Understanding Taiwanese Literature Beyond Borders

Written by Jenna Tang.

Image credit: 高雄市立圖書館 Kaohsiung Public Library by Chi-Hung Lin / Flickr, license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

Literature from Taiwan is considerably underrepresented in the English-speaking world. Several literary themes are specific to the place, its languages, cultures, and history that haven’t been fully explored over time. As a Taiwanese writer and translator myself, I am often questioned: “How do these books from Taiwan travel across borders?” 

When I was in high school, our assigned readings in Sinophone literature classes mostly covered works from both China and Taiwan, as well as a small number of international literature in translation. Following the timeline in chronology, we primarily studied classical Chinese poetry and prose; for contemporary literature, we were mostly introduced to 懷鄉文學 (Nostalgic Literature) and 眷村文學 (Taiwanese Veterans’ Village Literature), which contains a good number of lyrical prose reminiscing landscapes of the past, and mostly, narratives about home. 

We were assigned to read extensively as high schoolers. We learnt to understand ways to decipher classical language and what it was like to live through the turbulent times of war, but on the other hand, we had very little access to local folklore, Indigenous literature, Feminist literature, and not to mention Queer Literature, the latter didn’t even exist in the educational curriculum and was never talked about when I grew up. The Taiwanese literature we read contained only the world we were made to see.  

As I came to the States and became a translator from Mandarin Chinese to English, I began to read Taiwanese literature in translation more extensively, from which I have gained distinct perspectives and understanding of the literature I had been reading all this time. To start, I noticed most of the Indigenous literature we read was predominantly from cisgender male authors, and many of the Indigenous pieces we read were written mostly in Mandarin Chinese instead of in their different Indigenous languages; we were never encouraged to read any pieces about gender, queerness, or identities; when it comes to literature in local dialects, such as Taiwanese Hokkien and Hakka, we learnt so little, and these languages exist for us solely because we use them to communicate with our family; Taiwanese diaspora literature went completely lost. The more I explored Taiwanese literature in English, the more questions I had. 

In recent years, Taiwanese queer literature has gained recognition in the English-speaking world. Books like Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile (tr. Bonnie Huie) and Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes (tr. Ari Larissa Heinrich) have become considerably well-known. In 2021, I was invited to translate a short story, “Nobi Nobita’s Body”, from writer Leah Yang for “Queer Time: A Special Notebook of Taiwanese Tongzhi Literature” at Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Working as a translator allowed me a new way of experiencing languages from Taiwan. Such languages aren’t simply spoken languages but speak directly to the cultures that have long been overlooked. 

What else should we read if we’d like to get to know Taiwanese literature more? Why are there so few titles being introduced to English-speaking audiences? 

It is important to know that Taiwanese literature is diverse in languages. Literature from Taiwan doesn’t solely come from works written in Mandarin Chinese; it is also about languages from over sixteen Indigenous communities, Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka (disappearing dialect), and languages from Southeast Asia. To me, to get to know Taiwanese literature more thoroughly is to get to know the voices that are, to this day, underrepresented.  

In Taiwan, to date, sixteen Indigenous tribes are officially acknowledged. However, there are also more than twenty-six tribes that the government doesn’t yet recognize. The term “Indigenous Literature” risks generalizing cultures and languages coming from different tribes across the island. Reading Indigenous literature is not just about reading folktales and stories passed down by oral traditions; it is to recognize the diversity of the Indigenous cultures in Taiwan,  learning that it’s not just “Indigenous Literature” but “Sakizaya literature,” “Amis Literature,” “Seediq Literature” and so much more. Due to the lack of attention for Indigenous literature, only so few titles are brought to the anglophone world. 

移工文學 (Migrant literature) from Taiwan is a realm that is barely explored even by Chinese-speaking audiences. On the island, especially in my hometown Zhongli, there is a population coming from Southeast Asia, staying on the island as migrant workers. Most of these workers are employed by factories or Taiwanese households to help care for seniors or family members with disabilities. Unfortunately, due to cultural differences and existing prejudices, most migrant workers are being severely discriminated against by local Taiwanese and have undergone unfair treatment from both the working environment and society. As a result, there is very little access to the voices of the migrant workers. Despite having a specific national literary award and that there are magazines like Taiwan Panorama that highlight migrant voices, it is not enough. This part of Taiwanese literature has never gained enough space in the Chinese-speaking literary world, not to mention bringing them to another language. 

There is great difficulty introducing literature recounted in or related to local dialects, especially that of Hakka, which is currently disappearing. Like Taiwanese Hokkien, which is comparably more spoken in Taiwan, none of these languages has a written system that is ingrained in their speakers. Without a written system or characters to follow, most of the stories told in dialects are lost or can only be passed down by oral traditions. Despite the efforts made by officials or organizations to preserve these languages, it is very challenging for local speakers to “read in dialects”; therefore, even fewer books are published. However, in many ways, these languages are present in the voices of many characters in contemporary Taiwanese books.  

To me, the act of translating and reading translations from Taiwan meant discovering new aspects of Taiwanese literature or voices that are underrepresented. Taiwan is a small island but rich in its literary culture. As a translator pitching my translation projects in the States, I am often asked: “What do you think makes this story come across to the English-speaking world?” This goes back to “What are the stories that cross borders?” The focus is not necessarily on what kind of stories are easier to bring to the anglophone sphere; it is more about understanding from both parts. How do we talk about the stories we came to like and wanted to translate? And what do these works highlight the themes and values in conversations with works from other cultures? And how do we see past stereotypes and cultural differences to understand the work’s importance and bring such experiences to future audiences? 

Feminist Literature. Queer Literature. Indigenous Literature. Migrant Literature. Hakka Literature. Taiwanese Hokkien Literature. Taiwanese diaspora Literature. White Terror Narratives. Local Folktales. City Legends. Sci-Fi. Ghost Stories. Writing About Nature–The list of Taiwanese literature to be read is so much more, and most works are yet to be discovered by new readers and translators and be brought to different languages. It is not about whether these works are understandable enough to cross the borders or not; it is more about us as readers trying to make our ways to understand and cross the borders ourselves to get to know these voices.  

And, after all, who gets to say or decide if Taiwanese literature can travel to other parts of the world

Jenna Tang is a Taiwanese writer and a literary translator who translates between Chinese, French, and Spanish. She graduated from MFA in Fiction Creative Writing from The New School in New York City. Her translations and essays are published in Restless Books, Latin American Literature Today, AAWW, McSweeney’s, Catapult, and elsewhere. Her interviews can be found at World Literature Today and Words Without Borders. She was a 2021 Mentee at ALTA Emerging Translators Mentorship program with a focus on Taiwanese prose. She has translated Lin Yi-Han’s novel, Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise, forthcoming at HarperVia in 2024. 

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Taiwanese Literature in/and the World‘.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s