Aboriginal Literature Inside Out

by on Friday, 28 September 2012 Comments

In this video, I discuss my views on Taiwanese aboriginal literature, my encounters with famous aboriginal writers Topas Tamapima and Monaneng, and the place indigenous literature occupies in the Pacific and the world.

From an academic point of view, many aspects of Taiwan have already been studied all around the world. Aboriginal issues are really suffering from a severe lack of recognition in Western countries, even if some other specialists like Scott Simon are emerging, they depart only from an anthropological and political starting point. I’m probably one of the very few western researchers who work in this field through written literature, and I think it really represents a great value for our knowledge of this field. It’s also a way to ensure that all the work which have been already been put in by researchers like Elizabeth Zeitoun, Josiane Cauquelin or Véronique Arnaud will be continued.

Readers in Mainland China can watch it on youku here

Written version of the interview

Can you tell us about your academic background?

So, between 1999 and 2005, I read Chinese Studies at the University of Provence in France and I lived in Taiwan for two years, between 2001 and 2003. Then I did a Masters degree for which I wrote a dissertation about the contemporary written literature of Taiwanese Aborigines. In 2010, I decided to continue my research in this field by starting a PHD thesis in the same university, under the direction of Noël Dutrait who has supervised me since the beginning of my studies.

What was the subject of your Masters dissertation?

Despite the fact that there were already some indigenous writers like Gao Yisheng or BaLiwakes, who were mainly songwriters under the Japanese colonization, a true indigenous written literature in Mandarin had started to appear around the lifting of the martial law at the end of the 80’s. In 2003, an anthology devoted to indigenous writing was published. It brought together the most representative indigenous writers of Taiwan and their work, consisting of 7 volumes which were structured around the three major literary genres that are novels, poems and essays. These texts often took the form of original fiction, traditional myths and legends or a mixture of the two. The dissertation I wrote for my Master degree was a work of synthesis about all these writers and their texts. I also translated four novels written by Topas Tamapima, the first indigenous writer of the post martial law generation. I interviewed him for the first time at the end of 2003 in his dispensary in the county of Taitung. At this time, I also met Sun Dachuan, the current minister of Aboriginal Affairs, who helped me a lot.

What are you going to discuss in more detail in your PHD thesis?

A lot of research has already been done in this field in Taiwan. But there is almost nothing in western countries, except a few works in English by scholars like Terence Russel, Darryl Sterk and John Balcom. However, most of the works in English I’ve read are just translations and don’t really analyze the contents of indigenous literature.

By attending some conferences in Western countries about Taiwan, I realized that most of people were mainly interested in the substance of these texts. So I’ve decided to shed light on the viewpoint that was expressed by all these writers in their background and their texts. This is the first part of my dissertation which tries to summarize the background and the major texts of the 33 indigenous writers who are officially identified in Taiwan by the online data base of the Mountains and Seas Publication Society. By “viewpoint“ I mean the perception of the world around them. In the second part of my dissertation, I try to compare this viewpoint with the viewpoint that is expressed through the literary and sociological reception of this indigenous literature in Taiwan.

The final part of my thesis is an annotated translation in French of the last collection of short stories written by Topas Tamapima and which were published in 1998. Its name is Memories of a doctor on the Orchids Island and it retraces the experience of the author as a doctor on Orchids Island at the end of the 80’s. This translation helps to analyze the “viewpoint” of an indigenous writer throughout one of his works. We can see through this translation the mobility of the author’s viewpoint because in those short stories, Topas always seems to be caught between his professional status as a doctor, whose field is Chinese medicine, which was originally foreign to the indigenous people, and some collective reminiscences which constantly remind him as to the defense of all the Aborigines against Han society. So, the aim of my research is to see what arises from the meeting of this multiplicity of different viewpoints.

During your research, you met the two famous indigenous writers - Topas Tamapima and Monaneng. Can you tell us more about those meetings?

The first time I met Topas was at the end of 2003. At this time, I still was a Masters student and I was already writing a dissertation about the indigenous writers of Taiwan, which focused especially on the works of Topas Tamapima. The meeting was very fun and friendly; It was at his dispensary, Changpin, on the southeast coast of Taiwan in the county of Taitung. I asked him some questions about his background, his childhood, about some novels he wrote and which I had translated into French for my Masters degree dissertation. The second time I met him was in 2011, it was still at his dispensary. He didn’t remember our first meeting. It was a bit frustrating for me. I interviewed and filmed him for an hour. We had a deep discussion about everything, indigenous literature, what he thought about the current state of aborigines in Taiwanese society, his political viewpoint and his experience as a doctor on the Orchids Island amongst other things.

The meeting with Monaneng was a few weeks later in his massage room in Taipei. We talked about his background and his writing too. In front of my camera, he read one of his most famous poems. Its name is ‘When the bells start to ring’ and it talks about young indigenous women who become prostitutes. The meeting with him was really touching.

Is the Pacific represented in Topas and Monaneng's writings? How?

To me, the Pacific is absolutely not at the heart of their writings. Their writings were born around the lifting of the martial law and I think Topas and Monaneng were particularly concerned about the plight of the indigenous people. They mainly criticize the clash between indigenous cultures and modern civilization which was imported by the Han people. They don’t talk about the Pacific, maybe indirectly like in Memories of a doctor on Orchids Island in which Topas describes the ocean culture of the Tao and the sea which surrounds Orchid Island.

Do you think that TW aboriginal literature fits into the TW literature ? And into the idea of the common Pacific literature?

When the true indigenous literature in mandarin started to appear around the lifting of martial law, I mean with regular and homogeneous publications, not like the works of some indigenous writers like Lifok O’Teng or Kowan Tallal which were very underground, quite sporadic and isolated before the 80’s, at the beginning this true indigenous written literature was just another symptom of an identity and a cultural crisis among Taiwan Aborigines. I mean, although the idea of writing novels or poems as an indigenous writer was also promoted by some Han writers and intellectuals, the first indigenous texts in mandarin were just a global reaction to the critical situation of Taiwan Aborigines. But during the 90’s, it’s true that this literature began to be institutionalized with the creation of some specific literary prices which were also organized by the Council of Indigenous Affairs in Taiwan. From that moment on, this literature began to be indirectly instrumentalized by public authorities,for example, if you analyze the posters which promote these literary prices, you can realize that one of their goals is to increase the diversity of Taiwanese literature. So, at the beginning, indigenous literature didn’t belong to Taiwanese literature, but it has been progressively included in it as another aspect of the literature of the island.

It’s difficult to say if Taiwanese indigenous literature fits into the idea of a common Pacific literature. Of course, some writers like Syaman Rapongan describe the Pacific. But I think, I mean, as far as I have progressed in my research, I think that Taiwanese indigenous literature belongs more to a “world indigenous literature” rather than to a “Pacific literature”. You know, even if the contexts are very different, the content is very similar in the writing, for example, some Native American writers or some Australian indigenous writers also criticize colonization, the destruction of a modern civilization over their original culture, the destitution of their tribe, as well as some social problems they encounter like alcoholism or poverty. I mean, in my opinion, the common point is more social than geographical in what we call the “minorities literatures”.

What is the benefit of your research for the study of Taiwan?

From an academic point of view, many aspects of Taiwan have already been studied all around the world. The Aboriginal issues are really suffering a severe lack of attention in Western countries, even if some specialists like Scott Simon are emerging, he approaches his research from an anthropological and political perspective. I’m probably one of the few western researchers who works in this field through written literature, and I think it is of great value for our knowledge of those issues. It’s also a way to ensure that all the work which have already been done by French researchers like Elizabeth Zeitoun, Josiane Cauquelin or Véronique Arnaud will be continued…




Kalis Gyls

French Translator of Taiwanese Aboriginal Literature.

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