Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee: Review

go-set-watchman-book-covers(Contains spoilers) Go Set a Watchman is really a story that completes To Kill a Mockingbird and seems more relevant to the contemporary debate over race relations. The title is a quote from The Prophecy Against Babylon in Isaiah 21:

1 The burden of the desert of the sea. As whirlwinds in the south pass through; so it cometh from the desert, from a terrible land.

2 A grievous vision is declared unto me; the treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously, and the spoiler spoileth. Go up, O Elam: besiege, O Media; all the sighing thereof have I made to cease.

3 Therefore are my loins filled with pain: pangs have taken hold upon me, as the pangs of a woman that travaileth: I was bowed down at the hearing of it; I was dismayed at the seeing of it.

4 My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me.

5 Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.

6 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

7 And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:

8 And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:

9 And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.

10 O my threshing, and the corn of my floor: that which I have heard of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you.

11 The burden of Dumah. He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?

12 The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.

13 The burden upon Arabia. In the forest in Arabia shall ye lodge, O ye travelling companies of Dedanim.

14 The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought water to him that was thirsty, they prevented with their bread him that fled.

15 For they fled from the swords, from the drawn sword, and from the bent bow, and from the grievousness of war.

16 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Within a year, according to the years of an hireling, and all the glory of Kedar shall fail:

17 And the residue of the number of archers, the mighty men of the children of Kedar, shall be diminished: for the Lord God of Israel hath spoken it.

Babylon was a grand historic city that had sacked Jerusalem and taken the survivors back to the city where they mistreated them as suggested in Psalms 137. It was thought that the destruction of Babylon was impossible given its size and grandeur. Its eventual destruction signifies liberation and vengeance for the wrongs down against God’s chosen people. In the context of the book, Babylon is presented as the American South and the enslaved citizens of Jerusalem forced into exile, the former black slaves. Jean-Louise’s childhood and her respect for Atticus was to some extent built upon this Babylon too.

The book is set many years after To Kill a Mockingbird, when Jean-Louise returns to Maycomb from New York where she has been living. Other central characters from the first novel are no longer on the scene; Jem has dropped dead and Dale is living overseas. Atticus has taken another of Jean-Louise’s childhood friends, Henry (Hank), under his wing to work as a lawyer. Hank has become somewhat of a love interest for Jean-Louise although she refuses to marry him as this would mean she would have to return to live in the Maycomb that she escaped. She also visits Calpurnia, the housekeeper who essentially raised her and Jem together with Atticus, but she discovers a rift has arisen between her and Calpurnia, who treats her with a polite distance. The central event of the novel is when Jean-Louise spies on Atticus and Hank attending a citizen’s council meeting at which a speaker makes dehumanizing comments about black people. A few incidents have foreshadowed this, with references to the NAACP interfering in what Atticus suggests is a just system. This suggests a different motive lay behind Atticus’s defense of Tom in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s only after witnessing the citizens’ council meeting that Jean-Louise comes to the realization that they are on different sides of an argument. Although Jean-Louise is opposed to Federal interference in state issues, she thinks that in this case it was the better option. That the Atticus from her childhood who had always been so respectful to black people and who had defended Tom in his trial could take part in a meeting such as this disgusts her. After confronting Hank and Atticus separately about the meeting, she learns that Atticus has beliefs which are diametrically opposed to her own. This shatters her illusions of Atticus as her moral compass and she feels the urge to flee from Maycomb and never contact anyone there again.

Her uncle had tried to prepare her for this shock to her system that he knew was coming and it is her uncle that eventually tries to persuade her to stay in Maycomb and to treat Atticus with respect, even though she might disagree with his views. His suggestion is that her outrage and her decision to flee Maycomb won’t do anything for the community or for the black people she wishes to help. He suggests rather that being a friend to someone you vehemently disagree with is the most productive path forward for the South.

Despite having been written before her first novel, this one seems completely in tune with the contemporary debate around race relations. Atticus, who was hoisted high as an example of a good man in the racist south, turns out to be the propagator of a more insipid kind of racism against black people, in that his inability to see them as his equals is hidden from plain sight by his politeness. Atticus sees them only as a force that will destroy the South, while Jean-Louise is able to see humanity in them.

We can see almost direct parallels between the Black Lives Matter movement and the NAACP in the novel and between the attachment of Atticus and Hank to romanticized notions of Southern society and those who want to “Make America Great Again”.

Jean-Louise’s uncle’s speech could be compared to recent remarks on “patience with others” by George Bush on divisiveness in politics:

 

 

‘Door’ by Chiang Hsun 蔣勳的「門」

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門                                                                  Door

開,或者關                                                   Open, or shut

都可以                                                           It can be both
有時候是阻擋                                                Sometimes it obstructs
有時候是歡迎                                                Sometimes it welcomes

進,或者出                                                   Entry, or exit
都可以                                                           It can be both

它真正的意思                                               It’s real meaning
只是通過                                                       Is just passing through

This is a nice little poem from author and poet Chiang Hsun (蔣勳). He was born in Xi’an in 1947, and moved to Taiwan with his family in the wake of the Chinese Civil War. He had some involvement with the anarchist movement in France while studying abroad there and supported the democracy movement in Taiwan while working as a professor on his return to Taiwan.

‘Rainy Night’ by Hsieh Wu-chang 謝武彰的「下雨的晚上」

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下雨的晚上                             On a rainy night
看不見星星和月亮                  The stars and the moon can’t be seen
他們也跟我們一樣                  Just like us
被媽媽關在屋子裡                 They’ve been shut up in their rooms by their mother
要等雨停了                             And have to wait for the rain to stop
才可以出來玩                         Until they can come out to play

Although this poem is from a children’s poet, which may explain its simplistic language, I have to admit I’m not a fan of talking down to kids and it’s not my favourite.

Hsieh Wu-chang (1950-) is a children’s author and poet. He previously worked in advertising and as an editor.

The Monotony of Poverty: ‘Return to Burma’ Review 《歸來的人》影評

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KTV; Source: Return to Burma

For me this film doesn’t work for completely the opposite reason that another film by this director, Ice Poison, didn’t work. Whereas Ice Poison is centred around the rather hackneyed trope of “young man led astray by damaged young girl”, this film is rather unclear in its voice and direction.

The film is underlaid with a pseudo-neo-colonial gaze, as much of it is pure exposition aimed at a Taiwanese audience, what people earn in relation to wages in Taiwan, what the different smuggled Chinese imports cost etc. This is not an unworthy goal, given that South East Asian workers are reported to have faced substantial discrimination and exploitation when employed in Taiwan and China, but I’m not sure if this makes the film interesting beyond its Taiwanese context. Otherwise the kind of poverty that they suffer, although awful, is rather unexceptional: the struggle to find work and support oneself and one’s family.

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Temple; Source: Return to Burma

Not much happens in the film and I felt that, although the director might be aspiring to capture the fatalistic outlook of the characters in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films in the face of tragedy, the tragedies seemed too distant from the core of the film to give the impassivity of the protagonist any gravity in contrast. We hear his sister was kidnapped and forced to marry an older Chinese man, but she’s resigned herself to her circumstances and is wealthier than the rest of her family now, with two kids that she loves (interestingly Ice Poison shows us a woman who makes a different choice, in that she runs away from her husband in China and, long story short, she ends up in jail for drug-dealing (moral lesson: stay with your kidnapper?)). While I might criticize that sentiment, it underlines the desperate poverty of many of the people featured in his films. It’s also a common trope in the Chinese anti-modernist tradition, in which writers like Shen Cong-wen suggested that though tradition might seem overly exploitative or repressive of a certain group or class (i.e. women), the discretionary power inherent in traditional social relations tended to mitigate this harshness in everyday practice and that “modernity” could actually be more repressive in its lack of this discretionary power (see his short story 〈蕭蕭〉).

There is no real exploration of the political state of Myanmar (Burma) in the film (it occurs in the run-up to substantial political change) and the regime is largely invisible, other than the rather amusing pro-government songs that play, praising the new congress and a vague reference to strict anti-smuggling measures. This in a way reinforces the neo-colonial idea that the film is aimed solely at creating “Taiwanese guilt” for the way they take advantage of this poverty, which, although it may have some merit, doesn’t do anything to address any of the domestic causes of this poverty. Nor is there any exploration of the ethnic conflicts that have surfaced in the country over the last decades. This means that the telling of this story of poverty is so universal, that it would have had to take a more interesting narrative line or adopted a more interesting technique to keep it from being a rather monotonous retelling of what we’ve all heard before. I almost feel that Ice Poison was an attempt at breaking from this monotony by staging a romance, it’s just a pity that it felt so… staged.

 

 

MRT Prose: ‘You Can’t Drive into Taipei City’ by Hsieh Kai-te 謝凱特的「開車進不了臺北城」

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開車進不了臺北城                                 謝凱特

那一瞬間,我想起父親背著一袋沉重的家私,裡頭裝著電鑽、鐵鎚等數不清叫不出名字的工具,受雇於出錢的資方,看建築師的藍圖,聽工頭的指揮,把臺北蓋出一座城之後,他像那些風雨烈日下吹曬刻虛的鷹架和綠色圍籬一樣,直至功成身退,訕訕退出城外,讓這些光鮮亮麗的符號進駐城中。

是他蓋起這座城,又被城阻擋在外。

You Can’t Drive Into Taipei City    by Hsieh Kai-te

In that instant, I thought of my father carrying a big bag of his things on his back, with his electric drill, his hammer and countless other tools I don’t even know the name of inside. Under contract from the moneyed classes to build the city of Taipei, he consulted the architect’s blueprint and listened to the instructions of the foreman, before, just like the scaffolding and walls of plants from the building site, weathered by the wind and rain then scorched by the sun until hollowed out, he returns to obscurity, sheepishly withdrawing from the city, allowing these symbols of grandeur to establish themselves there.

It was he who built this city, but he who is held beyond its limits.

節錄自《第18屆臺北文學獎得獎作品集》

This kind of prose always repels me to some extent, although I admire the imagery of the scaffolding. One reason for this is because I always think that overtly political art (with the possible exception of newspaper cartoons) generally comes across as preachy and tends to oversimplify nuanced issues. This was also one of the reasons I really didn’t like a lot of the work of theatre director Wang Molin. Another reason is that it echoes a lot of the political rhetoric of trade unionists and implies a sense of unpaid debt to the imaginary working class builders, mechanics and plumbers that pepper the speeches of Conservative politicians when they’re trying to incite anger against immigrants or intellectuals. The subtext to this is an implication that newcomers to the city and non-working class people are being rewarded at the expense of working class people. This kind of notion is often what feeds the xenophobia and inter-class resentment that featured heavily in both the Brexit referendum campaigns and in the recent US election campaign by Donald Trump.

Despite this, I do have sympathy for the chip on the shoulder view of Taipei that many people from central and southern Taiwan have, as I had the same chip on my shoulder when visiting London from Belfast growing up. Lots of people in Taiwan call Taipei the 「天龍國」 and Taipei citizens 「天龍人」. This is a term suggesting that they are elitist and look down on others. It takes its origins in the term “World Nobles” (Japanese: 天竜人 Tenryūbito) from Japanese manga One Piece and literally means “Heavenly Dragon Folk”, snobby arrogant elites who serve as the world government in the manga. 

MRT Poetry: Chen Ke-hua’s ‘Night’ 捷運詩句:陳克華的「夜」

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Another day, another opportunity to lean over someone to take a photo of the poem on the MRT behind them. This one’s by Chen Ke-hua and I thought it was pretty appropriate for this humid summer night.

夜     Night

沸騰之夜,     The Simmering Night,

將她最燙的一塊皮膚     Lays the most scalding piece of its skin

貼在我頰上。     Against my cheek.

我疼出淚來,說:不,     I cry tears of pain and say, “No”,

這不是我最需要溫暖的位置。     This isn’t where I’m most in need of warmth.

Chen was born in 1961 and was born in Hualien in Taiwan, although his family were originally from Wenshang in Shandong. After graduating from Taipei Medical University he started his career in medicine. In 1997 he studied at the Harvard Medical School, returning to Taiwan in 2000. He now works at the Department of Ophthalmology of Taipei Veterans General Hospital and as an assistant professor at the medical school of National Yang Ming University. As well as his medical career, he’s also a poet, an author, a painter and a photographer.

Attempts to Author the Sunflower Student Movement

Was waiting for a friend at a bookshop and was flicking through a few titles when I saw these volumes about the Sunflower Student Movement. The first one I picked up was this:

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The cover looked OK, but my heart sank a little when I saw that the dedication was to Benedict Anderson… and sank even more when the opening sentence featured Marx…

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How very politics student circa 1989. I guess that’s why they called it a student movement. The chapters are each written by different people, but it seems quite dense in style and heavy with academic aspirations as opposed to aiming for readability. That said my friend arrived before I was able to get any kind of measure of it.

There were another two as well, and they seemed a little more aimed at the general reader:

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Anyone had a read of them or would recommend?

I also read a chapter of Luo Yu-chia’s (羅毓嘉) new book You’re my stove light in dark days (天黑的日子你是爐火). It was a little bit too much navel gazing for my taste, discussing his romance with a Hong Kong man. As Luo is a gay rights advocate the Hong Kong man’s unwillingness to adopt a gay identity is challenging for him. The chapter I read showed him attempting to justify the lack of recognition with humour and by insisting that non verbal markers like wanting Luo to be well fed shows affection where words do not. The romance wasn’t very engaging for me, and I didn’t find the Hong Kong guy very likeable as Luo sees him.

Book Review: ‘Poet Robot’ by E.I. Wong

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Some time ago I stumbled across a blog on WordPress called “A Narcissist Writes Letters To Himself” that made me laugh. The style of the blog reminded me of a mix of the absurd humor of Flann O’Brien and the comic logical fallacies of Douglas Adams, and this was reflected in his self-published book, Poet Robot: An Introduction to E.I. Wong. I preferred the off-the-wall absurdity to some of the other stuff, but it was an enjoyable read overall and had me laughing out loud at parts.

The highlights of the book for me included ‘To Describe Blowjobs Artistically’, wherein the author takes up the challenge of one of the literary critics in SlaughterHouse 5 who states that the purpose of the modern novel is ‘to describe blow-jobs artistically’. I enjoyed the tone of this section of the book, essentially charting the thought process of a man receiving a blow job. Much as it may be packaged as pastiche, there was a real depth to his examination of the male psyche and how it hovers between the horrifyingly banal and the comfortably lewd when inhibitions are wavering:

As Oscar’s mind leaves for an indescribably present yet distant sense of time, the beast within this soulless man will occupy her with pulsating gyration of up, down and up, and she will sync up with him, her fishy lipstick going, up and down.

The other highlights were a bit punchier. Some of the shorter pieces hit the mark and made me laugh, while a few just didn’t land. I liked the internal monologue that ran through the book, from the copyright information, through the footnotes and in the letters to the governor about the author’s bid to be Poet Laureate of California. When it came to the other longer piece in the book, ‘The Second Person’ I found that it was the more outlandish lines that really made me laugh. I laughed at the repeated reference to police officers having an irrational hatred for foster children, for example, and the moose pee. I didn’t quite get the attempts at race humor, but that could be that I’m not American. Wasn’t sure about the “it’s funny because he’s a dwarf” angle of the story either, and the male presence in the book could have done with a little more female input than references to my girlfriend (read: the shrew) which came up now and again.

Looking forward to seeing what he gets up to in the future.

 

What I’m Reading Dec 2015-Jan 2016 我最近在看什麼書?

Just a quick update on what I’ve been reading and what I plan to read over the coming months.

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I bought a book called 《斷代》 by  Taiwanese author Kuo Chiang-sheng (郭強生) after the salesperson recommended it at the GinGin Bookstore and have just begun to read it. I suspect the title is a piece of wordplay, as it can mean “to divide between distinct periods of history” and by extension hints that the book goes into the division between the older and younger generation of gay men in Taipei and the driving ideologies behind their attitudes (this certainly seems to be the case from what I’ve read so far); in addition to this, however, 「斷」 also means “cut” and 「代」can mean “successor” – which suggests the title also points to the gay experience as the final generation of a family (in that they cannot reproduce). This put me in mind of a passage from Chu Tien-wen’s (朱天文) brilliant Notes of a Desolate Man (《荒人手記》):

我站在那裡,我彷彿看到,人類史上必定出現過許多色情國度罷。它們像奇花異卉,開過就沒了,後世只能從湮滅的荒文裡依稀得知它們存在過。因為它們無法擴大,衍生,在愈趨細緻,優柔,色授魂予的哀愁凝結裡,絕種了。

《荒人手記》,朱天文,時報文化,二版,臺北市,65頁

Translated by the talented Howard Goldblatt Continue reading

Book Review: ‘Sewn Together’ by Lai-chu Hon 韓麗珠的《縫身》書評

12315282_10102256948261369_1284331862_oThis novel is set in a dystopian society where people are encouraged to be sewn together, although it’s a little unclear why exactly this is. There are hints that it’s got to do with some sort of disease which threatens people’s health if they are not joined to others, but it’s never really definitively set down. The changes to infrastructure necessary as a result are said to have stimulated the economy, but this is not why they are being sown together.

Even after resolving to suspend my disbelief by accepting this premise, I still found the novel a little scattered and the protagonist a bit one note – a depressed insomniac who is bereft of any humor Continue reading