On April 26th, Joyce Bergvelt’s debut novel set in old Taiwan (called Formosa back then) comes out. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to ask her questions about her time in Taiwan and her writing journey. Her book can be pre-ordered from Camphor Press here. Or on Amazon here.
Susan Blumberg-Kason: Can you tell us how you became interested in Taiwan?
Joyce Bergvelt: It all began in December 1982, when I joined my parents for a gap year in Taiwan. It was my father’s third posting abroad for Philips Electronics, the same company that had previously sent him to Japan and England, where I had just finished my secondary education. I was nineteen at the time and unsure of which direction to take. I was offered a place to study Psychology at a polytechnic in London, but I wasn’t convinced, so my parents persuaded me to join them. During the first months I studied at Taipei Language Institute, and the following academic year I was admitted to National Taiwan Normal University to study Chinese. In total, I was in Taiwan for a year and a half, though my parents stayed there until 1988, so I often went back during that time. I loved it there. It’s a beautiful island, the people are very friendly and welcoming, and the food is amazing. Many years later, I worked for TSMC Europe (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) in Amsterdam, for which I traveled to Taiwan in 1995. That was the last time I went back. I would love to return one day.
SBK: There hasn’t been a lot of fiction published in English about Taiwan. Why do you think this is so? And how did you decide to write a novel rather than a work of non-fiction?
JB: The focus is so much on China these days, also with novelists, that Taiwan is sadly neglected. I think the outside world’s ignorance of Taiwan is largely to blame for that. Taiwan’s story is, after all, quite a complicated one, and unique in its kind: it only has diplomatic relations with a handful of nations. Officially it is known as the Republic of China, and that can be confusing. The People’s Republic of China (Beijing) tries to maintain that confusion: it purposely wants to blur the division between the two so that the world will eventually come to think of Taiwan as part of China.
Look at the recent case of Wu Ming-Yi, the first Taiwanese author to be longlisted for the Man Booker International 2018 Prize for his book, The Stolen Bicycle. His country of origin was listed as ‘Taiwan’, at which Beijing immediately demanded it be rectified to ‘Taiwan, China’. There are only a handful of foreign authors who are truly knowledgeable enough to write about Taiwan, and then it’s only logical that they write non-fiction to inform the outside world. That’s a good thing: the world needs to know what’s been happening there to understand the present situation.
The number of English novels on Taiwan’s more recent history is gradually on the rise. Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island is one example: it reveals the brutal repression any Taiwanese critical of the government experienced during the decades under the Kuomintang’s martial rule. Another is Julie Wu’s The Third Son, which begins during the time when the island is still in Japanese hands. I would think more (English) novels on Taiwan are likely to follow, which is a good thing, too. It’s about time the world gets to know more about Taiwan’s fascinating, own individual history.
To answer the second part of your question: I continued my Chinese Studies at Durham University (U.K.), where I wrote my academic dissertation on the Dutch period in Taiwan. The story really impressed me; I thought it was quite amazing. There was so much human drama (on both sides) and it really captured my imagination. It didn’t really need any embellishing: all I had to do was write the scenes. No-one had written a novel on the subject in English before, and certainly not the way I intended: by telling both sides of the story in a balanced way. Outside of Taiwan, the episode is virtually unknown, even in Holland, and I wanted to set that right. Historical fiction based on true events is my favorite genre, so I’m sure that played a role, plus the fact that I love writing visual scenes and dialogue.
SBK: Can you discuss how you researched your novel and how long it took to write? It takes place not just in Formosa, or Taiwan, but also Japan and China. It touches upon Dutch history, too, which people these days don’t always think about when they think about Taiwan.
JB: As mentioned above, all the research I did for the dissertation I wrote in 1987 formed the basis for the novel. My sources on the period were mostly old (in some cases even antique) books. I was fortunate in that I could – at least back then! – read Dutch, English and Chinese sources. When I started writing the novel twenty years later, I had the Internet at my disposal: it provided me with some excellent new material. Genealogical sites, city archives, newly released books, old engravings. This gave me more insight into the personal lives of the various characters and helped me to flesh them out more. I made a timeline of the relevant historical events, followed by a separate one for the main characters’ life events, and then merged those into one so I could start writing and ‘stay in the flow’. Afterwards, I ‘killed a lot of my darlings’! I think I must have scrapped well over a hundred pages.
The actual book took me three and a half years to write. Translating it into Dutch took me just over a year. The Dutch edition – which was well received – was first published in the Netherlands in 2015.
SBK: Which character in your novel was your favorite to write? And which was the most challenging?
JB: That’s a tough one! I rather enjoyed portraying Koxinga’s Japanese mother, Matsu Tagawa. Having lived in Japan as a child definitely helped me with this. Matsu must have been an exceptional woman. She married a Chinese pirate merchant, raised her son (Koxinga) by herself for the first seven years of his life and was able to leave Japan in spite of the strict travel restrictions, which forbade women to leave the country.
I think the most challenging character was probably warlord Koxinga himself. Of him it is said that he was an intelligent student, a learned scholar and a sensitive poet who had a warm bond with his mother. But history changed him. His lifetime coincided with the final years of the Ming dynasty, which he had sworn to defend against the invading Manchus. Wartime, personal loss and the ultimate betrayal all contributed to his becoming a brilliant but hard and even cruel military leader. Conveying this gradual change over time, whilst still making it believable, was perhaps the most challenging of all.
SBK: How would you describe Taiwan in three words?
JB: Lush. Welcoming. Humid.
SBK: What are the top three books in your to-be-read pile?
JB: I’ve just started Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh, the third part in his Ibis trilogy.
SBK: What’s next? Are you working on another book or thinking about writing another book?
JB: I recently sent my second manuscript (written in Dutch) to various publishers in the Netherlands, and I expect to hear something within the next couple of months. Once again, it’s a novel, but of an entirely different genre: it’s set against the background of the Second World War, inspired by true events.
At the moment I am working on a third book – about three-quarters done. It is very similar to Lord of Formosa, in that it takes place during the seventeenth century, is once again based on true events and features people who truly existed. It is a fictionalized biography of a historical figure, yet it is told through the eyes of the women in his life. This time the story takes you across the globe: from Mauritius to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Batavia (Jakarta), the Moghul Empire (India), Holland and, finally, South Africa. That’s all I’m going to say about it for now!
Thank you, Joyce, for sharing your writing journey with us and discussing Taiwan! It certainly brings back the good old days!