by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Green Island
I ADMIT TO initially approaching Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island with a great deal of reserve and a great deal of skepticism. After all, Asian-American novels are a dime a dozen these days. More often than not, particularly where China is concerned, sometimes they seem to be sob stories intended to tear at the heartstrings of their presumably white audiences—as we see in the works of Amy Tan or Lisa See. In the case of Green Island, I assumed that probably this was to be the Taiwanese sub-genre of this kind of novel about suffering Chinese women caught up in the turbulent 20th century.
But I needn’t have been worried. On the contrary, Green Island is not only a well-researched and informative work, but also a well-written one. Spanning a period in Taiwanese history from the 228 Massacre to the 2003 SARS crisis as told through the lens of her protagonist’s personal experience, Green Island ably tells the story of Taiwan’s authoritarian period.
Ryan’s political intent, it seems, is to provide a narrative of this period of Taiwanese history. Ryan is able to skillfully avoid the trap of coming off too didactic in this by anchoring this history in her character’s experience. This is not without some fictionalization, particularly regarding the fictionalization of the murder of journalist Henry Liu by Bamboo Union gangsters during the 1980s which becomes a major episode of the novel.
Overall, the novel is written with no small amount of skill. The novel contains some passages of surprising beauty, which linger in one’s memory afterwards. The novel is also quite adept at developing the flavor of its setting, in particular passing over relatively neglected moments of history in English writing, such as the presence of American bases in Taiwan in the post-war or the actions of dangwai movement in America during the 1980s. However, Ryan’s description of America during this same time period could probably use more details of the period.
Likewise, Ryan skillfully evokes the atmosphere of the authoritarian period, creating a world in which all suffer from the guilt which comes from inescapable complicity in a system of oppression. Most major time periods of the event where Taiwan is concerned are mentioned in the text, though a notable exception seems to be the attempted assassination attempt on Chiang Ching-Kuo in 1970 that took place outside the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
What Ryan accomplishes quite well is to depict authoritarianism as a fact of life, rather than as a dramatic intrusion into the everyday. In this, notably Ryan avoids any temptation to humanize the authoritarian acts of the KMT, which one suspected the novel’s overall humanist view might lead to in reading the novel, but presents them as acts of cold logic. Whether this is part of the strength of the novel or a weakness depends on the reader’s view of how authoritarianism works, although it is somewhat unusual that Ryan focuses so much on the invisible complicity of those who are not part of the KMT party-state but otherwise does not venture into probing the nature of the party-state itself.
If the characters are for the most part well-developed, apart from the functions they play in the plot narrative, they do not always have wholly realized existences apart from their plot function. Along such lines, if the novel’s conclusion is a bit abrupt, this may be a product of the history that it is based on does not easily lend itself to dramatization. The end of Taiwan’s authoritarian period came as a bit of an anticlimax in the novel, necessitating the sudden jump to the 2003 SARS crisis to sum up something of Taiwan’s current state of unrecognition in the world and its effects on the residents of Taiwan.
One wonders what the effect of the novel will be on those to whom Taiwan does not significant meaning. If some have described the novel as an epic, given its broad historical span, Ryan’s achievement is to make this history into something someone who knows very little about Taiwan can absorb and come away with a deep impression of. However, ultimately, it is in this sense that Ryan’s novel is a novel about this period of history, not one just set during this period.
Indeed, Taiwan is itself in some sense the true protagonist of the novel. This is suggested by the title which, despite its reference to Green Island as a site in which political prisoners were housed, also in some way suggests the authoritarian period as haunting Taiwanese national identity, as well as evoking Taiwan’s state of unbelonging in the world. These are the questions which the novel leaves us with, well worth contemplating beyond just the book.