‘Wavering on a Mountain Path’ Book Review 《山徑躊躇》書評

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.

Screenshot of Unitas video (see link below)

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:

當兒子被診斷確定患有「亞斯伯格症」,男人和自己都深深地被震撼驚嚇了,先想著自己當初究竟有沒有犯了什麼有心或是無意的錯誤,才造成這樣的結果。譬如有人說孩子出生下來接種的某些疫苗,可能會造成嬰兒腦細胞的傷害,因此才造成這樣生來後的缺憾;傅憶平甚至因此對疫苗產生恐懼與懷疑後,聽從某個醫生的建議,採取了所謂「生醫療育」的方法,就是認為留在小麥和乳製品裡的蛋白質,小孩因為接種了某些疫苗的影響,不但無法好好的吸收這些蛋白質,有時還會反過來滲透腸壁,經由血管進入大腦進行破壞。

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:

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From 穿褲仔 to the 婆/T dichotomy Lesbians and putting on a spread in Taiwan

You have to respect a gay male podcast host for doing an entire episode on middle-aged and elderly lesbians! That’s exactly what the WetBoyRoom ( 「潤男的Room」) podcast host did this week, interviewing the contributors to a book about this subject called 《阿媽的女朋友》 (Grandma’s Girlfriends), lesbians from older generations in Taiwan.

If you’re not super familiar with the lesbian scene in Taiwan, many of them of about my generation (30s) tend to identify as either 「T」 (short for the English word “Tomboy”) or 「婆」 (lipstick lesbian). With time, the lines between these categories have blurred just as they have in the male gay community, and many people now consider these terms outdated and being a heteronormative way of perceiving gay relationships (i.e. trying to figure out who is “the man” and who is “the woman” in the relationship). It was interesting to hear in the podcast that this dichotomy was actually a more recent phenomenon in the lesbian community, but a Taiwanese term in the podcast really peaked my interest. At the 10:55 mark, one of the characters is described (in a Mandarin sentence) in Taiwanese as 「漂撇 ê 穿 仔」phiau-phiat ê chhēng khò͘ á (瀟灑的穿褲子/ dashing trouser-wearer). Although I think the host actually said 「穿褲ê」, 「穿褲仔」 or girls who wore trousers, could be identified more easily as lesbians (if they were in fact lesbians) back in the day. So, it can be considered as an older version of the concept of 「T」.

Another handy Taiwanese term in the podcast (which you could likely insert in a Mandarin sentence to compliment a dinner-party host, or, more likely, to mock your friend’s paltry offering of a packet of Lays as an hors d’oeuvre) is 「腥臊」 chhe-chhau (also pronounced chheⁿ-chhau or chhiⁿ-chhau), which is equivalent to the term 「豐盛」 in Mandarin, meaning “rich and sumptuous”:

那天同媽準備了很豐盛的食物,不只是麻油雞,我記得她準備了一整桌非常腥臊chhe-chhau click for audio) 的菜。

(That day, Aunty Tong prepared a bounty of food, not just sesame oil chicken, I remember she prepared an entire table of rich sumptuous food.)

Definitely looks like an interesting books to read, will have to add it to my list!

An Excerpt from ‘Defining Eras’ by John Chiang-sheng Kuo

He hadn’t joined the ballroom society out of interest, but had heard the other guys in his dormitory making a fuss over the teacher’s sexy body, her short skirt and high heels and the way her hips swayed like a snake. It didn’t matter if you could dance, the teacher would let you put your arms around her waist, and show you the steps one on one. The guys at university clearly had nothing better to do, as the next day the society’s classroom was heavy with testosterone, twenty or thirty pairs of eyes all fixed on the teacher’s lithe swaying curves.


There wasn’t the one-on-one instruction that had been promised, and the teacher had a male teaching assistant–a master’s student–who was specifically tasked with dealing with these idle young men. As there weren’t enough girls, the teacher paired boys with other boys, so after the first few classes, the guys had all scarpered, along with their ulterior motives.


Each society had to prepare a performance for the school’s anniversary celebration, but the ballroom society was having trouble finding a boy for theirs, which put the whole performance in jeopardy. For some reason, he was the only boy to have answered the phone call from the ballroom teacher. The teacher asked him personally to rejoin the team for the anniversary party performance. Helpless to resist the teacher’s telephone charm offensive, A-lung put on a brave face and agreed to go back to dance practice.


First, the teacher ran through the choreography and paired up the dancers, then she delegated supervision of practices to her TA. Given A-lung’s good posture, the teacher had paired him with one of the veteran dancers of the troupe so she could help him out as a novice, to bring the performance up a notch.


However, A-lung’s partner was angry at not being given a central role in the performance. It was one thing to lose out to one of the other girls in the dance society, but to have to go on stage with a rookie like him… She hadn’t cracked even a sliver of a smile since they’d started practicing together. If A-lung made an error more than once or twice, she shot him an icy look, as if he had two left feet.

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Luo Fu’s ‘Beyond the Smoke’ 洛夫的〈煙之外〉

煙之外

在濤聲中呼喚你的名字而你的名字
已在千帆之外

潮來潮去
左邊的鞋印才下午
右邊的鞋印已黃昏了
六月原是一本很感傷的書
結局如此悽美
──落日西沉

我依然凝視
你眼中展示的一片純白
(節錄)

Beyond the Smoke

I call your name amid the crashing waves, but it’s already a thousand leagues away

Ebbing and flowing
The left footprint is only afternoon
The right footprint is already dusk
June was originally a book of sorrow
With such a poignant ending
──The setting of the sun

I’m still staring
At the pure white cast in your gaze
(Extract)

Luo Fu (洛夫) was one of the pen-names of Taiwanese poet Mo Luo-Fu 莫洛夫 (originally Mo Yun-duan 莫運端). He was born in 1928 in Hengyang in Hunan (then part of the Republic of China). He changed his name due to the influence of Russian literature. He joined the Navy and moved to Taiwan in 1949. He graduated from the Political Warfare Cadres Academy in 1953 and was assigned to the Republic of China Marine Corps base in Zuoying. He founded the Epoch Poetry Society along with Chang Mo and Ya Xian in 1953. He was later stationed to Kinmen where he met his wife. Towards the end of the Vietnam war he was appointed to the Republic of China Military Advisory Group, Vietnam, as an English secretary. After his return to Taiwan, he graduated in English from Tamkang University in 1973 and retired from the army in the same year. After retiring from the army he started teaching at the foreign languages department of Soochow University, before moving to Canada in 1996 but moved back in 2016 when he was diagnosed with cancer and he died in Taiwan in 2018 after receiving an honorary doctorate from National Chung Hsing University in 2017. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 for his 3000-line poem ‘Driftwood’ (〈漂木〉).

Chen Chuan-hung’s ‘Secret’ 陳雋弘的〈祕密〉

祕密

我多麼想離開
這座擁擠的城市
在夜晚努力長出翅膀來
在每個明天,又怕被當成妖怪
而忍痛將它折斷

Secret

I want so badly to leave
The congestion of the city
That at night I expend great effort growing wings
But out of fear of being taken for a demon on every morrow
I bear the pain of tearing them off

Chen Chuan-hung (陳雋弘) was born in 1979 and graduated with a master’s from the Chinese program at National Kaohsiung Normal University. He currently teaches at Kaohsiung Municipal Girls’ Senior High School. He previously won first prize in the free verse poetry category of the China Times Literary Prize and the literary and artistic creation award of the Ministry of Education in the free verse category, as well as several other literary prizes. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines as well as poetry collections. He has published two volumes of poetry on a limited printing, “Facing Up” (面對) and “Awaiting Confiscation” (等待沒收).

‘Later Years’ by Wu Sheng 吳晟的〈晚年〉

晚年

面對世界
即使仍有些意見
但在庭院大樹下
閒看花開謝草木生長
往往忘了爭辯


漫長的旅途,如此倉促
來不及認清多少世間道理
盡頭將隨時出現
如果還有什麼堅持
我只確知
我雖已老,世界仍年輕

Later Years

Although I still have my opinions
When it comes to the world
Under a tree in the yard I watch
Flowers bloom and wither and plants grow
I’m often so at ease I forget to voice them

This long journey undertaken with such haste
Allows no time to really understand the world
The end could come at any time
If there’s anything upon which I still insist
It’s that I’m sure
Even though I’m old now, the world is still young

Wu Sheng (吳晟) is the pen-name of Wu Sheng-hsiung (吳勝雄), a poet originally from Hsichou (溪州) in Changhua County in Taiwan. He serves as a senior advisor to the Presidential Office. After graduating from the Department of Livestock of the Taiwan Provincial Institute of Agriculture (now National Pingtung University of Science and Technology) in 1971, he taught biology at a junior high school in his hometown. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in literature from National Dong Hwa University in June of 2020. The majority of his work has been modern poetry, although he also writes essays. He also has an orchard in Hsichou named after his mother (純園) which is home to 3000 native trees; he lectures part-time at Providence University.

Chen YuHong – ‘Remembering’ 陳育虹的〈記得〉

Remembering

The sea
Continues to smile
The buoy of memory moves amid the mist and coral

Slowly on the beach
A tern writes the first line
I write the second

Some Autumn
Words

記得


繼續微笑
記憶的浮標在霧與礁石間移動


沙灘緩慢
燕鷗寫下第一行字
我寫了第二行

一些秋天的

Book Review: ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong

While ostensibly chronicling his family history, from the war-torn Vietnam his mother and schizophrenic grandmother witnessed, to the immigrant experience in the US, the author of this novel provides a breathtaking look at contemporary America, from morphine addiction to racial and class-based inequality and the politics of integration and queerness.

The novel is structured as a letter to the author’s mother, who cannot read in English, giving the author license to say things that he may never have been able to communicate with her in their common tongue, which the author describes as follows:

“The Vietnamese I own is the one you gave me, the one whose diction and syntax reach only the second-grade level. […] a time capsule, a mark of where your education ended, ashed. Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.”

All through the book, the author plays with language in a fascinating way, at times veering into poetry, at times examining language itself, facilitated perhaps by the distance provided by his mother’s unfamiliarity with the English language:

“How often do we name something after its briefest form? Rose bush, rain, butterfly, snapping turtle, firing squad, childhood, death, mother tongue, me, you.”

For me, as well as its emotional impact, many parts of the book have a powerful wit and humour to them which made me linger over certain passages.

The immigrant experience in the US (although one could also say more generally) is captured in passages such as the one that follows, about the nail salon in which his mother works:

“In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologizes, but insists, reminds: I’m here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that the client feels right, superior, and charitable. In the nail salon one’s definition of sorry is deranged into a new word entirely, one that’s charged and reused as both power and defacement at once. Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-deprecating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat.”

The author later echoes his mother’s self-deprecation, while working on a tobacco plantation, when he meets his first lover for the first time:

“I would know only later that he was Buford’s grandson, working the farm to get away from his vodka-soaked old man. And because I am your son, I said “Sorry.” Because I am your son, my apology had become, by then, an extension of myself. It was my H

But the novel also touches on other issues in the US, like the impact of the marketing of oxycontin by the pharmaceutical industry to doctors leading to drug dependency among wide swathes of the US population and the overdose deaths of many of the author’s friends.

What I loved about the book was how real the author seemed in his thought patterns, in the realistic way memories flitted up during conversation and associations click in his mind, even if they weren’t verbalized by the character at that time. There is also an honesty to the portrayal of his sexual experiences which makes them rawer and more real. Think Peep Show‘s portrayal of sex without the comic aspect. I also liked how real his coming out conversation is with his mother, as the ball is taken completely out of his court as she confronts him with her own truths, which I think is part of a lot of people’s coming out experience.

One of the tidbits of cultural information about Vietnam was about the use of drag performers in funeral processions, which is similar but different to the gaudy performances at Taiwanese funerals:

“City coroners, underfunded, don’t always work around the clock. When someone dies in the middle of the night, they get trapped in a municipal limbo where the corpse remains inside its death. As a response, a grassroots movement was formed as a communal salve. Neighbors, having learned of a sudden death, would, in under an hour, pool money and hire a troupe of drag performers for what was called “delaying sadness” […] It’s through the drag performers’ explosive outfits and gestures, their overdrawn faces and voices, their tabooed trespass of gender, that this relief, through extravagant spectacle, is manifest. As much as they are useful, paid, and empowered as a vital service in a society where to be queer is still a sin, the drag queens are, for as long as the dead lie in the open, an othered performance. Their presumed, reliable fraudulence is what makes their presence, to the mourners, necessary. Because, grief, at its worst, is unreal. And it calls for a surreal response.”

Anyway, there’s so much more that I don’t really know how to describe, but a great read, would definitely recommend.

5/5

MRT Poetry: ‘A Red Pine at Dusk’ by Lin Yu 林彧的〈黃昏的赤松〉

黃昏的赤松

回家的路上,我撥算鳥聲
每滴啁啾都在雕刻著你的寂靜

你伸出的枝枒正準備迎接
黑幕垂降,樹臂要拋扔星斗

轉入晚年的小徑,我知道
黃昏不昏,赤松赤心

A Red Pine At Dusk

On my way home, I count the bird calls on my abacus
Every chirp and tweet carves your silence

You extend your branches in welcome
To the fall of night’s black canvas, your limbs want to toss away the stars

As you turn on to the path of your Autumn years, I know
Dusk isn’t dusky, the red pine has a keen red heart

Lin Yu is a poet from Guangxing in Lugu, Nantou. He was born in 1957 and after a career working in journalism and editing, he returned to his hometown to run a tea shop.

MRT Poetry: ‘The Beginning of Spring’ by Zhan Che 捷運詩:詹澈的〈立春〉

立春

立春,雨把姿勢放軟了
紅日遲遲,還似深冬結痂的傷口
左右搖擺的夢境,有聲音潑啦
看見童年騎在牛背上,從水中走來

The Beginning of Spring

At the beginning of spring, the rain slouches
The sun is sluggish, like a wound that has scabbed in deep winter
The dreamscape sways back and forth with the splish-splashing
I see my childhood years riding on an ox back, walking towards me from the water

Zhan Che (詹澈 (Chan Chao-li) is a Taiwanese poet from Changhua. He has worked on various poetry journals and magazines, including founding Grassroots, and has long campaigned for local farmers’ rights.