FEATURE: Novel offers glimpse into Taiwan’s dark past

FAMILY DRAMA::Set in Taiwan during the White Terror era ‘The Third Son’ focuses on sibling rivalry and the healing power of love and is to be published in the US next year

By Dan Bloom  /  Contributing reporter

Sat, Sep 08, 2012 - Page 3

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.

“A couple of years after I left Indiana I went to Columbia University School of Physicians & Surgeons to become a physician,” she said. “I did my internal medicine residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Now I’m a novelist, and I should say, one of the beautiful things about being American is feeling that you can change your career at any time.”

The genesis of The Third Son was long and convoluted and took a lot of time. She initially started writing a novel when she was in Indiana in 1989, thinking that it would be partially set in Taiwan, but when she started asking her parents questions about Taiwan, they told her things that they had never revealed before and she realized the first novel she was trying to write was boring compared to her parents’ own background.

“In 2001, I finally had the time to sit down and interview both my parents properly and their stories stunned me,” Wu said. “So you could say that The Third Son began as a kind of biographical novel about my parents, but over the years, as I learned more about writing and received some feedback, I realized that if I wanted to write for readers beyond my own family I would have to be willing to change the facts to make the story more dramatic, moving and thematically cohesive.”

She did just that and the result is a powerful story about Taiwan that is set to be published by Algonquin Books early next year.

“In the end, the historical details and events are as accurate as I could make them, but the characters and their actions are figments of my imagination,” Wu said, adding that she hopes her novel will appeal to anyone, anywhere, any country, regardless of nationality or gender. “The issues I focus on in the book — oppression, sibling rivalry and the healing power of love — are universal.”

One of the issues Wu’s novel addresses is the 228 Incident.

The 228 Incident refers to an uprising against the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government that began on Feb. 27, 1947, and was followed by a bloody crackdown, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. It ushered in a period of White Terror that saw thousands arrested, imprisoned and executed.

When asked if she thinks US readers know that term or know much about that time in Taiwan history, she replied: “In my experience, Americans are universally ignorant of the February 28th Massacre known as the White Terror, except for scholars of the region, although I recall that even a classmate of mine who majored in East Asian Studies at Harvard, graduating in the late 1980s, still knew nothing about 228 or the White Terror period. I would say that censorship by the Taiwanese government at the time was very successful in this regard, as with many atrocities in corners of the world.”

“I do find it disturbing that so few Americans know even the basics of Taiwanese history or politics. I hoped that setting my story during this period would help people understand on a personal, emotional level, the origin of current conflicts in Taiwan and across the [Taiwan] Strait,” she added.

Since her story takes place partly during the Japanese colonial era in Taiwan, Wu said there are some Japanese characters in her novel, too.

“In particular, I created a Japanese schoolteacher who has a lot of influence on Saburo,” Wu said, adding: “As readers will see, some of the Taiwanese characters in the novel go by their Japanese names.”

When asked if her parents had read the book, either in drafts or in the final copy, Wu said they had, noting: “They both read it, bless their hearts, many drafts of the book. I am extremely lucky to have had them as resources and also grateful that they gave me license to truly make the book the best work of fiction it could be.”

Wu said that she sees herself as both a Taiwanese-American novelist and an US novelist.

“I am totally Americanized in how I think and lead my life, so my point of view is American. At the same time, I am fascinated by my heritage and Taiwanese history,” she said.