IN DECEMBER, a massive rally for same-sex marriage rights in Taipei flooded the main boulevard and spilled into the streets circling the Presidential Offices. Taiwanese media went into overdrive: celebrity interviews, live debates, and an endless stream of video footage rehearsed the global gay pageantry of rainbow flags, hot men making out, endearing elderly couples, and proudly supportive parents. As I write, a panel of 14 Supreme Court justices is hearing arguments on a civil case that may well lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan. Taiwan, leading Asia in gender equality with its democratically elected female president and setting a world standard for its widely praised universal health care, now leads international media in its coverage of gay rights issues.
But things weren’t always that way. Three decades ago, Taiwan underwent a seismic shift in politics: following successive repressive regimes, martial law was lifted in 1987 and Taiwan’s international market presence exploded, unleashing a massive shockwave in the island’s social and cultural life. In the years immediately following the lifting of martial law, Taiwan’s intellectual pluralism flourished, such that everyday urbanites — already highly literate — now had direct access to an unprecedented variety of Japanese, European, and American literature and film, not to mention a vast new cultural vocabulary on topics ranging from postmodernism to feminism to environmentalism to indigenous rights. Figuring prominently in this cultural explosion moreover, was the rise of what scholar Fran Martin has called in her study Situating Sexualities: Queer Representation in Taiwanese Fiction, Film, and Public Culture “the literature of transgressive sexuality.” In Taiwan in the early 1990s, notes Martin, “[p]rime-time television news, news-magazine and variety shows [were] at the forefront of the island’s mass media’s sensationalist and generally homophobic obsession” with homosexuality. As a result, “the image of [the homosexual became] a valued entertainment commodity in 1990s Taiwan. It [became] self-evidently ‘attractive to the audience’ and a guarantor of high ratings[.]” In an infamous media scandal from 1993, a television reporter from TTV News infiltrated a lesbian bar in Taipei, filmed patrons with a hidden camera, and then broadcast the footage on the evening news. “[A]long with the reporter’s homophobic commentary,” Martin notes, the airing of the footage “caus[ed] the catastrophic unexpected ‘outing’ of several of the women to their families.” Taiwan’s media fixation with the spectacle of transgressive sexualities had begun.
It was precisely at the peak of this explosion in intellectual life and heightened media attention to transgressive sexualities that Qiu Miaojin (1969–1995), a celebrated novelist who killed herself at the age of 26, came onto the scene. The abbreviated but impressive span of her career coincides with the emergence of some of the same debates that gave rise to Taiwan’s robust LGBTQ rights movements today. Qiu’s earlier works, for instance, include stories like the homoerotic “Platonic Hair” (first published in 1990, and translated in 2003 by Martin in the anthology Angelwings: Contemporary Queer Fiction from Taiwan), while her later works culminate in the experimental epistolary suicide memoir Last Words from Montmartre (written in 1995, published posthumously in 1996, and translated by me, with an afterword, for New York Review Books in 2014). Notes of a Crocodile, originally published in 1994 and now released by New York Review Books in a translation by Bonnie Huie, is Qiu’s literary middle child. Personal and literate, Notes of a Crocodile is nonetheless profoundly significant in historical terms: it is the direct source of one of the key slang words for “lesbian” in Chinese (derived from the main character’s nickname “Lazi,” pronounced Lah-dzuh), and it includes a defining episode in Taiwanese lesbian identity politics, a queer Cartesian moment when the narrator commits her orientation to words, declaring: “I am a woman who loves women.” Even before Qiu’s books started winning mainstream literary awards, Notes of a Crocodile helped earn her the status of underground queer cult figure in Taiwan and eventually elsewhere in the Chinese-speaking world. For English-speaking audiences, the fact that so many of Qiu’s works are now available in translation acknowledges her importance for contemporary queer and Sinophone cultures, as well as her vital addition of yet another counterpoint to falsely universal LGBTQ “liberation” stories that recognize only white, Western (especially male and Anglophone) understandings of “transgressive sexualities.”
The narrative of Notes of a Crocodile is structured like a double helix. The denser strand follows the intuitive arc of university life in a rhythm reminiscent of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s 1994 Prozac Nation. It opens with Lazi’s first days at the prestigious National Taiwan University in Taipei, chronicles her binge-drinking, sexual experiments, and dark ruminations on shame, monstrosity, and sexuality, before it closes with her commencement, which she attends alone. Through a pastiche of first-person narration and epistolary excerpts, we follow Lazi’s turbulent relationship with another female student, Shui Ling; the full circle of her relationship with a slightly older woman called Xiao Fan; as well as the development of deep friendships with two men (the erratic, intense Meng Sheng and his dyspeptic lover Chu Kuang) and with two women (the spritely Tun Tun and her sometimes-lover Zhi Rou). Notes’s detailed character portraits and episodic structure lend it an almost Joycean quality, though the book is ultimately less like Dubliners than Pai Hsien-yung’s exquisite Taipei People, a novel from 1971 with which Qiu was certainly familiar. (Pai also wrote what is commonly understood to be Taiwan’s first “gay” novel, Crystal Boys, published in 1983.)
Like most of Qiu’s work, this strand of Notes can be a difficult read, looping and preoccupied, its angst and self-absorption familiar to anyone who’s kept a teenage diary, forcing the reader to conspire in the kind of painfully earnest self-reflection that can be a hazard of the genre. Even semi-autobiographical work needs a “you” to narrate to. At one point, the narrator recalls the early days of her friendship with Shui Ling as “a clandestine form of dating — the kind where the person you’re going out with doesn’t know it’s a date.” You could say the same about this novel. With its confessional intimacy and its single-blind narrator, you may not realize that you, as the audience, have been constructed just as much as any other “character” in the novel; and that, in a kind of role-reversal, it is you who are the novel’s intimate object. You are Qiu’s conscript confidante and, as uncomfortable as that may be, this displacement (or misplacement) of agency in the emotional grammar of the memoir is one of this author’s signature literary achievements. Adding to the challenge of reading Notes of a Crocodile is the novel’s dense network of cultural allusions; to films ranging from Betty Blue to Valley of the Dolls to books like Chronicle of a Death Foretold and writers ranging from Kobo Abe to Jean Genet to F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the insistent drumbeat of the author’s hyper-literacy, and in our awareness of both her prodigy and her death-drive, we could perhaps describe Qiu Miaojin as a kind of Taiwanese David Foster Wallace.
Yet there’s a reason Qiu’s work earned her a cult following — a reason that her novels are so fiercely loved, by so many, as well as taught in high schools, produced as theater, and cited reverently by other novelists. All of Qiu’s works contain a lush beauty, if you know where to look for it. In Notes of a Crocodile, for example, the true object of the narrator’s affection is not a lover but the city. Like Paris in Last Words from Montmartre, Taipei in Notes takes on a cinematic quality, its description often more generous and more loving than any snapshots of its human objets d’amour. While Lazi admits that she “can’t conceivably depict” her lover, Xiao Fan, the narrator’s infatuation with Taipei comes through in her description of the “magnificent night scene, gorgeous and restrained” across which the city unfolds during a ride on the Number 74 bus. Lending an exhilarating urgency to the novel, meanwhile, Notes also conveys an irrepressible excitement about the possibilities of gender and sexuality at a time when mainstream characterizations of those possibilities had not yet hardened into the current obsession with marriage equality as the benchmark of LGBTQ liberation (this is not nostalgia on my part, but rather anxiety about the enshrinement of heteronormativity — represented so often by the marriage equality movement — as a standard for rights that is founded as much upon who it excludes from “equality” as on equality itself, as if all anyone needs for happiness under the surveillance state is government recognition of one’s romantic life). At one point, for instance, Lazi, Meng Sheng, and Chu Kuang agree on the inadequacy of the gender binary, with Lazi explaining that:
[T]he gender binary […] stems from the duality of yin and yang, or some unspeakable evil. But humanity says it’s a biological construct: penis vs. vagina, chest hair vs. breasts, beard vs. long hair. Penis + chest hair + beard = masculine; vagina + breasts + long hair = feminine. Male plugs into female like key into lock, and as a product of that coupling, babies get punched out […] All that is neither masculine nor feminine becomes sexless and is cast into the freezing-cold waters outside the line of demarcation, into an even wider demarcated zone.
Upon establishing the sinister inadequacy of the gender binary, the friends’ first impulse is of course to do away with sex-segregated public restrooms. “How about if the three of us agree to have post-gender relations?” proposes Meng Sheng, to Lazi’s delight. “In the end, all three of us have been seriously warped by gender labels. Everybody has, more or less […] Hey, we should found a gender-free society and monopolize all the public restrooms!” While the friends’ revolutionary ideas don’t come to fruition immediately, they evidence a historical engagement with questions around gender that forecast certain contemporary struggles with uncanny clarity.
Notes of a Crocodile has all this, and a cute talking crocodile to boot. What’s not to love? While the passages featuring Lazi can feel heavy, the thinner strand of Notes’s narrative helix consists of more lightly rendered interludes featuring none other than a shy, cartoonish crocodile who dreams and frets and snacks and watches TV. While most crocodiles don’t have natural predators, the mass-media ecosystem of Notes is crocodile obsessed, with constant reports on croc-sightings and wild speculation about what these secret urban crocodiles eat and how they mate alongside polemics on whether they should be protected or destroyed. Anxious about being exposed, the novel’s eponymous crocodile disguises itself in a “human suit,” lives unobtrusively in a basement, and avoids conspicuous behaviors like purchasing too many cream puffs at the local bakery (cream puffs being a known crocodile delicacy, naturally). Not knowing any other crocodiles, when the reclusive beast sees a flyer for a secret crocodile masquerade ball, it can’t sleep for excitement, and — in a description that hilariously captures that awkward and terrifying moment when a young queer first ventures out to a “gay” event — gathers its courage to enter the venue:
The crocodile […] whispered, “Is everyone here a crocodile?” The attendants nodded […] It wanted to crawl under the reception table and hide […] The crocodile felt as if it were home at last. Why did everyone else’s human suits fit so securely?
When media speculation about the existence of crocodiles picks up speed, Lazi offers the crocodile shelter at her place. There, she and the crocodile collaborate on a video to send to TTV. This strand of the helix — and the novel — concludes with a clip from the closing scene of their film, a sequence in which the crocodile floats out to sea in a flaming tub to the voiceover of a quote from the filmmaker Derek Jarman: “I have no words.”
In the history of talking animals in literature — of cats, say, or cockroaches — Notes of a Crocodile goes somewhere new. On one hand, the book’s depiction of Lazi’s psyche is crowded with animal metaphors: over the course of the novel, we encounter references to a panther, a lion, a tiger, a lizard, a skunk, a wild boar, a snail, a leech, a hedgehog, a pig, a bivalve, and even a centaur. (It’s no accident that Tun Tun, the friend who understands Lazi best, is studying to be a zoologist.) But emerging from this psychological bestiary comes a truly unique — and distinct — literary animal. Rather than a dour Gregor Samsa wasting away in his room, we have a shrewd but adorable archosaur who, when it gets home after a long day, likes:
[T]o turn on the TV to see if there was anything about crocodiles on the evening news. Meanwhile, it would sit in a bathtub on casters, scrubbing itself with a sponge. It would reach over to grab a can of food from the side table, then remove its retainer and use its canines to puncture two holes in the top of the can. Shaped like turret shells, its canines glistened in the light and were cool to the touch. Afterward, the crocodile reinserted its retainer. It liked to eat with a sharpened straw that it plunged into the top of the can and used to siphon food. In the water was a green plastic toy crocodile. Leaning over, the crocodile squeezed the plastic belly with both hands. The toy made a squeaking noise and squirted water onto the crocodile’s face.
While Lazi is consumed by shame, the crocodile slowly begins to embrace the spectacle of its own identity. If Lazi sees herself as “something straight out of Lagerkvist: a hideously deformed dwarf stuffed into a jar, pressed up against the layer of glass,” the crocodile begins to cultivate its talent as a “natural-born performer.” Recognizing the potential of video-blogging decades before the fact, the crocodile refuses to allow Lazi to talk to it unless she looks through the viewfinder of the video-camera, but it leaves video-messages for Lazi when she is not there, musing, “A medium of communication, eh? Well, I’ll be the first to have done this.” Lazi may feel like her identity is beyond her control, but the crocodile’s growing confidence suggests a more powerful agency in queer self-definition. The crocodile — Lazi’s alter ego — uses its media savvy to define itself on its own terms.
Between the celebratory rhetoric of same-sex marriage and the global mainstreaming of gay rights, it’s easy to forget that finding community, finding healthcare (including mental health), and finding sanctuary from homophobic violence remain critical for many queers, and that there are many for whom the intersection of racial, economic, cultural, and sexual oppression represents an imminent threat to life. To someone for whom all identity is an act of impersonation (impersonating someone straight, for example, or someone of another sex), the layering of masks is, quite simply, a survival tactic. Qiu’s work may be dark, but now more than ever, it offers a provocative counterpoint to the blinkered optimism of gay rights as tethered to the interests of the state. Notes of a Crocodile reminds us that we all have our crocodiles. It’s just that now their preferred medium is the internet.
Ari Larissa Heinrich teaches in the Literature Department at UCSD. His translation of Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words from Montmartre was published by New York Review Books in 2015. His forthcoming book, Chinese Surplus: Biopolitical Aesthetics and the Medically Commodified Body, explores how human bodies acquire commodity value in the age of biotech — from the point of view of art.