Queer Taiwanese Literature

Queer Taiwanese Literature: A Reader by Howard Chiang, Cambria Press: 2021.

Despite spending a lot of my working hours with literary texts, my readings are not always as immersive as I would like. With the seven stories that make up the translated anthology Queer Taiwanese Literature, I couldn’t help myself. Each one sucked me into its wormhole rabbit hole and when I came out again, everything seemed subtly different.

Spanning the last 50 years, these seven short stories featuring Taiwanese queer experiences have been expertly selected by queer historian Howard Chiang and brilliantly translated. Under the banner of tongzhi literature (同志文学), they include sexual and social identities that are or have been perceived as deviant including asexuality, transgender, transsexuality, homosexuality, and other queer (non)categories.

The term tongzhi originally meant “comrade” in Sun Yat-sen’s usage and continues to do so in both Taiwanese and Mainland China formal political discourse. Wah-shan Chou traces the term back to the 3000-year-old Yijing (易經 Book of Changes) and writes that it was appropriated by activists for the first Hong Kong lesbian and gay film festival in 1989. He explains that “’homosexual’ was dropped as it was a medical term denoting sickness and pathology. Even positive categories such as ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ and ‘queer’ are Anglo-Saxon constructs with specific histories that fail to capture the indigenous features of Chinese same-sex relations” (Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies 2). He highlights that the term is not only about sexual preference but also about acknowledging non-hetero forms of kinship and family. Indeed, most of the stories in this anthology are not about sexual experiences, but about love and pain, about rejection and acceptance, about forging identities and making flexible (social) space.

I love (this anthology is wonderful, I can’t help starting each paragraph like this) how menstruation blood runs a track of living, red sameness that simultaneously disgusts and draws the sexually ambivalent protagonist towards her friend Ann in Li Ang’s “Late Spring” (1975, translated by Yichun Liu).

I love how the cityscapes of San Francisco and Taipei blend in Chi Ta-wei’s meandering, Ginsberg-inspired “Howl” (1998 translated by Yahia Zhengtang Ma) — a story of the terminally ill but irrepressible man Amoeba who prefers a stranger’s reluctant hospitality to his family home as he roams the streets on his final, lonely journey. The name Amoeba is apt as it denotes a single-cell organism with no fixed body shape that reproduces asexually and can be parasitic as this one seems to the narrator to be. It also recalls Chi’s earlier novella “The Membranes” from 1995.

I love the smoke-hoarsened and casually open-minded talk of the tribal mothers in Dadelavan Ibau’s “Muakai” (2001, translated by Kyle Shernuk) and its haunting of ancient myths from the present through queer reinterpretation.

I love the time-fuck of the eternal, futuristic stone age evoked in Hsu Yu-hsuan’s “Violet” (2008, translated by Howard Chiang and Shengchi Hsu) and the protagonist’s lifestyle cocktail of illegal drugs and fitness health foods needed to survive his white-collar working life.

I love the brutal naivete of Lin Yu-hsuan’s “A Daughter” (2014, translated by Shengchi Hsu) and the image of the young boy finally transforming into the young woman he always was. Through her own body work, she provides a space for both her dad and the text to transform into something unexpectedly complicated and gorgeous as well: “The gown’s zip is stuck halfway on Dad’s back, faintly revealing her blossoming age spots through the layers of lace.”

I love the conclusion to Chen Xue‘s jumble of queer and futuristic reproduction strategies, excess of ovaries, and phantom wombs in “A Nonexistent Thing” (2020, translated by Wen-chi Li and Colin Bramwell) that “what is important is that you can write. Write her out.” A fitting and hopeful end to an anthology of struggle, hurt, and haunting beauty.

Above all, I love all the poetic disillusionment coupled with the uncompromising individuality and bloody-mindedness of the main characters in Tsao Li-chuan’s novella “On Her Gray Hair Etcetera” (1996, translated by Jamie Tse). Just read it.

I would have liked to see the original titles for each work displayed alongside the English translation but appreciate that the date of publication and short context of each story is available in Howard Chiang’s introduction so that one can chose to read it before, after, or not at all. The many translators, the editor, and the editorial assistant are all duly credited and introduced at the end of the book.

If you expect to have an overview of Taiwan’s tongzhi literature after reading the anthology, you are mistaken. The term may unite against heteronormativity, but it also embraces heterogeneity. What you do get is a body dive into an ocean of multitudinous voices, of individual pains and perspectives, a promise that here is something here to explore in text, body, and social world, quite possibly for the rest of your life.

Introduction by Howard Chiang

1: Late Spring by Li Ang (translated by Yichun Liu)

2: On Her Gray Hair Etcetera by Tsao Li-chuan (translated by Jamie Tse)

3: Howl by Ta-wei Chi (translated by Yahia Zhengtang Ma)

4: Muakai by Dadelavan Ibau (translated by Kyle Shernuk)

5: Violet by Hsu Yu-chen (translated by Howard Chiang and Shengchi Hsu)

6: A Daughter by Lin Yu-hsuan (translated by Shengchi Hsu)

7: A Nonexistent Thing by Chen Xue (translated by Wen-chi Li and Colin Bramwell)

About the Editor

About the Translators

The Membranes by Chi Ta-wei

We know that everything we experience is mediated -through the senses in collaboration with the brain- it is like there is a membrane between our selves and the world. But where does the membrane stop and reality begin? Can we even be sure that there is something on the other side? Or turn it around; where does the membrane stop, and the self begin? Is there even something at the core? These are the questions raised in Chi Ta-wei’s 紀大偉 novel The Membranes (first published as <膜> in 1995), a unique work of queer speculation, critical futurism, and cyber-psychology, superbly and lucidly translated into English by Ari Larissa Heinrich.

The novel is sometimes described as dystopian, but I see nothing in it that is not already out there, albeit in different forms: Is organ and tissue harvesting from androids worse than from other humans or animals? Is stealing people’s sensory experiences via extra layers of false skin all that different from the gathering of personal information that goes on every time you press your fingers against a computer keyboard to access the internet? Is the brutal class segregation between exposed land-dwellers and protected sea-dwellers unlike the way factories and garbage dumps are habitually constructed in the poorest areas of city and planet? As all good speculative fiction does, The Membranes draws attention to our own world by recreating familiar emotions in estranging environments, providing fresh perspectives on fundamental questions, in Chi’s case, in highly poetic and inventive ways.

The Membranes narrates a short time span around the 30th birthday of Momo, the owner of a skin treatment parlor named Salon Canary located at the ocean floor in the year 2100. Through Momo’s memories and experiences, we learn of her life history and of the many membranes that surround her: “Membranes filtered Momo’s every impression of the world. At thirty, she felt there was at least one layer of membrane between her and the world. Not the kind of membrane she applied to her clients receiving facials at work, obviously. The invisible kind. The kind that made her feel like at tiny water flea – a Daphnia encased in a cell, swimming alone out to sea” (1).

Momo feels separated from her peers and, outside her work, has difficulty engaging in any kind of intimate relations. Beside the psychological barrier (which has very material foundations as the novel reveals), other membranes separate the human Daphnia from the sea of reality. Quite literally, the city she lives in lies “safe under the purple sky of a waterproof and earthquake-proof membrane, deep beneath the ocean, people lived out their days like flowers in a greenhouse” (26).

The skin is perhaps the most immediate membrane, protecting us against illness, except in Momo’s case where it failed to prevent the LOGO virus from slowly destroying her body. This necessitated the construction of Andy -an android specifically (and cruelly) designed to be “compatible” with Momo, to become her first friend and later her organ donor. Elegantly playing with the reader’s gendered expectations, Chi describes the surgical union of the sterile android Andy (sexed as female and gendered feminine) and the human girl Momo, who possesses a penis and is named after a mythical Japanese boy: “Did these two hands belong to Momo or Andy? Whose belly was this? She didn’t have a pee-pee, so that delicate flesh below her belly must have belonged to Andy!” (78).

Recalling Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking 1985-essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Chi reminds us that cyborgs are good to think with, especially when it comes to questions of gender and identity politics, because they are made, just as genders are made, of many (un)natural things in specific contexts. Cyborgs are neither/both human nor/and machine -they represent a messier approach to identity reiterated by Momo when she asks, “whose belly is this?” After all, that belly is home to many hundreds of species of bacteria with each their specific DNA as well as Momo’s “own” cells.

The most persistent membrane, however, exists between Momo and her mother. This is not the cellular membrane of a crustacean in the sea, but of a fetus in a womb. It is not a human merged with an android, but a child disjoined from a parent. Together with the android theme, the theme of parentage explores what it means to be and individual. If one individual can emerge from another, then where and when does individuality begin within all those layers of blood and uterine fluids. And, as Momo points out, emerging from one membrane into the other, one is still a caged canary.

In her dermic treatment work, Momo uses a kind of cream called M-skin which settles into a second skin on the client’s body. This skin is able to record sensory information and replay it through a computer: “Put simply, imagine the body is an old-style tape recorder and M-skin is a cassette: every stimulus experienced by Tomie Ito’s body was recorded like a sound. When Momo got the cassette and made a copy, she could play it on the tape recorder of her own body” (59).

From this angle, the skin is not our ward against the world, but our gateway to it, the line of encounter between inner and outer, I and you. Momo uses M-skin to spy on her clients and, in effect, live through their bodies, problematizing the habitual understanding of the skin as the boundary of the self. If one can share memories, share sensory experiences, share the most intimate moments, what remains of the singular I?

The novel is not only concerned with individuality and identity politics. There are subtle hints at social and political critique in the very structure of Momo’s ocean world: “The new sea-dwellers also left behind unwanted structures like pollution-producing factories and nuclear power plants (which meant, however, that some key personnel were forced to remain on the surface to man the reactors). Also left behind were prisons and various tools of punishment, since governments universally recognized that leaving convicts on the surface was actually a convenient punishment in and of itself” (22).

In the end, membranes are inescapable, and perhaps they are the very location of life. Just as the skin act as the zone of encounter between self and world, so is this wet origin of humanity, “the ocean: just a membrane on the surface of a giant apple” (67). Like the membranes present everywhere, Chi’s novel in Heinrich’s translation presents a view of reality that is certainly layered but also porous. If membranes are everywhere, they are also pierced, smeared, breached and rewoven. By encouraging a closer look at surfaces, the novel suggests that this is where much of our identity (social, sexual, species) resides and is constantly reconfigured. The core, the brain, the mind, or whatever we call it, does not thrive in vacuum, but needs and feeds on sensory stimuli from the boundaries of the body.

The Membranes is a fascinating and beautifully conceived novel, deceptively simple and alluringly deep, smoothly mediated by the membrane of Heinrich’s excellent translation. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Chi’s work.

Chi, Ta-wei (author) and Ari Larissa Heinrich (translator). The Membranes. Columbia University Press, 2021.