Monday, October 30, 2023

As beautiful as the ringworm on her body: a review of Sorceress Diguwan

I'm a blockhead.

I don't do stream of consciousness, and I'm not a fan of I like novels with intentionally beguiling names like Autumn of the Sixteenth Nephrologist. Novels that your white mom would read in her book club that the gals winkingly called "Prosé" because they meet to discuss books and drink rosé. I like novels that are creative, but also follow a novel structure predictable enough that when it's subverted, you go "oh so like Arundhati Roy did that one time." 

I'm also sucker for a surprising line. I don't mean those postmodern writerly affectations where being out of place or saying something shocking just makes you sound like all the other writers who've already done that. 

A novel doesn't actually have to be perfectly paced or structured or even particularly surprising, if it's different enough to keep my attention. Give me enough of an undercurrent and I'll happily float down even the longest roman fleuves.

So, did I like Badai's Sorceress Diguwan? I did. 

It was not a perfectly constructed novel. It begins with an intriguing premise; in 1917, the wife of the youngest son of a Hoklo family living on Puyuma Indigenous land commits suicide, and the sorceresses of Damalagaw springs into action to ensure her choice doesn't bring evil spirits to the tribe. The most powerful among these sorceresses is the playful Diguwan, who happens to be drunk on homemade wine when we first meet her.

As the villagers deal with the patriarch of the family, Japanese authorities in nearby Taitung grow suspicious and vow to keep an eye on their activities. 

Then there's a middle section describing a long training excursion for young Indigenous men. I didn't really see how this was connected to the previous plot: was it simply describing the events of one year without concern for whether they were connected or not? I never did figure this out. Many of the same characters are featured, but they're not doing anything that seems particularly related to everything that had just transpired.

The events from the beginning of the novel do come back around to affect the third act. By then, however, I was struggling to remember who some of the characters were. Certainly the Japanese officials had not been mentioned for so long that I couldn't really remember who was whom. When one of them appeared in the village, I had to flip back to the beginning to figure out why it was relevant. It didn't help that most of the characters were underdeveloped; I had nothing specific to remember them by.  All the middle section did (for me) was illustrate that Diguwan had powers most sorceresses did not. I don't know that this point required one-third of a novel to make.

The last part of the novel centered around Indigenous-Japanese and inter-tribal conflicts regarding homemade guns. Those final scenes were indeed riveting, and I was glad I pushed through the novel to get there. The Hoklo family showed up again too, but the suicide -- a key event in the beginning -- seemed to play no significant role. After some discussion in the beginning of how the women of Damalagaw were treated better by the men than Hoklo women were treated in their society, I still felt that sexism was an accepted norm. There was even a young, beautiful female character who was having trouble finding love because she was considered too 'smart, intelligent, capable and somehow powerful'! (I'm spoiling it a bit, but it was hinted that she did, in fact, find a mate, but at least for me, it's left unclear. The story simply moves on). 

Other plot threads are left hanging; the main inter-village conflict is settled, but another one looms with Naibeluk, which is deeper in the mountains. That never quite comes to fruition.

The translation is littered with mistakes and oddities; it was edited, but even accounting for the notion that an award-winning manuscript should retain as much of the author's voice as possible in translation, it needed another run-through. 

But then the titular sorceress is said to appreciate the marks on a tree that were "as beautiful as the ringworm on her body." 

That ringworm lives rent-free in my head...

...wait, that sounds wrong. Anyway. I love a great line. It was weird, it was unexpected, and -- I suppose rather like a parasitic worm -- I was hooked. 

So far, I've made it sound like I came to appreciate a deeply flawed novel. I suppose that's true. After all, it is flawed, and I appreciate it. Frankly, I appreciate that it's a novel at all. There is a fair amount of Indigenous Taiwanese writing available in English translation. Not enough, but perhaps more than you'd expect if you didn't go looking for it. Most of it is not in novel form. There are many short stories available, and at least one book that's purely stream-of-consciousness. I chose not to purchase that one at eslite when I read that it was praised for having essentially no punctuation. Like, two periods in the whole thing. 

Innovation is great and all, but I like punctuation, and I like novels. I'm a blockhead, remember? Perhaps that's a me problem, but it doesn't make it any less true. 

There's more to like about Sorceress Diguwan than some fun prose and the fact that it exists, though. If you want insight into what Taitung-area Indigenous life was like in the Japanese colonial era, you probably can't do better. Badai was born in the 1960s and so isn't writing an eyewitness account, but the story is drawn from interviews with tribal elders

Badai presents a world that is certainly culturally different to the West, but also quite different from Hoklo and Hakka settler society. It's not just that the story is about Puyuma people living in Puyuma villages. Everything from the treatment of women to the use of sorcery to methods of conflict resolution and pathways to adulthood are different. The ways in which Indigenous villages selectively adopted ideas from other groups -- from farming techniques to straw shoes -- was fascinating in its intentionality, at least as described in the novel. 

Some of it did challenge my Western sensibilities. There's a scene where Mawneb, the gun manufacturer, insists that the person suspected of stealing his favorite gun should prove their innocence, rather than insist Mawneb must prove them guilty (as the latter is impossible to do...or so it seems). I'm not sure if that's how society in those villages truly functioned, or just a conceit of Mawneb, but I'll admit I'm still a fan of innocent until proven guilty

The scene along the trail, however, was excellent reading. I might be annoyed that the initial catalyst -- the suicide of the abused Hoklo woman -- ceased to play an important role in the story so early on. But ringworm and all, Sorceress Diguwan is worth reading.