This selection might be recognisable to the casual reader. Lin is Taiwanese-American and mostly writes about doing drugs. He published a series of gritty little novels and short stories that garnered little attention. In 2013 the laconic Lin had his zeitgeist moment with his novel Taipei and it blasted him into the stratosphere as a bit of an enfant terrible and the ‘voice of a generation.’ His warts and all confessional style and tireless online self-promotion made him quite a controversial writer and, for certain, Lin isn’t for everyone. But between the repetitions and neurosis, there is a very intelligent and creative writer at work here.
Written in 1960 but only published in 1971, this is a collection of 14 short stories. The stories follow the Chinese people that left the mainland for Taipei in the 1950s. This was following the exodus of the Republic of China government to the island in 1949, as Communism took hold of the mainland. The sense of sadness, loss, and displacement permeates these pages that have been favourably and frequently compared to Joyce’s Dubliners. Taipei People remains an enduring classic and a bold example of how one can mix literary fiction storytelling with a modernist style.
The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Revised Edition
Another collection of shorts. Ruoxi’s The Execution of Major Yin is the flip side of the previous book as it deals with those who stayed behind on the mainland as Communism took control, concentrating on the 60s and 70s. Based on her own experiences, Ruoxi describes in eight carefully observed stories the changes that the Cultural Revolution brought and what living under Mao’s shadow felt like, even after his death in 1976. Ruoxi finally left China in the mid-70s and it was in 1978 that this book was published in Taiwan.
The Old Capital
Published ten years ago, The Old Capital is a rumination on history and time, memory and longing. It is comprised of a novella and four short stories each narrated by a different character, each of whom longs for a time before, when everything seemed better. But was it? How reliable are these memories? The Old Capital is a beautiful read and an emotional meditation on the history of a city and its inhabitants.
Notes of a Desolate Man
A fascinating woman, T’ien-wen is actually the sister of T’ien-hsin above, and I had the pleasure of listening to her speak alongside the great Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien earlier this year (she is his screenwriter). But away from writing some of Asia’s cinematic masterpieces, she also wrote a really intriguing book called Notes of a Desolate Man. It’s a tale of life on the periphery of society as a gay man during the AIDS epidemic in Taiwan. It’s an extraordinary book that casts an eye over the life of one man, his friends, his loves, his losses, regrets and fears. I believe his life on the periphery could also be seen as a metaphor for how Taiwan feels as a nation, always under the eye/fist of China.
No Trace of the Gardener
Apparently one of the most widely read poets in the world, Yang has been writing and publishing his poetry since he was 16 years of age (that’s 70 years now and still going strong). Influenced by the English Romantics – Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats - Yang initially wrote poems in a similar vein, but over the years he expanded his thematic interests to encapsulate a more political stance and took an interest in social issues, conflicts and cultural identities. In 2013 he became the one and only Taiwanese recipient of the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature.
A very recent publication, Masked Dolls revolves around two very different women who meet at a hostel in Seoul. One is a Taiwanese writer and the other is an Australian with an interest in Asian culture. Both are running away from bad men and bad relationships and both women start to lean on each other for help. On the surface, this might look like a decidedly straight forward friendship but behind their stories of heartbreak are very complicated histories that each woman seems incapable of escaping. This is a really engaging book and similar to others on this list, Masked Dolls is about conflict which delves into questions of history, memory, and violence.
City of the Queen
Born in the same county as my partner, who made sure to remind me to add this lady to my list, Shih Shu-Ching was educated in Taipei and New York. She strayed from Taiwan after her studies to the island of Hong Kong, where she got the inspiration for this novel, before returning to Taiwan years later. What was initially published as three individual novels in the 1990s came out in its translated format only nine years ago. A complex, dense novel, Shih’s sweeping historical fiction epic is fascinating to read as it follows Huang and her family growing up and growing old against the ever-changing backdrop of Hong Kong.
A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers
A coming of age tale following young Zhenguan as she grows up in rural 1970s Taiwan. It’s quite an introspective little book focusing on the rawest elements of the journey through youth and into adulthood, moving out of your comfortable surroundings and into the bigger world, while discovering love along the way. Both author and protagonist are searching for meaning and understanding in life. It is also a novel that delves deeply into Taiwanese culture with a lot of discussion on the values, traditions and rituals of the spiritual and the present world.
The Taste of Apples
Translated and published in 2001, this is the collected short stories of Huang Chunming. A very popular Taiwanese literary figure, Chunming sites a number of American writers as his influences. He is known for his ability to comfortably jump between comedy and tragedy. Sometimes in the same short story. And similar to Chekov, whether he is writing about rural or urban Taiwan, or relations with the mainland, in these gentle and often quite poignant shorts, the working-class Taiwanese citizen is always the heart and soul of his work.