Many people think of Taiwan as a Mandarin-speaking island nation south of Japan.
In fact, its literary tradition includes a great deal of writing in Japanese, which has escaped the attention of many book lovers around the world.
Vancouver resident Iris Chen, curator of the Taiwan Bookstore at TAIWANfest, only discovered this after enrolling in online courses offered through a private school in Taiwan.
“I spent the whole year systematically reading Taiwanese literature from 1895 until now,” Chen tells the Straight over Zoom. “I read about 355 books last year.”
She was able to do this with the Readmoo app, which makes Taiwanese literature available online. She blogs about books on her Intriguing Connections website.
One of her teachers, Hao-Wei Sheng, offers several courses focused on Japanese-language literature by Taiwanese writers.
“He spent a lot of effort to translate and to document all that,” Chen says.
Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, when a great deal of this literature was created. But after Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek imposed martial law on Taiwan after the Second World War, the Japanese language was suppressed and this literature disappeared from public consciousness.
It’s only emerging now through the efforts of Sheng and others.
“So, basically, we have to relearn everything in Mandarin,” Chen says. “When I looked at this, I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous. We have such a rich culture.’ ”
Another of her instructors, Yu-Hsun (Chuck) Chu, is the author of When They Were Not Writing Novels: Portraits of Novelists From Taiwan Under Martial Law, which reveals what novelists did during Taiwan’s four decades of dictatorship after the Second World War.
Chu will speak in Mandarin about this book at the Vancouver Public Library on September 3 as part of TAIWANfest.
“I hope this compilation helps readers get reacquainted with the spirit, will, and courage of earlier Taiwanese writers,” Chu says on the TAIWANfest website. “I also hope that those less inclined towards literature can realize that the lives of these people, and their passion and commitment to this world, are just as exciting as a novel, even if they have never read literature before.”
His newest novel, The Testimonies Will Be Denied, is set in 2067 after China has invaded Taiwan. It’s a subject that deeply troubles Chen, given China’s desire to annex her homeland.
“For me, I’m so afraid to read the book because it’s like a prophesy,” Chen says.
TAIWANfest launched the Taiwan Bookstore in 2016 to draw attention to books that are banned in China. Chen operated it at the festival in subsequent years, putting many of her favourites on the shelves.
“My taste is a little bit on the quirky side,” she admits. “I don’t usually read really popular novels or articles.”
This year, the festival is focusing on connections between Taiwan and Indonesia and Malaysia. As a result, the Taiwan Bookstore will feature a display called Painting With Words in the 700 block of Granville Street on September 3, 4, and 5.
Visitors are encouraged to bring their curiosity and discover literature from the three countries.
“I think Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan all share one thing in common: we need to deal with the trauma after colonization,” Chen says.
In all three countries, the issue of identity has risen in importance with true independence from their colonizers.
In Chen's case, she's Hakka by birth, but like many from Taiwan, she also believes that she also has some Aboriginal ancestry.
She has family members who live in Japan, yet when she went to school in Taiwan, there was a much greater focus on Chinese history.
She identifies as Taiwanese Canadian, noting that Canada has had a major impact on her value system.
"So basically, I have to make sense of it," she says. "And I will create my own cultural mosaic for my cultural identity."
Chen, who has a terrific sense of humour then lightens up and compares her ancestry and influences to a smorgasbord.
"Therefore, I feel very fortunate—I live in a cultural-buffet situation," she says mischievously. "I'm going to pick the one that really resonates and then enjoy it."