A search for a stolen bicycle may simply be a hunt for a lost object, or it could be seen as an allegory of the 400-year history of colonialism in Taiwan.
The author of The Stolen Bicycle, which was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018, tells the Straight by phone from his home in Taipei that he wants readers to make up their own mind. Wu Ming-Yi is not interested in controlling how they interpret his book.
But through a translator, he says that Taiwan is already an independent nation and it’s time that the global community woke up to this fact. And he wasn’t impressed that the Booker Prize Foundation first identified him as being from the “country” of Taiwan before changing the term to “territory”.
According to Wu, Taiwanese people are used to this type of thing because it happens constantly.
“You just have to think of what the most intelligent response is to try to change the situation—or to try to mitigate the damages,” he says.
The Stolen Bicycle, Wu’s fifth novel, centres around a narrator named Cheng’s obsession with finding his father’s “iron horse”, which was stolen years ago. His father, who himself disappeared 20 years earlier, helped build fighter planes for the Japanese military in the Second World War. This occurred in the final period of Japan’s 50-year colonization of Taiwan.
“The Japanese did not want Taiwanese people to build a sense of who they were as Taiwanese people,” Wu says. “And toward the end of the Japanese period, of course, there was the imperialism movement to convince people in Taiwan that they were Japanese in order to get them to support the war effort.”
The book takes readers on a journey through parts of Southeast Asia, offering an opportunity to revisit the Second World War in Asia. Cheng’s father, like many older Taiwanese people, was nostalgic for the period of Japanese rule. But in the Taipei market where Cheng grew up, there were many Chinese soldiers who felt no connection whatsoever to Japan.
“If you ask different people, they have radically different ideas about what Taiwan is and what Taiwan’s experience is,” Wu says.
In exploring the many aspects of Taiwanese identity, The Stolen Bicycle includes an Indigenous person as one of the main characters. Taiwan’s Indigenous population, like that in Canada, has endured tremendous discrimination, according to Wu. He maintains that Indigenous culture is the most important aspect of Taiwan’s culture, making it distinct from its Asian neighbours.
Wu’s literary translator, Darryl Sterk, was raised in Victoria and is the son of former B.C. Green party leader Jane Sterk. He tells the Straight on the conference call with Wu that he was recommended for the job because of his interest in Indigenous issues. And there were several Indigenous characters in Wu’s previous novel, The Man With the Compound Eyes, which explored environmental themes and which Sterk also translated.
“I have a lot of friends who are Indigenous,” Wu says. “They are charismatic figures. If you want your characters to come alive on the page, it can help if you can base them on real-life people who have charisma.”
Wu's PhD thesis was on the history of nature writing in Taiwan. He said that Taiwanese people's interest in environmental issues began arising in the 1970s and 1980s under martial law.
In the late 1990s, he joined groups that were trying to force the by then democratically elected government to take action to regulate pollution and punish offenders.
He pointed out that Japanese and South Korean literature is generating a great deal of international interest. Then he added that his island nation also has fantastic works of fiction that deserve recognition.
"Taiwan's peculiar international situation makes it difficult to get its voice out there," Wu comments. "There are lots of great novels waiting to be read if they could be translated."
At the same time, he offered a reminder that writers from two smaller European countries, Austria and Poland, have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in the past two years.
"Small is not a problem," Wu says. "The thing is: how good is the novel? Obviously, small countries can produce great literature."
One of the writers who's helped assert Taiwanese unique identity in a major way has been Su Beng. The author of Taiwan's 400 Year History, he died last month at the age of 101.
According to Wu, it's because of writers like Su Beng that Taiwan "can start to be considered in itself as its own subjectivity".
Sterk then explains that this word—subjectivity—is commonly used in Taiwan and it means treating Taiwan as an "individual" and "not part of the Chinese cultural family".
"It's more about developing Taiwan's subjectivity—Taiwan as an independent country—a subject worthy of study in itself," Sterk says.
Wu Ming-Yi and translator Darryl Sterk will join Anna Ling Kaye in conversation at 6 p.m. on Friday (October 25) at the Nest as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest. The event is presented in partnership with the World Literature Program at SFU.