Shin­ing a light

Us­ing the power of story, au­thor Shawna Yang Ryan brings Tai­wan’s dark and trou­bled his­tory to the world’s at­ten­tion.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By SANDY CLArKE star2@ thes­tar. com. my Em­me­line Pankhurst fought their bat­tles?

GREEN Is­land tells a fic­tional tale of love and loy­alty set in the har­row­ing pe­riod of post- WWII Tai­wan, a coun­try in a time when dis­si­dents could ex­pect bru­tal pun­ish­ment from a re­pres­sive govern­ment.

De­spite the na­tion’s so­ciopo­lit­i­cal turn­around ( its first fe­male pres­i­dent was elected on Jan 16 this year), many peo­ple to­day con­tinue to har­bour fears of openly dis­cussing the 38- year pe­riod of mar­tial law, known as the “White Ter­ror”.

Tai­wanese- Amer­i­can au­thor Shawna Yang Ryan, who grew up in Cal­i­for­nia and now teaches cre­ative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Hawaii, re­searched that painful pe­riod for 14 years be­fore writ­ing Green Is­land, re­leased last month ( re­viewed below).

In an e- mail in­ter­view, we speak to Ryan on why she felt it was im­por­tant to shine a light on the his­tory of Tai­wan, and the emo­tional con­se­quences of re­vis­it­ing the coun­try’s dark­est and most men­ac­ing chap­ter.

of­fers a stark in­sight into a bru­tal his­tory. How dif­fi­cult was it to deal with the emo­tional im­pact of bring­ing the story to life?

It was hard at times to put my head in that world, es­pe­cially know­ing that th­ese were ac­tual events. The re­search was more dif­fi­cult than the writ­ing – lis­ten­ing to and read­ing peo­ple’s sto­ries and vis­it­ing their real pain. And, of course, a writer’s job is to see the world through the per­spec­tive of oth­ers, so I had to be very open to try­ing to imag­ine and share those emo­tions.

In the end, how­ever, it was only imag­i­na­tion for me, un­like for my sources, and I was re­ally hum­bled be­fore the re­silience of the peo­ple I spoke to.

What was your over­rid­ing mo­ti­va­tion to tell the world this par­tic­u­lar story?

Be­cause of Tai­wan’s political po­si­tion – it has full diplo­matic re­la­tions with just 22 en­ti­ties – its story is not very well known. I be­lieve in the power of story – whether by book or film or other art – and I thought that a novel could be a way to make Tai­wan’s story more fa­mil­iar to peo­ple.

Tai­wan should be known as more e than just a side note to its more fa­mous neigh­bour; it has its own fas­ci­nat­ing and com­pli­cated his­tory. y.

Once the re­search process for your work is com­plete, how do you set about writ­ing?

It re­ally de­pends on which part of f the process I’m at. I tend to aim for spend­ing a cer­tain amount of time on writ­ing each day, or ev­ery other day, but when I’m in the re­vi­sion stage, and I have ma­te­rial be­fore me, it’s eas­ier to dig in for longer pe­ri­ods.

There’s also this pe­cu­liar feel­ing – I’ve heard other writ­ers talk about too – of re­sist­ing the page at the same time that you re­ally want to write. I sup­pose it’s a kind of de­fer­ral – the un­writ­ten word is al­ways per­fect.

Can you de­scribe how the de­sire to write came about, and what you feel is the pur­pose of writ­ing works of fic­tion?

Story is how we as hu­mans or­gan­ise the world. We try to come up with sto­ries for how we orig­i­nat- ed, how the uni­verse works, why things hap­pen. We make up sto­ries about our­selves, our pasts, even for ba­nal things like why our ac­quain­tance seemed to not see us in the gro­cery store this af­ter­noon.

Story is a hu­man im­pulse. So I think writ­ing fic­tion is an im­por­tant t en­deav­our be­cause it is part of the process – part of the larger di­a­logue e – by which we all make sense of our r world. As for why I per­son­ally write, I can only say that it’s an

im­pulse, a drive. I can’t not write.

poses the cu­ri­ous dilemma of whether it is bet­ter to stand up for what we be­lieve in against the odds or keep our heads down and try to sur­vive. Do you feel there is still as much to fight for to­day as there was in the days when fig­ures such as Nelson Man­dela, Martin Luther King Jr and

This is a great ques­tion! Un­for­tu­nately, there is still as much to fight for to­day. The fights look dif­fer­ent, but ineq in­equal­ity and in­jus­tice still ex­ist. Luck kily, I do still see that spirit. I feel th hat there has been a resur­gence – and d I can only re­ally speak about the US S and Tai­wan – of that ac­tivist spirit ini the last few years. To­day it’s no ot nec­es­sar­ily cen­tred on one fig­ure like Dr King or Man­dela, but in gr roups and move­ments, like Black LivesL Mat­ter.

( Black Lives Mat tter is a move­ment in the United States s that emerged fol­low­ing the 2013 ac quit­tal of a white man who had fata ally shot an un­armed bla ack teenager, and fo­cus­ing ono other in­ci­dents since of blackb males be­ing shot by au­thor­i­ties.)a

The sto­rys and the char­act ters of

lin­gered on in the me emory of this reader . How did you feel aft er you had fin­ished th he story? Was there a sense of cathar rsis and re­lief?

I fel lt re­lief in hav­ing fin­ish hed a ma­jor, multi- yea ar pro­ject, but I also felt a strange sort of melan­choly.m I was sayin ng good­bye to fig­ures s who had con­sum med my thoughts for years!y I spent a good chunk of my life think­ing about what they were think­ing and do­ing.

I ac­tu­ally have not be­gun a new pro­ject yet be­cause it still feels so weird to not be in this book’s world any­more.

Mar­tial law in Tai­wan was lifted in 1987, and yet you re­vealed that peo­ple are still wary of talk­ing about this pe­riod 15 years later. Can you give us a sense of what it must have been like for peo­ple who ac­tu­ally lived dur­ing a time of seem­ingly in­dis­crim­i­nate per­se­cu­tion?

It’s true: I met peo­ple re­luc­tant to talk about it even years later be­cause of a lin­ger­ing fear of reper­cus­sions. Once some­thing has been in­grained in you so long, I be­lieve it be­comes re­flex­ive. It has to be – sur­vival can de­pend on it. I got the sense that there was a per­va­sive feel­ing of be­ing watched. A con­stant in­se­cu­rity, a self- cen­sor­ship.

Or­di­nary peo­ple were re­cruited as spies – one man I spoke with ad­mit­ted to me that he had been asked as a high school stu­dent to re­port on his class­mates. So you never re­ally knew who you could trust.

And, as the book in­di­cates, this was also true for Tai­wanese abroad. The govern­ment was al­ways, al­ways watch­ing.

For read­ers who ask, “Why should I read this book? What can I hope to take away from it?” what would be your mes­sage be?

As you men­tioned ear­lier, the book asks read­ers to ques­tion their moral stance: is it bet­ter to fight or sur­vive? What would you do?

The story of­fers read­ers a chance to take their moral pulse. And for the his­tory- minded, those who were raised to think of Chi­ang Kai- shek as a hero, the book of­fers a very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on that ver­sion of his­tory.

Over­all, be­cause Green Is­land is at heart the story of fam­ily, and of love, I think many dif­fer­ent read­ers can look into this book and recog­nise – re­flect on – aspects of their own ex­pe­ri­ence.

ryan had to deal with the emo­tional con­se­quences of re­vis­it­ing Tai­wan’s dark­est times. — AnnA Wu

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.