Sun, Sep 04, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Life in the mountains finds a voice

The publishers say that `Indigenous Writers of Taiwan' is the first collection in English of Taiwanese Aboriginal writing

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Indigenous Writers of Taiwan
Edited John and Yingtsih Balcom
194 pgaes
[Hardback, US]

Police posts with their road barriers, flying squirrels, dead foxes full of maggots, snow on the peaks, a cold mist in the afternoon, Hakka shopkeepers half-way down the valley, the cry of a red turtledove, a faithful dog and a clapped-out old motorcycle, the smoking stove, red maple leaves, spring water trickling through the snow, a backpack containing only salt, rice wine and betel nuts, the hot sun and the cold shade, ants in your rifle and the prospect of a deer roasted over the fire at the end of the day -- this is the mountain world described in some of these stories, essays and poems by Taiwan's indigenous writers.

Other things they evoke include a buxom wife at home, gripes about the government and its restrictions on hunting, corrupt police, industrial roads versus hunting tracks, and thinking in Aboriginal myths yet needing to have a Chinese name. Only a few adventurous Taiwanese city-dwellers know a little of this world that lies at the center of their island (and the best season for visiting it is just beginning). But for Taiwan's upland Aborigines, certainly the older of them, these images are the parameters of life itself.

Taiwan's central mountains are a hard place. They're characterized by resplendent views and long hours of hard hiking. But intransigence characterizes them too. Taken in small doses they are infinitely refreshing, but for those who live there, life is usually hard indeed.

The publishers claim that Indigenous Writers of Taiwan is the first collection in English ever of Taiwanese Aboriginal writing, and there's no reason to disbelieve them. The Japanese, however, appear to have been the first to investigate and translate much of the material then available, followed by local Chinese-speaking scholars. In one of the essays a Puyama writer, describing his 79-year-old mother, remembers her saying that the colonizing Japanese were to be both feared and respected. She remembered their sense of honor and their obedience to their laws. She didn't like their severity, but their contribution to her tribe, she said, couldn't be denied.

The contents of this anthology are mostly taken from the last 20 years or so, and are all translations from Chinese. The Aboriginal tribes originally had no written forms for their languages, though some were created by Dutch and other missionaries. Nonetheless, Chinese is what these writers write in today. The editors say they chose the material from "a stack of books, magazines and newspapers about four feet high."

It has to be said that there are no great masterpieces in this book. The Nobel prize-winning American novelist Saul Bellow was widely attacked when he once remarked "Where is the Papuan Proust? Where is the Zulu Tolstoy? I'd like to read them."

The answer should surely be two-fold: that small language-groups are statistically unlikely to produce great writers, and that novels such as those Proust and Tolstoy wrote were a product of European liberal civilization in the 18th and 19th centuries and can't necessarily be transplanted.

Of course, all literary forms are nowadays effectively international, so maybe a Taiwanese indigenous literary giant will emerge. But in a global context ethnic origins are increasingly irrelevant, so such an eventuality would probably not attract much attention to Taiwan's Aborigines even if it occurred.

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