Taiwanese eco-fantasy novel goes for global readership
June 29, 2013 | 2:29 pm
By Dan Bloom
Taiwanese nature writer Wu Ming-yi’s (吳明益) eco-fantasy is being hailed as the next ‘Life of Pi’, with translations set already for the U.S. and Britain this fall
TAIPEI, TAIWAN — Not many local Taiwanese novels become big books overseas. But a 2011 cli-fi, or “climate fiction” novel written in Chinese and titled “The Man with Compound Eyes” is set for release in English this fall, both as a paperback and an e-book. New York and London are already talking.
Gray Tan keeps a blog in Taipei titled “Musings of a Fledgeling Literary Agent,” but he’s the real deal and he’s on to something big now. Poised for what could be a major international hit with novelist Wu Ming-yi’s “Eyes,” Tan has been busy promoting the book for the past two years and has already snagged three major publishers overseas.
Wu, for his part, is a softspoken Taipei writer and college professor in his early 40s; he first published “Eyes” in 2011.
In addition to the British and American editions set for this fall, a French-language translation is also in the works for a 2014 release in Paris, and Tan is taking calls from foreign rights departments at publishers worldwide. Wu’s novel could end up appearing in over 20 countries before this is all over.
Look out, Haruki Murakami; you’re about to get some serious company in the international book arena.
If things go according to plans, Wu’s 300-page novel might just be the next “Life of Pi” for the international book industry. Not only is the novel, Wu’s fourth book, set in Taiwan in the near-future of 2029, it was also translated by Canadian expat Darryl Sterk who has long been a student of Aboriginal cultures and languages in Taiwan.
“Both novels are inquiring into the meaning of life by throwing characters into the wilderness,” Sterk told TeleRead, describing Wu’s novel as ”strongly plotted with a sophisticated vision of nature.”
“The man with the compound eyes is literally a vision of nature, a kind of metaphor, a metaphor for our age, inspired as much by Marshall McLuhan as by insect eye biology,” Sterk said. “The main character’s eyes are like video screens, and there’s a video-mosaic effect. I think it’s a very interesting book, and it’s had a deep effect on me personally [while I was translating it].”
Sterk got the translation gig for Wu’s novel in the usual way: through a personal connection. He was introduced to literary agent Tan by a former professor in Taiwan who knew both men.
“I spent the past five years immersed in Aboriginal representations in Taiwan, especially as produced by non-Aborigines, and there are many Aboriginal characters in Wu’s novel — even the young man from the fictional Pacific island of ‘Woenesia’ in the book,” Sterk said. “Tan asked me first to do a translation of an excerpt from the book, so he could show it to an editor in London, and one thing led to another and I ended up translating the entire book.”
As word of mouth about the novel spread quietly around Taiwan in the past two years, Tan offered the book to global publishers and got good results from New York, London and Paris. Think Yann Martell meets Margaret Atwood. Think ”cli-fi’‘ meets eco-fantasy.
Behind every international breakout novel, there’s an intriguing backstory, and Tan’s account as the agent promoting the book overseas is worth paying attention to. There’s serendipity and luck and good timing involved. And it all adds up to what might become Taiwan’s most important literary export to date.
Wu’s 300-page novel was first picked up by Rebecca Carter, then an acquiring editor at the Harvill Secker publishing company in London, according to Tan. From Britain, the book was sold to a major publisher in New York. Could Hollywood be part of the game plan later on?
It all happened in a “serendiputous” way, agent Tan told this reporter in a recent interview.
“I met Rebecca at the London Book Fair in 2011, and I was able to pitch Wu’s novel to her face to face there after talking about it in previous emails,” he said. “She seemed interested in this ‘ecological fantasy’ by a Taiwanese novelist, and so I sent her an excerpt of Wu’s novel by our translator. A week later Rebecca said she loved the excerpt she read but wanted to know more, so I wrote a 20-page chapter-by-chapter synopsis for her. She immediately sent in an offer, and we closed the deal.”
The arresting and colorful cover for the British edition has been done by the renowned artist Joe Wilson and can be seen online already.
Tan is positioning the book under the “international fiction” label, he says, adding that terms such as “speculative fiction” or “literary SF” are also fitting.
How did Wu’s novel catch Tan’s eye? Serendipty indeed played a major role, he said.
“I spotted it in the bookstore,” Tan said. “I was immediately attracted, and finished reading it in a week. The more research I did about Wu, the more I found out how unique and off-the-beaten-track he was, a real independent spirit who spends his time trying to blend into the local literary scene. I admire that kind of spirit, you know, the courage to be different. So this made me decide to give it a try.”
Wu started writing “The Man with Compound Eyes” in 2006, he told me in an email, noting that since publication in early 2011 sales have been steady, with the book now in its fourth printing–not a bad benchmark for authors in Taiwan.
However, newspaper reviews of the novel were few and far between here in Taiwan, according to Tan, with only one national newspaper reviewing the book when it first came out in 2011. A few literature blogs have taken notice of the book, but raves for book have spread mostly by word of mouth.
All this could change, of course, when Wu’s novel comes out in the U.S. and Britain next fall.
When asked how he feels about the prospect of seeing his novel published in English and French overseas, Wu told me that, of course, he’s ”thrilled.”
“It means readers from different cultural backgrounds will be able to share in my story, and to discover and interpret what I’ve written in different ways,” Wu said. “They’ll also get a chance to better understand Taiwanese culture and literature.”
While Taiwan’s mass media has not given much space to news of Wu”s book or its chances for success overseas, the government has been a big player behind the scenes, Tan said.
“Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture and the National Museum of Taiwan Literature have both been very much behind the book,” he said. “The museum gave translation subsidies to both the British and the French publishers, and the Ministry of Culture has been instrumental in helping us connect with some important international literary festivals.”
With Wu’s novel being presented to the West as an ”ecological fantasy,” there is a large political divide these days between those who want to protect the earth, and those on the other side of the political and climate debate aisle, who say that ecological ideas are just liberal theories that don’t add up.
When Tan was asked if he was worried that Wu’s book might be attacked by some in the West who loathe nature novels, he said he wasn’t worried.
“The ecological issues raised in the novel are important, and issues such as the ‘Pacific trash vortex’ have already been reported in The New York Times,” Tan said. “Wu is just a storyteller and his book does not suggest any drastic or extremist approaches. We think it’s going to go over really well in New York and London.”
Gwen Gaffric, the French translator, is writing his doctoral thesis in France on ecological issues in Taiwanese literature, including the works of Wu, and he told me in an email that Wu’s eco-fantasy has the power to reach a global audience.
“The novel oscillates between Taiwan settings and overseas settings, and it echoes global environmental crises that impact everyone,” he said.
Critic Antonio Chen, writing about the book in Asymptote, a Chinese-language literary journal in Taipei, has called it ”a masterpiece of environmental literature about an apocalyptic Aboriginal encounter with modernity.” (Taiwan is home to over half a million Aborigines who settled on the island over 10,000 years ago. It’s not just all ethnic Chinese people living here.)
In the story that Wu weaves in his novel, “Modern Taiwanese people today are too interested in developing the pristine and rural east coast [in 2029] to clean it up,” Chen wrote.
Chen added: “Trash, resource shortages, and the destruction of Taiwan’s coastline as a result of the pursuit of unenlightened self-interest are unremarkable raw materials, but [Wu] mashes them into art. Seen through his compound eyes, daily life is dramatized and fictionalized, and the reader [is] inspired to feats of imagination and action.”
This book could travel far. Those “compound eyes” in the title? Think a bee’s eyes, magnified ten thousand times! This ”man” has powers, as the West will soon see.
Dan Bloom is a freelance writer in Taiwan.