Darryl Sterk’s translation of Shih Chiung-Yu’s “Wedding in Autumn” appears in the August 2016 issue of Words without Borders: “Turning Points: Women Writers from Taiwan.”
Darryl Sterk (DS): Why tell the story from the naive young man’s perspective?
Shih Chiung-Yu (SC): To create several kinds of contrasts—between the narrator and the women in the story (especially Ah Ju and the narrator’s sister) and between the naive narrator and the knowing reader.
DS: Was the sister character based on anyone in your life?
SC: I think you’ve seen clear on through me: the sister is my incarnation in the story. The narrator Ah Chung really does not like this kind of girl: she has too many of her own opinions, and in general does not conform to patriarchal expectations of women in Confucian cultures in East Asia.
The narrator Ah Chung really does not like this kind of girl: she has too many of her own opinions, and in general does not conform to patriarchal expectations of women in Confucian cultures in East Asia.
DS: Speaking of patriarchal expectations, you mention in the introduction to the collection in which “Wedding in Autumn” first appeared that your own father was like Albert Schweitzer. What did you mean?
SC: My father was a mainlander, a man from mainland China who came with Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang (KMT), to Taiwan in 1949. He served in the army for a time in northwestern Taiwan, and we lived in a village for army dependents, but then he left the army, gave up his benefits, and moved the family to the poorer southeast, which at the time was so poor all the roads were dirt. There were minimal public services, and people typically did not know what services were available to them. My father ran and got elected as County Councilor, and undertook to educate the locals. In this respect, he was like Schweitzer, a culture bringer. But when I wrote that my father was a Schweitzer figure, I also had in mind imperialist guilt. Like many contemporaries, Schweitzer was motivated partly by a sense of guilt, not due to original sin but because of Europe’s treatment of Africa in the age of imperialism. My father bore the guilt of the Chinese people, who had mistreated indigenous people (and Ah Ju may well be indigenous, specially as an Amis aboriginal girl orphaned or sold by her parents); the Kuomintang, who had committed atrocities in China and in Taiwan, especially the February 228 Incident; and of men, who have oppressed women since time began. My father’s life, like Schweitzer’s, is a story of redemption.
DS: Where does your story fit into Taiwanese literature?
SC: In the 1990s, when I was writing about aging mainlanders, many of them soldiers living on Taiwan’s southeastern coast, as well as about indigenous issues, most people did not know what I was writing about. Most writers were writing about the urban experience. Or they were writing postmodern stories or stories in the style of Eileen Chang, a famous anti-romantic. But at the time David Der-wei Wang said in the China Times that I didn’t seem anxious others might not understand what I was writing. Many writers are misunderstood in their own times—like Kafka, like Joyce. Maybe my story will be easier for people today to understand.
DS: You mentioned that something happened to you in Ireland that inspired “Wedding in Autumn.” What happened?
SC: In 1992, from January to April, I lived in Dublin. There was a news story about a thirteen-year-old girl who was raped by her classmate’s father. She got pregnant. At the time, abortion in Catholic Ireland was illegal. Even the sale of condoms was illegal. Many girls got pregnant without wanting to bear children. They had to go to England to get risky abortions. Many died. At the time I joined Irish feminists in a street protest, and demanded with them that a woman should have the right to decide whether to nurture life in her own uterus. The experience led me to think of how in East Asian societies a woman’s uterus has always been seen as a tool to produce a male heir, so much so that when a girl was born, her parents were often disappointed. I thought about women in my own society as second-class citizens. When I returned to Taiwan, I wrote “Wedding in Autumn” with women’s issues in mind.
I can’t tell readers how to react to a certain character. It’s the reader’s prerogative . . . If a character in a story can support different interpretations, all the better.
DS: Are we as readers meant to sympathize with Ah Ju, even though she’s lying to everyone by claiming to be pregnant?
SC: I can’t tell readers how to react to a certain character. It’s the reader’s prerogative. When I am writing I actually don’t think about what the reader will think. If a character in a story can support different interpretations, all the better. As for Ah Ju, as a woman, of course I sympathize with her. As a naive girl she feels a longing for love. Her innocence and ignorance turn her into a tool for relieving male characters of lust. After she gets pregnant she is abandoned. When she grows up she invents a ploy—to fake pregnancy and marriage. Actually this is the beginning of her self-awareness and resistance. I don’t want to judge her in ethical or moral terms. I’m actually more interested in why she lies to everyone and how she came up with her plan.
DS: Is it a feminist story?
SC: If people want to see it that way I won’t disagree. After all, ever since college I’ve written a lot of feminist articles. But I’ve always wanted to be like Doris Lessing, whose experiences in Iran and Africa led her to broaden her horizons, so that she couldn’t be pigeonholed as a woman writer, let alone as a feminist writer.