I’m a little late for International Women’s Day, but better late than never, right? A couple months ago my friend Jean sent me Chung Wenyin’s first novel, Woman Islands (Serenity International, 2011), of course in translation.
Chung Wenying is one of Taiwan’s most popular novelists, although Taiwanese literature isn’t as well known internationally as that from mainland China or even Hong Kong. Woman Islands was first published in 1998 and was only translated into English last year.
The story takes place during the Chinese New Year, when twenty-something Ahmam is about to return to her mother’s village for a week’s vacation. Thanks to many flashbacks, which are all executed flawlessly, we learn that Ahmam and her mother don’t get along, her late father was a drunk and gambler, and that she’s had several tumultuous love affairs.
What I liked about this book was its look at the struggles of a single, independent Taiwanese woman who lives apart from her family. I haven’t read any novels about contemporary Taiwan and what I know about it stems from my one visit there 21 years ago, my friends’ experiences, and a bunch of great films, like Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (one of my all-time favorites).
Ahmam’s family and friends have had relationships with mainland Chinese men, all of whom came to Taiwan either in the military or as businessmen. Some were married to wives back in China and established new families in Taiwan, only to return to China during important holidays. Chung writes about their language differences and how the mainland men couldn’t speak Taiwanese (min nan hua) very well. These relationships are pretty common now, but back in 1998 they were still quite novel.
One of Ahmam’s ex-boyfriends came to Taiwan from Hong Kong. He doesn’t read much Chinese, which is hard to believe, but I suppose if someone is educated in English-only schools, it’s possible not to understand Chinese in Hong Kong.
This book is short at 198 pages, but each page is packed with the insights of a modern Taiwanese woman who’s caught between tradition and independence.