The New Wave of Taiwanese Literature: Migrant Literature Bringing Taiwan to the World

The New Wave of Taiwanese Literature: Migrant Literature Bringing Taiwan to the World
燦爛時光在四四南村擺書攤。Photo Credit:宋家瑜
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By Song Chia-yu (Graduate student at the Department of Taiwanese Literature of National Tsing Hua University)

According to statistics, the population of migrant workers from Southeast Asia in Taiwan has officially exceeded the number of aboriginals in 2015. But comparing to the success of aboriginal literature, we seldom see the writings of migrant workers.

But in fact the workers are talented writers. Early in 1998, those from the Philippines started a poetry club, SMI (Samahang Makata International-national Philippines poet association). They recorded their feelings and lives of working in Taiwan through literature. Indonesian workers also established FLP (Forum Lingkar Pena-Indonesia writing club), KPK (Komunitas Penulis Keratin-Indonesian writers association) and other literature related associations in Taiwan. But all this time there haven’t been enough platforms for them to publish their works.

What works of migrant literature have been published in Taiwan?

The resource shortage of publishing and translation is the biggest challenge for migrant workers literature to take root in Taiwan. Whenever the pieces can’t be translated from the original language to Chinese, it’s impossible for most Taiwanese readers to have the chance to read them. Fortunately, the literature has started to bud under the help of social activists these years, and we can now read translated migrant literature.

In 2001, Gong You-chian and the commissioner of the Department of Labor in Taipei City, Cheng Tsun-chi, promoted, “Taipei, Please Listen to Me," a migrant workers poetry contest. It has been held for 15 years up to this day. The awarded pieces that have been published every year not only reflect the changing of their writing style, but a lot of the poetry have also been translated with their original literature traditions.

Poetry is a very important part of the literature in Southeast Asia. There are unique traditions and patterns of poetic writing in every country. For example, Indonesia’s pantun and Vietnam’s six-eight style, five characters, seven characters and double seven-six-eight style. These appear in traditional literature and also in daily folk music and modern works. They are widely different from Chinese works because they remove the traditional patterns and limits of poetry during the transformation from classical Chinese to modern Chinese. However, the works of migrant workers give us a chance to see the traditional patterns of the poetry of Southeast Asia and also broaden the horizons of Taiwanese readers.

It is worth mentioning that the second awarded poetry and writing collections include not merely the awarding works, but also four pieces of translated poetry that Chinese workers left in America in the 19th century. We can see that expressions of rebellion in Chinese workers’ poetry from 100 years ago, which now have unexpectedly reappeared in migrate workers’ poetry from Southeast Asia. These words of Chinese workers that have existed for a hundred years remind us to reflect if we are unconsciously reproducing the prejudice and racism that existed between Americans and Chinese workers before.

(The migrant workers poetry and writing contest, “Taipei, Please Listen to Me Again," annually publishes a small collection of awarded works, including Chinese and the original language version.)

Chang Cheng founded the “Taiwan Literature Award for Migrants" in 2014 that selected many moving prose and novels. The latest book, “Flow," collects the first and second awarded works, in which we can see their literature not only presents the social meaning of rebellion but also has deeper literariness. The workers express the feelings of working in other countries through the fictional stories.

If you think the literature of migrant workers is only about the author’s tough and hard-working life, then you must read Indonesia worker, Erin Cipta’s, fiction, “LELAKI PEMBERANI DI JIANGZICUI," in which she powerfully portrays the fear in the MRT car when the national shocking Cheng Chieh event took place. This level of writing skill is formed through watching lots of videos and news related to the event, and also from detailed observation of the Taiwanese society, such as the culture of priority seats in the MRT and people’s behavior in the cars. This is how the author portrays details so Taiwanese readers don’t feel awkward.

Other than the work mentioned above, Indonesia worker, Sri Yanti’s, fiction, “Asap Hitam Di Suriah," both reflect the anxiety, “What if something bad happened to me while I’m working overseas? What should my family who is waiting for me back home do?" Behind the commonly seen news of migrant workers getting injured or dying when working in Taiwan, these writings let us see how anxious and worried they are when facing the risks of working overseas.

Photo Credit: 燦爛時光:東南亞主題書店
The migrant literature of Taiwan, the migrant literature of the world

Migrant literature is not only seen in Taiwan. In the rising of capitalism and the booming of globalized labor division, migrant literature has also appeared in other countries.

German started introducing foreign workers in 1955. Going back to the 1970s, “foreign worker literature" existed in West Germany and got the attention of locals, gradually developing into related discussion of migrant literature in Germany.

Even earlier in 1847, America introduced lots of Chinese workers. There was poetry reflecting the unfortunate lives of the Chinese in America. In 1904, it provoked a wave of “Anti-American labor literature restraint" during the Anti-American Laborers Exercise Restraint.
The restraint literature described how Chinese labors were bullied in America through poetry, prose, novels, readings, singing and traditional opera. (Note: The Anti-American Laborers Exercise Restraint is also translated into “Exclusion of Chinese,” which refers to American’s unfair prohibitions and exclusion policies of Chinese workers and students.)

In the 21st century, not only Southeast workers are holding literature events in Taiwan, but so are migrant workers from Hong Kong. Hong Kong Mission For Migrant Workers (MFMW) is planning to publish a magazine, Work in Work, which collects writings from Hong Kong and Southeast migrant workers. The pieces show similar feelings seen in the migrant literature in Taiwan. Bing, a Philippine migrant worker, even writes from the perspective of a homosexual, which is something that hasn’t been seen in the migrant literature in Taiwan. It also echoes the first gay pride parade Hong Kong held for migrant workers on November 8 this year.

We can understand that the culture and social atmosphere of different countries along with the writers’ original culture and value can affect what they write. Therefore, the migrant literature in Taiwan displays the uniqueness of Taiwan’s society, which is the most precious asset of the island’s literature.

So rather than say the works of these Southeast Asian workers have showed us the world through literature, I think it’s even more appropriate to say that their works are letting the world gradually see Taiwan.

Translated by Zoe Lo
Edited by Olivia Yang