Published by Knopf
Publication date: February 23rd 2016
Genres: Cultural, Debut, Fiction, Historical
Past, present, and future too swirl together, distinguishable but not delineated by any sort of grammar beyond the one our hearts impose.
The narrator in Green Island is born on the night in 1947 when the tension between the factions in Taiwan explode into civil violence. Her father, a doctor, in attending a community meeting the next night and quietly asking for a cessation of the police brutality becomes a marked man. Before she is even two weeks’ old he disappears from their lives, leaving her, her three siblings and his wife behind. With him gone the family loses their home and moves in with her mother’s parents, all without knowing whether he is dead or alive. Author Shawna Yang Ryan follows the family and the narrator through their lives as they are pushed and pulled by opposing government forces wanting, not only control of their island, but of their national heritage.
Early on Ryan follows the narrator’s father in his struggle to stay alive as one of the thousands of men who disappeared from their homes after Taiwan became the headquarters for Chiang kai-shek when he was forced out of pre-communist China. Victory never came for him or his troops (known as the KMT) and so he labeled himself as the president of the Republic of China from 1948 to 1975 despite running the country as a military dictatorship that ruthlessly persecuted the natives of the island. Ryan does not make Green Island a history textbook, but I could not help but feel shame for how little I knew about this country and how tumultuous the lives of its people were. The narrator’s father returns, eleven years after he is taken and after a ‘re-education’ that meant he did what he needed to do to survive. That the KMT police continued to exert influence on his life in way that led to the entire family being shunned is one of the instances where Ryan illustrates the desire to survive against the courage of convictions.
When the narrator is twenty-four her family arranges a marriage for her with the son of one of her father’s best friends, who now lives in America. It is Wei who first explains to her the life they live under in Taiwan
In school, you learn the history of China as if it’s our own. But we were a Japanese colony for fifty years. Their model colony, in fact. We were as advanced as any city in Europe. Then the Chinese came and treated this place like a temporary campground. Retake the mainland? Treating us like nothing more than a base camp for their final victory.
Though they marry and live in the U.S. the tentacles of the KMT regime still reach into their lives. Not only is the freedom of speech that covers them here tenuous it does not protect their families back in Taiwan and in this way pressure is still exerted.
There are so many themes in Green Island that it is hard to parse them out, but not due to any weakness in the story. Instead, it is a novel that provides a lot of food for thought. There are the gender roles found in the times and the area that mean the narrator is not destined for anything but obedience and a good marriage. Then there is the complete upheaval of the educated middle class so her father can never work as a doctor again and the brother’s best hope for professional stability is in the military. Within these stories the point of view changes several times without warning from third person to first. Going from the narrator’s situation in one paragraph to her father’s in the next can be jarring, but it’s not clear if this was a deliberate choice in order to echo the instability of the characters’ lives. And if the narrator has no name it is not surprising because her cultural identity was obliterated before she was even born. All that is left for her is to try and create a new one.