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from the August 2016 issue

Literary Heroes: Women Writers from Taiwan

In January 2016, Tsai Ing-wen won the Taiwan presidential elections in a landslide, becoming the country’s first female president. While this historical moment was not without its detractors—China’s Xinhua news was forced to remove an article describing her political style as “emotional, individualistic, and extreme” due to her being unmarried and childless—it was largely received jubilantly, an indication of how seriously Taiwan takes women’s rights. In fact, a quota system reserves a percentage of seats for women in both local and national government. By contrast, over on the Mainland, while Mao Zedong proclaimed more than fifty years ago that “women hold up half the sky,” postrevolution China has never had a female leader (although looking further back into the country's past, various dowagers and empresses have held a great deal of power).

Taiwanese women have proved adept at carving out spaces for themselves, notably with Fembooks—a feminist bookshop established in 1994 that branched into publication a couple of years later with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; it has since brought out work by notable Taiwanese women such as the late politician Peng Wan-ru and the aboriginal writer Paiz Makgnana, as well as Chinese translations of Radcylffe Hall and Jamaica Kinkaid. In what I can only assume is a first-class bit of trolling, their publishing arm also has an imprint devoted to “Men’s Studies,” whose catalog lists titles such as The GQ Male Has A Fever.

While Chinese-language work has become more known internationally, with a greater volume of translation and Nobel Prizes for Mo Yan and Gao Xingjian, much of it has come from the Mainland, and the Taiwanese writers who have come to prominence, such as Wu Mingyi and Chang Ta-chun, have tended to be male. Yet there is a great deal of superb writing by Taiwanese writers who happen to be women, and in this issue we showcase a selection that demonstrates the range and excellence of these voices.

Fiction writer Shih Chiung-Yu grew up in an aboriginal village, and presents a side of Taiwanese existence rarely glimpsed from the outside. The earthy, bawdy celebrations of “Wedding in Autumn” are a world away from the cool cityscapes of Su Wei-chen and Qiu Miaojin.

Qiu Miaojin, one of Taiwan’s first openly lesbian writers, committed suicide at the age of twenty-six in 1995. This extract from her novel Notes of a Crocodile, which will be published in Bonnie Huie’s fine translation by NYRB in 2017, is a bold portrait of two young women’s growing intimacy while Taipei swirls indifferently around them. Su Wei-chen takes us to the other end of the country, to her hometown of Tainan. In this opening section of her 2006 novel The March of Time, a woman’s first plunge into grief after the death of her husband is mediated by her freewheeling mind as she walks, suddenly alone, through a world that no longer makes sense. Based very much on Professor Su’s own life, this story blurs the lines between fiction and memoir in its exploration of loss.

Ye Mimi has said she writes her poems in a “white heat” over two or three days, which reveals itself in the intensity and compression of these short pieces, each titled for the date it was written on. Hsia Yü, the other poet in this issue, is a highly original stylist, and enjoys experimenting with the book as object—for instance, printing her verses on clear vinyl discs, or in collections with scratch-off foil covers so each one can be personalized. In “We Deliver More Than We Promise,” cynicism and hope are perfectly balanced, and mundane activities such as choosing an apartment are refracted through a fun house mirror.

Shen Wan-ting’s play Qibla (meaning the direction in which Muslims should face during prayers, toward Mecca; this is quite possibly the only piece of Taiwanese literature to have an Arabic title) won the 2015 Taiwan Literature Award, and tells the story of the bond that forms between an elderly Taiwanese lady and her Indonesian domestic helper. In a world that too seldom looks at the migrant labor that props up most wealthy economies, it’s heartening to see a writer bringing her gaze to those people in her country who might not have Taiwanese passports, but nonetheless form a vital part of its society.

The new Taiwanese president’s name is perhaps a good omen: “ing” (英) means “hero,” and “wen” (文) means “culture” or “literature.” The very different pieces in this issue are just a sampling of the rich, varied Taiwanese literary scene—and every one of these writers is, in her own way, a hero of the culture.

© 2016 by Jeremy Tiang. All rights reserved.

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