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The City and the Writer: In Taipei with Afaa Weaver

By Nathalie Handal


If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Taipei as you feel/see it?

It has a sense of permanence, even busyness, that I think is formed as much by the geography as by the nature of Chinese culture, which is distinctly different here than it is in China. Taiwan is an island, and Taipei, its capital, bears the feeling of something precious and fragile. The frequent earthquakes come without warning and this sense of fragility, made even more fragile by the typhoons, is balanced by an appreciation of the beauty and its natural limits.

In the hottest season, the nights are luscious, the tropical atmosphere turning the air to steam. The neon transforms the place and people come out in an almost ritualistic play. Even if you were born there and have lived most of your life in Taiwan, there can be much to see in Taipei. It is the northern end of things, much different from the southern end, Kaoshiung.

In Taipei, the air is global in a postcolonial way. It is a city of walkers as well as a city of motorcyclists who travel in packs, oblivious to traffic regulations. In the mornings, tai chi players gather in the parks alongside groups dancing to Broadway tunes and young people playing basketball.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I was teaching, or trying to teach, creative writing at the Taipei National University of the Arts during my time as a Fulbright grantee. It was my first time in Taipei and I made some classic mistakes rooted in the ignorance of foreigners. I tried to use a book of Taiji philosophy as a framing device. The first class was full but it soon dropped off to a handful of students. They thought my method was quaint. My heart sank and I was, of course, embarrassed. When it was over, I felt I had learned a primary lesson. What comes to us of places we have not seen is not what that place actually is. This important fact is ignored more and more in our digital world.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

In places where it grows, there is the sound of bamboo singing when you walk past it in the evenings, especially in the warmer weather. It is enchanting.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

In Boston, I convened two conferences of Chinese poets from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong— the first in 2004 and the second in 2008. In doing that work I came to know a few Taiwanese poets. I would recommend the late Yu Kwangchun, Zheng Chouyu, Hsia Yü, Ya Mu, Lin Melusine, Ye Mimi, You Hsi, Horng Shuling, Yang Tze, and William Marr.

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

The campus of National Taiwan University (NTU) is a national park, and it is my geographic meditation, my point of origin. I taught there as a Fulbright grantee seventeen years ago, so it is the site of precious memories. When I think of Taipei, I think of my arrival there. The chair of the department at the time was Dr. Chinghsi Perng, who is also my godfather because he gave me my Chinese name. It was raining, and he and his administrative staff met me at the taxi with umbrellas in hand, waiting for the poet. NTU is a beautiful space inside me. It’s where my thoughts of being at home in Taipei reside, where those thoughts grow deeper.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Eslite Bookstore on Roosevelt Road, and the neighborhood around Eslite, where several other important bookstores are located. There is a very, very old tree on Wenzhou Street. Go there and speak to the tree. The tree will blush with love and gratitude. 

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The night markets are incredible. I mostly know the one in the Shih Lin District, but there are several. If you are not claustrophobic and enjoy being overwhelmed with a universe of distinct colors, the sounds of thick streams of people talking, and the joyous overflow of aromas from different dishes, then I would say go to the night markets.

 

Where does passion live here?

In the eyes of elders who lived through the influx of mainlanders under Chiang Kai-shek, the many poets and writers who survived the transition, the sometimes weepy eyes of those who suffered personal losses, the soldiers who left families behind never to see them again. It’s that passion for the mix of national cultures, and a fundamental difference in the expression of Chinese culture here, where the Japanese dominated for decades such that some of the first generations of Chinese poets were educated in Japanese. It is the zeal for cultural life in the eyes of the people. That’s what I see.

 

What is the title of one of your works about Taipei and what inspired it exactly?

City of Eternal Spring, the third book in my Plum Flower Trilogy, is inspired by the time I’ve spent visiting and living in Taipei. It’s where I began my Taoist meditation seventeen years ago and it’s where I made a decision to begin studying Mandarin formally. I was fifty years old. City of Eternal Spring deals with the heart as a city, with considerations toward the union of heart and mind.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Taipei does an outside exist?

All things outside Taipei are still Taipei. You can stand outside Taipei and feel Taipei in your center. From there, when you look back to Taipei, you will see the origin of “All Things Taipei,” like the sun, or the incomprehensible heart of the origin of creativity. But you must surrender, surrender and be found again, inside your renewal of self and experience. You must become a real traveler.


 

Afaa M. Weaver (尉雅風), formerly known as Michael S. Weaver, was born in 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was a factory worker for fifteen years, during which time he wrote and published. In 1985, he received an NEA fellowship in poetry. He completed his BA from the University of the State of New York in 1986, and in 1987, he completed his graduate degree in creative writing at Brown University. Afaa has published fifteen collections of poetry. His latest book is Spirit Boxing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017). He received the 2014 Kingsley Tufts Award for The Government of Nature (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013) and the 2015 Phillis Wheatley Book Award for City of Eternal Spring (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014). His other awards include the Mae Sarton Award, a Pew fellowship (1998), a Fulbright appointment to teach in Taiwan (2002), the Gold Friendship Medal from the Beijing Writers Association (2005), four Pushcart Prizes, and a Guggenheim fellowship (2017). As a playwright, he has had two professional productions and been awarded the PDI Award at Chicago’s ETA theater. In addition, he has worked as a freelance journalist. His short fiction is included in Gloria Naylor’s Children of the Night. Afaa has intermediate level fluency in Mandarin and has practiced Taijiquan since his late twenties. His work has been translated into Chinese and Arabic. At Simmons University, he held the Alumnae Endowed Chair for twenty years.  After retiring from Simmons, he began teaching part time at Sarah Lawrence. His website is magichorses.org.


Published Apr 9, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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