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Brought together by their writing: migrant workers at a literary award in Taiwan

Migrant workers in Taiwan put pen to paper

Newcomers bring fresh perspectives to island's vibrant literary culture

NOBUYUKI GOHARA, Nikkei staff writer | Taiwan

TAIPEI -- By the standards of global literary history, Taiwanese literature is a fairly new phenomenon, dating back to the aftermath of the 1949 Chinese Communist revolution when the island was separated from the mainland.

But it has developed rapidly into force that increasingly draws its energy not only from Taiwanese writers, but also from authors beyond Taiwan's shores.

Attracted to the island's fast-growth economy, migrant workers have long found a place for themselves in the labor force. Now they are starting to contribute to Taiwanese literary life, notably through a literature award that is strongly supported by the Taiwanese cultural community.

"Literary works by migrant workers from Southeast Asia are also part of Taiwanese literature," says bookseller Chang Cheng. "Taiwanese literature is not produced only by Taiwanese."

A signboard of Brilliant Time

He runs Brilliant Time, a small bookstore in the Nanshijiao area in New Taipei City. The area in a southern suburb of Taipei is a neighborhood where many Chinese immigrants from Myanmar live. A former journalist, Chang initiated the Taiwan Literature Award for Migrants, a literary award for foreign workers in Taiwan, in 2014.

In Taiwan, there are about 700,000 workers from Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, coming on fixed-term work visa. They find work in nursing care, manufacturing, construction and other sectors and make up about 3% of the island's total population.

In Northeast Asia, a region which has seen little migration in recent decades, Taiwan is a leader, with proportionately more migrant workers than either Japan or South Korea. But with societies aging fast, labor shortages are pushing governments to relax controls and encourage movement.

Chang Cheng initiated the Taiwan Literature Award for Migrants in 2014.

"Southeast Asian people are looking at Taiwanese society from different angles from Taiwanese," Chang said. "I wanted to convey widely the picture of our society as seen by them, and this became an occasion for me to create the award. Stories and essays can arouse interest among ordinary citizens, not just specialists."

Globally, migrant literature is a common feature of migrant life. In Europe and in North America, many migrants have made huge contributions to the literary life of their adopted countries, for example, the Polish-born Joseph Conrad (in the U.K.), the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov (in the U.S.), and Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Japan and lives in Britain.

In Northeast Asia too migrants have brought with them literature, from the early centuries of the Common Era when Buddhist monks traveled from China to Korea and Japan bringing with them a new religion and new art forms.

In modern times, strict border controls in Communist China and elsewhere limited the movement of migrants and of literature but never stopped it. Mainland Chinese books were restricted in Taiwan in the years after the Communist Revolution -- and vice versa. But since the 1970s literature has crossed the Taiwan Strait with growing freedom.

Meanwhile, Taiwan-born authors have made their mark elsewhere including, for example, Lung Ying-tai (born 1952), who studied in the U.S. and lived and worked in Germany as well as her native Taiwan, where she has served as culture minister. Other writers moved to Japan and write in Japanese, among them Akira Higashiyama (born 1968) who won the Naoki Prize, a top literary distinction.

Applicants write stories in their mother tongues and are translated into Chinese at the award secretariat. (Photo by Nobuyuki Gohara)

In Taiwan, last year, 553 entries were submitted for the fifth annual migrant writers' award. Many of foreign workers can speak Chinese in daily conversation, but they may find it difficult to write in Chinese. Applicants write stories in their mother tongues and submit them, which are translated into Chinese at the award secretariat and are reviewed by a jury that includes university professors and novelists. Award-winning stories are published in a format showing both the original and the Chinese versions.

Loso Abdi, winner of the top prize of the fifth Taiwan Literature Award for Migrants

The top prize of the fifth award was given to "Tentang Cinta" ("About Love"), a short story by Loso Abdi, an Indonesian migrant worker. In the story, he portrayed a woman who works as a housemaid, leaving her children in her homeland. While having various worries, the woman develops love for a disabled child at the home she works for.

For the latest award, entries were invited from foreign workers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau and Malaysia as well as from residents in Taiwan. "We greatly welcome entries from Japan. In time, we want to expand the scope of the award so that it may be called an 'Asia Literature Award for Migrants' both in name and in fact," Chang said.

Historically, Taiwanese literature has been a realm in which diverse languages, cultures and peoples are combined.

In the period of Japanese rule, which lasted for half a century until 1945, novelists and poets using the Japanese language grew. After World War II, when Kuomintang had come across from mainland China and begun ruling the island, Standard Chinese (Mandarin), based on the Beijing dialect, became the language for literature, but the Taiwanese language and Taiwanese Hakka, which are spoken by Chinese residents native to the island, continued to be used on a daily basis as spoken language, along with languages in the same family as Malay that are spoken by indigenous people.

Feng De-ping, editor in chief of Wenhsun

After Taiwan's martial law was lifted in 1987, numerous literary works using spoken language came to be written amid democratization. U.S., South American and European literatures have also had great influence on local writers. "Taiwan is an isolated island, so Taiwanese literature has absorbed the essence of various overseas literatures like a sponge. Without doing so, it would not have been able to survive," Feng De-ping, editor in chief of Wenhsun, a literary magazine, said.

At the same time, works written in Taiwan are being translated into English, Japanese and other languages. Like all good literature, they focus on the particular and the universal.

For example, Kan Yao-ming's "The Summer General Winter Came," which has been published in Japanese and has been considered for translation into English, depicts several old women living together and deals with modern themes that resonate across Asia, such as old age poverty, LGBT issues and sexual violence against women. Kan says, "Japan's aged society is the model for the setting [for the novel]. Japan mirrors the near future of Taiwan."

Kan Yao-ming, author of "The Summer General Winter Came"

Although the novel deals with serious subjects, its style is often humorous. In a large measure, this comes from the way in which spoken languages -- Taiwanese Hakka and the Taiwanese indigenous language -- mingle with Mandarin, in which the book is mostly written.

For English-speaking readers, Columbia University Press has published leading Taiwanese writers for two decades and currently lists 24 books on its website, including poetry as well as fiction. The most recent offering, published last year, is "Hawk of the Mind", a collection of verse by Yang Mu, whom the publishers portray as a towering figure in modern Chinese poetry who reveres classical Chinese poetry but remains rooted in his native Taiwan.

Another recent Columbia publication is "Remains of Life", a fictionalized account of a bloody conflict in 1930 when Taiwan was a Japanese colony. After a Taiwanese rural tribe killed 134 Japanese in a headhunting ritual, the Japanese military responded with heavy bombers and poison gas, all but eliminating the ethnic group. Author Wu He searches for survivors and their descendants in an experimental and philosophical novel.

Wu Ming-yi, author of "The Stolen Bicycle"

As well as delving deep into the island's sometimes uncomfortable past, Taiwanese authors span the history of East Asia and beyond. In "The Stolen Bicycle," Wu Ming-yi presents a protagonist who searches for his father's disappeared bicycle, moving in a highly imaginative tale from contemporary Taiwan to the Malay Peninsula, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian regions during World War II.

Wu says: "All literatures are international. I am taking pains to write pieces of work that could reach the minds of readers around the world while maintaining the elements of our culture."

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