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Best Books of the Month: Shawna Yang Ryan on "Green Island"

Amazon Book Review: Green IslandGreen Island, one of our Best Books of the Month selections for February, is the kind of historical story that is at once personal and political. Set in Taiwan, it traces the life of a family that lived through both decades of upheaval and a forever-complicated relationship with its Chinese heritage. Here, author Shawna Yang Ryan writes about the inspiration for the book – her mother was born in Taiwan, she herself grew up in the west but won a fellowship to go back and study the history of the island; she also examines what it means that, for the first time in history, Taiwan has a woman president.

My mother was born in Taiwan. Growing up in California, I had only a vague understanding of her childhood. I was aching for Judy Blume moments, voraciously consuming Sweet Valley High books, watching John Hughes movies and practicing my Molly Ringwald pout, and wanted nothing more than to pile cliché atop cliché—student government, sports, homecoming and proms—angsts and desires that my mother seemed to find a little inexplicable. When I, ahem, "crossed into womanhood," I scripted my revelation to her based on a book I'd recently read. I thought that she, like the mother in the book, would clap her hands together, hug me, and bake me a cake with Congratulations, you're a woman! spelled out in icing. Instead, she was completely unfazed. It was not only a generation gap, but a cultural one as well.

Writers work with the concrete—the smell of the streets, the color of the sky, the pressure of history on the actual body. I wanted to understand how to reconcile the photos of my mother in the 70s, smiling brightly with her elbow-length black hair and skin-tight, high-waisted bell bottom jeans with images of military police in white helmets, and concepts like censorship, dictatorship and one-party system. I found beneath the West's lauding of Taiwan as an Asian Tiger was a pervasive culture of fear perpetuated by neighbors spying on neighbors, students spying on classmates. My mother's adolescence was filled with warnings to fight Communism and to beware of Communists spies—slogans found everywhere from movie tickets to wrapping paper to even mooncakes. Beneath American ally Chiang Kai Shek's charming smile was a ruthless leader who had overseen the imprisonment and torture of thousands of political dissidents. No wonder my mother had been unmoved by my suburban teenage dramas. To understand all of this, I had to go to Taiwan. I arrived on a ten-month Fulbright grant and stayed three years, during which I took Mandarin classes every day and interviewed everyone who would say yes. I looked at old family photos, listened to people's stories and favorite songs. I sweated through the sizzling summers, rode trains and buses all around the island, and learned to negotiate daily life—like banking and paying bills—in Mandarin. All to reach the point where I could tell this story.

SYRIn Green Island, the unnamed narrator is born two years after the arrival of the Chinese Nationalists to Taiwan, and two weeks before her father is arrested and imprisoned for promoting Taiwanese self-representation. She grows up without a father, in a place where the Taiwanese become second-class citizens to the ruling Chinese Nationalists. She is taught that China is the ancestral land and that one day the Nationalists will retake it from the Communists. She learns Chinese history as her own. In school, she is forced to speak Mandarin and is punished for speaking Hokkien (colloquially called "Taiwanese"). As an adult, she moves to California, but discovers that she still cannot escape the legacy of her father's "crimes." Even in America, she is asked to spy on and betray people she loves.

Taiwan lived under thirty-eight years of martial law. Even after martial law was lifted in 1987, the ruling party—the Nationalists—held much of the power. An opposition party candidate gained office from 2000-2008, but was promptly imprisoned after his term ended. That is why I found myself this recent January, on the night of Taiwan's election, anxiously toggling between Twitter, Facebook and multiple news sites, witnessing the astounding election results come in. A progressive candidate—an unmarried, cat-loving, LGBT-supporting female candidate!—was winning by a landslide. Tsai Ing-Wen won 56% of the vote, versus the Nationalist candidate's 31%, and East Asia gained its second female head of state. At first glance, this—a female president—seems to be what makes this election newsworthy, and yet it is only one of piece of what makes Tsai's win special.

In the world of my novel—in the world my mother grew up in—a president like Tsai Ing-Wen is part of a future that people cannot yet dare to imagine. Taiwan's recent election—and the people in the streets that night shouting "We are Taiwanese"—gives me hope that there are still many other currently unimaginable and wonderful possible futures that can come to fruition.

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