The Terrain of Taiwan | Interview with Author Jessica J. Lee

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Combining an immersive exploration of nature with captivatingly beautiful prose, Jessica J. Lee embarks on a journey to discover her family’s forgotten history and to connect with the island they once called home. Taiwan is an island of extremes: towering mountains, lush forests, and barren escarpment. Between shifting tectonic plates and a history rife with tension, the geographical and political landscape is forever evolving.

After unearthing a hidden memoir of her grandfather’s life, Jessica seeks to piece together the fragments of her family’s history as they moved from China to Taiwan, and then on to Canada. But as she navigates the tumultuous terrain of Taiwan, Lee finds herself having to traverse fissures in language, memory, and history, as she searches for the pieces of her family left behind.

Interlacing a personal narrative with Taiwan’s history and terrain, Two Trees Make a Forest is an intimate examination of the human relationship with geography and nature, and offers an exploration of one woman’s search for history and belonging amidst an ever-shifting landscape.

Welcome to another Fireside Chat at Mith Books. I am pleased to have Jessica J. Lee with me today. Jessica is the author of two books of nature writing: Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest. She has a PhD in Environmental History and Aesthetics and was Writer-in-Residence at the Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Ecology in Berlin from 2017–2018. Jessica is the founding editor of The Willowherb Review and a researcher at the University of Cambridge. In this interview, we discuss her latest book Two Trees Make a Forest.

Dipa: Sometimes we seek the future and sometimes we seek the past in the present. You write about returning—returning to one’s fleeting roots. Many of us feel compelled to do this at some point in our lives. What ‘muscle memory’ do you believe gets passed down through the generations? Why do some memories have a stronger foothold in us than others?

Jessica: I think this is often conveyed through language or food. And these memories point to moments of vulnerability, love, loss. When I hear Mandarin, I can’t quite explain it but there is a flutter in my heart! Because to me, that’s the language my mother spoke to me as a baby, as a toddler. So it is very tender. We get similar memories from food. What surprised me in working on this book was that I could find a similar kind of memory in land: in the way the body acquaints itself with heat, with terrain, with plant life. I learned the names of plants from my mother, who learned them from her father, which is the best inheritance I could think of.

Dipa: What inspired this change in you? Why did you feel a longing to remember the things you had not known?

Jessica: I think I felt a certain amount of guilt for not having kept up my language skills, for not having asked more questions of my grandparents or my mother over the years, for becoming too centred on life in North America and Europe. So I wanted to find that fragment of belonging contained in me—if such a thing exists!

Dipa: In your book you write, “No single word can contain the movements that carried our story across waters, across continents.” When we peel back the layers of our personal history, we find that we are all descendants of both immigrants and settlers. Why do you think some people choose to settle and solidify their identity whilst others continue their search across the seven seas?

Jessica: I’m not always sure it’s a matter of choice. As someone who has really been preoccupied with questions about home and belonging, I think I’ve long seen great privilege in being rooted to a place. But writing this book really helped me come around to the idea that being from a family ever in migration—albeit under very privileged circumstances, by comparison to many—brings great wealth into our lives: in having many homes, many languages, many modes of belonging.

Dipa: Like you, I tried to piece together my family history in my book The Merchant of Stories. I discovered much, yet found so much buried and unknowable. I’m afraid I still have many questions that I can have no hope of having answered. How have you come to peace with this?

Jessica: This was a struggle! Of course I wanted to give myself and readers a clear-cut ending, a traditional narrative. But that rarely exists in life. So instead I chose to lean into the gaps, to lean into the questions. The landscape itself helped by constantly giving me storms, fog, a lack of a view. It really aligned with my efforts to make sense of my grandparents’ stories.

Dipa: Air travel has now replaced sea voyages. The ocean is no longer something that is on most people’s minds. I, for one, have longed for it no matter where I’ve lived. You speak of the ocean as, “A place of building, where beneath the waves the calcite dance of coral accretion unfolded.” What allures you to the call of the sea?

Jessica: I’m a really avid swimmer and have always been somewhat obsessed with water. I think in the case of this book, I was really interested in that question of migration by sea or air—my grandfather was a pilot, but my grandmother arrived in Taiwan by boat. Their migrations force me to think of Taiwan both from water and the sky, as this space of height and depth. All of which kept drawing me back to stories of the goddess Mazu: who was a swimmer, but also was said to ascend into fog.

Dipa: From Australia to Taiwan to Singapore, we seem to have lost the cultures and stories of the indigenous peoples who once resided there. Indigenous peoples all over the world revered and respected Nature. Modern people largely seem to hold no such reverence for the land as a living and breathing entity. Do you think that perhaps the land remembers what people forget? And perhaps it is not one’s genetics, but the land Herself that calls one back?

Jessica: I wouldn’t frame it solely as loss, but as an active disavowal and silencing of indigenous stories—which is why to speak about land in a place like Taiwan, or any settler-colonial society, really—is by necessity to speak about colonisation. I would like to think that it’s the stories of people displaced that we need most—and so often, land is a huge part of that story. If we want to learn about reverence for land, listening and reading those voices is a huge place to start. In Taiwanese literature, for example, I’ve found and learned much in the works of Badai, Sakinu Ahronglong, and Syaman Rapongan, among others.

Dipa: You write of the landscape of Taiwan as both beautiful and bountiful as well as treacherous and scary. Indigenous peoples accepted this duality and cyclical understanding of nature. Modern people, on the other hand, attempt to control the treacherous and scary aspect of nature. What do you think led us to tame Nature in this way?

Jessica: I think there’s a huge breadth of perspectives offered by indigenous peoples. But when it comes to attempts to control the natural world, looking at the history of colonisation, so much of what made land accessible to colonists for use as natural resources (I hate that term!) was mapping, documentation, literally the cataloguing of the land.

This is of course deeply linked to Enlightenment ideals and methods for consolidating empire: it’s vital that we consider intra-Asian colonisation as linked, likewise, to that same process in the West. The methods for mapping and alloting indigenous territory in Taiwan, for example, were largely developed off the back of US American indigenous reservation systems. So this act of mapping or documenting the land is deeply tied to efforts to absorb land—and thereby its resources—into ideas of empire, both economically and culturally.

By Dipa Sanatani

CEO at Sanatanco | The Leading Global Publication and Communications Consultancy for Writers, Readers and Thinkers

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