’s geographical and physical borders of the island, but constantly seeks connections and dialogues.
Similarly, the winner of the 2022 Openbook Award, Liu Dan-Chiu’s The String Sounds in Between Waves (波間弦話, title translated to English by myself). Set in a fictional universe in which Japan once again colonises Taiwan, the book reimagines Taiwan as the southern island of northern/mainland Japan and questions how different ideologies such as imperialism, militarism, debates on unification and independence, and anti-China, anti-US and anti-Japanese discourses contribute to the physical and conceptual formation of Taiwan. Resembling the presence of diasporic Taiwanese-Cuban or Cuban-Taiwanese cultures in The Formosa Exchange, The String Sounds in Between Waves contains extensive references to a uniquely hybridised culture resulting from the once-again colonisation. The landscapes depicted in both are somehow recognisable but uncanny. Yet this familiarity in the unfamiliar is precisely a testament to Taiwan’s resilience.
In Huang and Liu’s works, Taiwanese literature is not solely about Taiwan but about the temporal and spatial relationships and affinities it establishes, whether they be a revisiting of colonial history in the future or conceiving of Taiwan’s present (or near future) transplanted on the other side of the world. Beyond the collage and juxtaposition of narratives and the distance from actual time and space, these works allow Taiwanese literature to be repositioned within a larger literary network that transcends the physical and conceptual boundaries of literature and continues to thrive.
The special issue “Taiwanese Literature in/and the World” will present Taiwanese literature beyond the traditional definition, conceptual framework, and geographical boundary of “Taiwan” by locating Taiwanese literature in the world and perceiving Taiwanese literature in a global context. Rather than focusing on what counts as Taiwanese literature, the articles in this special issue aim to propose ways of what it can be and how it engages with other literary genres and traditions, invokes resonance, and is made accessible to diverse readers.
This special issue begins with two articles explaining how world literature, first used by Johann Wolfgang Goethe in the nineteenth century to refer to the international circulation and reception of literary works, can provide a new perspective on Taiwanese literature. In the excerpt from Introduction to Taiwanese Literature as World Literature, Pei-yin Lin and Wen-chi Li critically use world literature as a theoretical framework for understanding Taiwanese literature and briefly describe research and works that adopt related approaches in the book. The article is followed by Ssu-chieh Jessica Fan’s survey of publications in 2022 and 2023 that perceive Taiwanese literature through the lens of world literature, emphasising the relational literary network of which Taiwanese literature has always been a part.
In addition to Lin, Li and Fan’s insights into how world literature offers a critical reconfiguration of Taiwan’s literary landscape, this special issue also features articles that examine Taiwanese literature globally and transnationally. Jenna Tang revisits various genres of Taiwanese literature and proposes a transnational understanding of Taiwanese literature from the perspective of a writer and translator. Finally, Linshan Jiang offers specific case studies of how writings on Taiwan’s national trauma of the White Terror resonate with experiences of oppression and resistance worldwide.
Despite different approaches, this special issue focuses on intersectionality and relationality, situating Taiwanese literature in a global context and demonstrating its connections to diverse literary genres and traditions.
Chee-Hann Wu received her Ph.D. in Drama and Theatre from the University of California, Irvine. She is the president of the North American Taiwan Studies Association and editor of Taiwan Insight. Her current book project considers puppetry as a mediated means of narrating Taiwan’s cultural and sociopolitical development, as well as colonial and postcolonial histories.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Taiwanese Literature in/and the World‘.