Q&A with 'Green Island' author Shawna Yang Ryan

  • Books
  • Tuesday, 08 Mar 2016

Shawna Yang Ryan had to deal with the emotional consequences of revisiting Taiwan's darkest times. Photo: Anna Wu

Green Island tells a fictional tale of love and loyalty set in the harrowing period of post-WWII Taiwan, a country in a time when dissidents could expect brutal punishment from a repressive government.

Despite the nation’s sociopolitical turnaround (its first female president was elected on Jan 16 this year), many people today continue to harbour fears of openly discussing the 38-year period of martial law, known as the “White Terror”.

Taiwanese-American author Shawna Yang Ryan, who grew up in California and now teaches creative writing at the University of Hawaii, researched that painful period for 14 years before writing Green Island, released last month.

In an e-mail interview, we speak to Ryan on why she felt it was important to shine a light on the history of Taiwan, and the emotional consequences of revisiting the country’s darkest and most menacing chapter.

Green Island offers a stark insight into a brutal history. How difficult was it to deal with the emotional impact of bringing the story to life?

It was hard at times to put my head in that world, especially knowing that these were actual events. The research was more difficult than the writing – listening to and reading people’s stories and visiting their real pain. And, of course, a writer’s job is to see the world through the perspective of others, so I had to be very open to trying to imagine and share those emotions.

In the end, however, it was only imagination for me, unlike for my sources, and I was really humbled before the resilience of the people I spoke to.

What was your overriding motivation to tell the world this particular story?

Because of Taiwan’s political position – it has full diplomatic relations with just 22 entities – its story is not very well known. I believe in the power of story – whether by book or film or other art – and I thought that a novel could be a way to make Taiwan’s story more familiar to people.

Taiwan should be known as more than just a side note to its more famous neighbour; it has its own fascinating and complicated history.

Once the research process for your work is complete, how do you set about writing?

It really depends on which part of the process I’m at. I tend to aim for spending a certain amount of time on writing each day, or every other day, but when I’m in the revision stage, and I have material before me, it’s easier to dig in for longer periods.

There’s also this peculiar feeling – I’ve heard other writers talk about too – of resisting the page at the same time that you really want to write. I suppose it’s a kind of deferral – the unwritten word is always perfect.

Can you describe how the desire to write came about, and what you feel is the purpose of writing works of fiction?

Story is how we as humans organise the world. We try to come up with stories for how we originated, how the universe works, why things happen. We make up stories about ourselves, our pasts, even for banal things like why our acquaintance seemed to not see us in the grocery store this afternoon.

Story is a human impulse. So I think writing fiction is an important endeavour because it is part of the process – part of the larger dialogue – by which we all make sense of our world. As for why I personally write, I can only say that it’s an impulse, a drive. I can’t not write.

Green Island poses the curious dilemma of whether it is better to stand up for what we believe in against the odds or keep our heads down and try to survive. Do you feel there is still as much to fight for today as there was in the days when figures such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr and Emmeline Pankhurst fought their battles?

This is a great question! Unfortunately, there is still as much to fight for today. The fights look different, but inequality and injustice still exist. Luckily, I do still see that spirit. I feel that there has been a resurgence – and I can only really speak about the US and Taiwan – of that activist spirit in the last few years. Today it’s not necessarily centred on one figure like Dr King or Mandela, but in groups and movements, like Black Lives Matter.

(Black Lives Matter is a movement in the United States that emerged following the 2013 acquittal of a white man who had fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, and focusing on other incidents since of black males being shot by authorities.)

The story and the characters of Green Island lingered on in the memory of this reader. How did you feel after you had finished the story? Was there a sense of catharsis and relief?

I felt relief in having finished a major, multi-year project, but I also felt a strange sort of melancholy. I was saying goodbye to figures who had consumed my thoughts for years! I spent a good chunk of my life thinking about what they were thinking and doing.

I actually have not begun a new project yet because it still feels so weird to not be in this book’s world anymore.

Martial law in Taiwan was lifted in 1987, and yet you revealed that people are still wary of talking about this period 15 years later. Can you give us a sense of what it must have been like for people who actually lived during a time of seemingly indiscriminate persecution?

It’s true: I met people reluctant to talk about it even years later because of a lingering fear of repercussions. Once something has been ingrained in you so long, I believe it becomes reflexive. It has to be – survival can depend on it. I got the sense that there was a pervasive feeling of being watched. A constant insecurity, a self-censorship.

Ordinary people were recruited as spies – one man I spoke with admitted to me that he had been asked as a high school student to report on his classmates. So you never really knew who you could trust.

And, as the book indicates, this was also true for Taiwanese abroad. The government was always, always watching.

For readers who ask, 'Why should I read this book? What can I hope to take away from it?' what would be your message be?

As you mentioned earlier, the book asks readers to question their moral stance: is it better to fight or survive? What would you do?

The story offers readers a chance to take their moral pulse. And for the history-minded, those who were raised to think of Chiang Kai-shek as a hero, the book offers a very different perspective on that version of history.

Overall, because Green Island is at heart the story of family, and of love, I think many different readers can look into this book and recognise – reflect on – aspects of their own experience.

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