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Taiwan Will Not Exist, Unless…

  • PublishTime:2024-06-01

By Yang Shuang Zi (楊双子)

Translated by Melanie A. Leng

In the autumn of 2022, I briefly visited Europe and took the opportunity to visit several bookstores in Barcelona, Spain; Bologna, Italy; and Paris, France. Sizeable bookstores typically have a relatively large selection of translated books from various Asian countries, especially Japan, whose best-selling manga is quite popular. I wasn't surprised by the popularity of Japanese manga, but rather the wide variety of book genres: from manga novels, picture books, and popular literature, to art books, cookbooks, and even general books on singular topics like ramen culture. The list goes on and on.

What further surprised me was the surge of books from South Korea. Despite not being quite as numerous as those from Japan, alongside topics on pop culture such as K-pop, TV dramas, and idols were many works on more serious, real-world issues in South Korea, ranging from colonialism, gender, politics, and economics—certainly enough to form a complex and multifaceted portrait of South Korea.

So, what about Taiwan? Unfortunately, in European bookstores, translated and stocked works from Taiwan were sparse. They were unable to be separately grouped like their Japanese and Korean counterparts, and as such, were usually shelved according to their genres and themes, or even classified as Chinese works. Taiwan, with its pivotal position in the Pacific's first island chain, is the key to the Asiatic region. Its geographical location is of great military strategic importance. And yet, in the bookstores of Europe, it has no clear position to speak of.

I originally wanted to explore how the layout of European bookstores could reflect how Europe understands Taiwan. For instance, what unique characteristics are associated with works from Taiwan? In what aspects does culture from Taiwan resonate with foreign readers (and not just those in Europe)? Yet reality dealt me a heavy blow—when translated works from Taiwan become lost in the sea of books, "Taiwan" does not actually exist.

However, are there really no opportunities for dialogue between works from Taiwan and international readers? In 2022, the war between Ukraine and Russia officially broke out. It was then that the world began to realize that the relationship between Taiwan and China could be likened to that of Ukraine and Russia. As a result, Taiwan's visibility grew. That year, I lived at the foot of Montserrat in Spain for two months. Artists from various countries interacted with each other in a small village, and I became aware that there was in fact a path for Taiwan literature to take that led towards the world stage.

Taiwan was the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage and is also a pioneer in LGBT issues in Asia. This island nation at the northernmost tip of the South Pacific is the birthplace of the Austronesian language family. Its geographic location has also led to the arrival of various ethnic groups at different points in history, creating a diverse and integrated multicultural society. Throughout the 19th century, Taiwan was subjected to colonial rule under the Japanese Empire and 38 years of martial law by the Kuomintang government. Frequent cultural and military threats from the People's Republic of China in recent years have kept Taiwan entangled in difficult postcolonial circumstances. Taiwan's semiconductor output value ranks among the highest in the world. It also boasts 268 mountain peaks that are over 3,000m high, with an abundant variety of flora ranging from subarctic to tropical species. The diverse terrain—mountains, hills, plains, basins, plateaus, and more—has correspondingly shaped lifestyles and local cultures. The themes that Taiwan literature can touch upon are vast.

In fact, there are many writers in Taiwan that have become representative of specific themes: For LGBT issues, these include Chen Hsueh (陳雪) and Kevin Chen (陳思宏); for Indigenous issues, Syaman Rapongan (夏曼‧藍波安) and Salizan Takisvilainan (沙力浪); for food culture, Jewel Tsai (蔡珠兒) and Hung Ai-Chu (洪愛珠); and for nature, Wu Ming-Yi (吳明益) and Huang Han-Yau (黃瀚嶢). Representative female writers include Lee Wei-Jing (李維菁) and Wu Hsiao-Le (吳曉樂). Writers challenging the concept of a "national language" include Tēnn Sūn-tshong (鄭順聰) and Min-de Ang (洪明道). Reflections on geopolitics and war have been penned by Chu Yu-Hsun (朱宥勳) and Huang Chong-Kai (黃崇凱), while Chen Yu-Chin (陳又津) and maniniwei (馬尼尼為) focus on ethnic and transnational migrations. Besides literary propositions of universal values, another way to view the variety of Taiwan literature is through the scope of its genres. Among them are mystery and detective works, such as those by Xiao Xiang Shen (瀟湘神) and Mr Pets (寵物先生); for fantasy, Chiu Chang-Ting (邱常婷) and Xerses (薛西斯); science fiction by Egoyan Zheng (伊格言) and Lin Hsin-Hui (林新惠); crime and suspense by Chang Kuo-Li (張國立) and Wolf Hsu (臥斧); and the genre-crossing, form-breaking writings of Giddens Ko (九把刀).

As for my own works, the Japanese translation of my novel Taiwan Travelogue (臺灣漫遊錄) was released in April 2023 under the title 台湾漫遊鉄道のふたり (Taiwan man'yū tetsudō no futari). Translated by Yuko Miura, the book has managed to achieve a level of success that is exceptional for a translated book in Japan. It has even recently received “Japan’s Best Translation Award,” making it the very first work from Taiwan to be given such an honor. In addition, the English version, translated by Lin King (金翎) will be released by GreyWolf Press in November of this year. This book has found favor in two culturally distinct countries, and the key to this may lie in the fact that the themes and literary genres of the story resonate with both audiences: it is a historical novel involving issues such as gender, colonization, food culture, and is narrated within the framework of the yuri (female same-sex friendship) genre.

My work is just a symbol. The translation of literature from Taiwan illuminates a path that Taiwan can take to enter the world literary scene. However, the struggle to find books from Taiwan in bookstores across Europe serves as a warning to those in Taiwan's cultural industry: we must become stronger until we can band together and form a powerful presence in the commercial market, otherwise Taiwan will continue to be considered non-existent.

Yang Shuang Zi 

Given name Yang Jo-Tzu, Yang Shuang Zi was born in 1984 in Wuri, Taichung and is the older of two twin sisters. Yang is a creator of yuri, historical, and genre fiction. She is also a follower of anime and manga sub-cultures and pop literature. To date, she has received the prestigious Golden Tripod Awards for one of her novels, the Golden Comic Awards, and the annual Openbook Good Book awards for a work of prose. Her representative works are Taiwan Travelogue (臺灣漫遊錄) and Seasons of Bloom (花開時節).