Review

Living Without Fear6 min read

Joy Deng reviews Qiu Miaojin’s coming-of-age novel Notes of a Crocodile

 

Largely unknown in the US, Qiu Miaojin is one of the most famous lesbian writers in Taiwan. Told from the perspective of a young woman crossing what she calls “the comma that punctuated being twenty-two,” the story begins a few years earlier. It is October 1987, three months after almost four decades of martial law have just ended in Taiwan. Nicknamed ‘Lazi,’ the autofictional narrator enters college, where she falls in love with a classmate named Shui Ling: “She and some friends…walked past me, and I managed to glance at her… it was as if my whole life had flashed before my eyes.”

As a confessional character, Lazi makes no secret of her “self-loathing soul.” She is as ready for love as she is tortured by the prospect of abandonment and abandon – of giving herself over to another. Internally, irrepressible attraction and anguished foreboding run together:

The first time I saw you, I knew I would fall in love with you. That my love would be wild, raging, and passionate, but also illicit. That it could never develop into anything, and instead, it would split apart like pieces of a landslide.

Much of the power of Qiu Miaojin’s prose, translated with passion and control by Bonnie Huie, is in the many short sentences – sometimes fragmented, even one-word – that create an immediate and heightened sense of intimacy. From their mundane beginnings, her sentences build toward surprising analogies that zoom out into nature from the most private moments: “An awkward embrace like black rain pelting snow-covered ground” or “I’d sleep until the sun disappeared below the western horizon, then cut loose from my cave like a charged particle and hit the town.”

Like Qiu, Lazi is a writer. She has an affinity for French and Japanese films and books, sleeping through daylight in search of something nocturnal – she swings between declaring herself a “social butterfly,” and coming home to drink alone and read Kierkegaard. These references to the notoriously gloomy Danish philosopher suggest his abandonment of his beloved fiancée, Regine Olsen, and Lazi’s treatment of Shui Ling feels very much the same. As Georg Lukács observed, Kierkegaard’s “honesty entails the paradox that whatever has not already grown into a new unity which cancels out all former differences, must remain divided forever.” Likewise, no matter how many heartfelt conversations Lazi has with lovers and friends, she remains deeply alone.

The novel swirls, loosely organized into eight chapters or “notebooks,” leaving the reader pleasantly surprised when elements of a plot emerge. Lazi never stops asking herself: who are you? Who do you love? What do you love now, and who are you to deserve this life?  Just when the philosophy starts to feel naïve, a line like this suddenly hits you: “Love, however beautiful, always comes at a great cost to the future, don’t you think?”  

 

The influence of this book, first published in 1994, can be seen by the fact that in Taiwan and the larger Chinese-speaking world today, “lazi” — or more commonly “lala” — has become slang for “lesbian.” More recently, Taiwan has made headlines by becoming the first East Asian nation to consider legalizing gay marriage, or granting civil partnerships with limited rights. In China, meanwhile, despite having decriminalized homosexuality twenty years ago, conversion therapy remains widespread. Although Notes of a Crocodile is more than just an LGBT book, there is no doubt of the contribution Qiu has made to queer culture. As Ari Larissa Heinrich argues, Qiu “provided the vocabulary for a whole generation of Taiwanese lesbians.”

But Qiu goes beyond simply telling an engrossing story from the perspective of a gay woman. Interwoven throughout is the satirical story of the crocodile, written in the third-person to distinguish it from Lazi’s narration. The crocodile dresses up as a human, wears a retainer, eats chocolates, cream puffs, and crispy Asian shrimp chips. “When the crocodile got home at night, it liked to turn on the TV to see if there was anything about crocodiles on the evening news.” As it turns out, the world Qiu has concocted is in the grips of a global obsession with crocodiles and what to do with them. These sections are humorous, sharp, and, in the context of the story, extraordinarily sad. When the possibility arises of genetic-engineering between humans and crocodiles to “form a new type of human,” the crocs are hunted, with anti-croc groups blaming “deviant crocodiles” for an “unstable” society.  Pro-crocs, meanwhile, campaign for “a registry of crocodiles so they can be gathered in designated tourism zones, monitored and protected.” The message is clear: there is no freedom, much less integration.

It’s hard to put off any longer what I don’t want to tell you. Qiu graduated from National Taiwan University, went on to study psychology with Hélène Cixous in France, where she directed a short film called Ghost Carnival, and won literary prizes, including the China Times Honorary Prize for Literature. It was honorary because she died the year before in Paris, at age twenty-six, after stabbing herself in the heart with a knife.

Both Crocodile and Qiu’s other novel, Last Words from Montmartre, were published posthumously. Crocodile will appear in German next year, but in two of the countries whose cultures most profoundly influenced the author – Japan and France – no translations yet exist. That’s unfortunate, because more than just providing an account of otherness and repression, Crocodile gives us a window into a character whose energy and intelligence so terribly exists at the same time as her impulse for death. It is a balance that tips at the end of this book towards hope, unlike Last Words from Montmartre, which her translator called “an extended suicide note.” In Crocodile, however, Lazi continually resists death, writing:  

That’s what it comes down to. It’s like you’re on autopilot: No matter how much you hate life, your body doggedly resists death. Even other people aren’t allowed to die. You still try to stop them. […] I found myself unable to witness the end of a thing whose beauty was never realized…All I could do was learn to play the hand I’d been dealt, knowing that the profundity of my life experiences would rest on my ability to formulate a plot.

In Crocodile’s final notebook, Lazi repeats her vow, making the meaning even more explicit:

After having come so close to ending my life, I came back, my will to live completely reawakened. I faced reality, where I would learn to live again, this time boldly and fearlessly.

As the recent spate of celebrity suicides have reminded us, a heartbreaking fact of suicide is that the act itself is often impulsive, even for those who have long suffered depression. If the impulse is hampered or the attempt fails, what follows is often gratefulness and a life that doesn’t end by suicide. Ultimately, Qiu Miaojin’s Crocodile is one woman’s impassioned account of the struggle to live – and love – as fearlessly as possible. ∎

 

Qiu Miaojin, Notes of a Crocodile, translated by Bonnie Huie (New York Review of Books, May 2017)

Joy Deng

Joy Deng was born in Sichuan, China, and studied at Conservatory Canada and the University of Pennsylvania. She currently works at Harvard University Press.