Notes of a Crocodile

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile, translated by Bonnie Huie.

Taiwan’s top court just recently ruled in favour of gay marriage, culminating in what could be Asia’s first jurisdiction to allow members of the same sex to marry. Despite many challenges that still persist politically with the ruling, it indicates a more liberal attitude toward non-heterosexual relationships than when Qiu Miaojin published the novel Notes of a Crocodile in the early 1990s.

Qiu’s frank exploration of lesbianism was a breakthrough for the island’s literature and for modern Chinese fiction as a whole. More than twenty years on, the English-speaking world can now also enjoy this daring, youthful and insightful book in a translation by Bonnie Huie.

Half journal and half epistolary, the story follows the troubled protagonist Lazi as she tries to understand her place in society during her years at university. Something of a misfit, Lazi explores the counterculture of Taipei as she struggles to embrace an identity that is labelled “queer”. The plot is driven by her relationships – some romantic, others more platonic – and the numerous failed attempts at lasting love for individuals who don’t fit the traditional, Taiwanese notion of heterosexuality.

In “Notebook #1” of the book, Lazi starts with an explicit admission. Her tone is straightforward and continues throughout the novel:

In the past I believed that every man had his own innate prototype of a woman, and that he would fall in love with the woman who most resembled his type. Although I’m a woman, I have a female prototype too.

However, regardless of the exploration of gender, the detailed self-inquiry of Lazi’s listless move from high school to college to her first post-university job constitutes a universal and empathetic coming-of-age story. Indeed, lesbianism is incidental to the power of the story.

Woven in between the chapters on Lazi’s story of young love is… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden with this edition of review published in South China Morning Post; photo image credit of Taipei for this re-post goes to this link. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Trivialities About Me and Myself

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Trivialities About Me and Myself

Outsider views of Singapore suffer from numerous preconceptions and generalizations, many the result of sometimes humorous foreign venting in online forums about the city-state’s overweening legal apparatus and legal codes. Yet Singapore is affluent and materially developed by any measure.

Nor is Singapore widely known as a place of literature, but that is at least in part because much of the city’s life lies behind language barriers. This perception is exacerbated by a national campaign, promoted by the city to advertise its strength as a destination for foreign investment rather than a cultural hub.

The novel Trivialities About Me and Myself by Yeng Pway Ngon does two things splendidly to disabuse these notions. First, the novel is a much-needed corrective to the usual stereotypes. The author, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize and the Southeast Asian Writers Award as well as a prolific poetic, utilizes his work to critique the technocratic veneer of the island nation.

Second, the book employs a theme of the human condition as it intersects with modernity. Big words often used to describe Singapore’s experience of modernity—industrialization, modernization, legalization, and now financialization—do not tell us much about the personal level. Rather, this novel is about one man’s struggle with a breakneck world of change. Though the color is local, the story is global.

The author’s interpretation of the Singaporean dilemma is funneled through the protagonist Ah-hui and his struggle with the ‘Self’. This Self is a voice in Ah-hui’s head that represents one aspect of his ego. Ah-hui speaks to the Self, as if the Self were a separate being. Ah-hui and the Self argue and disagree. Sometimes Ah-hui is the victor. In these instances, an ethic of material profit and consumption wins. Sometimes the Self is the champion. This is meant to represent traditional values. In Ah-hui’s case, the Self will often prefer the exegesis of classical Chinese literature or the righteousness found in the defense of those who have been left behind in Singapore’s expanding economy.

The confrontation between Ah-hui and the Self is reflected on two levels. In as much as the Singaporean city-state moves away from Confucianism, so too does Ah-hui… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; watercolor image credit for this re-post goes to Khor Seow Hooi at The Colours of Heritage. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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L’histoire des Migrations Birmanes en Thaïlande Contredit l’Analyse Actuelle

Le discours prépondérant sur la migration des quelque trois millions de personnes originaires du Myanmar vivant actuellement en Thaïlande est essentiellement binaire. On considère généralement qu’ils sont soit des manœuvres, soit des réfugiés. En termes de causalité, la première catégorie serait incitée à se déplacer « de son plein gré » pour des raisons économiques tandis que la seconde serait « contrainte » pour des motifs politiques.

Une vision simpliste

Cela peut sembler être une rapide simplification des recherches des autres mais plus on se penche attentivement sur les écrits, plus cette vision binaire réfugié vs manœuvre constitue le cadre théorique dans au moins trois disciplines : les politiques migratoires contemporaines, la législation internationale sur les réfugiés et travail, ainsi que les études des organisations non gouvernementale. Je crains que cela ne soit plus une figure rhétorique qu’un élément étayé par des preuves en provenance du terrain.

L’année dernière, Adam Saltsman a expliqué dans The Diplomat que trop de différenciation entre les réfugiés et les manœuvres pourrait en fait nuire à ceux auxquels les analystes et chercheurs souhaitent venir en aide, alors que tant de ceux qui furent autrefois des « réfugiés » sont déjà entrés dans le réservoir de main-d’œuvre en Thaïlande. Il fait valoir que « le plaidoyer pour les réfugiés doit être relié à la défense des intérêts des migrants et du droit du travail » afin d’aboutir à des « solutions durables »… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Alter Asia by T. F. Rhoden; translated by Édith Disdet; all other written and photo credits appear on Alter Asia. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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