Ankita Chakraborty | Longreads | June 2018 | 14 minutes (3,488 words)
D. H. Lawrence once used chickens to describe the two types of women. “A really up-to-date woman is a cocksure woman,” he wrote. “She is the modern type.” The other type is the hensure woman, “the old-fashioned demure woman who was sure as a hen is sure, that is, without knowing about it.’’ He made other references to animals and birds in his work. He often used animal lives to describe sex and male desire. “The desire rose again, his penis began to stir like a live bird,” he wrote of a man in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lawrence seemed to have thrived on the animal spirit. Three of his novels are called The Fox, Kangaroo and The White Peacock. The more the woods and the old mining towns of his childhood seemed to give way to industrial landscapes, the more easily animals seemed to have crept into his work. Often animals from these woods were imagined as insensible beasts. The chapter called “Rabbit” in Women in Love comes to mind, where a pet sustains society’s adulation until the moment it turns against its owners.
The beast in Qiu Miaojin’s modernist novels is the consciousness in women that is aware of a deviant lust for women’s bodies. Their sexuality is their bestiality. They are not necessarily hiding behind their animal pseudonyms; but like any animal on the fringes of human settlement, they are loath to be seen. The narrator of Qiu’s cult classic Notes of a Crocodile declares very early in the novel, “I’m a woman who loves women.” Yet a few pages later, she thinks she should carry her shoes and tiptoe down the streets of Taipei so that no one will notice her. In the industrial Taiwanese society where these women live, the self-discovery of their own sexuality is considered to be a social condition and an epidemic. It made for cheap television and for trash talk. In Taiwan in 1987, everybody seemed very interested in knowing who among them was a “crocodile.”
The crocodile was both a national secret and a social outcast, at once protected and eradicated; their protection leading to their eventual eradication.
The crocodile was a lesbian who had piqued the national interest of Taiwan. News channels such as TTV had taken upon themselves to out and isolate them. In the same year, the island-nation had newly begun to assert its independence from China. The Kuomintang or the Chinese Nationalist Party which had ruled Taiwan since the end of World War II had lifted martial law. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness in China and would be considered so till 2001. But the cause of the new Taiwan was that it was not China. It was its own country. Taiwan, which had already been suspended from the United Nations in 1971, was afraid that the world might forget about them and it “could become void in the world map like the Bermuda triangle.” In order to put forward Taiwan as a progressive new nation, distinct and diverse in its nature and values from China, the crocodiles were not exactly socially condemned but also not yet openly accepted. What they were usually subjected to were scrutiny and speculation. The crocodile was both a national secret and a social outcast, at once protected and eradicated; their protection leading to their eventual eradication.
Notes of a Crocodile, first published in Taiwan in 1994 was a bootlegged item in China for many years and has only been recently translated into English by Bonnie Huie (NYRB Classics, 2017). The story revolves around a group of young queer students who go to university in Taipei. Lazi, the narrator, is in a relationship with Shui Ling, but they soon break up. Chu Kuang is in love with another young man, Meng Sheng, whom he meets only once a year. Tun Tun and Zhi Rou used to be young lovers in high school but have drifted apart in university. They are now both in unhappy relationships with men. All the characters seem to live an isolated existence and are allowed to drift away from society, cut off from friends and family. In despair, they turn self-destructive. They often talk about dying. In university, they come to terms with who they are, and it is this same discovery that further pushes them down a life of narrowing constrictions. “My self-actualization is forbidden,” the narrator writes to her lover. Their only source of relief seems to be the friendship they have with each other and the stories they confide of illicit love and sex. The Chinese word for LGBT people, tongzhi, I found out, is also the Chinese word for comrade.
Qiu satirizes a Taiwan that was eager to westernize in the 1980s while being increasingly arrested in time. As an industrial nation, they were as interested in making profit from a passing fad as they were in making the secret lives of queer women a popular concern. A bakery springs up in the neighborhood after a rumor spreads that cream-puffs are a crocodile favorite. In a televised debate, Anti-Croc and Pro-Croc groups discuss if crocodiles are an oviparous species and their spawns in danger of mutating all of human society. At the height of public scrutiny into the nature of crocodiles, the narrator depicts a real incident that happened in Taipei in 1992, when secretly shot footage from an underground lesbian bar was broadcast on television. It is difficult to imagine today the homophobia that engulfed Taiwan at the time. In May last year, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Meanwhile China is largely seen as still evading the question of gay rights and refuses to protect its LGBT people with legislation. Clearly, Taiwan is not China.
Like the narrator of the novel, Qiu was still discovering for herself if there was indeed a place for her in an ordinary society. Qiu was all of 23 when she finished writing the novel. But she reveals to us how the stories that she heard growing up went on to shape the crocodile’s consciousness. When Shui Ling stays over at Lazi’s place for the first time, one jokingly asks the other, “If we were locked up in a mental hospital together, would it be any better?” The moment in the novel devolves into banter, but it is revealing how greatly her sexual fantasies are encased in fear. After she imagines two lesbians together in a room, she also imagines them together in an asylum.
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What is more remarkable about the novel is its confessional tone. “I’ll never fall in love with a man, just as most men can’t fall in love with another man…. I discovered who I was through not being readily accepted by society. My identity was fully formed long before I was ever actualized, and it was never going to change even if I kicked and screamed. When it reached the point where I couldn’t take it anymore, I entered a state of denial and started injuring myself. Do you understand what I was going through?” Born in 1969, in Changhua County in western Taiwan, Qiu grew up at a time of national censorship. It was only in 1987, when she went to National Taiwan University, that the censorship laws were relaxed. Yet the censorship laws seemed to have an opposing effect on her literary ambitions. She became the first woman in Chinese literature to come out as openly gay.
She is willing to cross boundaries that define reality from imagination, woman from man, landscape from landscape, and life from death.
While writing the novel in Taiwan, Qiu worked for a weekly magazine called The Journalist and later at a teahouse. Although she wrote in Chinese, her influences were the Japanese writers she often mentioned in her novels — Kobo Abe, Osamu Dazai, Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima. In 1994, at the age of 25, Qiu moved to Paris to study psychology and feminism under Helene Cixous at the University of Paris VIII. It was in Paris that she wrote her masterpiece Last Words from Montmartre, an experimental study of female same-sex desire and sexual conflict. The novel is a series of letters written from Paris to an estranged lover in Taiwan asking for reconciliation. It ends with the narrator committing suicide. In June 1995, right after finishing the novel, Qiu Miaojin, like the narrator of her book, killed herself.
One is reluctant to read Last Words from Montmartre (NYRB Classics, 2014) as a suicide note. It is unreliable. And it would be futile to adapt the themes that she provokes in the novel — of betrayal, loneliness and fate — to construct the myth surrounding her death. In her novel she seems to be affirming life as much as death. “I’m an artist,” she writes “and what I really want to excel is my art. My goal is to experience the depths of life, to understand people and how they live, and to express this through my art.” The actual reasons behind Qiu’s suicide are largely unknown. After her death in 1995, Notes of a Crocodile became a cult classic in Taiwan and Qiu became an icon. But the sensationalism attached to her suicide keeps us from reading Last Words from Montmartre as a formidable work, well ahead of its time. It does not fall on the readers of her novel to investigate her suicide but to investigate her work. If Qiu were alive today, she would have been known as a genre-bending writer, a hybrid, destabilizing the idea of “novel” with each of her subsequent works. She was a true experimentalist, committed to style and form, and has been discovered by the English speaking world 20 years too late.
There are no plots in either of Qiu’s two novels. But she opens Last Words from Montmartre with an unique dedication: For dead little Bunny and Myself, soon dead. The dedication, itself, sets up a plot. We know that the writer-narrator is going to end up dead. Death becomes an anticipation for the reader — when and how remains to be seen. A similar anticipation is seen increasing in the voice of the narrator as she writes the letters. She claims to be at the “peak of her sexual desire” and seems eager for a union with her lover, and is willing to cross boundaries that define reality from imagination, woman from man, landscape from landscape, and life from death. In her aspiring to such a union, she creates a non-binary character Zoe, who seems to have the same features and personal history as the narrator, but unlike her, Zoe seems to be agreeable to everyone. After a point, when the voice of the narrator ceases to exist, Zoe lives on.
The beasts in Last Words from Montmartre are more human-like. The novel begins with the death of Bunny, a pet rabbit that the narrator shared with her former lover. She lets the corpse stay in her apartment for two days before she decides to bury it. A day after the death, the narrator’s depression is triggered to a point that she begins to reach out to her lover, or in a way, to the world outside, through letters. In confessing to her grief and loneliness, she describes the inner world of a manic depressive. On the day of the burial of the rabbit, the narrator is shown packing gifts for her family in Taiwan and returning calls to her friends, as if she is preparing to go somewhere. But the only time she seems interested in leaving her apartment since the death of her rabbit is when she goes to a local retrospective in Paris of the films of Theo Angelopoulos. This is where she meets the White Whale, a character who appears in the book only to watch Angelopoulos’ films with her. Nothing else is known about the White Whale, except her inferiority to the narrator in understanding great cinema.
Back in Taiwan where she wrote Notes of a Crocodile, it is difficult to imagine Qiu writing something like “I woke up dreaming of Laurence and the curve of her ass.” The change in tone and the loss of shame and guilt in her last novel are conspicuous. It is perhaps something she picked up from her anonymity in Paris. Her idea of intimacy changes from a shared and secret experience to a selective sexual experience. Now she looks at women like a man.
Far from feeling ashamed for her beast and seeking invisibility in the streets of Taipei, the narrator in Last words from Montmartre sits down by the side of the Seine and watches a woman she met earlier in the evening, diving naked in the river: “I was wet. My heart began to pound. It began to pulse, to throb between my legs….Pure carnal desire washed over my body, and for the first time it was a woman’s body that had caused it.” The narrator’s desire seems to be at the center of the story. Although she is clearly depressed and writes about suicide as a way out, she seems to be thinking about fucking as much as about dying.
Her struggle to remain hidden from society turned into a struggle for her own existence.
It is no longer enough for the narrator in Last Words from Montmartre to be pining for women’s bodies. Sex has become important to her. The narrator seemed before to be driven by her own erotic desires to the point of frustration. Unlike then, she is now reluctant to escape her frustration. Like Lawrence, Qiu believed in the utility of sex as a social emblem. This is something that is rooted in the Freudian concept that sex along with love is the basis for lasting interpersonal relationships in civilization. But in Qiu’s female society, men or maleness exist only in spirituality. They are a mental trait rather than a physical qualification. And betrayal is the betrayal of sexuality and not just of a sexual partner. It is, for instance, when a lesbian chooses an ordinary man over a woman. Qiu goes on to achieve something unprecedented in Chinese literature. Her female characters when having sex challenge one of the defining values of Chinese phallocentrism. In attitude, Chinese phallocentrism ignores female-female sex and fails to recognize it as human sex, reducing the sexual instinct in queer women to an animal instinct. Qiu adopts this beast, at first, and later humanizes it. She turns her characters into people one cannot possibly ignore anymore. It is difficult to look away.
All along the narrator suffers. She suffers from a violence that is not necessarily inflicted on the body but on the soul. The deterioration of her spirit from the first novel to the second is heartbreaking. The crocodile as a young lesbian was unaware of the existence of other crocodiles. She also considered her homosexuality more different than others’, and hence tried to hide it better than others. In the end, her struggle to remain hidden from society turned into a struggle for her own existence. Towards the end of Notes of a Crocodile, she called the same news channel that she had been trying to hide from, as if to say “Hey, I exist.” The isolation of the narrator has been so prolonged and so profound that by the time she begins to write Last Words from Montmartre, she has completely forgotten how to re-enter society.
Moving to Paris does not help her. The long nights in a foreign city only expedite her alienation. We also never know if she ever came out to her parents, and if they ever accepted her for who she was. It is this daily struggle for existence that compels her to break the ranks of solitude and reach out to her former friends and lovers, in Paris, in Tokyo, in Taiwan. They, in their part desperately try to bring her back to society. But it seems too late for her already. The narrator dies in exile.
Yong thought it would be unhealthy for me to spend all day at home and often took me out for a walk at dusk, or for a bike ride to the trolley station in the afternoon, and then to run some errands and ride home singing merrily in the rain. A few days before the cherry blossoms bloomed, we searched for signs of life on the branches, and once the buds had opened, she instructed me in the way to observe the blossoms as they burst forth each day…. I remember riding our bicycles around many bessou villas and country roads, as well as down many dilapidated alleyways before riding along a pencil-straight, desolate highway to a small village outside the city.… During these journeys, we were two friends who had known each other for a long time and loved each other and separated and then reunited, our old bicycles on this trajectory of life in this season of blossoming…. What kind of risks were we taking and what were we chasing? Two people so far from home, far from our loved ones, each of us having gone to live in a foreign country, reuniting on a foreign-beyond-foreign highway, pedaling on our rusted bicycles, one of us on the verge of death — what was this exile, roaming, and homecoming we were enacting?
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Ankita Chakraborty is a writer based in New Delhi. She has also written for The Caravan, and Outlook.
Editor: Dana Snitzky