Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Review: Green Island: A Novel

Got a nice chair for you to curl up with this book

Green Island: A Novel
Shawna Yang Ryan
401 pages
"Who won the war, Kane?"
"I did."
"You didn't win a thing, Kane. You only survived."
"It means the same thing."
"But there must be more to victory than just survival."
Kane nodded to the fallen as he carried her from the temple. "Ask them now. Ask me in a hundred years."
This book has been watching me.

A few weeks ago the writer's publicist sent me a copy so I could review it. It has sat on my desk, watching me, drumming its fingers on my table, dropping little hints that I was procrastinating.

I was, because this is a deeply personal book for me. I spent a lot of time crying while reading it, and only read it a few pages at a time. I have been listening to the story that Ryan tells since 1989, and especially since 1991, when I began working at the Center for Taiwan International Relations in Washington, DC, which was run by WUFI, one of the more "radical" independence groups. There Taiwanese in their 40s and 50s would tell me stories about Taiwan under martial law, how their parents had spoken Japanese to them and considered themselves Japanese. How they have been arrested, detained, tortured, just like the people in this novel. How they had come to America, run businesses or worked for the government or done science. How they were blacklisted and could never return to Taiwan. How they hated the KMT.

I was young then, and quite stupid. Now I am not young. Those stories were one thing I experienced, but I also experienced another thing in the movement, which I shoved into the past and try not to think about but have carried with me all these years: the bickering, the blithering, blinkered incompetence, the needless amateurishness, the lack of calculation, the short-termism, the constant infighting, the inability to set aside personalities and work together, the ruthless exploitation of fellow beings, the struggle for control, the lies and betrayals, and the demand from people above me that I tell lies and betray. That generation of the Taiwan independence movement in the US was full of... human beings.

All of this is in the book: Shawna Yang Ryan has captured these stories, presenting a kind of universal story of how these human beings in Taiwan lived and loved and endured. Their stories are not about triumph, but betrayal -- the terrible betrayal of 1945 engendered, like Zeus on Leda, a cascade of calamities, all betrayals, of everything from Allied promises, to democracy to friendship to marriage vows, bent and broken under the savage weight of martial law. In the end the Taiwanese, like the people in the story, did not so much triumph as survive.

The narrator of the story is born on March 1, 1947, her mother having gone into labor as the 2-28 revolt was beginning. Two weeks later her father is picked up by the police. The family loses everything. The narrator's life then takes her through the martial law era, the US in the 80s and the Henry Liu murder, and numerous other events that shaped the Taiwanese consciousness of that generation, so different from this one. It is also the tale of the Taiwanese encounter with the US -- from servicemen to American officials, and how that shaped them. If this is a tale of how the Taiwanese endured, it is also -- perhaps truly -- a tale of how the women endured, for each man who fought the regime and was taken into custody, betrayed his family by leaving them in poverty and uncertainty.

Green Island is powerful. The history is chronicled without romance. The prose is lyrical, full of concrete details. The dialogue is perfect -- so very Taiwanese, with more left unsaid than said. The tone is bittersweet. The lives are full to overflowing.

Read it.
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Formosa Coweater said...

Thanks for publicizing this book. Very much looking forward to reading it. With everything else going on in Taiwan these days, I expect a new generation of writers and researchers will feel more empowered--and secure, and the result will be more and more Taiwan-centric literature and history books. Jia you.

Anonymous said...

Agree with your positive review of "Green Island". It is a wonderful and moving book. I also strongly recommend "The Third Son", which is also wonderful - perhaps even more so given the tremendous quality of its prose. It has a similar take on history but a somewhat different angle involving Taiwanese lives, sons and families bridging between Taiwan, Japan and the US under martial law. Uniquely, The Third Son spans from the Japanese colonial period in Taiwan during WWII (very rarely written about), then the events of 1945-1947 culminating in 228, and beyond into the struggle to survive, grow, and ultimately thrive despite the ever-present pressure and paranoia of the KMT regime from 1947 to the 1980s.

an angry taiwanese said...

"Review: Green Island: A Novel"
The best book review I ever read, in terms of English penmanship. The reviewer's own piece of life flows over the words as another line of story- seeing from the above and breathing in between.

Anonymous said...

We on the pro-Taiwan side should stop talking about Henry Liu. Liu was a mainlander, he was not Taiwanese. His death was a dispute among mainlander colonials and has nothing to do with us. We need to be very careful to craft our message that there were no mainlanders involved in the pro-democracy struggle in Taiwan during the martial law days. Only by equating democracy with Taiwan independence can we effectively promote Taiwan independence.