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Book review: Notes of a Crocodile – Qiu Miaojin’s Taiwan lesbian classic gets a well-timed English translation

As Taiwan legalises gay marriage, this frank telling of a young lesbian’s struggle to understand her place in 1990s Taipei stirs the imagination as much now as when it was first published 23 years ago

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 May, 2017, 2:06pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 May, 2017, 2:06pm

Notes of a Crocodile

by Qiu Miaojin (translated by Bonnie Huie)

NYRB Classics

4 stars

Taiwan’s top court just recently ruled in favour of gay marriage, culminating in what could be Asia’s first jurisdiction to allow members of the same sex to marry. Despite many challenges that still persist politically with the ruling, it indicates a more liberal attitude toward non-heterosexual relationships than when Qiu Miaojin published the novel Notes of a Crocodile in the early 1990s.

Qiu’s frank exploration of lesbianism was a breakthrough for the island’s literature and for modern Chinese fiction as a whole. More than twenty years on, the English-speaking world can now also enjoy this daring, youthful and insightful book in a translation by Bonnie Huie.

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Half journal and half epistolary, the story follows the troubled protagonist Lazi as she tries to understand her place in society during her years at university. Something of a misfit, Lazi explores the counterculture of Taipei as she struggles to embrace an identity that is labelled “queer”. The plot is driven by her relationships – some romantic, others more platonic – and the numerous failed attempts at lasting love for individuals who don’t fit the traditional, Taiwanese notion of heterosexuality.

In “Notebook #1” of the book, Lazi starts with an explicit admission. Her tone is straightforward and continues throughout the novel: “In the past I believed that every man had his own innate prototype of a woman, and that he would fall in love with the woman who most resembled his type. Although I’m a woman, I have a female prototype too.”

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However, regardless of the exploration of gender, the detailed self-inquiry of Lazi’s listless move from high school to college to her first post-university job constitutes a universal and empathetic coming-of-age story. Indeed, lesbianism is incidental to the power of the story.

Woven in between the chapters on Lazi’s story of young love is a concurrent, separate account of surrealist crocodiles who can think and speak. This surrealism is utilised simply, but effectively, as the reader is to imagine that Taiwan is being infiltrated by crocodiles who dress and act as humans do. This avant-garde addition of conscious animals, though at times purposely jarring, serves a symbolic purpose that reinforces the LGBT theme.

If I could just fall in love with a man, it would put an end to the anguish of having fallen in love with a woman by somehow overwriting that earlier consciousness
Lazi in Notes of a Crocodile

These crocodiles in hominid clothing represent the non-hetero citizens of the island. They attempt to fit in. Sometimes they pass as normal. Other times they fail. All experience pain. As much as this novel is about Lazi’s story, the crocodiles’ “notes” are also meant to speak to this larger, queer population.

The crocodiles also highlight those who fetishise the gay community, even if that means poking fun at queer studies at times. Their “human suits”, meanwhile, represent the normative, public exterior of heterosexuality all too often adopted by LGBT individuals.

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Lazi’s main love interest in the story is another female character, Shui Ling. Lazi’s inability to fully embrace her own lesbianism creates a tension between these two lovers that eventually causes their relationship to rupture. As Lazi tries to date other women, she is unable to move beyond her first love. Later, Lazi writes a letter to Shui Ling, admitting that she had sabotaged their relationship:

“If I could just fall in love with a man, it would put an end to the anguish of having fallen in love with a woman by somehow overwriting that earlier consciousness. My attraction to women has materialised, and regardless of whether it becomes a thing of the past, it’s a part of me. By the same token, the part of me battling that attraction has been around even longer.”

Lazi is herself one of the crocodiles in a “human suit”. Her other relationships all suffer from the self-admission that she still battles her natural attraction by attempting to love men.

Like any bildungsroman, this novel has its moments of sharp pain for its main character. But because Qiu committed suicide a year after the book’s publication in Chinese, the story carries an extra weight of anguish not normally found in coming-of-age tales. The strength and spirited free-heartedness of this novel continue to add to her allure as a writer.

What Qiu – whose other famous novel, Last Words from Montmartre, was published posthumously – would have thought of the recent progressive ruling on gay marriage would have been fascinating to read if she were still alive. Regardless, she did not live to see a Taiwan that was more accepting of homosexuality, so readers of her fiction cannot know for sure.

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Notes of a Crocodile is an important work that explores the liberation of gender during a time when anything behind a façade of heterosexuality in Taiwan was still considered taboo. Candid and creative, the book is a classic of Taiwanese contemporary literature that stirs the imagination as it confronts social inequities of gender and sexuality.

Asian Review of Books