A woman travels to the east of Taiwan in the wake of her husband’s suicide in an attempt to discover the mystery behind a charitable donation he made before his death. Despite the charitable donation leading to somewhat of a dead end, she decides to stay on in the largely indigenous village. Her son, who suffers from autism, flourishes in this new environment, however her new romantic attachment, an indigenous man who helps her rebuild her house and teaches her son to hunt, may not be all he seems.
Through most of the course of reading this book, I was expecting it to make a dramatic revelation, whether about autism, the dodgy dealings of the man she falls in love with in Taitung or the mystery behind her late husband’s charitable donation, but it never came. The book, as readable as it is, rejected my attempts to read it as a crime novel or psychological thriller. Nor does the author feel the need to resolve any of the questions thrown up by the narrative; instead of narrative resolution, the main character achieves a vague sort of spiritual resolution in the end, through the prism of her autistic son.
The book does pose some interesting questions itself, however, about autism, the experience of indigenous people and migrant workers in Taiwan and even about the healthiness of modern urban life.
I first became aware of this novel when the author asked me to translate an excerpt for a short video performance:
The short excerpt he provided, however, was quite different in feel from the novel in its entirety, as it was a brief venture into the mind of the protagonist’s autistic son.
These brief sojourns into an autistic mind (the author uses the term Asperger’s) didn’t capture an autistic voice for me with the convincing style of Mark Haddon’s book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but rather endowed the child with some kind of spiritual mysticism, evoking for me the lasting controversy over the “idiot-savant” portrayal of autism in the film Rain Man.
We spend most of the time in the novel observing the child from the mother’s perspective. At first she resists the diagnosis and seeks out a “cure” or some way to access the “real child” hiding under the façade of the autistic child:
Whenever her son’s diagnosis with Asperger’s syndrome was confirmed, she and her husband were deeply shaken. First of all they thought of what mistakes they’d made, whether deliberate or accidental, that had resulted in this state of affairs. For example, some people say that when a child is first born and receives certain vaccinations, they can damage the infant’s brain cells, resulting in this regrettable situation after birth; Fu Yi-ping even started to fear vaccinations and on the suggestion of a doctor, she took up ‘biomedical therapy’. This consisted of the belief that after children are vaccinated they are unable to absorb the protein in wheat and milk products, and that sometimes this protein will seep through the wall of the intestine, and cause damage to the brain through the blood vessels.
This worrying anti-vax sentiment isn’t directly challenged throughout the novel, although her husband tries to get her to accept her child:
What I’m actually thinking about is who our child should be; and that is someone who will never and has no need to be someone like us.
This is echoed later in the novel by a woman who tells her to resign herself to there being no cure to autism:
In the end, the words of another mother stopped her in this endless probing for answers. That mother said, ‘I completely understand your worries, but don’t think you that you can find the perfect solution that makes all your problems disappear. From my own personal experience, it’s likely nothing like that exists, no perfect answer exists.’
This parallels an interesting discussion of autism acceptance in Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree:
Kate Movius, mother of an autistic child, wrote, ‘Nothing yet has yielded a “eureka!” moment for Aidan, unveiled some ideal child beneath the autism. Instead it is I who have been revealed, rebuilt, and given a new way of not just seeing Aidan for who he is, but of seeing myself.’(Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon)
Betsy described the constant assault of people proposing interventions. ‘They ask, “Have you tried vitamin therapy?” “Have you tried audio-integration therapy?” “What if it’s food allergies?” We tried audio-integration training. We got those horrible vitamins. We did sensory integration. We did the elimination diet: we dropped wheat and corn and we did gluten – and dairy – free; we eliminated casein; we eliminated peanut butter. You’re hoping for change, but you’re torturing the kid. I end up feeling I have abandoned her; I haven’t done everything possible. If I went to Russia; if I chopped off my head. Flagellation, immolation. Go to Lourdes. I read about how some parents of kids with special needs have started a research center, done forty-hour-a-week therapy, and it’s really hard for those that can’t afford that, who wonder whether if we’d done all that, our kids might be normal. She is who she is, and I can recognize her parameters and try to know what’s comfortable for her and what isn’t. That’s all I can do.’(Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon)
Although, the mother in the novel eventually seems to accept her son on his own terms, her description of him and the intermittent peeks into his mind imply an inner world that connects him with indigenous ancestral spirits, transforming him into a spirit medium of sorts, as opposed to just a child on the autistic spectrum. At times, she even poses her son’s autism as a choice similar to that of her new lover Dangulu’s rejection of expectations:
Fu Yi-ping thought that what her son was actually always resisting and avoiding, was perhaps joining in the way other people did and becoming a “normal” person. That was, maybe, also the reason Dangulu was in such fierce opposition to the world, not realizing that he’d gradually given up on himself, and that the way he is now is a result of that.
From her initial rejection of her son’s autism, later in the novel she goes to the other extreme at times, idealizing or mystifying his condition:
Fu Yi-ping thought her son seemed even more assured than she was, he was confident in expressing his own views on any given situation, not like her own umming, ahing and hesitations. She had always been aware of her son’s proactive and cheery disposition. He seemed to be able to welcome and accept the mundane vicissitudes of life without any form of suspicion, and whatever gloomy prospects hung up ahead, he’d always approach it with a friendly attitude full of enthusiasm and expectation. He was like a tree in the simple way he faced everything in the world.
The language she uses is full of mystery and, in some ways, mimics her earlier conception of autism as masking the reality of her child. However, her mystical conception of autism seems at odds with the real personhood of autistic people:
Sometimes she envied her son. He seemed to have a mysterious window through which he could escape from reality, like an automatic revolving door, which allowed him to choose between the outside world and his mysterious inner universe, between which he could move at any time and anywhere.
The linking of this mysticism to her perception of her son’s spiritual connection to the indigenous ancestral spirits in the forest also mirrors a wider discussion of indigeneity and particularly the appropriation of indigenous identity among the Han community in Taiwan and even the exploitation of indigenous identity by indigenous people who do not respect in-group codes and expectations. This extends even to the writing of the novel in itself, a Han writer exploring issues of indigeneity, and there are times that the author breaks the fourth wall, perhaps to draw attention to this conflict that stretches beyond the confines of the novel itself:
Did she really write this that night? Why did it seem like some strange third party, had described it in the feverish tone of an observer, looking on and describing this mysterious rite of lovemaking and maybe some other unfathomable thing?
The discussion of indigenous people starts in the novel with the morbid interest of the protagonist’s late husband in the chronicles of Hu Tie-hua and his descriptions of Han people treating indigenous people like livestock or wild animals:
“He said Hu Tie-hua once wrote about how Han people would cut up the wild aborigines into pieces and sell them at market. And the flesh would sell out really fast among the Han, because they believed eating the flesh of wild aborigines, or eating it after it had been sun-dried into paste, could nourish and replenish the body, even curing illnesses.”
This horrific passage echoes a history class I once took at National Taiwan University. I remember a Han girl in the row in front of me, pretending to bite the neck of an indigenous classmate as the teacher talked of accounts in which Han people described eating indigenous people, believing eating their flesh would endow them with a similar kind of strength and agility as that they perceived in them. Although, of course, cannibalism is no longer a thing in Taiwan, you still hear the commonly parroted beliefs that consuming certain kinds of animals or certain parts of animals can either help you embody a certain characteristic of that animal, or heal a corresponding human organ or body part.
Prejudice against indigenous people is also touched upon in a much more modern context, however, in Moli’s advice to the protagonist, when she tells her:
‘If you hire an indigenous to do something, you should keep an eye on the timetable, as they say they’ll come but they won’t, they say they’ll do things but they don’t, it really messes up your flow.’
As sadly pedestrian as prejudice against indigenous people is (a character in indigenous dress in Wu Nien-zhen’s popular play《人間條件》/ Human Condition, for example, is labeled in the accompanying screenplay simply as 「酒鬼」/ alcoholic) I thought the exploration of Dangulu’s internal prejudice and the resulting tensions this creates between him and the tribe was more interesting.
Dangulu is the boyfriend of the protagonist and is the product of a marriage between an indigenous Puyuma woman and an ethnically Han soldier who came to Taiwan in 1949 following the Nationalist retreat to Taiwan. Dangulu grew up in Han society with angst from being bullied for his mother’s inability to cook typical Han-style dishes for his school lunch:
‘Nothing is impossible in this world. I’ll give you an example, my mother never learned how to make Han food, because she’d grown up eating the food of the tribal village, but my Han father wanted her to learn to cook, and said the food that she could cook tasted bad. At dinner time he would toss the entire plate of food that had been just been served against the wall in anger!’
‘Ah! Why would he do that?’
‘I remember when I had just started elementary school, as my mother couldn’t get to grips with the demands of making me up a proper bento box, every day she would make the fried egg with scallions, the only dish she could really master, and so every day there would be fried egg with scallions and white rice in my bento box. The other kids quickly discovered this, and they would gather round to look at my bento box, make jokes about it, and they even gave me the nickname scallion egg.’
The troubled marriage has given him a complex about his indigenous identity, which he seems to be coming to terms with on an individual level, without respecting his own community. He has nothing but contempt for what he sees as performative festivals, putting indigenous culture on display for tourists, as he explains to Yi-ping after she reports a conversation with the landlord about an upcoming ceremony:
‘According to the traditional rules of the tribal village, woman can’t join the hunt on the mountain. They weave fresh flowers into garlands down below, and prepare things for the ceremony, waiting for the men to return from the hunt.’
‘Then can my son and I take part?’
‘Of course you can. When the men come down the mountain from the hunt, the whole village, including the women and children, all turn out to greet them in their Sunday best, and give out the betel nuts and tobacco they’ve prepared. Then they help the returning hunters into traditional costume, drape them in the garlands of flowers, and then they sing traditional songs together, and drink and dance together in celebration. Sometimes the partying from the ceremony goes on until the early hours. Just join in when the time comes. My wife will weave some garlands for you and your son, they’ll look great.’
‘Really? That’s great!’
Two days later, when Dangulu appeared, Fu Yi-ping told him about the Mangayaw hunting ceremony excitedly, before discovering that he’d gone very quiet in response. He seemed to want to avoid the topic altogether. In the end, when she asked him whether or not they should attend, he replied quite shortly, ‘Of course I won’t go, I would never take part in that kind of showy event!’
‘Why would you say that the ceremony is a showy event?’
‘That’s just what it’s like. Who really cares about the Mangayaw hunting ceremony these days? Do you know who they were, or why they held this ceremony? It’s all just an act, an act for themselves and for plains people like you!’
The tensions between Dangulu and the rest of the tribal village gradually emerge as the novel goes on, rooting from his sense of belonging neither in Han society nor in the tribal village. The protagonist’s landlord seems to suspect poaching and profiting from indigenous identity is the real motive behind Dangulu’s professed rediscovery of his indigenous identity and spells things out for Yi-ping as follows:
‘Although Dangulu has announced to everyone that he wants to use the tribal name his mother gave him, he still can’t speak the tribal language, and he has absolutely no intention of learning it. Everyone says that the reason he says he’s part of the tribe is actually because he wanted the legal privilege to hunt, and that he’s even taken advantage of this to poach some protected species. They say he just wants to earn money by selling them to people of the plains.’
‘Why not the tribal village?’
‘He feels that the tribal village is not his home.’
‘Of course the tribal village is the tribe’s home. If it weren’t, then where is?’
‘I don’t claim to understand the tribal issues that you’re talking about, but I have listened to him. He says he’s not the only one that can’t speak the tribal language, and that at least half of the tribe can’t. Moreover nobody knows what half the lyrics of all those songs that everyone seems to sing so happily at every festival actually really even mean. He said that it’s hard to tell if the rahan really knows the meaning of the incantations he chants, so why do we need his blessing for building the house, it’s like we’re all deluding ourselves!’
‘He understands nothing of the tribe, he left the village too long ago.’
‘Dangulu feels that the forest is his real home.’
‘So why did he come back to the tribal village then? Why does he say he’s Puyuma?’
‘I don’t know, but I don’t think he’s trying to cheat anyone.’
The complex feelings he has around belonging and identity surface in a vision that comes to him while meditating in the hunting blind near his mother’s old deserted village:
‘I can clearly see my body, lying flat under the hunting blind, just like an animal killed as prey. Then a group of Han people from the plains, swarm around me, and each takes out a hunting knife and starts to strip the flesh from my body, just like they would a boar. Terrified, I try to deter them with questioning utterances, but I can only speak a language of ancient sounds that I can’t even understand myself. They mistakenly think this is just a strange sound from the forest, or the cries of an animal struggling at the brink of death, and they have no awareness that it is my anger and pleas, that it is a real human language, and only busy themselves continuing to carve and dissect my body.’
In this dream sequence, there seems to be a lot of subconscious hatred for much of indigenous culture, including the description of the “language of ancient sounds” that the Han mistake for the cries of an animal. Dangulu sees his mother looking on at the scene of him being stripped of his flesh by Han men, signifying perhaps that Dangulu also feels that much of his indigenous identity, and indeed indigenous culture at large, has been devoured by Han society. This goes beyond his own sense of alienation from the tribe, but also how, in his eyes, he sees indigenous culture presented as a performance for the consumption of Han tourists:
‘A-Ping. You know, just then I suddenly saw my mother appear. She stood on a huge rock at some distance, standing there like a white statue of a god, and she looked at me in my troubled state without saying a word, looking on as I was broken down and humiliated by this group of strangers. But, A-Ping, I knew that my mother was silently shedding tears, and just then I started to sob loudly. Oh how I wished to be able to return to my mother’s side, and have her fry up some eggs and white rice in the rice cooker once more. Just as simple as she had when I was growing up. So that the two of us could continue a simple and uninterrupted life together. But, it was just… only just this kind of an ordinary and humble wish, so why had it gotten so difficult!’
Dangulu is not satisfied with what he sees as the piecemeal performance of honoring tradition in the tribe, whether it’s the rahan‘s inability to understand the incantations, the inability of many members of the tribal village to speak their native tongue or the songs they sing without understanding. His anger seems to be an expression of grief for the indigenous wisdom that has been lost or “devoured” by its subsumption in Han society, as he expresses in the following passage:
‘So is there really a difference between good birds and bad birds?’
‘Of course there is. It’s just a little complicated. I’ll explain it to you bit by bit later, ha ha!’
‘Have you always believed this? Who taught you?
‘I didn’t believe it either before, because I always lived in Han society, so how could I believe something like that? Now I’ve gradually started to believe it as the forest really does communicate with us, and it also sends messages to us in advance, to help us prepare for all kinds of unforeseeable changes. Previously I refused this kind of knowledge, but now I’ve finally started to understand, how many precious things I’d given up without realizing.’
As much as we might have sympathy with Dangulu’s feelings of alienation, there are certainly some aspects of his character which are strange and misogynistic and this is reinforced for us when the landlord expresses his fear for Fu Yi-ping and her son. The way Dangulu courts Yi-ping, for example, seems extremely inappropriate, as he basically gets her son to take a nude photo of him and show it to her:
Her son fished out his phone, saying that if she didn’t believe him, he’d also taken a photo which he could show to her. Fu Yi-ping took the phone from him, and there was Han stark naked in the photo, letting her son photograph him without avoiding the camera. It was her, rather, who was embarrassed, and she asked her son:
‘Why didn’t he cover up, doesn’t he worry other people might see?’
‘He told me specifically to show it to you, to let my mum see his nice body.’
‘Did he really say that?’
As well as this rather twisted chat-up technique, despite Yi-ping expressing concern about his desire to have unprotected sex, he dismisses her concerns and puts the burden on her to deal with the possible consequences:
Moreover, Fu Yi-ping always had this kind of premonition. She knew something was bound to happen, because Dangulu had just said to her: I know how to deal with this kind of thing, you have no need to worry, there won’t be any problem. She observed Dangulu’s self-restraint during their lovemaking, and she also took the pill, but would be unable to stop herself from questioning, ‘Do you have to do that? It’s not just a hassle, but it’s very dangerous too!’
‘I’ve always done it this way.’
‘You’re not scared it’s unsafe?’
‘Are you talking about getting pregnant or getting an STI?’
‘Both, of course!’
‘Everything is dangerous, isn’t it?’
‘If you’re not wary of danger that’s your business, but I’m subject to the same risks, you know?’
‘Of course I know.’
‘If I really get an STI, or I get pregnant, what will we do?’
‘If you get an STI go to the doctor, if you get pregnant, keep it!’
Fu Yi-ping clearly feels uncomfortable with unprotected sex, but submits to Dangulu’s wishes. This misogynistic bullying and lack of respect has echoes of Dangulu’s father’s treatment of his mother and casts doubt on his expressions of regret for his mother’s treatment and his desire to go back to the simple days when she made him scallion eggs.
Later in the novel, Yi-ping recounts an instance in her childhood when she was molested near her home as a girl and there is somewhat of a parallel between Dangulu’s brush off of her concerns and the duplicity of the middle-aged man posing as a policeman:
The middle-aged man looked all round, then lowered his head to say, ‘OK, since nobody else saw, I won’t make trouble for you this time round, we’ll say I forgive you. But, since you’ve done something wrong, I have to give you a little punishment, otherwise you won’t reflect on what you did, right?’
She lowered her voice and said, ‘What punishment?’
‘Don’t worry, it’s just a little warning that’s all.’
He pulled up her black skirt with his hand, and reached deep into his trousers with is other hand, rubbing back and forth, then he took her hand and put it down his own trousers, rubbing it roughly.
To some extent in reaction to Dangulu’s strange behavior and his lack of concern for their relationship, and also as what can be seen as reclaiming her ownership over her sexuality, while looking for Dangulu in the port city where he got off the train to Taipei, Yi-ping ends up having a one-night stand. As well as the discrimination against indigenous people in the novel, at this point there is a brief reference to a micro-aggression by the desk clerk at her hotel against what we presume to be a South East Asian sailor that Yi-ping takes back to her hotel for a one-night stand:
As soon as Fu Yi-ping entered the lobby of the hotel, she noticed the desk attendant’s questioning stare sweep towards them. She looked back unflinchingly, and the attendant immediately lowered their head and averted their gaze. She liked herself with this kind of bearing. Since she’d married her husband, she’d desperately wanted to meet up to non-existent expectations, and somehow, without realizing it, she’d distorted and repressed her original self, and her husband’s family was all about self-control and restraint, which made her look back on herself over the last 10 years or so, as if she were looking at a potted plant, aging through the years but unable to grow lush. She wasn’t sure if the mood she was feeling was one of merriment or tragedy.
Fu Yi-ping has a complex relationship with her father, who left their family to start another one, but she comes to some sort of reconciliation with this when she meets her half-brother to receive the letters her father had tried to send her mother. Her half-brother is gay, and did not seem to enjoy a great relationship with his father either:
‘Ha ha, yes, yes. But, now the legislation has passed actually, and I can get married!’
‘Then it seems like… your dad was very open-minded, being so considerate of you like that!’
I remember in middle school, my mum and he brought up that a teacher had told them to take notice of the development of my sexual orientation. That day he walked up the wooden staircase to the second floor, standing there on the landing, shouting at me “Now you listen to me, if you have the gall to be that kind of person and do that kind of thing, don’t think I won’t break both of your legs.”‘
Although Yi-ping’s son flourishes in the new environment and Taipei is portrayed largely negatively, through the core of the novel the idea of independence from other people was touched upon several times, whether it be Dangulu’s alienation and disdain for his tribal “community” or Yi-ping’s pleasure at the arm’s length at which her landlord deals with her:
This kind of distant relationship didn’t bother her, especially when it came to someone living so close, as both her landlady and neighbour. In truth, Fu Yi-ping actually feared that kind of enthusiastic attitude that got really close all of a sudden, as if fearing that she’d suddenly get burnt by a pot she couldn’t see the temperature of. She wasn’t clear on why she had this rejection of her surroundings, nor did she care to know.
Both Yi-ping and Dangulu seem to prefer isolation from others; for Yi-ping her mother and her husband’s family have been an oppressive presence in her life, and for Dangulu, he is bothered by the tribe trying to interfere in his life with what he sees as performative rituals. This idea is symbolized with a short passage about solitary bees:
‘If you don’t bother them, bees won’t just sting you for no reason. And these solitary bees don’t interact with other bees, they won’t even interact with the bee in the next bamboo hole. They enter and leave independently.’
This seems a rejection of typical pastoral ideas about supportive communities, as the presence of others is a form of oppression for both characters.
OK, last but not least, one part of the novel, I just couldn’t let go off because it was so bizarre, was the following incident:
However, what left Fu Yi-ping most shocked and embarrassed was that at the same time they were in this state of arousal and pleasure, she heard herself fart loudly, and alongside the fart, she felt slip out to her surprise a not insignificant lump of excrement. In the moment she immediately used the towel under her body to wrap up the wet and soft excrement, and she bent her arm to toss it under the bed, so that Han was almost unable to feel any movement. That’s how she dealt with this embarrassing interlude.
OK, Freud, what was that about?
Overall, this is a good read, for its discussion of several interesting issues in Taiwan and it’s written in an accessible (non-pretentious) style.