Green Island

25763894A friend on facebook recommended this novel, posting the New York Times review. I checked it out online from my library and really enjoyed the read. It’s an epic family saga that stretches across Taiwan’s history from 1947 into the present. It’s probably the best novel I’ve read in terms of treating modern Taiwan’s experience: the period of economic growth, the strange education culture (where students memorized Chinese provinces that no longer existed), the ways Taiwan’s relationship was shaped by US policy, the mix of language, the losses families experienced (of property, of culture, of life).

The main protagonists are a mother and father (Mama, Baba), their four children (the protagonist, an older sister and two older brothers), and assorted spouses, friends, and coworkers. The story is told via the youngest daughter of the four, who is born during the 228 incident (in 1947). Her father, a doctor, gives a political speech after trying to save the life of a wounded protester. He’s subsequently arrested and imprisoned on Green Island for 11 years. The siblings go in different directions–one marries a young soldier, a brother rises in the military in large part by informing on others, and another brother is something of a drifter. The father is released and lives out the next 40+ years with his family, but he’s never the same. The youngest sister eventually marries a Berkeley physics PhD and moves to California, where her husband is involved in a resistance cell. The siblings’ paths all reflect different trajectories Taiwanese families faced (intermarriage, exile abroad, collaboration, escapism).

The family has a mix of ups and downs. Her father never truly recovers from his imprisonment and is implicated in providing info that leads to the jailings of others. The protagonist’s husband’s work leads to a mix of family oppression, failed efforts, and so on. State violence taints everyone in the story in questionable ethical behavior, with the exception of one idealistic activist who stays pure in his resistance without sacrificing those around him. More over, there’s no happy conclusion at the end. Taiwan never has its truth and reconciliation commission. The book ends with the idea that the stories that were oppressed might still be told. True enough, in Taiwan, more of these stories are told, but there’s still a lot of silence. The generation that committed these crimes and experienced them is now passing away…

There’s not a lot of English language lit available on Taiwan. Tao Lin’s 2013 Taipei, was a more experimental, creative effort (that related a drug-loving, internet-addicted antihero). Green Island is a bit more of what I know. In churches here I often meet people who came of age in the late 40s and 50s. They sometimes had parents disappeared. A Methodist missionary at my seminary, Milo Thornberry, wrote a book Fireproof Moth (2011), that related his experience in Taiwan and his subsequent exile from Taiwan. Thornberry directs his book towards the ethics of resistance, including the question of violent resistance (he apparently was unknowingly involve in a bomb plot). He struggled with church culture, which was sometimes quietistic or conservative about Chiang’s authoritarianism.

In Green Island, the protagonist’s older sister and mother become Christian. The author struggles to make sense of the conversion, even as this was a period in church life when Christianity grew rapidly. I think the picture was limited, but also fairly honest. I often meet families here where there is a Christian “wing,” and often a mother will follow a daughter into faith. It was a small detail, but I appreciated it.

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