As students in Austin conclude their first few weeks of school, September kicks off the Taiwanese school year. After teaching English in Taiwan for two years as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, September reminds me of students filing into class, sharing whimsical drawings of Pokémon-inspired creatures between periods, and acting out scenes from storybooks during read-aloud time. Since many of my warmest academic memories overlap with learning about or working in Taiwan, I’d like to kick off September with a few recommendations of books by Taiwanese authors, both of older books in translation and recent or upcoming publications. Whether you’re still in school or a lifelong learner, these five books will engage your intellect and encourage you to think critically and creatively about relationships, identity, community, and the borders between fiction and reality.
Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin
Notes of the Crocodile was my introduction to Taiwanese literature in translation, and what a breathtaking introduction it was. Qiu’s coming-of-age narrative flickers between thoughts and interactions of Lazi — the novel’s collegiate lesbian narrator — and vignettes, diaries, satirical musings on the crocodile, or other salient fragments that illuminate Lazi’s experience. Qiu deftly captures the self-inquiry, pining, and emotional tension of a queer young adult navigating their place in the world. This heartrending, evocative novel feels almost dreamlike as the reader wades through Lazi’s musings, late-night conversations, and her isolated, insular adolescent experience.
The Membranes by Chi Ta-wei
Written by one of Qiu Miaojin’s contemporaries and published just a year after Notes of a Crocodile, The Membranes also explores gender and identity through a formally transgressive lens. Where Notes of a Crocodile is set in late-1980s Taipei, Chi’s novel flings the reader into the future and under the sea. Dermal technician Momo reflects on the past thirty years of her life, her relationship with her mother, and the current state of the world in 2100. In this work of speculative fiction, most people have retreated under the sea to escape the heat of the sun’s rays; wars are fought with proxy cyborgs aboveground, live flora and fauna are prized commodities, and wealthy media conglomerates dominate the intellectual and entertainment spheres. A deeply internal novel, The Membranes explores the salience and legitimacy of memory, the self, reality, and emotional experience.
Ghost Town by Kevin Chen
Published in English last October, Kevin Chen’s novel explores generational trauma and rural Taiwanese life through a chorus of ghostly perspectives. Though the story flings the reader headfirst into a murder mystery, this surrealist autofiction narrative aches with familial tension, interpersonal feuds, and atmospheric dreariness as the melodically mournful tale unfolds. Told in flashes that transcend time, space, and even the veil between the living and the dead, Ghost Town haunts those who read it through its ambitiously transportive text.
Prescribee by Chia-Lun Chang
Another fall 2022 publication, Prescribee brims with palpable disorientation, tossing the reader through waves of uncertainty and understanding. Chang’s debut poetry collection simmers with sound as she takes the reader through vignettes of the immigrant experience, language and translation, citizenship and nationality. With an ethereal, evocative tone, Chang’s voice lyrically swims between humor and hesitation, observation and introspection, tension and ease.
Gorgeous Gruesome Faces by Linda Cheng
The final book in our selection hits shelves this November. This YA debut speculative thriller by Taiwanese Canadian author Linda Cheng plummets the reader into a glitzy, ominous world of a cutthroat K-pop competition as Sunny Lee seeks answers about the death of her friend. Sunny grapples with Candie, her former friend and fellow K-pop group member, as she tries to piece together her memories and prevent further loss of life in the process. Cheng artfully blends chilling horror with sapphic romance, balancing touching moments of connection with harrowing scenes of fright and dread.
Written by: Anna Dolliver