I recently re-read Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man with Compound Eyes (Goodreads), which takes place in Taiwan, and was thrilled to connect with the author. This chat has been partially translated, so I thank Zheng (East) Wang, from the University of British Columbia, a native Chinese language speaker who received a BA in English and a minor in Chinese Language and Culture.
On the island of Wayo Wayo, every second son must leave on the day he turns fifteen as a sacrifice to the Sea God. Atile’i is one such boy, but as the strongest swimmer and best sailor, he is determined to defy destiny and become the first to survive.
Alice Shih, who has lost her husband and son in a climbing accident, is quietly preparing to commit suicide in her house by the sea. But her plan is interrupted when a vast trash vortex comes crashing onto the shore of Taiwan, bringing Atile’i with it.
In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Atile’i and Alice retrace her late husband’s footsteps into the mountains, hoping to solve the mystery of her son’s disappearance. On their journey, memories will be challenged, an unusual bond formed, and a dark secret uncovered that will force Alice to question everything she thought she knew.
The story is humorous and sorrowful, and evokes all of the emotions in between. It reminds me that fiction might allow us a wider perspective and “gaze beyond” the facts of climate change, which we remain somewhat blinded to. The compound eye metaphor also alludes to multiple perspectives of the nature around us. Ming-Yi is one of the many authors I’ve spoken with who didn’t wholly intend to write a novel about climate change, but these issues seem to come to the story naturally.
We haven’t read anything like this novel. Ever. South America gave us magical realism – what is Taiwan giving us? A new way of telling our new reality, beautiful, entertaining, frightening, preposterous, true…. Wu Ming-Yi treats human vulnerability and the world’s vulnerability with fearless tenderness.” — Ursula K. Le Guin
Taiwan is suffering warmer temperatures, similar to many places around the world, and is predicted to continue experiencing rising sea levels and extreme storms. With the wave of young climate activists, we’ve also seen the rise of youth like Kaisanan Ahuan from Puli City, Taiwan – from the Central Taiwan Plains Indigenous People – who stated in The Guardian:
As the indigenous people of Taiwan, we have a particular vulnerability to climate change. Our traditional culture is deeply rooted in the harmony we have with the spirit of nature. We face heartbreaking loss due to increasingly extreme weather events.
Chat with the author
The Man with Compound Eyes follows two stories, one mythical and one contemporary, about people being affected by global warming and their own personal dilemmas. It’s a very refreshing and uniquely told story. What led you to write it?
Many years ago, I read about trash vortexes in the North Pacific Ocean. Even without photos of it, a sequence of imaginary scenes kept hunting me, night and day. As time passed, those scenes became interconnected and turned into a holistic whole in my mind. They reminded me of the place where I had lived, Hualian. Hualian is a small city facing the Pacific. I have stood there and watched birds fly. Then the idea came to me that maybe one day, all the garbage would fly to the shore to meet its creators – us. In addition, my understanding of climate change and my passion for the sea led me to write the story’s first chapter.
I like the story of Atile’i and the Wayo Wayo. Is this similar to a real legend in Taiwan?
For the story, I read many books from the field of ethnography, and, of course, about a beautiful island named Lanyu and its inhabitants, Tao. Wayo Wayo is very much an ethnic group defined by the ocean, aiming to communicate with other civilizations defined by land. I also hoped to depict the complexity of the colorful Taiwanese races and ethnicities. As a result, I added the Bunun tribe onto the story.
The story of Alice is also interesting. Her home is literally becoming submerged by rising seas, and she is dealing with extreme loss and grief. What influenced your creation of this character?
I live between Taipei and Hualian. The former is a big city where people try to ignore the fact that they are living in nature; the latter is a small city located at the crossroads of a 3,000-foot mountain and the great Pacific Ocean. People who live near nature can witness the changes, and be more impacted by the fact that the environment has changed dramatically. Personal despair becomes intertwined with the further despair of comprehending the total destruction of nature. I wanted to express this feeling.
The novel addresses several environmental issues like climate change, trash vortexes, whaling, construction, and seal hunting. It’s amazing that you built these issues into a novel while just telling a great story. How do you think fiction can be a tool for exploring environmental issues?
These issues came into the story naturally. I was not adding them with intention. In the process of creating the characters, these issues simply entered their lives, so I forced myself to look into what was underneath them. I have been a part of some environmental groups, so while some topics might be unfamiliar to the general public, I knew them very well and wanted to introduce them to a wider audience.
How have you seen Taiwan change in the modern era as far as pollution, global warming, and so on?
Taiwan has been a victim of environmental degradation, due to Western companies setting up their high-pollution industries here. Of course, Taiwan also has itself to blame since its government does not protect the environment. At the moment, Taiwan is facing a choice: whether to become an environmental example for South East Asia, or to become an abandoned world craving for economic growth. Some might say that both could be achieved simultaneously, but as a country with limited resources and a declining population, as well as being under the shadow of the People’s Republic of China, this might be merely wishful thinking. Taiwan must recognize the value of its precious human culture, and at the same time, pay more attention to its natural beauty. Taiwan should fight against pollution to make a positive impact against global warming.
Thank you for the great story as well as your time with this interview. I look forward to more from you in the future!
(Top image: Wu Ming-Yi in Slovakia, courtesy of Chen Meng-Ping.)
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.