Today is #oldheadshotday, so here are two from 1995 and 1996, respectfully. One is on my elopement day and the other almost a year later to the day.
One of my favorite things about being a writer is visiting book groups. Over 20 book groups, both local and out of town (thanks to Skype), have read my memoir and have invited me to visit their group to discuss Good Chinese Wife. It was an honor last week to be mentioned in this book group article.
I’m visiting another next week and in May I’ll be bringing another group to Chinatown in Chicago for dim sum. I love the creative ways people center their lives around books.
Last week one of my college roommates from Hong Kong visited Chicago with her family. We had a magical time going around the city and eating up a storm (Ethiopian, Greek, stuffed pizza, Persian, and even Chinese food). Cloud Gate, or the Bean as we call it, was one of their favorite sites in Chicago. And it’s one of mine, too. I remember back when it was new and Chicagoans were not happy about it. Like all changes, it took a while to get used to it. But now it’s an icon of Chicago and we love it. This is a view from underneath the Bean.
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!
I don’t live in a remarkable house and therefore haven’t treated it very well. My kids are free to play in any room and we just wait each Monday for our cleaners to straighten things out. Because of the mess and the clutter, I never feel like fresh flowers or other nice things go very well in our house. It’s simple and lived in, and up until now I didn’t think those were traits to be proud of.
So I recently read Danielle Postel-Vinay’s book, Home Sweet Maison (William Morrow, 2018) and my whole outlook has changed! Rather than continuing to give up, I’m finally motivated to do something about the house. But I also learned there are actually some things I’m doing right—according to the French.
Postel-Vinay is married to a French man, has lived in France, and had a French mentor starting in her teens. So the French way of living has been a huge part of her life, just like Chinese culture has been part of mine. In her book, she deconstructs a French home room by room and suggests ways to live better in our homes, no matter where we are. So I’ve done a little run down of some of the rooms she describes and her suggestions that stood out to me.
This is what we call the foyer in the US. Postel-Vinay says it’s the most important area of one’s home because it’s what people see first and it should say something about the people living there. Americans usually ignore this space. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, but should show the occupants’ personalities.
Here’s where I may not have failed after all! Our entree is small and is defined by closet doors on one side and the basement door on the other. On the basement door we’ve hung Chinese New Year decorations for the Year of the Dog. Just opposite the front door on the living room wall visible from the entree is a large bookcase filled with my younger kids’ books. This space may not be pretty, but it says a lot about us: we celebrate Chinese holidays and books are important. Just inside the front door, only visible to people leaving the house, is a framed review of my memoir from the leading English newspaper in Hong Kong. That ties in the Chinese decorations on the door and the bookcase opposite the front door. We have no space for a bench or shoe rack, but I think Postel-Vinay would approve of the personal touches and how a visitor will already know a little about us when he/she first walks into our house.
This is the room where we spend most of our time and are supposed to entertain, although that usually takes place in the dining room or la salle a manger since most of our parties revolve around food. We violate the cardinal rule of Postel-Vinay’s salon, meaning that the television is the focal point of our living room and it’s usually on when we’re home. I ignore it and have my bookshelves nearby and another stack of books on a rattan stool my grandparents brought back from Taiwan in 1965. My writing space is in le salon, too, which is just an oversized leather chair and a laptop. But I have framed photos of Hong Kong art and a feminist painting by my friend, Chandrika, so I’ve carved out a little office in the salon and just ignore the TV. Postal-Vinay would approve.
This is the kitchen and has one use: cooking. French kitchens are not like the American open-plan kitchen/dining room. Our dining room is next to our kitchen and there’s little separating the two rooms, but enough to make sure there’s not a ton of milling around in the kitchen. We do have a kitchen island with three stools that came with the house (I’m going to update those soon, after living here for 11 years), but we eat most of our meals in the dining room. The French would approve. Postel-Vinay stresses the importance of eating together, especially for dinner. That’s something we’ve always done. It’s the one time we’re all together and can talk about our days and what’s going on in the world.
One thing I haven’t done in my kitchen that Postel-Vinay suggests is to buy all the same tea towels or dish towels. We have few that match and apart from a Hong Kong taxi tea towel my friend Jennifer gave me a couple years ago, I’m going to donate our dish towels and will buy nice ones that match. It’s a small thing that won’t break the bank, but will make the kitchen look nicer and more French. Since I basically covered the dining room, I don’t think there’s much need to summarize that part of P-V’s book.
She says the bedroom should be simple and there shouldn’t be a TV. We came out looking good on this one, too (after violating that rule in the old condo). All three of our bedrooms upstairs are without TVs and all have just beds, dressers, and bookcases. Postel-Vinay says books should be one’s most prized possessions and that people can tell a lot about a person based on his/her books. Our rooms have lots of clutter, too, which we need to clear out. It’s mostly clothes the kids don’t wear and odd pieces of toys. That’s my goal over the next few weeks. It’s sometimes hard to de-clutter when one reads 5-6 hours a day. What would the French think about that?
Postel-Vinay writes about more rooms in a house/apartment, like the washing room, boudoir, bathroom, basement, library, archives, etc., but I feel like I’ve pretty much covered the gist of her book. You don’t need a ton of resources to follow her plan. I think back to my former condo and how when you opened the door, the long hallway/entryway ended with a little nook of bookcases. That was the first thing someone would see in my old place. The walls of that hallway were covered with black and white photos my brother took in his 20s. And the kitchen was small, but designed for cooking and not entertaining. I broke the TV-in-the-bedroom rule until my daughter was born and our huge TV with the protruding tube was rolled into the living room to make space for the basinette. That’s a no-no in V-P’s book, but we only had 980 square feet of living space and made do with what we had. C’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?
This is a fun book and it’s fascinating to compare American and French lifestyles. Now to find those tea towels!