Thursday, February 16, 2017

The country is broken, but the mountains and rivers remain: a review of Green Island

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 I don't do book reviews often, but as I have recently taken an interest in expanding - and doing a better job of reading - my Taiwan-related book collection, writing more about what I've been reading is pertinent. It's rare that what seems like the entire expat community in Taiwan starts talking about the same book at the same time, but I picked up Green Island quite some time ago because that is exactly what happened. I couldn't not read what everyone else was talking about.

I'm happy - no, grateful - that I did.

Historical fiction is often more fiction than it is historical: I would not recommend that anyone get a feel for, say, Tudor history by reading Philippa Gregory. Green Island is a bold exception - the history, to my eyes, is more or less accurate, and the ways that the various (fictional) characters engage with it are often enrapturing. It is not a true story, but it may as well be - and in fact, a few peripheral characters are clearly composites of real Taiwanese historical figures. With the exception of a few overly florid language choices that can be distracting, a reader might imagine any one of them as somebody's real friend or relative living through real historical events. It felt more like a good friend narrating true family history than a novel.

The unnamed narrator is born on 2-28 (February 28, 1947), a cultural and historical flashpoint burned into the collective memory of Taiwan. I appreciated (and hope I correctly sussed out) the subtle reference to Midnight's Children, where the protagonist is likewise born at exactly the moment that India gains independence. Her father, as a result of actions we all take for granted as basic human rights, finds himself imprisoned on Green Island, where many political prisoners were held through the White Terror era following 2-28. The reverberations of that - an action that the brutal, authoritarian government does not acknowledge let alone apologize for - affect the family deeply. You might say they never fully recovered. Again, this will be a feeling quite familiar to many Taiwanese. For expats, remember that any given local friend might well be affected by a similar family background.

You will learn from this, then, not just the historical events as dates and descriptions marching across the page of a textbook, but the feelings and memories they created and how they affect the national and cultural psyche of Taiwan.

On a personal note, I am no stranger to historical events coloring, like a dollop of red dropped into a bowl of white paint, the history, relationships and outlook of a family. My own family's story takes place a generation before the events of 2-28 and has nothing to do with Taiwan, nevertheless it does allow a particularly personal platform for empathy, not that I need one to feel it. My grandfather's parents escaped from the Armenian genocide in Turkey, my great-grandmother after untold trauma and my great-grandfather after spending some time as a freedom fighter. My grandfather grew up in pre-war Greece, coming to America with his family in his primary school years. I never personally experienced any of this, yet from the food we ate to the language of the hymns in my grandparents' church in Troy, New York (Armenian) to the language my older relatives spoke with each other to common topics of conversation as well as the basis for the anti-Muslim sentiment of that generation - and my generation's subsequent pushing back against that while still being empathetic to what my ancestors lived through - everything up to 2017 carries the tinge, lighter and lighter but still there, of what happened in 1915.

As I told a friend recently, perhaps this is why I care so much about Taiwanese history. It's not my history, but in terms of the broad strokes of the effects of events like the White Terror or the Armenian genocide, it's not that different.

Back to the book. As a long-term expat, reading the descriptions of life in Taiwan at that time felt photo-realistic. Anyone who has spent time here and engages with the cultural geography of Taiwan will practically hear the Taiwanese pop music - you know, the stuff taxi drivers like to play - running through their head as they read. The slightly cloudy jars of local candies and sweets? Yeah, they're still around. The house with the banyan tree that the family lived in? Many of those remain, and I could imagine exploring one that's open the public on my trips outside (or perhaps even within) Taipei. The bicycles, the beer, the books, the typhoon, the outdoor parties, locally called ban dou? The story may be set in mid-century Taiwan but every last one of these things calls forth a host of sense-memories in the early 21st.

If you have a strong grasp of Taiwanese history, you will cry. I did, and I'm not a crier. You may have to put it down at times - it can get raw and painful. As you read it, you might feel you are engaging not with a book but with the agonizing history of a nation that has, at every turn, been beaten down and treated unfairly.

Green Island has been criticized, mildly, for its florid descriptive language. I can't fault it too much for this: the Taiwanese landscape almost begs for it, and I appreciate the intricate descriptions of emotions. All too often the stereotype of people from Asian cultures is that they are staid, reserved, perhaps even emotionless. It might be easy for someone who isn't exposed to it much - even one who lives here but doesn't engage much locally - to assume that this comparative lack of outer expression, at least as seen through a Western lens, corresponds to a lack of inner emotion. In truth, I have heard people make preposterous claims like "Asians don't get angry!" (Wait, what? How is that even...what?) In places perhaps the language is overwrought, but it provides a strong counterpoint to this ridiculous stereotype by giving, and then lovingly describing, the full range of inner workings of some characters, and implying the emotional state of others.

I also appreciated that the book, while clearly written from a local Taiwanese perspective in terms of the characters whose lives it chronicles, is quite fair to the Nationalist refugees and soldiers who came to Taiwan in the 1940s and whose government was responsible for the tragedy visited on Taiwan during and after that time. There are marriages between "locals" and those who fled China, and, without giving away too much detail, there are betrayals from unexpected places. In the end, Green Island respects the humanity of every character, even ones you might not expect to be sympathetic.

That said, the book's perspective is laid bare towards the end, with a flashback to how the narrator's father and mother met. It references the connection of the Taiwanese people to the land, and how that has remained constant no matter how badly the country is broken: the people are the mountains and the rivers. Green Island prods you not to forget this.

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