Qiu Miaojin: The Bittersweet by Nicholas Jose
Last Words from Montmartre
by Qiu Miaojin,
translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich,
New York Review Books,
New York 2014
Notes of a Crocodile
by Qiu Miaojin,
translated by Bonnie Huie,
New York Review Books,
New York 2017.
Reviewed by NICHOLAS JOSE
Last Words from Montmartre begins with an epigraph from the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1922-77) that refers to a moment in life when youth transitions into adulthood by relinquishing happiness in favour of something less compromising: ‘an unsettled exaltation that had so often been confused with an unsustainable elation’. Such a state is hard to know and harder to live with. The discovery that ‘one could even live without happiness’ occurs in a story by Lispector called ‘Love’. Qiu Miaojin’s second and final book likewise expresses an emotional ultimate—unconditional, unendurable—that admits no alternative and allows no going back.
Last Words from Montmartre takes the form of twenty letters that can be read in random order, with brief witness statements before and after. They are written in extremis, about love, desire, sex, relationship, betrayal, attachment and detachment. They are sharply observant, insightful, scratchy and desperate, with that ‘unsettled exaltation’ written into every sentence, even unto death. Published in Taiwan in 1996, the work might be considered the last epistolary novel, created not long before email and social media would make the exchange of hand-written letters a thing of the past. You can imagine the envelopes travelling by air from Paris to Taipei, addressed in calligraphic full-form Chinese characters. Written in Chinese in the original, Last Words is translated into English with a matching, etched intensity by Ari Larissa Heinrich. If this is translation, it is an act of love too, for a genius who expressed herself and left. It reflects, Heinrich tells us in a fine afterword, an encounter that might have happened in life in either city, but didn’t. It happens through language now, two decades after Qiu’s final testament first appeared, published after her suicide in France at the age of twenty-six.
If the mid-1990s was Qiu Miaojin’s time, her moment has come round again: 2017 sees the publication of her earlier novel, Notes of a Crocodile (1994), for the first time in English, translated by Bonnie Huie, joining Heinrich’s translation of Last Words from Montmartre in the NYRB list of classic reprints, among few books by Chinese or indeed Asian authors. As Taiwan moves to legalise same-sex marriage, ahead of other Asian countries in doing so, Qiu Miaojin has become a LGBTIQ icon. That’s one reason for reading her. She is a Taiwanese literary icon, a figure of the transformations (personal, political, creative) that have marked Taiwan since the end of martial law in 1987, and she is a feminist icon, writing a script for an alternative Chineseness, outside patriarchy. These too are reasons for reading her.
Born in Taiwan in 1969, Qiu Miaojin (Chiu Miao-chin) studied psychology at National Taiwan University and the University of Paris VIII. Her first book, Notes of a Crocodile, is a campus novel set in Taipei between 1988 and 1991. It charts the narrator’s emerging lesbian identity through shifting relationships with women and men, recounted with insouciance and anguish: ‘fragments from the first semester of sophomore year’ is how the narrator, nicknamed Lazi (laduzi=diarrhoea), refers to one of the eight notebooks that make up the novel. Notes of a Crocodile might also be a how-to book for creative writing students with its vivid invention, variety of cultural reference (from the ancient Chinese Book of Songs to Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood), verve and wealth of quotable aphorisms. It starts with writing:
Locked the door. Shut the windows. Took the phone off the hook and sat down. And that’s how I wrote. I wrote until I was exhausted, smoked two cigarettes, and went into the bathroom and took a cold shower. Outside were the torrential winds and the typhoon season. … Then a sudden clatter, as if the power-station had been rocked by an explosion. I was enveloped in pitch-dark silence. The power had gone out. Nobody else was around, so I ran out of the bathroom completely naked … I threw open the balcony door and stepped outside to cool off. I hoped to catch a glimpse of other kindred souls standing naked out on their own balconies. That’s how it is, writing a serious literary work. (5-6)
Then crocodiles start to appear, walking into shops wearing mink coats, taking baths. Are they disguised humans, or are some humans in fact crocodiles? What’s under their skin? What’s going on? This zany satire catches some of the peculiarities of Taiwan, a country that isn’t permitted to be a country because of China’s claims to it, but where localist and independence movements have grown strong: ‘In the past several years, a great deal of importance has been attached to the issue of crocodiles and their existence. However, each and every citizen … must agree to maintain confidentiality in the event that the domestic crocodile situation reaches a critical state, as we as a nation could very well find ourselves shunned by the international community…. Or perhaps our land may become a void on the world map….’ (81) Taiwan was in transition at the time Qiu wrote Notes of a Crocodile. Her characters face transition too, experimenting with ‘post-gender relations’, confronting non-existence, where opposites combine impossibly and happiness can only be transient: of her lover, the narrator writes, ‘My salvation—Shui Ling—was as short-lived as a rainbow.’ (123). The book is tender, sentimental, strung-out and brave. It is set, as we are repeatedly reminded, in 1989, at the same time as across the Taiwan Strait in Beijing another young generation was hitting a wall of state violence in response to agitation for change, for liberation. It is intriguing that among Qiu’s admirers today is Wang Dan, one of the student leaders at Tiananmen in 1989. He is quoted as saying that he ‘felt a secret intimacy with Qiu Miaojin from the first page’. (157).
By 2016, Taiwan would have a female President in Tsai Ing-wen, elected leading the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party—a single woman, as her enemies in Beijing insinuate with incredulity. But in 1989 in Taiwan the way had not yet been found, as Qiu’s affecting novel reminds us: ‘Our desires guided us down a fogbound road marked by one sign or another…. Then a right turn onto a one-way street led to a detour in unchartered territory….’ (142) How a new discourse of sexuality and queer self-making emerged in public spaces in Taiwan in the 1990s as part of a movement for political and social change is explored with clarity and nuance by Fran Martin in her landmark book, Situating Sexualities: Queer Representation in Taiwanese Fiction, Film and Public Culture (2003). ‘Modernity in Taiwan is defined more by rupture and disjuncture than by any universal or unifying qualities’, she writes (11). Her chapter on Qiu’s work situates it in the context of Taiwan at the time, explaining how ‘the lesbian xianshen [coming out] effected by The Crocodile’s Journal [Notes of a Crocodile] accrues its meaning from its positioning as a resistant response to a specific and local representational regime’ (235). Martin concludes that:
At the close of the twentieth century, the combined effects of Taiwan’s colonial histories and its contemporary positioning within accelerating transnational circuits of knowledge and capital produced a situation in which an array of discontinuous discourses on sexuality coexisted in a radically heterogeneous discursive field. (249)
While not necessarily paradigmatic, Taiwan was a harbinger of defining millennial concerns, of which Qiu Miaojin is a concentrated expression.
I worked on an exhibition of contemporary Taiwanese art for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, in 1995. I picked up on some of this emergent energy when I wrote of Huang Chin-ho’s work ‘Fire’, 1991-92, ‘he exposes the hybrids of a crossover society, pumped-up beasts in bikinis, robots with dictator faces, transsexual, hermaphroditic party animals all crossdressed-up with no place to go … human existence in which the world of spirits hovers, perhaps trapped, within the fiery, brightly coloured world of passion and mortality’ (ART TAIWAN, 1995, 16). I would have understood better if Qiu’s work had been available to me at the time. One of the significant works selected for the show was ‘Silent picture’, 1992, by Chen Hui-chiao, the female artist who co-founded the artist space IT Park. It consists of hundreds of needles piercing a blank ground, their shining threads curving and tangled in aesthetic, introverted pain. I recognise it now in a phrase from Notes of a Crocodile: ‘Her despair was her beauty’ (195).
After she moves from Taipei to Paris in 1994, Qiu Miaojin declares her literary ambition in the strongest terms. ‘My goal is to experience the depths of life,’ writes Zoë, her narrator, ‘to understand people and how they live, and to express this through my art. All my other accomplishments mean nothing to me. If I can only create a masterpiece that achieves the goal I’ve fixed my inward gaze upon during my creative journey, my life will not have been wasted.’ Other young writers have felt same, but Qiu’s singularity combines with a universality beyond self that distinguishes her. Her concentration on her art is akin to the devoted practice of an adept in quest of enlightenment: ‘a crystal-clear perception of what’s real’. In that sense this art is anti-art, eschewing artifice: sentences break off, pronouns shift, characters morph, popular song lyrics and cute fantasies interleave with radical critique. The emotional switchback is a torment as well as a tease, allowing disregard and fracture. The influences are from experimental film as much as literature, from Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos. And yet Last Words from Montmartre is a novel too, breathing situations, scenes, drama and narrative detail, and managed by an intelligence that lives on nerve endings and gets it down in words. ‘Oh … if one were to call this book an unintelligible collection of hieroglyphics with no words and a plot that had long since disappeared, one would be right,’ the narrator speculates ironically, knowing the risk and the pay-off in reckoning with her impossible subject: ‘”Love” is the experience of this whole, its unfinished parts, including those of one’s own in relation to those of the other.’ In its derangement, diffusion and obsessive focus on self/not-self, the book approaches a truth of being.
Qiu was a student in Paris as she was writing Last Words from Montmartre. As she learns enough French to follow her teacher, Hélène Cixous, she absorbs a new literary heritage. Cixous’s écriture féminine encapsulated tradition in its critique, from the Francophone dialogic legacies of philosophes such as Diderot (in Rameau’s Nephew) and Madame de Stael, through to modern precursors of transgressive autobiographical writing including Proust, Gide, Genet, Duras and Yourcenar, and in English Woolf and Plath, and further afield perhaps the Argentinian Julio Cortázar, who wrote Hopscotch (Rayuela, 1963) in Paris, a novel with numbered chapters that can be followed in multiple sequences. Cixous was herself discovering Lispector at the time. Radical procedures were needed to forge emancipatory creative expression, including for cinema. This was a jumping-off point for Qiu, with seemingly little of it coming from her own culture in its standard form. Yet here she is at her most fascinating and powerful as she gathers it all up, all this advanced work in the languages of Europe, and re-creates it even more radically in Chinese. In cognitive rupture and a dissolving of binaries, she connects with deep subversive/transcendent capacities in Chinese language and thought. It’s as if it’s just parochial until she converts it into her larger reality. She has to become the teacher herself.
In an essay in A New Literary History of Modern China, edited by David Der-wei Wang (2017), Ari Larissa Heinrich calls Last Words a ‘lesbian I Ching’. It’s a neat phrase. The cosmology of I Ching (Yijing), The Book of Change, is based on yin and yang, concepts which can be understood in gendered terms as female and male. I Ching is a text to interact with, to question through divination with sticks or coins. It allows no position outside its ebbs and flows, its creative and destructive energies. It exists only in the occasion of being consulted—another ‘unintelligible collection of hieroglyphics with no words’. Yet it is at the root of Chinese thought, setting out the dynamics of body and mind, matter and spirit, human being and social embeddedness. This is what Qiu writes about in those troubled letters to Xu and Yong, the two women to whom her character Zoë is most bound. She does so in a Chinese tradition of revelatory, intimate fiction, formally fluid and indirect, with eros as a central energy. The late Qing dynasty memoir Six Chapters of a Floating Life by Shen Fu is just one precursor, where lesbian desire powers the narrative as a mystery at its core. Last Words is written in a similar vein.
Is it erotic writing? Of course, provided the erotic is understood to couple joyous, unflinching recognition of carnality, vividly depicted, with the questioning of existence that comes with the severest pain, meditated on rather than turned away from. Eros, the ‘bittersweet’, to use the description that Anne Carson takes from Sappho, is as philosophically demanding as it is rapturous and rhapsodic: ‘Here is contradiction and perhaps paradox,’ Carson writes. ‘To perceive this eros can split the mind in two. … Each crisis calls for decision and action, but decision is impossible and action a paradox when eros stirs the senses.’ (Eros the Bittersweet, 1998, pp.3, 8) It’s the condition that Qiu explores, always excessive, never stable, constantly in a state of arousal that as quickly deflates, comic in that way as well as tragic. It is an ultimate human experience, available, fully blown, to a young Taiwanese woman who comes to Paris in the mid-1990s with piercing psychological insights and a gift for writing:
When her own body reached a certain degree of arousal she’d bore into me like a small snake and slide swiftly into the mouth of my groin …. She knew what rhythm to follow and when to enter my cunt, to brush against all those obscure curves, the creased cliffs, the canals, climbing the steep slope of arousal and suddenly planting a crimson flag there. The Virgin Mother of burgeoning flowers reproducing asexually and gushing forth in clusters from the slender internal palace….
That ‘internal palace’ is a deeper interiority, a possibility of infinitude, for a long moment, a site of eternity, beyond which is non-existence.
What I’ve wanted most in this life is this level of intimacy: to be able to form the deepest creative connection with another human being. And I’ve attained it. I’ve achieved inner happiness. But if I were to actually send you these letters of my pure openness, of my truest values, I would just be hurt all over again….
And that is the paradox of writing. For the writer, at this highest erotic pitch, the writing becomes a lover of another kind, more demanding perhaps, more secret, truer. Erotic writing moves from carnality to abstraction, aware of the loss while recognising it as necessary for artistic survival. Finally Zoë writes to Xu: ‘I can’t face speaking to you. I can’t be myself. I’m sorry I have to write in this circular and torturously convoluted way.’ But that is what she does. It hurts. It is isolating. And it becomes this unique, mesmerising masterpiece that the author knows she has inside her, at the cost of everything.
I remember when I was first introduced to Clarice Lispector. It was in the dark streets of Surry Hills in those same mid-1990s when Qiu Miaojin was gestating Last Words from Montmartre in Paris. I say ‘dark streets’ because that part of Sydney has never been very well lit. The houses were built of dark materials; the street lights were dim; unruly trees and thickly painted iron lace got in the way of illumination; the places where we ate had narrow interiors and didn’t give much away to passers-by. The streets weren’t wide either and were cut off or cut through. But it appealed, as Montmartre might appeal. The person who excited me about Lispector was an Italian academic friend who was visiting from Rome. She had probably come to Lispector by way of Cixous, unless there was a more direct flow between the Lusophone Brazilian writer and Italian feminists via the actions of the Milan Women’s Bookstore in the 1980s. I mentioned Lispector to a Sydney friend of mine, a literary scholar who was happy to place her alongside Elizabeth Riley, whose All That False Instruction she had just come across. Elizabeth Riley is the pseudonym of Kerryn Higgs and her coming of age novel, then billed as a ‘Novel of Lesbian Love’, later a feminist classic, is sometimes called the first Australian lesbian fiction. It was published in 1975, two years before Lispector’s early death in faraway Brazil.
Firsts are funny things. It can mean the first book you read consciously in a certain category. For that reason I see Beverley Farmer’s superb first novel Alone, published by Sisters in 1980, as prior to Elizabeth Riley’s book because it came to the surface for me earlier than All That False Instruction. Alone had been written ten years before, and was set even earlier, in 1959. It is a book to honour, painful, courageous, moving, as we commemorate Farmer’s life and work in this year of her passing,
All That False Instruction is a terrific book too, valuable for its depiction of coming of age in the stifling and censorious Australia of an earlier time, a novel of self-fashioning and survival. Its social analysis is astute, and Maureen, the protagonist, has a great sense of humour and, finally, a resilient sense of herself in the world. ‘A hard road, but familiar’ (196), is how life presents itself to her. On that basis she can conceive a future: ‘I stood in the warm night street, gathering my strength, and hoped for the best.’ (247) For her the ‘good fit’ she achieves with the woman she loves is what it is. It is appreciated and left behind. For Lazi, by contrast, in Notes of a Crocodile, the ‘perfect fit’ is achievable in writing. Relationship can only be a source of contradiction, causing ‘unceasing tremors of all kinds—tremors of love, tremors of desire, tremors of hate, tremors of pain’ to coalesce inside her. (228) Where the world of the Australian novel is solid, if changing, Qiu Miaojin writes from the endless flow of Chinese cosmology. ‘The only way I can deal with you is by making you fully comprehend the kind of “landscape” you have carved into my heart’, her narrator says (Last Words, 42).
Long loops of language and vagaries of translation enable many of our most memorable literary experiences, generationally, geographically, as signed-up members of mobile reading communities who are always on the look-out for the next thing, for us in particular, exchanging them as tokens of friendship and affinity. As we do so, we give those authors a continuing life, even when their non-writing lives can be so sad. That’s what I want to do for Qiu Miaojin in this essay, more than twenty years after her death. Let me conclude by quoting one of the oldest, most quoted of all Chinese poems, from the Book of Songs (5th century BCE):
In life or in death, however separated
We pledged our word to our wives
We held hands
We would grow old together.
Shen Fu echoes these lines in Six Chapters of a Floating Life, the memoir in shuffled fragments that was not published until after his death. The poem, quoted here in Ari Larissa Heinrich’s translation, forms the whole of Letter Eighteen in Last Words from Montmartre. It is head-noted ‘(The period of tender love: Xu is in Taiwan, Zoë is in Taiwan.)’, when there is no separation. There are those four lines and no more. Blank space has never been more bittersweet.
NICHOLAS JOSE has published seven novels, including Paper Nautilus (1987), The Red Thread (2000) and Original Face (2005), three collections of short stories, Black Sheep: Journey to Borroloola (a memoir), and essays, mostly on Australian and Asian culture. He was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy Beijing, 1987-90 and Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, 2009-10. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide, where he is a member of the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.