Zhang Sixiang, PhD student, Department of Chinese Literature, National Taiwan University
Zhang Guixing’s My South Seas Sleeping Beauty can be called a representative work of Malaysian-Chinese literature of the rainforest. Few novels are given such a long, awkward-sounding title (the Chinese title is rather long), but implicit within it are the book’s most important images: Malaysia and Taiwan, primitive life and civilization, lush rainforest foliage and passionate desires.
Structurally, the novel is divided into two parts, the first set in Southeast Asia and the second in Taipei. Protagonist Su Qi spent his childhood on the edge of the Malayan rainforest. His father’s long history of philandering led Su Qi’s mother – a Taiwanese woman – to throw her energies into renovating a vast and complexly arranged flower garden. There, the teenage Su Qi has a chance encounter with two girls, Chunxi and Chuntian, Taiwanese twins who have lived in the USA, his unforgettable initiation into romantic love. The novel’s first part climaxes when Su Qi’s mother – in the guise of burning off excess foliage – sets the flower garden ablaze. Her husband and several of his friends are partying in the mazelike garden and lose their lives in the resulting conflagration. More than simply calling marriage and desire into question, Su Qi’s parents’ mutual hostility and the objects of their extramarital affairs – Malaysian communists and rainforest aborigines – all hint at a tangled and twisted colonial legacy.
The second part of the novel begins when Su Qi goes off to college in Taipei. There the story unfolds in a university dormitory, a folk-music café, a night market, and a student reading room. Stylistically, the novel’s the first and second sections seem completely unrelated – the narrative tone of the Malaysian section has a strong magical flavor, while the Taipei section, in addition to recounting Su Qi’s disciplined life as a student living in a dormitory life, simply tells a common love story.
The writer employs two completely different linguistic strategies and narrative moods to highlight the shifting perspective of life in two places: In Malaysia Su Qi’s self-modeling and ardent desire to cast off historical memory are stymied by abandonment and sentimental attachment; conversely, in Taipei, he appears to be unburdened and free of obsessions, able to clearheadedly fall in love or not fall in love. Malaysia and Taipei represent extremes: chaos and calm, confusion and clarity. In reality, Malaysia and Taipei can be differentiated in this way: one is a place the writer cares about, the other a place he resides in, symbolizing his displaced life and spiritual identity.
Zhang Guixing’s Malaysian writing exhibits a singular style and narrative strategy, walking the line between documentary and fiction, successfully touching the sensitive nerve of Malaysian-Chinese literature’s “locality.” Zhang Guixing has lived in Taiwan for an extended period, and even though he has forfeited his Malaysian citizenship, in his writing he constantly returns to the rainforests of eastern Malaysia. In the novel this diasporic state of mind – living in one place but missing another – rests on Su Qi’s pure and yet fanciful adolescent love. The comatose “sleeping beauty” of the title is like Zhang Guixing’s earlier life, already distant but still alive in the author’s imagination.
Zhang Guixing (1956- ) was born in Borneo’s Sarawak State, then under British rule. He has written under the pennames Xiao Ru and Wen Ru. Zhang came to Taiwan in 1976, enrolling in National Taiwan Normal University’s Department of English. He currently serves as a junior high-school English instructor. Zhang began writing in middle school, publishing poetry, essays, and fiction in Malaysia’s Banana Wind, Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Monthly, and other publications. In 1978 his novella the “Shadow Man” received the China Times prize for mid-length fiction. In 1979 “Subduing the Tiger” won the newspaper’s “Best Short Story” award and was included in an eponymous 1980 collection. “The Children of Keshan” was awarded the China Times prize for best mid-length fiction in 1988. 1n 1990 Zhang published Siren Song, his first novel, depicting rainforest flora and fauna in lush, gorgeous prose, a style truly his own. In the following ten years, his most prolific period, Zhang penned a number of novels set in his native Borneo: Doctor Xue Liyang (1994), The Clown Dynasty (1996), Herd of Elephants (1998), Monkey Cup (2000) – recipient of the China Times “Recommended Reading” award – and My South Seas Sleeping Beauty (2001). His most recently published the novella collection Salon Grandmother (2013).
Zhang’s most characteristic works are those set in the Borneo rainforest. He and Chinese-Malaysian writer Li Yongping both grew up in Sarawak; although Zhang is nearly twenty years younger than Li, he began setting stories in his native Borneo almost ten years before Li did. Thus, Zhang works are manifestations of the Taiwanese literary world’s openness and spatial complexity, proof that in terms of literature Taiwan is not a “lonely island.”
Although Zhang’s fiction may seem geographically and temporally remote from readers, the author attempts to overcome such barriers, making his works more widely accessible by turning the fictional world into an aesthetic utopia. For example, “The Children of Keshan” is set in Taipei, but the story has little to do the city. The setting in Siren Song is secondary as well: the fictional world is the writer’s “city in the sky,” depicting the budding and suppression of love between a young man and woman in full, poetic language. In the story’s finest passages the author uses defamiliarization techniques to manifest human anxieties in animals and reptiles, a richly imaginative rhetorical flourish. This strategy of using birds, beasts, and plant life to represent human emotional states is also present in Zhang’s mature works, such as “Elephant, Crocodile” in Herd of Elephants and “Rhinoceros, Nepenthes” in Monkey Cup. Zhang Guixing’s bright and beautiful fictional language brings human beings and the natural world to life in a distinctively personal style.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=4642
|Related Literary Themes：||Diaspora Literature|