The stories in this folio piece together alternate, speculative histories that reflect distinctly queer modes of life: often without a clear resolution, a “moral,” or a sense of “straight” logic
August 6, 2021
Editor’s Note: The following interview between Ta-wei Chi, Hsin-Hui Lin, and Ariel Chu is part of a notebook Queer Time, co-edited by Ta-wei Chi and Ariel Chu, which gathers contemporary queer Taiwanese literature in translation. To read the full Queer Time collection, visit its home here.
This interview was conducted between Ta-wei Chi, Hsin-Hui Lin, and Ariel Chu in July, 2021 in Taipei, Taiwan.
Hsin-Hui and Ariel, the pandemic has definitely changed everybody’s understanding of intimacies and futurities since 2020. How has your vision of queer speculative fiction changed during the pandemic?
The pandemic has placed a rigid limit on our bodies and agencies. That limit draws my attention to the dynamics between extroversion and introversion, by which I’m not talking about abstract characteristics, but about the embodiment of direction. Before the pandemic, I would write a story without considering a character’s mobility. However, after the outbreak of the pandemic, I’ve tended to contemplate more on how and to what extent a person is able to move freely when I’m conceiving a plot. For example, I wrote a sci-fi short story, “Hotel California”—collected in my short story collection Human Glitches—that depicts the condition of being confined in a room and having one’s vital signs always under surveillance. Though this story was written in 2018, retrospectively speaking, I would say it is a story that predicted our current lives of quarantine and lockdown.
On the subject of “Hotel California,” I’m fascinated by how surveillance limits mobility, especially in the context of the pandemic. To enter Taiwan from the U.S. in 2020, I had to consent not only to the physical constraints of a hotel quarantine, but also to the privacy constraints of location monitoring and governmental check-ins. I kept thinking about the comparatively lax approach of the United States and the ideological resistance many residents have towards being tracked. In truth, marginalized bodies in the States are always under surveillance—trans people are publicly monitored and punished for gender nonconformance, neurodivergent and disabled people are often considered “dangerous,” and Black and Brown people are profiled, spied upon, and physically violated. The pandemic throws questions of “threat” into stark relief: what kinds of surveillance do we deem necessary for “public safety,” and which forms of surveillance do we consider unacceptable and invasive?
Both of you have noticed the omnipresence of surveillance before and during the pandemic. How do quarantines and lockdowns change how you, under surveillance, perceive intimacies and bodies?
I have come to imagine a more dramatic future of asexuality. The regulation on social activities and the collective anxiety of getting in “touch” with viruses limit the scope of our activities. We stay home for more time and gradually lose physical touch with others. I’d already written about asexuality before the pandemic: in “Peeling Off” (剝落), which is also collected in Human Glitches, I imagine a woman living on her own in Taipei. Her skin is peeling off, so she has to buy a plastic model upon which to paste her own skin, thereby establishing a relationship with a non-human other. She has never had sex with humans and can only have intimacy with a non-human plastic model. Just as nowadays, we are only allowed to have virtual meetings and exhibitions, we might—in the near future, for the sake of public health—be allowed only to have virtual sex, or to establish intimacies only with one’s personal machines. Now I’m working on a new speculative fiction project, and I will keep pondering non-productive futurities centering on “touch” and the very confinement of one’s body.
Your take on bodily “introversion” resonates with me in a slightly different way. I’m used to my Asian American characters being read as passive or inert, which mirrors how others in the U.S. have seen me. Much of my writing is about moments where that external “passivity” is ruptured by internal violence: the tumultuous inner life of a character breaks through into the outer world and shocks everyone. But I think the virus challenges me to make my writing fleshier and more embodied. The threat of COVID-19 necessarily brings one’s attention to the body and its physical limitations, as well as the very tangible consequences of illness. Now that literature faces the task of capturing a post-pandemic world, I want to engage more with physicality (and what happens when that physicality is threatened). The beauty of speculative fiction is that it engages directly with thoughtful worldbuilding, bodily possibility, and dramatic external change, all of which I hope to integrate into my work.
I have a question for both of you: as writers from different generations, what does a “queer literary future” mean to you? More specifically, how do you believe notions of queer Taiwanese literatures have changed over time, and what themes, genres, or concerns do you hope to see more of in the future?
I want to discuss how the “queer literary future” and “queer Taiwanese literatures” of the 1990s—when Qiu Miaojin published Last Words from Montmartre and I The Membranes—were experienced differently from those since the late 2010s, when you and Hsin-Hui became emerging writers. I feel the difference lies in what I call “compulsory visualization.”
Inspired by Adrienne Rich’s influential “compulsory heterosexuality,” I contend that compulsory visualization is a regime under which—thanks to the omnipresent screens of devices connected to the Internet—writers feel compelled to render their writing and themselves visualizable. Since the 2010s, with more commercially successful TV shows, films, and Netflix productions adapted from local literature, writers are frequently encouraged to imagine selling rights to producers of visual culture. The queer literary future many writers look forward to now, I fear, often boils down to having their works more readily co-opted by the hegemony of visualization. To be eligible for visual adaptations, writing is expected to have narratives and characters. But honestly, literature at large does not require narratives and characters at all. Many great poems are so abstract that they simply do without them.
Meanwhile, with the rapidly increasing popularity of social media in Taiwan, writers are often expected to post personal photographs along with pictures of their books on Facebook, which they are tempted to filter and Photoshop to garner more likes. By the mid-2010s, it was already commonly agreed upon that writers and editors who didn’t promote books on Facebook were simply “not trying” and would suffer from poor sales. More and more writers have tried to market their books and themselves on YouTube; some of them have simply become YouTubers.
The compulsory visualization that Ta-wei mentioned resonates with me when I conceive of stories. I rely on visualizing the scene and the plot first in my mind, and then I depict that picture, transforming it into narratives. This process occurs to me so naturally that I am almost unaware of its compulsiveness. As a result, after my book was published, I often got feedback from readers that they could “see” how the story was unfolding. I suppose the reason for this phenomenon is that I was immersed in large varieties of visual media as I grew up. In addition to books and films, dramas, animations, and exhibitions also nurture my writing.
Although I frequently visualize my texts and narratives, I deliberately obscure the characters in them. One can hardly find any identifying features for my stories’ characters. They do not have names, facial and bodily traits, preferences for clothes or food. They are nobody. In my stories, I only refer to my characters using third-person singular pronouns. By doing so, I would not say that I am contesting compulsory visualization. Rather, I am contemplating the normalcy in our daily life that erodes everyone until we become indistinguishable among others. What concerns me is the mundane everydayness and the normality lurking beneath it.
Hsin-Hui, I find it so interesting that you tend to downplay sensation in your fiction by imagining asexuality and obscuring your characters. By contrast, many other writers who habitually visualize their texts enjoy exaggerating sensation. I am curious why you insist on an aesthetics of toning down despite compulsory visualization?
The existence of a sensation implies that of a subject. When you sense something, it means that you are conscious of what and how you perceive it. And when you are aware of your sensation, you know who you are. Thus, you establish your subjectivity. By downplaying sensations in my fiction, I envision a world where everyone’s subjectivity is eliminated because of the oppressive homogeneity imposed by omnipresent technologies. Compulsory visualization compels people to make every detail of their lives visible, thereby inclining everyone to be the same, to be in line with the majority, and eventually, to become a member of faceless collectivity, subjected to the discipline and surveillance of technology.
To Hsin-Hui’s point, it seems that compulsory visualization affects the modern public at large, not just certain subsets of writers and readers. Of course, I see how queer and other marginalized writers might need to buy into compulsory visualization even more in order to popularize their works, gain mainstream acceptance, and maintain stable livelihoods. But how is contemporary queer literature specifically affected by, or vulnerable to, compulsory visualization? What questions do Taiwanese queer writers have to navigate when they contend with this issue?
Writers and readers preoccupied with queer topics might find the situation more complicated, since they are supposed to be especially sensitive to the politics of looking and being looked at. Do some writers look too straight-acting or homonormative in their pics and videos? Do readers-cum-viewers resist or cater to lookism and ageism, which have troubled LGBT populations even before smartphones? While visualization definitely helps some writers enhance their visibility, its compulsory nature also dramatically scales down opportunities for other writers, who are too prudent to “strike a pose” for consumers’ visual pleasure. The situation is further complicated by China becoming a major player in wired visual culture. In the 1990s, writers and readers of queer literature in Taiwan, with little connection to the Internet, looked to the U.S. and other first-world countries for models of queer aesthetics and queer politics—with little attention, if any, paid to China. By contrast, by the 2010s, emerging writers and readers of queer literature had been fed the homoerotic products of visual culture made in China, such as campy costume drama TV shows. Many of the Instagram influencers adored by Taiwanese queer people are Chinese citizens. Powered up by augmented visual pleasure, some of the dating apps to which queer people in Taiwan are addicted are owned by Chinese entrepreneurs. In the 2020s, will more writers and readers in Taiwan look to China for queer futures?
The comparison of queer cultures in Taiwan that Ta-wei draws between the 1990s and 2010s is echoed in Taiwanese sci-fi. In contrast with the sci-fi novels published during the 1990s, recent Taiwanese sci-fi novels in the new millenium, paradoxically, are not queer enough. I suppose that is the reason why Ta-wei’s The Membranes is still an avant-garde novella three decades after its publication. The Membranes is a fusion of queerness and sci-fi, which is a rare attempt in Taiwanese literature. However, in contemporary Taiwanese sci-fi, human sexualities and bodies have become, ironically, more and more normalized, conforming to heteronormativity. Same-sex and transgender desires are seldom depicted, and female humanoid bodies are often relegated to being sexualized others. The ubiquity of high-tech products and social media causes oppressive norms to permeate every section of our daily life, resulting in the standardization of body images in cultural productions.
Hsin-Hui, your observation reminds me of the shared notion among many queer studies scholars that queer temporality is not moving forwards, but feeling backwards. A later historical period does not guarantee more queerness than its previous one.
I recall that in the 1990s, visualization was not abundant, but rationed. When I was in college, I knew about Qiu Miaojin, a fellow student known for her talents at the same university, but I did not clearly know what she looked like. Like most writers who passed away before the dominance of social media, Qiu left only a couple of personal photographs, but no home videos, to the public. My peers and I envied the Taiwanese academics who showed off their attendance at talks by Judith Butler and other famous American scholars, as we had no way of visualizing what these academic stars were like in person before the invention of YouTube.
The wired experience most available to college students, who enjoyed access to an Internet out of reach to most Taiwanese citizens, took place on the BBS bulletin, which was text-based—like Reddit in the U.S.—rather than visual-based. Before digital cameras, it was the norm for BBS users to go by pseudonyms and not to show personal pictures, so the bulletins became a haven for queer people, who did not need to come out online. These queer users attracted new friends and dates with the romantic or pornographic text posts they diligently produced, rather than with pics showing gym-trained torsos. Most of the countless BBS users who have produced online queer literature, broadly defined, remain anonymous and faceless to me even now. Just as writers seldom visualized themselves, they did not often seek to visualize their works either. True, some locally made films were based on literary works, and Qiu Miaojin actually made an experimental short. But writers and readers of queer literature were mostly content without visualization.
I myself, from the 1990s to the present day, have seldom felt the urge to imagine what the characters look like in the works I read or write. But our naïve perception of the world prior to compulsory visualization should not be romanticized. We were dangerously ill-informed. Since only first-world countries were sufficiently visible in pre-Internet newspapers and American magazines such as Time and National Geographic—visible, and and thus knowable and desirable to us in Taiwan—we naturally presumed that our queer futures would be like they were in the West rather than in the Rest, Taiwan included. In Qiu’s Last Words from Montmartre and my Membranes, the excessive allusions to the West betray a desire for the West. It took me many years to realize that I could and should conceptualize queer literature in my homeland instead of in an imagined West.
From Ta-wei’s observation, it seems that being queer in different ages involves facing different challenges. While queerness in Taiwan during the 90s dealt with a lack of information, that of the present day must confront information overload. With the popularity of social media, not only do images of healthy, able-bodied subjects become a norm that goes viral and becomes oppressive, but the concept of an “idealized daily life” also becomes a new form of normality. Photos of gourmet food, tourist attractions, and every detail of a person’s life achievements—babies, wedding ceremonies, job promotions, etcetera—overwhelm us. It seems that we have to prove we lead a positive, forward-looking, and successful life through social media posts. Eventually, all these posts construct a norm that disciplines us to visualize our everyday life in line with collective idealization.
In this sense, I contend that being queer in current times is not just about sexuality or gender-nonconformity; instead, queerness should also challenge the presumption of a positive and successful life. When I write stories, I place so much emphasis on people who are aged, single, and fail to have intimacy with others; they are losers in the long-distance race of life. They turn to consolation by establishing relationships with non-humans, such as a plastic mannequin, a sex doll, or a virtual partner. Their queerness thus lies in redefining intimacy. In these technological times, when our devices might know us much better than our friends and families do, we should consider different forms of intimacies that contain relations between humans and non-humans. I am not talking about bestiality; I am talking about non-normative bodies and sexualities based on scientific materiality. The affinity and entanglements between humans and non-humans have been discovered and investigated in scientific and interdisciplinary studies. Based on such rich information, queer literary futures should transgress the boundaries both within sexualities and between humans and non-humans.
Following my expectations for the queer literary future, I’d like to raise a question. Since you both have cross-cultural experiences, I’m curious: what do you think are the features that make local queer speculative fiction Taiwanese?
Hsin-Hui, it is important to ask what “Taiwanese queer speculative fiction” is. From the texts we feature in the special issue, I find that it is the idea of “speculative fiction” rather than that of “Taiwanese fiction” that is more elusive. Yang Shuang-zi’s excerpt from Seasons of Bloom—very queer by its lesbian implication, very Taiwanese by its references to the detailed colonial past—capitalizes on time travel, but the novel itself, a work of historic fiction, does not look like science fiction at all. Hikaru Lee’s “Centennial Harmony, Centennial Lilies” pairs a lesbian browsing a dating app on a 21st-century cell phone with a female ghost dependent on a traditional practice of local superstititon. Very queer and very Taiwanese, this ghost story does not look like science fiction either. However, both texts, with their time travel and ghost story plots, are legitimate members in the club of speculative fiction. It occurs to me as well that nowadays, locally produced speculative fiction is often embodied by streaming shows and video games in which references to non-heteronormative desires and Taiwanese culture are common. I may not be able to give you a satisfying answer, but I hope this answer sparks more questions!
First of all, it’s been an honor to learn from and speak with you both. I’m humbled by your observations on the evolution of visual culture, new materialism, and geopolitical influences on contemporary queer Taiwanese literature. I’ve learned so much just by being a participant in this conversation, and I would encourage everyone reading this folio to read more work from both Ta-wei and Hsin-Hui (you can buy Ari Larissa Heinrich’s new translation of The Membranes here, and Hsin-Hui’s award-winning novel Human Glitches [瑕疵人型] is available in Chinese on this website).
I’m reminded of how Eno Chen describes the thesis of Ta-wei’s A Queer Invention in Taiwan: “the history of queer literature in Taiwan has been fabricated,” suggesting that the sense of a queer past seems to be created by generation after generation. I see this urge in some of the stories in this folio as well, where characters are trying to reconstruct a sense of their own selves and relationships through fragmented timelines and scenes. In doing so, they piece together alternate, speculative histories that reflect distinctly queer modes of life: often without a clear resolution, a “moral,” or a sense of “straight” logic. I’m reminded of how Taiwanese national history is being fabricated in similar ways, with different geopolitical forces trying to lay claim to Taiwan’s past and future. Both in these stories and in the real world, Taiwan itself is located in a queer time and space—and looks towards a speculative future—lending an additional layer to relationships and characters outside of heteronormativity.
Of course, a disinterest in “straight time” isn’t particular to Taiwanese queer speculative literature, and as someone who didn’t grow up in Taiwan, I hesitate to say that it makes a piece uniquely “Taiwanese.” Personally, though, I always find it refreshing to read literature that isn’t always filtered through U.S. market conceptions of “queerness.” Queer media in the U.S. typically caters to those with buying and viewing power, namely white, cisgender gay men with higher socioeconomic standing. Of course all literary production reflects power and social normativity, but I also feel that queer Taiwanese literature—with its online presence, roots in BBS bulletin boards, and experimental forebears—has a history of boundary-pushing and community-building that I hope continues to grow.
I am excited that our special issue is presenting the latest queer Taiwanese literature to Asian America. In A Queer Invention in Taiwan, I state that the U.S. once enabled Taiwan to queer its literature. For instance, one of the most influential gay novels in Chinese, Crystal Boys, was written by the Taiwanese American writer Hsien-yung Pai in the U.S. rather than in Taiwan during the Martial Law period of the 1970s. In the novel, a “desolate man” smuggles himself from Taiwan to the U.S., regaining his vitality after he is introduced to the gay underground in Manhattan. I look forward to even more discoveries of the connections between Taiwan and Asian America, both in the past and in the future.