Hot on the heels of the success of his debut novel, The Teahouse of the August Moon, American author Vern Sneider spent the summer of 1952 in Taiwan researching his next book.
Ushered in by the 228 Incident of 1947, the White Terror era was at its most brutal at that time as thousands of suspected political dissidents were imprisoned or executed by the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
The resulting book, A Pail of Oysters, was banned in Taiwan, but to Sneider’s dismay, even the US denounced it. It was the McCarthy era, and anything portraying the KMT in a negative light was inevitably painted as pro-communist. It went out of print shortly after.
Photo courtesy of camphor press
While Mandarin and Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) translations have been available since 2003, English editions are rare (rumor has it that pro-KMT students hunted down and destroyed copies from US libraries), with Abebooks.com just listing six copies, ranging from about NT$900 to NT$3,800.
“It’s one of those books that were passed around in secret during the bad old days,” Taiwan and UK-based Camphor Press cofounder Mark Swofford says.
Camphor Press is today releasing the first republishing of the book since the 1950s in digital format, with a print edition to come soon.
“It was suppressed and never got a fair hearing. We want to give it one,” Swofford says.
The book depicts life during White Terror through a variety of characters — most prominently Li Liu, a half-Hakka and half-Aborigine whose family is robbed by KMT soldiers at the beginning of the novel.
But bashing the KMT isn’t the point of the novel, Swofford says.
“It’s a very complex novel, [written] when many people thought it was just the communists versus the KMT,” he says. “It was more of a middle way sort of thing; from the standpoint of the Taiwanese people.”
Late last year, Jonathan Benda, a lecturer at Boston’s Northeastern University, found himself interviewing Sneider’s 85-year-old widow, June.
Benda was familiar with A Pail of Oysters. He read it during his 18-year stay in Taiwan and published an academic paper on it in 2007. Benda says he had once considered republishing it, but lacked the means to do so — and was surprised when Camphor Press asked him to write the introduction to their new edition.
Benda was eager to learn more about the book. In addition to speaking to June, he also dug up old articles and correspondences and obtained copies of the author’s notes through his hometown museum in Monroe, Michigan.
Stationed in Okinawa and Korea, Sneider had never been to Taiwan before the summer of 1952, but the US Army had him study the country at Princeton University in preparation for possible military occupation during the war.
Benda was impressed with the amount of research Sneider’s notes contained — including interviews with people ranging from then-governor K.C. Wu (吳國楨) to pedicab operators and extensive notes on items such as how children are named and blind masseuses. He even had his palm read, which is featured in the novel.
“It’s easy to point out mistakes or problems with his depictions … but I come away thinking that he got a lot of it right,” Benda says.
Through examining letters, Benda found that Sneider had hoped to counter the pervading pro-KMT perception of Taiwan as “Free China” and show how its people were actually suffering under martial law.
“My viewpoint will be strictly that of the Formosan people, trying to exist under that government,” he wrote to George H. Kerr, author of Formosa Betrayed. “And … maybe, in my small way, I can do something for the people of Formosa.”
But although Sneider was critical of the government, he generally gives a balanced picture, including democracy proponents in the KMT and sympathetic soldiers, Benda says.
In addition, the American perspective is shown through the eyes of Ralph Barton, a journalist investigating life in Taiwan under martial law — which corresponds to Sneider’s role, except that the author believed that fiction is a more powerful vehicle through its “emotional pull,” as detailed in his letter to Kerr.
Sneider died in 1981 — too early for any chance to redeem his book, but at least June is able to see it happen.
“She was glad to have this out during her lifetime,” Swofford says.
Last week saw a momentary spark in the election season, when Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Hou You-yi (侯友宜) and Taiwan People’s Party Chairman and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) attempted to form a joint ticket, ostensibly to defeat the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its candidate Vice President William Lai (賴清德). This mating of massive egos was arranged by longtime KMT stalwart and former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). The deal predictably fell apart, though as of this writing — Thursday — there was still a chance for an 11th hour recovery. (Editor’s note: it didn’t happen.) Many people
Lesley Hughes says most climate change scientists are good at partitioning off bits of their brain. “You put all the negative stuff in a little box and you put a wall around it and you try to keep going,” she says. But in the record-breaking year that 2023 has become, some of the dread and grief has broken out of Hughes’s mental box and vaulted the wall. There have been sleepless nights, where she’s pondered the future for her family, the natural places she loves and for the species being lost. “I do grieve,” the ecologist says at her home on Sydney’s lower north
Classical music, soft mattresses and the gentlest touch of a wool clipper: welcome to the New Zealand farm indulging what may be the world’s most pampered sheep. Forget any preconceptions of rough-hewn shearers manhandling the flock as they quickly deprive them of their fleece in crowded, noisy wool-sheds. At Lake Hawea Station on New Zealand’s South Island, owners Geoff and Justine Ross are advocates of the gentler, more soothing art of “slow-shearing.” The sounds of Debussy, Vivaldi and Mozart may be wafting through the shed as shearers usher the ewes from their pens before trimming off their thick wool with slow, methodical strokes
In the heart of Taipei at Legacy — a venue renowned for hosting diverse musical acts — Alvvays, a Grammy-nominated ensemble from Canada, delivered a compelling performance last week. With a fusion of indie-dream pop and shoegaze influences, Alvvays enthralled the audience with their catchy, introspective melodies and refined stage presence. Legacy, brimming with subdued anticipation, served as the ideal setting for Alvvays’ show. Almost reaching its full capacity, the venue buzzed with excitement as the band took the stage. Off Time Production, the local organizers, infused a unique touch by having a hipster pizzeria, Under The Bridge, cater the event.