Wed, May 08, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Behind ‘The Third Son’

Julie Wu discusses her debut novel about sibling rivalry in a traditional Taiwanese family

By Dan Bloom  /  Contributing reporter

Wu noted that she recently attended a performance by Taiwanese-American spoken-word poet Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, who included issues of Taiwanese history and identity in her latest piece titled Formosa. In addition, Thomas Liao’s (廖文毅) granddaughter, Kim Liao, spent a year in Taiwan researching her family roots and is working on a memoir, she added.

“It’s not that artists are lacking,” Wu insisted. “It’s that they lack acknowledgement and support, including financial support. For example, if the memorial museums in Taiwan were well-funded, they could afford to buy and properly display more examples of important artwork instead of relying only on donated art and reproductions. As it is, many socially-important works languish in the dark.”


The Third Son is one of the first American novels to explore “the modern historical suppression of the Taiwanese people.”

The book is not about Chiang Kai-shek or his authoritarian regime, but Wu was fully aware of that period of history when she started writing.

“There are many reasons authoritarian regimes have always suppressed artists, and it’s not just because artists are parasites who most often need financial support,” she says.

“It’s not even just because artists can produce direct social/political commentary that inflames the masses. It’s because art is a distillation of consciousness, a reflection of humanity that intersects society at infinite levels, and that is passed down from generation to generation. Smart governments understand this.”

When asked to explain this in relation to Taiwan, Wu gave as an example the life of Taiwanese painter Ouyang Wen (歐陽文).

“He has described how, when he was first taken to Green Island, he thought he could simply continue his work as an artist,” Wu said. “But the prison officials constantly harassed him, asking him what he was painting and what it meant, until he lost all desire to paint at all. But what could the prison officials have been afraid of? He was already in prison, isolated from the rest of the world. He was not painting anything overtly political or rebellious. They could only have been afraid of hidden meanings in his prison paintings, meanings that, when he was released, might be apparent to others and reveal truths that they would rather keep hidden.”

The Third Son has raced out of the starting gate and is winding its way through the hearts and minds of Western readers and book reviewers. The novel has a good chance to make its mark on American literature and put Taiwan on the international map in a literary way. And when the book is translated into Chinese for Taiwanese readers in the future, it could have a big impact here as well.

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