Recovering What Is Missing: In Conversation with C.J. Anderson-Wu

The collective denial of victimhood is the reason why dictatorship lasts, the far-right exists, and inequality prevails.

Chieh-Jane Anderson-Wu (吳介禎) is a Taiwanese author, translator, and publisher of Taiwanese literature in translation. She is partly inspired by the white spots of Taiwan’s recent history, namely the White Terror, a forty-year period of martial law which began in 1949 and witnessed systematic repression within the nation, particularly targeting intellectuals. Pervasive censorship during the White Terror affected literature, but also the lives of many families at a time when secrecy and denial turned into a survival strategy for many. Anderson-Wu has written several works, including the story collection Impossible to Swallow and “Life Looked at From A Single Window,” and is currently working on a new novel.

Filip Noubel (FN): Today Taiwan is one of the freest societies in Asia, yet martial law only ended in 1987, almost forty years after it was first imposed. This period, known as the White Terror, witnessed tremendous political violence: over one hundred and fifty thousand people, including many intellectuals, were arrested, and several thousands were executed. It is also the theme of your collection of short stories called Impossible to Swallow. What has led you to find inspiration in this particular period of Taiwan’s history?

C.J. Anderson-Wu (C.J. A-W): There are several causes, but one of them is my sense of guilt. I did not understand it until I had written several stories. After the Formorsa Incident in 1979, posters of the so-called rebels were everywhere. I was a kid and really believed that they were bad people, that they should be arrested and put in jail. Years went by and as more historical materials were released after the abolishment of martial law, I gradually realized what lies we had lived in. I feel so grateful to those who never backed down and sacrificed so much for the freedom we are enjoying today, and resent my gullibility.

Another thing is that we never had transitional justice. We never had a Nuremberg Trial-type that conducted thorough investigation on what had really happened, why it happened, and who should be responsible. Thus we don’t know how we can prevent it from happening again. Today the past dictators are still worshipped, the days under authoritarian rules are still commemorated, and lies are still believed. I was shocked, in despair, and infuriated. How can people stay ignorant when all the evidence is presented in front of their eyes? How can people feel okay sacrificing the rights that were earned by blood, tears, and sweat?

It dawned on me that, no matter how odd it sounds, oppressive power is beguiling to the public; it vibrates with the mystery of human nature. Identifying with it gives people the illusion of power sharing, which is a privilege that belongs only to victors. In other words, the collective denial of victimhood is the reason why dictatorship lasts, far-right exists, and inequality prevails. 

Nevertheless, in literary works, we still find courageous resistance, understandable cowardice, admirable altruism, unavoidable selfishness, unspeakable shame, and familiar fears. When threatened, deprived, hurt, or abused, what choices will we make? When witnessing others being threatened, deprived, hurt, or abused, what actions will we take? When our beloved are threatened, deprived, hurt, or abused, what mindset will we formulate? Literature is to deal with such dilemmas from different approaches and creative strategies.

Because of the censorship throughout the period of martial law, there is a missing part in the spectrum of contemporary Taiwanese literature. It is so incomplete that it is almost impossible to specify what is missing, but the missing part does shape the landscape of recent Taiwanese literature. Are we making it up in the post-Martial Law era? Or have we left it behind? Neither question makes sense. Are we interpreting and reinterpreting it? I have no answer. I looked at the gigantic blankness for a while, and decided that the contour of this blankness is the White Terror.

FN: Your work lies at the crossroad of fiction and non-fiction as you often mention historical events. Most short stories sound like testimonies of that period. It also reminds me of the 傷痕文學, the Scar Literature of China in the 1970s, that depicts the atrocities committed against intellectuals during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The issues of loyalty, courage, but also betrayal and denial dominate your prose as they show the internal struggles your characters go through. Do you agree then that “fiction is more real than truth”?

C.J. A-W: Yes, fiction is the only path toward the truths that we are still unable to confront directly. “Scar Literature” is a good term, as we are left with so many scars from that history, and many of them are still unhealed. Ironically, in the 1970s and 1980s, Taiwan used a lot of Scar Literature in China for anti-communist propaganda in order to justify the tightening control on thought in Taiwan. Looking back, we probably can conclude that anti-communism propaganda at that time did not work at all, considering how many Taiwanese people today are embracing the commercial interests in China rather than the freedom of speech. It was oppression in the name of anti-communism, and people were conditioned by the terrible rules in Taiwan during the Martial Law era, not because they were really convinced that the Chinese communist regime was evil. The consequence is, since we have more of an open attitude toward Marxism and communism today, we don’t see the evil of dictatorship because our own society was also shaped by dictatorship.  

We are so used to being taught what to do and what to follow. And when doubts were raised by the few dissidents, not only did the rulers feel disturbed, but the mainstream population did as well. One needs to be very brave to stand up against injustice, for her/his voices might be muffled, and her/his activism might be blocked by people close to her/him. Repression is more common than we could have imagined, especially when we fail to learn the lessons from the past. Given how screwed-up world politics is nowadays, I have to re-disclose old scars in my writing. I have problems staying silent while foreseeing new infections spreading over old wounds.

FN: Taiwanese society has evolved from a narrow narrative dominated by Kuomintang ideology to a much more diverse identity embracing and mixing the cultures of the native peoples, of the first Chinese settlers usually referred to as Taiwanese, and of the mainlanders from China who migrated massively after 1949. To this one can add the influence of fifty years of Japanese occupation and the recent trends in globalization. In this incredible mix, and at a time when some actors and survivors of the White Terror are still alive, has there been a conscious effort to face the painful past, to discuss it publicly? Has it succeeded, in your opinion? Has art played a major role in it?

C.J. A-W: Japan did kick off the modernization of Taiwan with a very solid infrastructure, but the political oppression was no less brutal. And as the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) was taking over Taiwan, the bloody 228 Incident which killed thousands of elites cultivated by Japanese education system and the following period of White Terror made many local Taiwanese people think Japan was a better ruler. Therefore right after the 228 Incident, the Japanese language was banned along with all Japanese publications, and Taiwanese dialect was strictly limited. To strengthen the patriotism of the “Republic of China,” the government in exile encouraged anti-colonialist literature. For decades, stories (fictional and non-fictional) of insurgencies during the Japanese colonialist era were relatively abundant, for they happened to serve the ideology of the Nationalist Party at that time. Naturally, seeds of resistance against authoritarianism were secretly carried in these stories.

With such an intertwined history and without any legal procedure regarding transitional justice, it is almost impossible to comb through the past and come up with a historical narrative that is widely agreed upon. Furthermore, up until today, there are still secret documents of past injustices that remain unreleased, further complicating our establishment of any historical perspective. And, to our regret, the tremendous fear and shame still stop many victims from telling their own stories. That’s why the role of art is so crucial. The victims of White Terror included not only those who were directly persecuted but also their families, as exemplified by many characters in my stories, as well as in the stories in other Taiwanese works of literature. Imagine a victim who has remained silent for decades reading a story comparable to her/his experience, how relieved she/he might feel by knowing that she/he is not alone and what had happened was not her/his fault.

 FN: Why did you decide to opt for English to write this collection of short stories?

C.J. A-W: English is my father language, ha ha. When I was in my early thirties I often, in my restless sleep and dreams, used English to quarrel with my father. I realized that was how I defied patriarchal social norms, and English made me more audacious. “Judge Not” was my first short story; with the character of a judge, I revisited the delicate situation my father could have been through. Although it was written years after my father’s passing, I felt closer to him and was able to understand him more deeply.  

Another reason to use English is, after publishing Chung Wenyin’s Decayed Land (translated by Dr. Pao-Fang Hsu), several readers kindly told me that while they had tried, it was too difficult for them to read the history of a Taiwanese family that was shaken by White Terror. So Impossible to Swallow was my attempt to communicate with readers who didn’t have any knowledge about White Terror in Taiwan. Taiwan is so marginalized in the global readership, and the translation and promotion of Taiwanese literature are so slow and ineffective. I hope my works will catalyze the interactions between Taiwanese writers and readers of international literature.

FN: You are yourself a publisher. How difficult is it to maintain this career in Taiwan? Is there a significant support from readers, bookstores, or the government to sustain small independent publishing houses? What is the reading culture in Taiwan today?

C.J. A-W: There are grants and awards for publishing literature, but still it is quite tough to survive. Debates over Fixed Book Price (FBP) as a policy to support small publishers and bookstores have been undergoing for a long time, but no conclusion has ever been reached. Publishers can apply for grants to translate and publish Taiwanese literature, but it is very competitive. Crowd funding for individual publishing is a trend, but can be tricky. Independent bookstores can also apply for grants to support their events, such as writers’ reading, speeches, or panels. From time to time there are bookstores going out of business, but also, on the other hand, there are new bookstores setting up. Independent bookstores are trying all kinds of strategies to sustain themselves, like selling drinks and light meals, or even selling fresh vegetables directly provided by farmers.

Although the sales of books keep declining, I don’t think it is because reading is in decline. We read a lot online, which certainly has reduced the need to buy books. As for literature, it is naturally more and more challenging for contemporary writers to sell their works, because all the classics and masterpieces are still on the market. For example, when my books are to be presented in bookstores, they will be placed next to Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, and Ivo Andrić, among other established authors whose last names start with A. I’d kiss anyone who notices my works at all. Nevertheless, writing, and reading literature are still big in Taiwan, through diversified mediums, including paperbacks, eBooks, and online platforms. In Taiwan, audiobooks are developing relatively slowly.

FN: You also work as a literary translator? What are the main authors, languages and countries that usually get translated in Taiwan?

C.J. A-W: Yes, I translated William Golding’s Darkness Visible into Chinese, it was my favorite work of translation. Later on I worked with English-speaking editors in translating Taiwanese literature into English. Currently I am translating Yang Chingchu’s Blackfoot Village.

Taiwan is a huge literature importer. Japanese literature must be number one in readers’ minds, Haruki Murakami’s popularity is unparalleled, and Japanese master writers like Osamu Dazai, among others, are still printed and reprinted.

English is the dominant language in translated literature here and everywhere; literary works from the US, UK, Australia are the most common, and some are from Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand. Award-winning works are more likely to be published in Chinese. Nobel Prize winners, Man Booker winners and Pulitzer winners usually will be introduced to Taiwanese readers. And if translated works from Indian or Sri Lanka writers, like Arundhati Roy and Michael Ondaatje, are available, it is because they have won big literature prizes or have been made into movies. I’d like to see more South African literature in Taiwan, but except for J.M. Coetzee, there are few—even Nadine Gordimer’s works are not familiar to Taiwanese readers.

Chinese versions of European literature are still few, too few, and literary works of original languages other than Spanish, French, and German are hardly found. Korean literature is a growing category in bookstores these days, thanks to grants by the Korean government. The New Southbound Policy, originally a policy of the Tsai Administration to distract businesses from overly relying on China, has begun bringing in Southeast Asian literature to Taiwan, I expect to see it blooming.

C.J. Anderson-Wu is the author of Impossible to Swallow—a Collection of Short Stories about White Terror in Taiwan. Her short stories have appeared in the Anthology of Short Stories in EnglishEastlitLunaris Review, and Strands Lit, among other literary journals. She has translated several significant literary works such as Darkness Visible by British writer William Golding, Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones by American writer Erica Jong, and Decayed Lust by Taiwanese writer Chung Wenyin, among others. Since 2006, her priority has been to build up an international readership for Taiwanese literature. 

Filip Noubel was born in a Czech-French family, and raised in Tashkent and Athens. He studied Slavonic and East Asian languages in Tokyo, Paris, Prague, and Beijing. He now pursues a double career as a journalist and literary translator. After ten years in Beijing, he now works as Managing Editor for Global Voices Online, a citizen journalism platform that publishes in over 40 languages. He has translated and published a number of Czech, Chinese, Tibetan, and Uzbek authors in French, and serves as Editor-at-Large for Central Asia at Asymptote Journal. He currently spends his time between Prague, Tbilisi, Tashkent, and Taipei.