"Green Island" by Shawna Yang Ryan (2016)
"It was true: the Generalissimo had sent more troops from the mainland. He held the philosophy that it was 'better to kill a hundred innocent men than let one guilty go free.' Rumors claimed that the troops began strafing the shore before they even disembarked."
I can see Green Island from the roof of my apartment building. I live in Taitung City, less than an hour away from in. I've lived in Taitung County, where Green Island is located, for 12 years now - much longer than the book's author has ever been resident in Taiwan. If you add the time I lived on the other side of the island, I've been in Taiwan 18 years altogether.
It's also very possible that I'm more familiar with Taiwan's language and culture than the author herself. Her biography states that she was born in Sacramento, to a Taiwanese mother and a non-Taiwanese father, and that she only visited Taiwan as a Fulbright Scholar in 2002. This seems to imply that most of her knowledge of Taiwan comes secondhand, which is of course understandable given both her background and the distance between herself and many of the events she describes.
...and then there's the fact that I've been studying Taiwan's history - in Chinese - for a while now. I don't consider myself an expert on the subject, but I've been reading books on the topic since at least 2006. Aside from Education, my academic background also extends to History, and I've been trying to understand Taiwan and how it came to be since I first moved here.
Perhaps I begin with a statement of my credentials because I'm worried about sounding arrogant. "But she's Taiwanese!" I can imagine someone saying, "What do you know, Mr. Foreigner?"
But is she Taiwanese, really? Culturally perhaps, and of course everyone's free to choose whatever culture they identify with. But the fact remains that I've lived here longer, I've studied Taiwanese history for over a decade, and I also have plenty of Taiwanese in-laws to explain how things were, once upon a time.
First, some history:
Up until 1947 Taiwan was a colony of Japan. Japan won both Taiwan and Penghu (which were then considered separate entities) in the Sino-Japanese War. After the Ching Dynasty's humiliating defeat, Taiwan remained part of Japan for about 50 years. After World War II ended, the Allies handed Taiwan over to the Kuomintang (KMT), Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist army. The KMT subsequently lost their hold over the Mainland, and Chiang Kai-shek and his followers found themselves "marooned" on Taiwan, where they began exercising a repressive amount of control over a restive population.
In Green Island, a doctor is imprisoned on Green Island just after the KMT has taken control of Taiwan. Unaware of what happened to him, his wife moves from Taipei to Taichung, where she raises her children with her parents' help. Eventually the doctor returns to his wife, but he is a changed man, beset by a paranoid distrust of authority.
Their story is told from his youngest daughter's point of view. She outlines the circumstances of both her birth and life in Taiwan before her father's disappearance, and then the narrative flashes forward several years to discuss her father's return. From there she describes her early 20s, and soon after she details her married life in Berkeley, California, where her husband is involved in anti-KMT activities. After a mutual friend is assassinated, she and her husband return to Taiwan, where her husband eventually runs afoul of the authorities. The story concludes in 2003, as the Taipei 101 is being built and the SARS "epidemic" is underway.
I enjoyed the first part of this book... with a few reservations. The narrator seemed too American at times, especially given the fact that the events described took place in the 1970s, and that her family was very traditional. I think certain sections could have also used more description, and I often wondered how readers outside Taiwan would picture the events unfolding. The author doesn't spend much time explaining how things look, and I have the feeling that non-Taiwanese readers would probably transpose elements of other Asian countries into their mental image of Taiwan.
But it's in the California section that, I think, the author really gets into trouble. The whole espionage subplot is entirely unconvincing. And in this section the narrator's character is even less consistent, wavering between dutiful Taiwanese wife/daughter/mother and modernized American woman. Never once does she consider asking other friends and family for help, even though she is at one point cornered by KMT agents. Never once does she think about calling the police, even though she suspects her husband was involved in a bombing. She also exhibits a strangely cavalier attitude toward divorce and separation from her husband, even though such sentiments would have been anathema in the village where she grew up.
I don't want to give the ending away, but her return to Taiwan is where things get truly ridiculous. What happens during her and her husband's "getaway" is completely implausible, given the fact that they were, by that time 1) American citizens, 2) not directly connected to any subversive activity IN Taiwan, and 3) resident in the States for YEARS up to that point. I get that Taiwan was under martial law, I get that Taiwanese society and Taiwanese law enforcement methods were less permissive than they are now, but I'm just not buying that particular plot twist.
Oh, and that part at the end with the SARS "epidemic." I was already living in Taiwan at that time, and it definitely wasn't as big a deal as the author makes it out to be. Yes, people were worried, but it wasn't exactly panic in the streets. This facet of the book seems particularly manipulative, and points toward a lack of faith in the story the author was trying to write. A reasoned reflection on the White Terror would have been enough, and it wasn't necessary to liken a momentary media frenzy to the Black Death.
There's also the book's title. That Green Island spoken of? The one I can see from the roof of my apartment building? As it turns out, it only features in one paragraph, very early in the book. And instead of describing it to anyone's satisfaction, the author uses it as a lazily applied symbol for Taiwan as a whole.
I wouldn't say that Green Island is all bad. As said above, the early part of the book is surprisingly good. It's just that the novel seems to collapse under its own weight after a certain point, or perhaps it falls victim to its own, far too wide-ranging intentions. If you're Taiwanese, or if you're living in Taiwan, I suppose you'll enjoy it, but I wouldn't expect a Taiwan-centric version of The Gulag Archipelago.
Come to think of it, do you know where I first read The Gulag Archipelago? On Orchid Island, another island visible from my roof!
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