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“Liu Yi-Ting knew the best thing about being a child was that nobody would take her words seriously. She could boast, break her promises, even lie.” The innocuous opening lines of Lin Yi-Han’s Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise, originally published in Taiwan in 2017 and newly translated from the Chinese by Jenna Tang, have a chilling effect in retrospect, as the expectation of an idyllic childhood they suggest is turned on its head. The first and only novel by Lin, who died the year after it was published, Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise prompted wide discussion of sexual assault, grooming, and mental illness in Taiwan.

The novel is divided into three parts—“Paradise,” “Paradise Lost,” “Paradise Regained”—followed by a brief epilogue. This structure alludes to John Milton’s seventeenth-century epic poem, Paradise Lost, and its successor, Paradise Regained, in more ways than one, borrowing not only the titles but also the in media res beginning. In the first part, narrated in a close third-person voice, Lin tells a more-or-less complete short story, of a blissful friendship between thirteen-year-olds Yi-Ting and Si-Chi—neighbors and “twins of the mind, spirit, and soul.” It is only in the final pages of this section that Yi-Ting learns, from reading Si-Chi’s diaries, that her best friend had been molested during those seemingly sunny, carefree, even mundane years of middle school. That abuse continued for years without Yi-Ting’s knowledge (Si-Chi had told her in a way that suggests a consensual relationship), and it leads eventually to Si-Chi’s breakdown and confinement within a psychiatric hospital. And so, the omniscient narrator states, “The story needs to be told again from the beginning.” This leads into the second part, which painstakingly relives the entirety of “Paradise,” this time focusing on the perspective of Si-Chi, the survivor.

Intertextuality takes on sinister undertones in the novel, as Si-Chi’s abuser, Lee Guo-Hua, a cram-school teacher and a resident of the apartment building in which the girls live, relies on his literary and oratory skills to gain and maintain his power over her. In other gestures to Milton’s text, where Satan relies on Renaissance love poetry to tempt Eve, the teacher attempts to use classical Chinese poetry to woo Si-Chi. He refracts his desires through Nabokov’s Lolita as well, both with direct references to the “Island of Lolita”—his fantasy of a space occupied by young girls—as well as the more subtle use of “pixies” as a counterpart to Nabokov’s “nymphets.” Unlike Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, Lee Guo-Hua is unable to acknowledge his monstrous cruelty. He is entirely aware that social taboos around sex in Taiwan protect him from accusation or conviction—because of this systemic injustice, “after he raped a girl, the whole world would point at her and tell her it was her fault”—but almost never recognizes his actions, or desires, as violative. Viewed in relation to Milton’s Paradise Lost, though, this lack of morality becomes symbolic, making him the very personification of corruption and evil.

As Tang points out in her note on the translation, Lin was exceptionally well-read, summoning not just Milton and Nabokov, but also Dostoevsky, Eileen Chang, Li Bai, and a host of classical Chinese literary references likely unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers. This vast literary knowledge is shared by her protagonists, whose love of literature is the basis for the recurring motif of their twin souls. Looking back on their intimate friendship, Yi-Ting muses, “It wasn’t like one of them loved Fitzgerald while the other muddled through her feelings for Hemingway; rather, they both fell in love with Fitzgerald and hated Hemingway for the exact same reason. It wasn’t like one could fill in the sentence the other forgot, but rather they would forget the same paragraph together.” They find joy in the company of a young woman they look up to, their neighbor Iwen, who reads literary classics to them several times a week. Their discussions offer a sanctuary for her too, as she struggles in an abusive marriage for which she gave up her studies and her dreams of becoming a professor.

Yet, the same voracious reading habit that binds the children to each other, and to Iwen, also makes them vulnerable to exploitation. When Lee Guo-Hua first meets the girls, he makes an ominous mental note: “Their bookshelves alone announced that they wanted to be treated as adults.” There is a sense of performed adulthood in the young girls’ behavior that is bolstered by their grasp of literature; similarly, Si-Chi brags that she knows how to make coffee even though her mother won’t let her drink it, an act that she connects directly to her later abuse. This facade crumbles quickly in the face of emotional complexity and turbulence—when confronted by Iwen crying in front of them for the first time, for instance, they retreat into a desire to remain children. It is in this retreat, and in the face of the realization that Iwen is vulnerable to pain, that they themselves become vulnerable, and are willing to accept another adult into their lives who might project the confidence and assurance they associate with growing up.

While Si-Chi’s erudite literary taste is used as a justification by her abuser, it also provides her with a coping mechanism for the five years that she lives with that abuse. In the immediate aftermath of the first incident of abuse, Si-Chi contemplates her tendency to “generate metaphors” as a means of surviving the violence her body experiences. Those metaphors populate the text itself, contributing to the rich, lyrical experience that is also characteristic of Lin’s shorter works. Even writing that ostensibly speaks directly to her situation becomes literature in the abstract: “Every once in a while, a memoir by a survivor of kidnapping and sexual assault would appear in translation. . . . She read these books like they were crime fiction.”

The third part of the novel contemplates the aftermath of trauma, not just for Si-Chi, but also for Yi-Ting, who grapples with the harrowing knowledge of her friend’s suffering, as well as survivor’s guilt of a sort, as “the twin who continued to live.” It is fitting, then, that the language turns graphic, and difficult to read—not because of its density but because of detailed descriptions of child molestation, grooming, and trauma. The novel evokes despair, too, at the injustice of Si-Chi being robbed of her youth while her abuser goes unpunished, with the heartbreaking finality of the lines that seal the girls’ fates: “Yi-Ting thought about how she got to enjoy everything that her twin of the soul would always be destined to miss . . . Every single thing in this world belonged to a hometown that Si-Chi would never know again.” To read these lines is to bear witness to the systems that allow such inhumanity to prevail.

The treatment of language in the translation is striking as well. Lin occasionally references specific characters and their visual appearances, necessitating the inclusion, in an otherwise translated text, of traditional Chinese characters, the system of writing used in Taiwan:

On Monday, he dragged her to a motel with a big 喜 (happiness) character in the signpost. Tuesday, they visited another motel with the character 滿 (satisfaction); Wednesday, it was 金 (wealth). 喜滿金 are great characters; they’re auspicious in any order.

For things that are untranslatable, such as the names of characters, Tang opts for her own system of romanization, rather than the more common Hanyu Pinyin system officially used in China, Singapore, Taiwan, and by the United Nations. This decision feels at once historical and political, since many of these instances of romanization resemble the Wade-Giles system that was used as the standard in Taiwan between 1928 and the early 2000s. Many Taiwanese, including the outgoing Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, still choose to transcribe their legal names based on the Wade-Giles system—romanizing the Chinese in this way feels like a way of translating a Chinese-language text so that it retains its unique Taiwanese cultural identity.

Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise is not only a heroine’s epic, borrowing conventions from Milton’s epic that he himself borrowed from Greek and Roman antiquity, but also a coming-of-age story that puts forward a blistering critique of the social norms that enable abuse and corruption, the education system in Taiwan that fosters power dynamics and vulnerability among schoolchildren, and the ways that society fails to protect and empower women. Lin makes it clear that Lee Guo-Hua is no exceptional monster—his colleagues are just as inclined toward predatory behavior and the deliberate abuse of children.

“Without Lin Yi-Han’s voice, the #MeToo movement in Taiwan would never have been the same,” Tang writes in her acknowledgements. The novel calls attention to a pressing issue in Taiwan that will hopefully result in better protection for those vulnerable to abuse, and at the very least, provide the solace of togetherness to those who have experienced similar trauma. Yet, despite the heaviness of its subject, it is written with immense tenderness. Its very existence offers a glimpse of hope, as Tang, too, concludes: “Issues of gender, the LGBTQ+ community, violence, and trauma are squeezed together into dark, narrow spaces in Taiwan, and only voices like Yi-Han’s open a new pathway to a world where identities and personal stories confirm transformation is possible.”

Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise by Lin Yi-Han, translated from the Chinese by Jenna Tang (HarperVia, 2024)

© 2024 by Lauren Yu-Ting Bo. All rights reserved.