By Mats C.
“It was like this”, the nameless narrator declared at the outset—as it all took place. “Like” denotes a copy, an attempt to replicate the actual, even if inaccuracy of facts ensues.
The tone which Green Island, Shawna Yang Ryan’s second novel, begins with has conviction but not without a trickle of tentativeness, like an arm that will wholeheartedly lead you through a dark terrain and you can’t help but notice its shaking.
The year was 1947, in the city of Taipei, Taiwan. Our narrator was still in the womb. Outside the Tsai household was a scene: a widow selling black-market cigarettes was in a heated dispute with Monopoly Bureau agents after the latter had confiscated, without warning, the former’s goods. It ended with her being thrown to the ground and getting pounded on the head with the butt of a pistol, smeared blood on her hand. This would prove to be the impetus for a half-century wave of protests and punishments, of violence and gore. As if the mess of blood and guts wasn’t enough of an introduction for our narrator in her world, on that bed, in her clamoring nation.
Spanning almost six decades, divided into four “books”, and set in three locales, two continents, Green Island is structured as an epic. But unlike the epics of yore, where heroes take center stage and their every heroic deed listed, there is nobody here who would desire to be elevated to such a status. Every character is well-rounded; nobody’s perfect, but you can easily spot them in a crowd: the intimidating figure of the patriarch Dr. Tsai; artistic Li Min, the mother, subservient to her husband; doting, domestic Ah Zhay, the oldest; the quiet power of the older son, Dua Hyan, who eventually became a high-ranking officer in the military; playboy Zhee Hyan who at one point had been an aviarist; the Roman nose of Wei the husband and activist; outgoing and gregarious Emily, the older of the next generation; Stephanie, sweet innocuous Stephanie, with the episode on tooth marks and sessions with the psychiatrist; and Ting Ting, the girl who had slept with numerous men before becoming the woman of the man of her dreams. Those are just some of the colorful people that populate this novel.
Don’t be fooled by the immediate image of a lush, verdant landscape offered by the titular location; although Taiwan is an island peppered with greenery, the land formation referred to here is what the Japanese called “Fire-Burned Island”, the political prison. Even the serenade that was affixed with the name, “Green Island Serenade”, operates dually: as a love song and as an anthem of political struggle.
The narrative itself wades through a deep, long political history, all the while, not forgetting the basic truths that constituted many a surviving Taiwanese household during that harsh era of martial law.
Unafraid, unsentimental, not sparing of details, Ryan goes for the jugular. The horrors of dictatorship, however painful to relive for some, must be told: for only then would it be brought to the realm of the real. Not just does she focus on a large scale, she zooms in its personal consequences, especially to the domestic setting: Is going home alive a less honorable act than dying in the hands of the enemy? Would you marry because of love or for it? Would you stay silent, lie for the ones you love—how far would you go?
The discussion of cultural values and identities, too, was extended all the way to the other side of the world, in the United States, where the female narrator and her husband had decided to grow their family. Ryan is herself Taiwanese-American and in this novel of hers, she presents how welcoming America is and how easy it is to assimilate and find yourself; and later on, the inevitable reality of having to fiddle with, to grasp the concept of home upon returning to the homeland.
Reading Green Island was both a breeze and a gale. In Ryan’s able hands the string of events of every chapter flew by smoothly. Sometimes, you would stop, to marvel at the emotional resonance of a lyrical description. Sometimes, you would stop, because it’s getting heavy, heavier as the pile of murdered bodies grew taller. But you would press on, led on by remarkable and affecting language, in order to unearth a historical truth that had gone beyond the confines of a single story. “It was like this, wasn’t it?”
Explore the wonders of Green Island at Fully Booked Online.
Mats, at night, would be at home, sipping tarragon tea, with a book on his lap, after a day trying to pass off as a bespectacled girl who smiles a lot.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]