Green Island is a novel about survival, growth and developing identity. It captures Taiwan at a specific period in its history, the post-World War II period of martial law and the White Terror imposed on the populace by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) after fleeing China in 1949. This period of suppression affected millions of Taiwanese families living in Taiwan as well as abroad. Few would be untouched but for those that survived a new identity began to crystallize.
The book’s title, Green Island, refers to the small island off the southeast coast of Taiwan, a place primarily used by the KMT as a prison for “political prisoners.” Thousands of Taiwanese were imprisoned there; today it is a monument to those times. However, green is also a color of hope and the title can metaphorically refer to Taiwan, the beautiful green island, which the Portuguese gave the name Formosa.
The story opens in Taipei on the infamous day of Feb. 28, 1947. Unaware of all that is developing outside, Li Min, the mother of the protagonist, has gone into labor. The protagonist, her fourth child, will be born just after midnight on March 1, 1947; unfortunately the family’s as well as the nation’s troubles have just begun. On March 14, 1947, the father Dr Tsai, a prominent doctor would disappear. His crime is that at a public meeting spoke out against the injustices going on. Thousands disappeared in that period but not that many returned alive.
Without a breadwinner, the family is forced to relocate to Taichung where Li Min’s parents live. Dr Tsai will eventually find them there after 11 years of imprisonment. However, their plight remains far from over. The family now enters the ensuing oppressive years of a society filled with suspicion, lies, betrayal and survival. A well-known Taiwanese saying of the time quotes Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石): it is “better to kill a hundred innocent men than let one guilty (Communist) go free.”
By Shawna Yang Ryan
Penguin Random House
Each family member must find his or her own way of moving forward. The protagonist marries Wei Lin, a newly-appointed professor at the University of California at Berkeley and though the “stigma” of her father’s arrest remains, she hopes to find a new life in America.
Escape however, is impossible. KMT spies are everywhere and Lin’s involvement with activism draws attention. More troubles ensue including a near family break up until all ends in 2003 with Li Min’s death in a Taipei hospital, a hospital that has ironically been quarantined due to the SARS epidemic, which originated in China.
After her mother’s death, the protagonist returns to her home in Berkeley to publish the pro-democracy manuscript of the assassinated Jia Bao. It is a work that she had helped translate into English in the 1980s; with its publication she finds resolution.
Despite the hope promised in the ending, however, Green Island remains a story with few heroes. A sadness pervades the story, as one contemplates the toll that decades of martial law and repressive one-party rule took on so many families. As the protagonist sums it up at the end: “Nothing sublime hid in the pain we found in one March decades ago, a month that went on and on beyond the boundaries of the calendar.”
There is a fitting, though perhaps unintentional, irony in that this book’s publication comes close on the heels of the recent massive victory of Taiwan’s once-outlawed Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). On Jan. 16, Taiwanese elected their first female president, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the DPP, giving them a clear majority of 68 seats in the 113 seat legislature. For Taiwan’s dangwai (“outside the party”) who had opposed the KMT, that is the final justification for their efforts.