APRIL 24, 2020
JESSICA J. LEE ASKS the reader to consider slippery definitions of family in her complicated but thoughtful memoir, Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts, which weaves the political character of Taiwan with her family’s own heritage and her journey of self-discovery amid the rural landscapes of the island. We have read this tale before: a narrator’s pilgrimage to make peace with the past. Lee’s journey is accomplished with uneven levels of literary success.
Lee starts her memoir with a recollection of hiking with her mother shortly after Gong, the author’s grandfather, has passed away, and the narrative veers into a discussion of translation. Lee explains that she uses traditional Chinese characters, and both the Wade-Giles romanization system and Hanyu Pinyin to transliterate certain details from Mandarin. By extent, this exemplifies the language variations not only in Taiwan but also in her own family. Wade-Giles, she notes, is employed by her elders, though she has been taught Hanyu Pinyin. “The gaps that bind us span more than the distances between words,” she writes.
Four separate sections begin with a Chinese character, Chinese word, and English translation: dao (island), shan (mountain or hill), shui (water or river), and lin. Interestingly, the latter word means forest, woods, and grove or a group of like persons. It can be suggested, perhaps, that a lin or forest can be family. This is a different definition than the English one and speaks to how meanings change between cultures.
The divides of language, then, are a center point, and they go hand in hand with the unreliability of memory. This is a difficult topic to address because of its subjective nature, which calls into question the trustworthiness of the narrator and the others in the story. No two people have the same recollection. And memories fade over the years, creating a dichotomy between the real and the imagined. The story is, in a sense, unstable, and puts the reader in a precarious position: who can ultimately be trusted, if anyone, to share this family’s history?
This is made clearer with the revelation that Gong suffered from Alzheimer’s and forgot who the narrator was when she was 18. He was also a quiet individual, choosing to watch and listen rather than speak. So the narrator’s knowledge of him is limited to her scant childhood recollections (problematic by their very nature), her imaginings of his life, and his fleeting consciousness. Her grandfather died alone, with no family around him, affecting her objectivity in depicting his story. All of this is further exemplified by two discoveries after the narrator’s grandmother, Po — with whom Gong and the author’s mother had tense familial relationships — passes away. The author’s mother finds amid her cluttered apartment an envelope of letters written by Gong, a former pilot, in Chinese. They are unclear, fragmented, and start and stop at random. The narrator speculates that her grandfather wrote them to try to retain some semblance of self in moments of lucidity while suffering from the disease. The other illuminating item is a phone bill with a series of numbers on it, which we learn connects the narrator and her mother to family in Taiwan and China that they did not know existed — largely because Po had kept her past hidden from the world.
She cannot read the letters, and must rely on what her mother annotates in them for clarity. She is racked by guilt that she, a child growing up in Canada, did not embrace her heritage. Her mother would even ask her questions in Mandarin, and she and her sister would answer in English. It speaks to a problem central to those who leave their land for another, how descendants will or will not pass down family tradition and how culture is lost in translation.
There is hope for Lee: she begins grasping the absent language she seeks through her work as an environmental historian. In the plants, history, and landscape of Taiwan, she comes to terms with her own identity. She dedicates much time in the memoir to incorporating the vast tale of Taiwan — its political landscape, the mapping of its boundaries, and its geography. But she often gets too stuck in the details without drawing parallels back to her own family in a timely enough manner, causing us to lose the reason for the narrative in the first place, especially as she charts the island’s turbulent history.
Taiwan has been passed back and forth between hard rulers. Indigenous inhabitants were lorded over by the Spanish and the Dutch East India Company (in the 17th century), then Chinese colonists (who ruled for two centuries), Japan (following the first Sino-Japanese War), and the Republic of China after the second war from 1937 to 1945. Lee also fills paragraphs with the Chinese Civil War, the conflict between Communist and Nationalist parties that ultimately caused her grandparents to flee to Taiwan. This is all educational, but disjointed. Transitions back to her family are sometimes abrupt and jarring, forcing us to reorient ourselves. The narrator would have served the reader more by shortening much of the historical review and continually making meaningful connections back to her family. For example, Lee’s explanation that her grandparents and their descendants are known in Taiwan as waishengren, or “people from outside the province,” and that she, her mother, and her sister don’t know whether to even call themselves Chinese, is much more powerful for the reader than an elongated passage on Taiwan’s history. It compels us forward on behalf of her tale.
The narrator is a bit more successful when writing of the island’s early mapping and shifting geography rather than its political fluctuations. Though that, too, is aimless at times. We are left to turn pages on the Qing Dynasty’s disinterest in Taiwan’s geography, the Japanese mapping of the Indigenous territories, and Bunzo Hayata’s study of flora in Taiwan. Strong references back to the pressing subject matter, meanwhile, are lacking.
Narrative easiness comes back during her eloquent descriptions of her grandfather’s time as a pilot for the Flying Tigers during the Second Sino-Japanese War and as an instructor for the Republic of China’s Air Force. She studies the maps and terrain that he wrote about soaring over, thereby locating the reader in the island’s environment and how it directly correlates to her family.
Such associations become stronger through the latter half of the book, particularly in the ways that Lee balances her exploration of Taiwan’s natural world with notable details of its terrain that have been documented by various naturalists, geographers, and botanists throughout the years. She hikes to the tops of mountains; walks through forests of mangroves, endangered cypresses, and cedars; cycles through the coastline; and discovers rare birds. She sees the flight of the kingfisher and the flash of the spoonbill in their native habitats. She also grows more confident with her identity and presence in Taiwan through her time in the wild; instead of feeling ashamed at her poor Mandarin or her status as a “foreigner,” she finds herself in the environment, noting that her “literacy” grows stronger every time she must translate a word on a hike. She also feels akin to the city birds of Tainan, who make their presence known with their songs amid the urban sprawl.
This symmetry is particularly poignant as she bikes to find the spoonbill. She crosses a bridge that had opened the day prior but does not appear yet on her phone map. The all-knowing presence of today’s technology is just as confused as the historical maps: “I imagine, as if in flight, flitting across the surface of the water, across the gap between our simulated and material worlds,” she writes.
Such elegance of language is ever present in the work; poetic and emotive, unfurling to reveal passages about her family, her pain, and her exploration of Taiwan’s myriad habitats, which arise from its delicate status as an island positioned between two tectonic plates. She depicts the beaches, jungles, mountains, fog, plants, animals, and earthquakes in words that transport the reader to the island. At the same time, her tale is too reliant on similes and metaphors, or flowery paragraphs that could be simplified, letting the sheer emotion of that moment speak for itself. It is too heavy-handed when the narrator describes her mother as an archeologist on a dig while sorting through Po’s apartment. She uses more austere language to share Po’s final moments before leaving for Taiwan, when she sees her mother in China for the last time. Simple details like her mother’s bound feet or the tin of Danish butter cookies she’d brought to the dock pinpoint the sense of loss Po feels in abandoning her family.
As much as Lee hopes to share her family’s past with the reader, her fragmented delivery arguably falls in step with the mistakes her family has made in recounting their memories. We don’t get the whole story. We are also left wanting more information about her sister, who is rarely mentioned. Did she feel the same longing to explore her family’s life as the narrator? Did Lee even suggest the topic to her? Why or why not? That raises the question: Is Lee a reliable narrator of her own family’s memory and experience?
It is a troublesome place to be for the reader. But perhaps there is a method to that fragmentation. It lets the reader experience Lee’s struggle to piece together her family right along with her. We experience her acceptance that there are things she will never know and her private exultations at her victories to bound the gap between past and present — like when she meets her grandmother’s cousin in Taiwan. She shares a photo of the two of them together when the narrator was three.
The name of the last section, lin, is fitting, then. She has found family on the island of Taiwan. The memoir’s final chapters are an acceptance of that. She realizes that the death of her grandparents has given her the chance to understand Taiwan in a new way. While we don’t know what will come next on her journey, we are left with hope that she will continue searching — not to fill a void or patch a past with which she will never be able to fully make amends, but that she will define herself by growing into her heritage. And that is the best any of us can do.