From Amy Tan’s successful Asian-American novel The Joy Luck Club through to Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men — both published more than 20 years ago and helping to open the gate of opportunity for other Asian American writers — novels about Taiwan, China and Japan have become a staple of the US publishing scene.
Now comes Boston native Julie Wu (吳茗秀), the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, with a new entry into the genre that, for the first time in US fiction, includes the events of the 228 Incident and the White Terror period within a family drama about love and sibling rivalry.
Wu, 46, was born in Massachusetts to parents who met and married in Taoyuan. Her first novel, The Third Son, is already attracting plaudits and awards even before publication.
Wu explained in an recent e-mail interview how the book, which recently won a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant, came to be and who she hopes its audience will be.
“The Third Son is the title I came up with back in 2001 when I started the novel, more than ten years ago and it has somehow lasted through all my revisions,” she said. “The hero of the story, Saburo, is indeed the third son in his family and his character was inspired by my father, who was also the third son. I think everyone has experiences with and expectations of how birth order affects status within the family, so just stating that someone was born third already suggests the kinds of struggles that are at play.”
“In the novel, Saburo is beaten daily and his parents clearly treat his siblings better,” Wu added. “While certain aspects of Saburo’s experience were inspired by my father’s life, some were not. As a novelist, of course, I am writing fiction.”
“In the opening scene, Saburo saves a girl during a US air raid over Taiwan during World War II when Taiwan was part of the Japanese Empire and he spends the rest of his childhood looking for her. When he finally finds her, she is already being pursued by others, including his brother. Even after they marry, he has to fight for her all the way to the end,” she said.
Wu was born in the US, but traveled to Taiwan in her 20s to do research for a different book that she had in mind. She took a lot of notes during the trip that she still refers to sometimes, she said.
“Since my book is a historical novel, I did a lot of research online and in books and magazines about Taiwan life in the 1940s and 1950s. Of course, I also interviewed my parents and continually asked them questions about that period. I would have liked to travel to Taiwan again, but I have two young children and traveling is much more difficult than it used to be,” Wu said.
Wu said she keeps up with current news events in Taiwan from her home in Boston, adding: “Taiwanese culture and politics seem very intertwined to me. They both interest me.”
Wu grew up in the Boston area and went to Harvard as an undergraduate, majoring in literature, but as a reader not a writer.
“I started writing a couple of years after I graduated from Harvard when I was doing graduate studies in opera at Indiana University in 1989. I never finished my opera degree, but I took an excellent writing workshop in Indiana and that was really my first step along the writing path.”
Wu has a medical degree and worked for a few years in primary care, she said, but after she had her two children, she decided to stay home and focus on writing. Her husband is also a doctor and works as a pulmonologist.