Shawna Yang Ryan is a former Fulbright scholar and the author of Water Ghosts (Penguin Press 2009) and mostly recently Green Island (Knopf 2016), a novel exploring the dark days of Taiwan’s post-WW II White Terror period. Originally from California, Shawna Yang Ryan now lives on Oahu, where she teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.
What was the inspiration for Green Island?
I was prompted by my own ignorance, to be honest. I discovered Taiwan’s history after graduating from college, even though my mother had grown up there, and was so fascinated by it that I wanted to tell the story to others. At that time, I knew of only one novel by a Taiwanese American set in Taiwan: Alvin Lu’s The Hell Screens (a really strange and wonderful book, by the way). When I learned about the 228 Massacre, I thought—this is a story that people should know about.
What does the book title refer to?
The book title refers literally to Green Island, the place where the narrator’s father is imprisoned, but it also alludes to Taiwan being another version of Green Island when it was under authoritarian rule.
What was the target audience for your novel and how did that affect the way you wrote the novel?
I had two audiences in mind and I tried to straddle both in how I conveyed the information and in the voice. I wanted the story to ring authentic to that generation (the generation of my narrator) of Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans, and I wanted to honor them by sharing a narrative that was respectful and true to their experiences, but I also wanted to make this story accessible to an audience unfamiliar with Taiwan. It really helped to ground it in the first person narrator because she had access to knowledge in an organic way, but she also was in the position of storyteller, so was forced to narrate that knowledge, which covered both my goals.
What background reading did you do for Green Island?
I have an index card box full of notecards—one or two for each book or article I read. When I started, it seemed like the available information, in English at least, was limited, and I was also aimless, or maybe voracious, so I read everything about Taiwan that I came across. As my project narrowed, I focused my reading. I read a lot of early 20th century travelogues. I found that the traveler’s eye homes in on details that would go unremarked upon in another kind of narrative, so that was useful.
How long did it take to write?
I first envisioned it in 1999. I proposed my Fulbright project, which was an early version of this novel, in 2001, and received the Fulbright in 2002 and worked on it pretty steadily until my final revisions at the end of 2014. I kept trying different approaches to the story, and found it hard to settle on one that would achieve what I was hoping to in terms of the two audiences. It took a lot of experimentation.
Is there a message in the book that you hope readers will come away with?
I believe that fiction, when done well, should put readers in a position of empathy, so I hope that people come away with a deeper understanding of Taiwan and the journey of its people, and a deeper understanding of the international debate about its status.
What are some of your favorite fiction/non-fiction works?
I have a huge list of favorite books so it’s hard to narrow down. Just a few are Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and A Mercy, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, James Baldwin’s Another Country, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, Joan Didion’s Run River, Octavia Butler’s Kindred.
Seeing as it’s so hard to make money from writing, teaching it seems like an obvious choice for writers. Any advice for people thinking of getting into this?
I don’t think people should approach teaching as a backup job for writing (it also doesn’t pay enough for that! Law might be a better solution!). Teaching and writing are completely different endeavors, both of which should be taken on out of a sense of passion. I think my writing informs my teaching, for sure, but I also love it because I’m constantly impressed and delighted by my students, and love the challenge of figuring out what works pedagogically. There’s a fair amount of psychology and creativity that goes into teaching, and it’s always a moving target. You must have a lot of patience with both yourself and your students.
What are your writing habits?
I have fallow periods for sure, then periods of real industry. I’m not a person who writes every day. There’s a lot of subconscious preparation that precedes telling a story, and active daydreaming—that’s a part of writing. Then there’s the research. Finally, the writing. I try to let each part of the process have its space. I like to sit down when I can envision the project as a whole, when it feels viable to me, even if it ends up changing. When I am ready to write, I usually aim for 3 hours at a time. I would say the three-hour stretch, which I established in grad school, is my only consistent habit.
What do you like to read in your free time?
I recently played with this online calculator designed to determine how long it would take for someone to get through their to-read pile based on their current reading speed. It predicted four years! I have a very ambitious and very varied list. I realized I tend to read mostly around projects; it’s hard for me to sort out what’s work and what’s pleasure (luckily)—right now I’m interested in water in the American West, so I’m reading a lot of Joan Didion, Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner. I also am in a book group that inspires me to read books I wouldn’t have necessarily picked up myself. We just read the fantastic H is for Hawk.
Any recommendations for China/Taiwan books?
In a world where so little is shocking anymore, I still find myself surprised at the courage and transgression in Li Ang’s work. Dana Standridge captures Taiwan pretty well in her novel Lessons in Essence. Wu Zhuoliu’s The Orphan of Asia is a classic. As far as China, Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth gave me a new way to view how we construct history. Red Pine