Less than one percent of Shawna Yang Ryan’s new novel Green Island is set on the volcanic island off the east coast of Taiwan where political prisoners were incarcerated. Its name is a specimen of Kuomintang (KMT) doublespeak.* Until 1949 it was known as “fire-seared island” (Kasho-to in Japanese). Though a major character, Dr. Tsai, the father of the narrator, was held at “Oasis Village” (more KMT doublespeak) for ten years, it seems that he was already broken by torture and the murder of his neighbors before his long prison sentence on the desolate island of the title.
Before the never-named female narrator’s birth, her father went to medical school in Tokyo and was deployed with the Japanese colonial army in Burma, where he nearly died of dysentery. Had that happened, there would be no story, the narrator would not have been conceived or delivered by her father.
It is difficult for me to suspend disbelief about several crucial plot points, beginning with Dr. Tsai leaving his newborn child (and wife and older son and daughter) to attend a meeting airing grievances about KMT misrule. It was speaking there that got his name on the list of people to be rounded up when KMT reinforcements were deployed by Chiang Kai-Shek who had not yet retreated from mainland China to Taiwan.
It is also difficult for me to credit the University of California, Berkeley retaining one of its own graduates, the narrator’s husband Wei. It would have been more plausible for him to have earned his Ph.D. in physics somewhere else, then to be hired by Berkeley. More crucially, it is hard for me to believe that he would (1) risk returning to Taiwan with the ashes of a comrade in the anti-KMT movement’s armed wing in 1982, before the end of martial law on Taiwan (2) with his very pregnant wife, and (3) though blacklisted, would receive a visa.
In contrast with these implausibilities, the torture and killings (estimates range from 10,000 to 50,000) of the White Terror, which began when the KMT army reinforcements landed when the narrator was seven days old, the KMT spying on US campuses, and the murder and intimidation of Americans who had been born on Taiwan is all too plausible, if unknown to most Americans not born on Taiwan. The book brings the pressure to collude with KMT spies deployed in the US vividly to life. In effect, family members in Taiwan were hostages who could and were used to discourage documentation of the ongoing reign of terror and suppression of dissent against the apartheid-like Chinese Nationalist regime. The psychically and physically fragile Dr. Tsai is an example of this. Also the collusion in KMT/ROC cover-up of the torture of US citizens in 1982 (during the Reagan administration) is all too plausible.
A lot of history is stuffed into the novel with the character of the maternal grandfather consisting entirely of reporting on events long before the birth of the narrator. Even with that device, there are switches to omniscient narration of events the generally dominant first-person narrator could not have witnessed. The one historical point I think is misleading is that in the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué of 1972 the US recognized that the PRC (and, for that matter, the KMT) considered Taiwan a province of China without accepting that view. What she quotes on p. 183 was the PRC position, NOT something agreed upon by US and PRC officials. (The second quotation’s “creative ambiguity” of “all Chinese” does not include the Taiwanese majority living on Taiwan. The whole document is online at https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v17/d203) Though Henry Kissinger was quite willing to sell out Taiwan and the ROC, the communiqué was not ratified by the US Congress the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 requires the US to defend Taiwan from any PRC invasion. (I also think she confuses the PRC denial of SARS in 2003 with that of the ROC public health bureaucracy; the PRC coverup is undeniable; see the lengthy analysis at http://www.asianresearch.org/articles/1502.html. PRC blocking of ROC membership or een observer status in the World Health Organization (WHO) was more important than any denial of cases on Taiwan.)
The combination of White Terror on Taiwan and immigrant life in the US for Taiwanese was also the subject of Julie Wu’s 2013 novel The Third Son, (which begins in Japanese Taiwan of 1943) and of Jennifer Chow’s three-generation 2013 novel The 228 Legacy; the White Terror on Taiwan was the focus of A Pail of Oysters by Vern Sneider (better known for The Teahouse of the August Moon) published in 1953. “Formosa Betrayed,” the title of George Kerr’s belated (1965) report of what he witnessed (as US vice-consul) on after 2-28-1947 was used for a 2009 thriller about an FBI agent’s investigation of a KMT-sponsored murder of a Taiwanese professor at a Midwestern US university (that combined the murder in Daly City, CA of journalist Henry Liu and the death while in KMT secret police custody of Carnegie Mellon University professor Chen Wencheng, whose corpse was dumped on the campus of National Taiwan University).
- In a New York Times interview (online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/23/world/asia/taiwan-shawna-yang-ryan-green-island.html?_r=0), Ms. Ryan, who teaches writing at the Unversity of Hawai’I’s main campus in Honolulu, said that she thinks of “Taiwan as a ’’green island’ as well — verdant and beautiful — but during martial law, it had become a kind of prison itself.” Taiwan was long called “Formosa” in English, based on the Portuguese “ilha Formoa,” “beautiful island.”
©2016, Stephen O. Murray