Taiwan literature a tough sell abroad
Despite Taiwan's rich literary tradition and position as acultural powerhouse, local literature gets short shrift abroad
By Gavin Phipps / STAFF REPORTER
Over the past two decades, award-winning local movie directors such as Ang Lee (李安) and Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮) have been paramount in the promotion of both Taiwan and its movie industry abroad. Thanks to their work, audiences around the world have been made aware that the Chinese and Taiwanese film industries are as alike as chalk and cheese.
\nThe success in distinguishing Taiwan in film has not been repeated, however, in the literary realm. Taiwan's many writers and publishing houses have long found it difficult to entice overseas readers to immerse themselves in a book penned by a Taiwanese writer or illustrated book drawn by a Taiwanese artist.
\nScholars of Taiwan studies say the country's literature is among the most diverse in Asia, because of its many influences -- Aboriginal, Dutch, Hakka and Japanese -- but its publishing houses have often struggled to make their mark internationally.
\nTo stoke greater international interest in Taiwan through literature, the Government Information Office (GIO, 新聞局) established the "Best from Taiwan" series late last year. Unveiled at the recent Taipei International Book Exhibition (台北國際書展), selection for inclusion in the series will be made annually and is open to any local publishing house, according to the GIO.
\nFor the inaugural "Best of Taiwan" series, a committee of 12 leading figures from the local publishing industry short-listed 37 works from a total of 472 books submitted by local publishing houses. The GIO hopes that the series will generate international copyrights and promote Taiwan overseas.
\nChosen publications cover four categories -- fiction, non-fiction, illustrated/children's books and comics. The books range from literary works penned by established authors like Huang Fan (黃凡) to those of first-time authors like Lanyu-based Thao tribe writer Siabenciboaiya. Other selections include non-fiction titles, such as A Guide for Urban Bird-watching (都市賞鳥圖鑑) and Taiwan Family Cuisine (家常台菜).
\n"We are confident that the `Best of Taiwan' series will stoke some interest amongst in at least one or two foreign publishing houses," said Juno Wang (王文娟), vice editor-in-chief at Unitas Literary Monthly (聯合文學).
\nEstablished 20 years ago, Unitas has long been a stepping-stone from which local authors like Ang Li (李昂) and Hsu Kuo-neng (徐國能) have launched successful careers. With 10,000 subscribers, the magazine is considered by many to be Taiwan's leading literary monthly.
\nGovernment not the answer?
\nBut not all of the publishing houses whose works were chosen to represent Taiwan by the GIO are as upbeat about the series.
\nAccording to Claudia Chen (陳師蘭), Chief Editor for Persimmon Cultural Enterprise (柿子文化事業有限公司), the best way to promote Taiwan's publications is for individual publishers to promote their own works rather than being reliant on the government to do so.
\n"I think it will offer very little in the way of opportunities for us. As a new company with limited experience of publishing abroad I feel that the best way for us to sell and promote our products abroad is to participate in book fairs on the international scene personally," Chen said.
\nOne company that has enjoyed some success with local works abroad is the Yuan-Liou Publishing Company (遠流出版公司). First published locally in the mid-90s, the company's colorful kids books, The Mouse Bride and Chinese Zodiac have since been translated into English, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese. And while the books are certainly far from being considered bestsellers, they have proven a minor hit among Chinese-speaking populations in the US and Canada.
\n"The books are not in shops because we felt that neither book would sell well. But we have seen success in schools and libraries," said Lee Chuan-li (李傳理), general manager of Yuan-Liou.
\n"It's been easy to capture these markets. Especially in areas with large Asian communities," he said.
\nThe Chinese Zodiac and The Mouse Bride are two of six Yuan-Liou books currently published in the US by Pan Asian Publications, a company that specializes in the publishing and supplying of translated Asian materials to schools and libraries throughout the US and Canada.
\nAccording to a spokesperson for Pan Asian, apart from Yuan-Liou's successful titles, many other books from Taiwan that the company has distributed in US and Canadian markets have not met with the same success.
\n"Many of the books are certainly in libraries and fill a niche market, but ordinary people don't know them," a company spokesperson said.
\n"There are so many books published in the US that it takes a lot of marketing and penetration to get books to sell. Of course, if you want your publication to do well it has to be translated well, and this costs a lot of money."
\nPublishing, marketing and translation costs are one of the biggest hurdles when companies set out to promote individual books overseas. Because of this, publishers from Taiwan distributing in the US and Europe choose to bundle books into collections rather than sell them as standalone works.
\nMany of these collections are published by university presses rather than by private publishing houses. Even then, the number of publications remains miniscule, with the result that Taiwanese literature is often under-represented.
\n"The only books we publish in translation from Taiwan are novels that would be published in our Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan series. The main criterion is that the book be a novel that is considered to be of high quality and representative of current Taiwan literary production," said Jennifer Crewe of Columbia University.
\n"We also think about whether the author is known in the US," Crewe said.
\nOne of the earliest collections of Taiwanese literature translated and published outside of Taiwan was by Washington University in 1975. Titled A Collection of Chinese Contemporary Literary Works (中國現代文學選集), the book was used by scholars and students of Chinese, but stoked little interest among casual readers. And then, of course, there was the title itself.
\nAccording to Ko Ching-ming (柯慶明) of the Taiwan National University Press (台大出版中心), the title of the collection led many to at the time to believe that Taiwan and China were inseparable entities and that Chinese and Taiwanese literary works were the same. He believes that this has been a major stumbling block in the promotion and growth of Taiwanese literature abroad.
\n"It wasn't until the mid- to late-1980s that the term Taiwan could be used to refer to the Republic of China without fear of angering the government. It is not surprising really that people in the US and Europe thought that Taiwan and China were one and the same for so long," Ko said.
\n"It is rather daft that nowadays, when Taiwanese literature is more developed and very different from that of China, people still cannot differentiate between the two."
\nThe Washington University collection is still available. But while it is no longer the sole Taiwanese literature collection on the market, and Taiwan's quasi-independent status is recognized by much of the world, it remains published under the same title.
\n"It's too late to change it now," Ko said. "If we did, nobody would know what publication we were talking about or selling."
\nProblems at home
\nAcademics may point to the turbulent and confused history of Taiwanese literature to explain its lukewarm reception abroad. But others feel that the roots of the problem lay not with overseas readers concepts and ideas of what Taiwan is, but, instead, with the changing face of local reading habits.
\nAt the annual Kingstone (金石堂) "Most Influential Books of the Year" awards, considered by many in the publishing industry to be the most significant indicator of the nation's reading habits, local literature often plays second fiddle to foreign works.
\nFrom 2001 to 2003, British author JK Rowling took top honors for her Harry Potter books, with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix racking up sales of over 200,000 copies in Taiwan. This year, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code stole the show with sales of over 300,000 copies.
\nSales of works by local authors pale in comparison. Ang Li's The Visible Ghosts (看得見的鬼), considered a huge hit by Unitas, sold a mere 3,000 copies in its first few months of publication.
\n"It makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to promote local literature overseas when even in Taiwan, sales of works by local authors are dwarfed by those of international writers," said Juno Wang, of Unitas, with a shrug of her shoulders.
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