With winter break upon us, many will be looking for a holiday read. Arts & Culture Deputy Editor Addie Crosby makes the case for why you should look into the complex, lyrical work of Taiwanese novelist Qiu Maojin
‘Shifting the Focus From Sylvia Plath’s Tragic Death to Her Brilliant Life,’ read a headline last month in The New York Times Book Review above a piece on a new biography. The simplicity and essentialness of the proposal stuck in my mind, and not only in relation to Plath herself. There is an instinctive tie to be drawn between the American writer and Qiu Miaojin, another 20th century wunderkind, still a relative unknown in the Western world. Precocious, inventive, and masterful in the art of despair, both women took their own lives: Miaojin at 26, Plath at 30. Yet, to focus on the tragedy of either of their brief existences would be, decidedly, a most unfitting choice. Qiu Miaojin was born in Taiwan in 1969. She would later go on to study psychology and feminism in her home country and Paris before her death in 1995, after which she became both a symbol for LGBTQ+ rights in Taiwan and a counterculture icon.
After being confronted with Notes of a Crocodile and Last Words from Montmartre, it is baffling that Miaojin’s works are not more widely recognised as touchstone pieces of queer fiction outside of the Chinese speaking world. Though Lazi, the name Notes of a Crocodile’s narrator is playfully called, has become a slang term for lesbian in Chinese, suggestive of Miaojin’s widespread influence, it was not until well into 2010s that English translations of her work began to emerge.
Miaojin writes in letters, journal entries, and vignettes, abandoning chronology in favour of brief, brush-stroke narratives. To leave a profound impression in under 200 pages is certainly a feat. All the more impressive is the construction of an all-consuming world reliant more on the incorporeal transience of love and disillusionment than plot. Her narrators’ identities are malleable but unquestionably sapphic, her narratives absent of the grand revelations and eventual bliss so many Queer coming of age stories depict. Though a figure of great significance in 1990s Taiwan, Notes of a Crocodile in particular feels almost free of a particular time or place. Several chapters deal with the allegorical idea of crocodiles in human suits on the outskirts of society, pursued in rabid frenzies of fear and curiosity by the media and general populace. This simultaneous infusion of humour and commentary on queer existence reflects Miaojin’s command of satire.
Her words feel fresh, immediate, and even to a 21st century reader, revolutionary, dealing with the disorder, pain, and monotony of university life as a precious thing. For one so resigned to the eventuality and closeness of her own death, there is a profound attention to beauty. ‘I love life passionately, and my wish to die is a wish to live…’ she writes in Last Words from Montmartre.
Set loosely between Paris, Tokyo, and Taipei, her last piece of writing is at times frantic and disturbing, at others wise and delicate. Throughout is an intense and building passion. The novel’s second-person narration is unreliable and often manipulative, further complicated by the book’s semi-autobiographical nature. However, this is not to say that what serves, in part, as a suicide note, can be written down to the ramblings of an ill woman at the end of her life.
In consideration of a life cut short, we may find some solace in Miaojin’s success in creation: her great goal. Reflected in every page she writes is a palpable devotion to the written word, a need, an obsession. A letter in Last Words from Montmartre says of her current project that it will not be ‘a great work of art, but it could be a book of true purity.’ I would object, favouring the possibility that her purest nature was an expression of great art, hailing from the breed of brilliance which is not lofty or immaterial but relatable, evocative, and feeling. The archetypal sad girl exists, primarily, through the male gaze, which Miaojin’s work rejects on principle. Thus, even in its darkness, I chose to celebrate Miaojin while living as an executioner of her own fate and a fierce creative spirit.
While only one of the two was published posthumously, both of Miaojin’s novels reads as if we should be, already, in mourning. However, it is not for the loss of life, but for the loss of love and the abandonment of youth: genderless universalities deserving of melancholy. ‘Oh Zoë,’ Miaojin exclaims, addressing her own double, ‘how exquisite it is to share an ideal!’