Yang Fumin: The Future of "Tai Ke" Literature

by on Tuesday, 05 October 2010 Comments

Yang Fumin (楊富閔) is a promising young writer whose recently published short story anthology Huajia Nanhai (花甲男孩) was lauded by many famous writers and critics including Luo Yijun (駱以軍) and Shi shu (施淑) amongst others. His work captures the interesting duality of the Taiwanese psyche, with descriptions of folk customs and beliefs humorously juxtaposed to icons of popular culture in Taiwan, like Star Boulevard, BBS and the Wolf 125 motorbike. The satirical humour of his work is underscored by a note of compassion and self-identification which makes his work more human and touching than a lot of his predecessors. The proliferation of cultural references and the use of Taiwanese language structures make it a difficult but (with the help of a good search engine and Taiwanese dictionary or friend) worthwhile read for foreign students. This is an interview with him conducted in the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature at which he is currently undertaking a Masters degree.

{soundcloud http://soundcloud.com/erenlairicci/final-yangfumin}

Yang: I come from Tainan, and I’m just the kind of person who likes writing… When I say Tainan I mean the countryside. Actually I’m just a normal guy, just kind of a typical Taiwanese young person. I grew up in a good family, I grew up going to cram schools, studying, taking exams, went to university, graduated with flying colours and got into graduate school. I haven’t had any major problems in life, nothing really bad happened to me.

Nick: So you would say you grew up in an average Taiwanese family?

Yang: Well yeah, my family is average, but everyone’s family environment is different and particular to them, so you can’t say it’s “average”, but no matter what the peculiaraties, you can say that at least it wasn’t bad. However there were certainly some exceptional aspects to the way we grew up. One example would be because we lived in the countryside, so I have an interest in things related to temple festivities, including worship at temples, gods, ghosts and monsters. I like this kind of stuff.

Conor: Who do you think reads your work?

Yang: Who reads my work? People with an affinity with me, because I don’t really know… When I started writing…

Conor: So you were writing for yourself or with other people in mind?

Yang: I just wanted to write, and then I discovered if you want to write you have to publish too, to publish you have to enter competitions, so when I finished writing something I would enter it in a competition. So I would put it like this, I wanted to write so I started writing, somethings would bother me, so I wrote them out, in the style of a short story.

Conor: In your work you often seem to bring up Taiwanese…

Yang: …Folk customs?… I write about so much folk culture or customs that maybe it might come across as overly superstitious. But writing about that kind of thing I find is a kind of mal du pays, like reminiscing, the melancholy affection for my hometown that reminiscing triggers in me. And actually, I don’t really like these folk customs that much, I actually despise them. I despise them, and I grew up amongst these customs I’ve seen too much of them, I’ve also seen the negative side to the whole thing. When people think of temple festivals, they think of people on the margins of society, children who don’t study hard, with bad grades, so folk culture is stigmatized in a way. So when I was younger I kept away from it, but it’s only when I grew up that I realized that that is where I came from. So in the process of writing about it, I stopped despising it. I realized that it is still a part of who I am. I not only stopped despising it but I accepted it as a kind of energy… one of my motivations for writing.

Conor: Has coming to Taipei influenced the writing process or the content of your writing?

Yang: After coming to Taipei I’ve only written one short story, Huajia (〈花甲〉), the last story in the anthology. I still haven’t really become accustomed to the pace of life in Taipei, the busyness of it, and I’m also taking my Masters degree, so I feel I should focus on my studies for the moment. I still haven’t really settled in yet, so I get nervous.

Nick: What does Huajia Nanhai (《花甲男孩》) mean?

Yang: Well, as you know, Huajia (花甲) is one of the stories in the anthology. Nanhai (男孩), because it would be too simplistic to just call the book Huajia (花甲), so I added Nanhai(男孩)… Huajia (花甲) means 60 years old, and Nanhai (男孩) is the word for boy, so the title means 60 year old boy providing a paradoxical contrast, which I thought was interesting.

Nick: Does this refer to yourself?

Yang: It’s not me exactly. I think it’s a work that reflects the way I think.

Conor: In the book you use a lot of Taiwanese language, in terms of sentence structure and vocabulary. How do you feel about foreigners reading your work? Is it strange for you?

Yang: Actually I’d be very interested in whether you both were able to understand it, or if there are lots of things that you can’t quite grasp.

Conor: I think that there were certain bits that were hard to understand, but if you just look them up on the internet you can find out what they mean.

Nick: In your work you mention computers and you also mention more traditional things.

Yang: Yeah, there’s a lot of very Taiwanese things, but also a lot of modern things.

Nick: Do you think these provide a contrast?

Yang: They do, but that’s not something I deliberately tried to write about, because this contrast is a part of our lives. In my own life this kind of extreme contrast often arises and you realise its absurdity. It is these kinds of contrast that I like, so I write them into my work, they have the effect of making people not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Nick: Do you think that Taiwan has a very Taiwanese identity?

Conor: Would you say your work is self-representative or representative of a common feeling of being Taiwanese?

Yang: Of course I think my work is self-representative. It’s not my place to represent Taiwan, but you could say I represent my view of Taiwan. My view of this imaginary place. Taiwan after all is just a place, an island.

Nick: How would you compare Taiwan literature to other Chinese literature in China and the Chinese diaspora?

Conor: What is the definition of Taiwan literature in your mind?

Yang: I don’t think I’ve captured this in my work. I’m still grasping for a definition. We’re studying Taiwan Literature now. In the process of studying it, you try and understand what it means. It’s natural for me to speak Taiwanese, so it’s not a contrived gesture. It’s natural, just like when I talk with you I sometimes use a bit of Taiwanese.

Nick: What do you like to do when you’re not writing, studying or working?

Yang: I like sleeping. Haha, I like walking but I also like watching TV a lot, but it’s not like I am addicted to it. I like watching the news, there is lots of news in Taiwan, don’t you think? 24 hour news channels, so there’s news to watch 24 hours a day. I’m pretty normal, I like cycling, riding my scooter and just generally being out and about. So I’m not a geek who just stays at home all day (awkward laugh).

Conor: How would your friends describe you?

Yang: Eh… well how would you describe me then? Haha. My classmates all say I’m good fun, and not a very serious guy.

Nick: I saw on the internet you styled yourself “the revolutionary Taike author who swam down the Zengwun River .”

Yang: That actually came from the publishing house. It’s kind of a marketing technique, it’s not really that dramatic. Embarrassing though it is to admit.

Conor: Would you like to publish more?

Yang: I think I’ll continue to write, but I guess that’s up to fate. I think continuing to write is more important than getting published. You write if you want to write and not just to get published.

Conor: Do you get any pressure from the publishing house?

Yang: No, it’s not everyone who wants to get published. A writer has to have a certain attitude towards their own writing.

Nick: Where do you get your inspiration for writing?

Yang: Inspiration? Like I said from life, from TV, from walking and from the my background and where I grew up. I write what I’m familiar with, I don’t write science fiction or detective novels, because I don’t have that kind of experience.

Conor: You mention death quite a lot in your work.

Yang: I’m pretty scared of death actually because from when I was very young, I was often in contact with things related to death. Like for example in our institute we often hear the sound of funeral parades going down the street, the sound of dead people. An important part of my writing is death.

Conor: You write about spirits and ghosts? Are you scared of them?

Yang: I don’t write horror stories. It’s just part of the mal du pays and missing home. Everybody was together there, there was a sense of homely humanity.

Conor: Along with the nostalgia and the reminiscences there also seems to be a sense of duty and guilt no?

Yang: Yes…

Nick: Do you think this sense of duty is too much of a burden on Taiwanese people generally?

Yang: I don’t think it’s so bad, and I think for some people, they wouldn’t think of it as a burden or pressure, but rather they think it’s just what is right… Its of use to them. Sometimes it can be pressure, for others it’s helpful. It can make you more determined or it can be a burden.

Nick: Who has influenced you most in terms of other writers?

Yang: 100 years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and in terms of Taiwan, at my former university Tunghai University (東海) one of my professors was also a writer, Professor Zhou Fenling (周芬伶), I’ve read a lot of her work. However I’ve also taken courses like the Literary History of Taiwan, and I liked the majority of the authors we read, it’s part of the process of literary enlightenment. I’m a little bit embarrassed that I started writing without having read a lot of the work of other writers, after writing it leaves you slightly empty. So I think it’s necessary to read more widely, both Western and… it’s not even just about reading, but about broadening one’s horizons.


(1) Taike refers to a subculture in Taiwan stereotypically characterised as beetlenut chewing, with dyed red hair, wearing blue and white sandals.

Read an excerpt from the short story anthology below:

〈逼逼〉

Yang Fumin’s blog and 〈暝哪會這呢長〉

Update: Catch up with Yang Fumin here:

http://okapi.books.com.tw/index.php/p3/p3_detail/sn/72

conor_yangfumin

 

Conor Stuart (蕭辰宇)

Born in Belfast. Just finished his Master from the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature at National Taiwan University (NTU). Currently lives and works in Taipei. 

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