Written by Mark Harrison.
Just off the south east coast of Taiwan, facing the Pacific Ocean, is the small atoll of Green Island. Over the four decades of Taiwan’s authoritarian rule from the 1940s to the 1980s, it was the location for a cluster of notorious prison camps that housed Taiwanese political prisoners. Thousands of people who opposed the government of Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomingtang or KMT) spent years in isolated imprisonment and an unknown number died there.
Green Island (2016) is the title of a new novel by the Taiwanese-American author Shawna Yang Ryan. It tells a story of Taiwan that is little-appreciated in the English-speaking world, through the experiences of a family whose life is defined by authoritarianism.
Shawna Yang Ryan is from Sacramento, California and teaches creative writing at the University of Hawaii. This year she won the Elliot Cades Award for Literature for emerging writers. She is steeped in the west coast literary culture of the “Bay Area” and her work is championed by figures such as the doyen of the San Francisco literary scene Thomas Farber and the celebrated beat poet Gary Snyder.
Shawna Yang Ryan’s first novel, Water Ghosts (2009), was set in the late 1920s in the town of Locke, built by Chinese settlers not far from Sacramento. In Water Ghosts, Ryan turns lives ruptured by migration and the Exclusion Act of 1924 into a miasmic world filled with longing and desire. Because of its Chinese social and cultural themes, Ryan’s earlier work has seen her situated in the categories of Asian-American and Chinese-American literature. Literary scholar Wei Ming Dariotis describes her as one of a new generation of Chinese-American writers exploring new themes and genres in the literary terrain opened up by celebrated Chinese-American writers like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston.
However, Ryan’s mother is from Taiwan and Ryan calls herself Taiwanese-American. She has described learning about Taiwan in personal terms, by becoming close to her extended Taiwanese family in the central city of Taichung. This relationship helped her better appreciate her own childhood and the challenges her mother faced in the 1970s in translating Taiwanese cultural life into a Californian setting through the rituals and rhythms of family life.
Ryan lived in Taiwan on a Fullbright scholarship, and described encountering Taiwan’s history of oppression and resistance there as a political awakening. She is active in the Taiwanese-American community and once politely but pointedly admonished celebrated Taiwanese film director Ang Lee at a public forum in Berkeley on his failure to tell a fully ‘Taiwanese’ story in his filmic oeuvre. It is as a novelist writing her second novel that Ryan has chosen to tell her own Taiwanese story.
Green Island begins with the birth of a girl in Taipei on February 28 1947, the day of the start of the island-wide uprising known as 2-28 that has defined Taiwanese politics and society ever since. Shortly after, her father, a Japanese-educated doctor, is arrested by the authorities and becomes one of the thousands who disappeared in the ‘White Terror’, when he is interred on Green Island. The family is forced to remake a quotidian Taiwanese family life around the despair wrought by his absence. But after 10 years of imprisonment he suddenly returns, meeting his daughter as a young child for the first time, and creating a new and different kind of silence at the centre of the family. In a society shaped by fear as a policy of authoritarian rule, the family is reunited but more deeply fractured than ever by suffering and suspicions that cannot be uttered.
Shawna Yang Ryan focusses on the vivid details of daily life in Taiwan as the hopes of her characters are realised and compromised by Taiwan’s social and political travails. As a writer, Ryan is particularly interested in the senses and on the tangibility of experiences, with her distinctive style bringing an intense tactility to the narrative. This dimension of Ryan’s work could be characterised as explicitly feminist. Green Island is a woman’s story that is attentive to the way women must negotiate power in their relationships and through their bodies in the everyday. More broadly, through the story of modern Taiwan, the book explores the choices people make, and are forced to make, in their political and personal lives and the consequences of those choices.
Later in Green Island, the daughter marries and emigrates to the United States, but the memories of the traumas visited upon her family in Taiwan haunt the present. In California in the 1970s, where the instruments of Taiwan’s KMT government can still reach, she is entangled by her husband’s participation in the exile Taiwanese democracy movement, with disastrous consequences. The novel concludes in the 2000s, long after Taiwan’s transition to democracy but during the public health panic of the SARS epidemic. In a resolution that might be read as cautious optimism, Ryan shows people reaching towards resignation, accommodation and understanding across the generations in their relationships.
As an act of story-telling, Green Island is imbued with a sense of urgency that comes from Ryan’s consciousness of the limited understanding of the history of Taiwan in the English-speaking world. And it is the political transformation of Taiwan itself that has made possible Ryan’s telling of it.
Taiwan had been gradually incorporated into the Qing empire from the 18th century until the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 ceded Taiwan to Japan. For 50 years the Taiwanese benefited from Japanese imperial modernisation and suffered under imperial militarism. In 1911, the Chinese Nationalists overthrew the Qing dynasty on mainland China and founded the Republic of China. The Taiwanese fought in the Japanese imperial army in WWII, but with Japan’s defeat in 1945 it was to the Republic of China, led by Chiang Kai-shek, that Taiwan was ceded. On ‘2-28’, the Taiwanese rose up against Chinese Nationalist rule. The uprising was crushed with extraordinary brutality, with tens of thousands killed, thousands more imprisoned or fleeing into exile in Japan and the US. In 1949, defeated by the Chinese Communists, the KMT relocated the national government of the Republic of China to Taiwan, leading more than one million refugees to join a hostile population of five million Taiwanese.
Taiwan became a developmentalist state governed under martial law from 1949 to 1987. After decades of both political violence and rapid economic development, Taiwan began its transition to democracy in the late 1980s, by which time the majority of the international community had renounced diplomatic recognition of the Republic of China.
In the martial law period, exiled Taiwanese activists in the US campaigned for democracy, and also for Taiwanese national self-determination. In opposing the KMT government, Taiwanese activists were sometimes stridently anti-Chinese. The peak of anti-government activism overseas occurred when Wen-shiung Huang, who was affiliated with the World United Formosans for Independence, attempted to assassinate Taiwan’s Vice-premier Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek, in New York in 1970.
With democratisation in Taiwan and the rise of the People’s Republic of China threatening Taiwan’s autonomy, an inclusive Taiwanese national identity politics became mainstream on Taiwan. The KMT now stands in competitive elections like any other political party against its main rival, the Democratic Progressive Party.
For overseas Taiwanese, the achievement of democratisation has meant that exile anti-government activism lost much of its political, cultural and moral purpose. But for a second and third generation born in the US with Taiwanese family histories like Shawna Yang Ryan, far from diminishing its salience, this has opened identification with Taiwan to new kinds of political and cultural encounters. It is what the Deleuzian social theorist Eugene Holland calls a “double-becoming” in which the meaning of a place does not merely change, from dictatorship to democracy in the case of Taiwan, but changes the scope of what it is possible for it to mean.
In the US especially, Taiwanese identity has engaged with the rise of identity politics. By being able to let go of its anti-authoritarian and hard anti-ROC government activism, Taiwanese identity in the US has been opened to the questions of subjectivity and cultural representation. Hyphenated, diaspora, third culture and other terms are now available to people who identify with Taiwan to explore their subjective plural identities as both Americans and Taiwanese in their political and cultural lives.
Shawna Yang Ryan is herself part of the story of Taiwan through her family’s history of migration. She has written and spoken about the opportunities for Taiwanese-Americans to recognise how their experiences growing up in the US have been shaped by the distinctiveness of Taiwanese social and cultural life. As a writer, these opportunities include speaking back to Taiwan’s history in her own artistic voice. She has created her own Taiwan story using the exacting literary discipline of the novel, writing with force, compassion and the higher truth available to the novelist about the violence wrought on individual lives in Taiwan’s modern political history, as well as with a wary optimism about acknowledging and reconciling with those truths in a democratic Taiwan.
In Ryan’s practice as an artist writing in English, Taiwan becomes the source of stories through which she marks out a place for herself as a contemporary American novelist. But as a writer who identifies with her own Taiwanese experience through her politics and her family history, she also shows the place of her work in Taiwan’s political and cultural history.
Dr Mark Harrison is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Tasmania. He is the author of Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. This piece appeared in TAASA Review Vol. 24 No.4 December 2015, The Asian Arts Society of Australia.