Sunday 9 October 2016
Green Island - Shawna Yang Ryan (2016)
Green Island begins in 1949 when Taiwan came under martial law instigated by the Chinese Nationalist Party, who had fled mainland China after finally being defeated by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. In 1986 I studied Chinese history as one of my year 12 subjects. Green Island reminded me of some of what I learned, but mostly it alerted me to what was left out of our curriculum, as if the ensuing history of what then happened in Taiwan was irrelevant. Shawna Yang Ryan has provided Western readers with an accessible account of what life was like for the Taiwanese from February 1947 onward, from the massacres that resulted from the influx of Nationalist forces, through to the SARs epidemic of the early 2000s.
Ryan’s unnamed narrator recounts the story of her family, beginning when she was born in the family home in Taipei on the night of the first massacre (up to 30,000 people ended up dying at the hands of Nationalist soldiers). Ryan, a Chinese American, lived in Taiwan for two years in order to research for the novel, exploring the island, accessing historical media and talking to people who had lived through those times. Such commitment and depth of research does give the novel an authentic tone, which is something that can be absent from historical fiction. Throughout the novel there is a great deal of familial detail, which can sometimes result in an uneven narrative pace, however this is offset by the resulting emotional connection developed over the course of Green Island. I had underestimated Ryan’s writing, believing that I was reasonably indifferent to the lives of the characters, even through their many hardships, until late in the novel when the narrator returns to Taiwan after a long absence and is placed in danger by the KMT. I felt protective of her and her partner, the idealistically naive Wei, and I realised that Shawna Yang Ryan had hooked me without me even noticing.
My interest and involvement in the novel increased once the narrator marries and subsequently moves to California where her husband lectures at Berkley University. The narrator not only has to navigate a new culture but, more importantly, she is given first-hand experience of the reach and power of the KMT, something that she could only imagine previously through the experiences of her father who had suffered through eleven years in captivity during the first decade of martial law. In California they give shelter to an escaped activist, Jia Bao, who plots with Wei to expose the evils of the KMT regime. The narrator’s relationship with the stoic Jia Bao and the danger it puts her and her family in gives the narrative an injection of tension that acts as a pay-off for some of the more prosaic sections earlier in the novel.
Although Green Island is certainly flawed, by the concluding chapters the novel had revealed itself to be much more accomplished than it had initially promised. More importantly Green Island deserves admiration for raising awareness in the West of Taiwanese history. Significantly the novel gives a voice to the multitudes of Taiwanese who suffered under the longest period of martial law (40 years) in modern history. Green Island is also an example of the importance of quality fiction. Fiction reveals histories, ideas, psychologies and foreign cultures that would be otherwise inaccessible to readers who find the idea of reading door-stop sized history books unappealing.