It is February, 1947, and Taiwan is in an uproar. For the many Taiwanese expecting a cultural reunion with their motherland of China after 50 years as a Japanese colony, the plundering of their island by the Nationalist army and their treatment as second-class citizens from the Nationalist Chinese government led to violent unrest.
This is where Shawna Yang Ryan’s novel Green Island begins, with the explosion of the February 28 (2/28) Incident, a riot that triggered more than 30,000 Taiwanese deaths and the next four decades of martial law. The riot erupts as Dr. Tsai’s wife gives birth to her fourth child, a girl—the story’s unnamed narrator.
After the 2/28 Incident, Dr. Tsai (the narrator’s “Baba”) attends a town hall meeting, and speaks candidly about the relationship between the Chinese government and the Taiwanese people:
With steady eyes and voice, Baba spoke about the friendship between Generalissimo Chiang and the United States. He said that since the money of democracy was helping to fund the war against the communists, it seemed only right that the Republic of China should apply those same principles on the island…The United States had run an impressive pro-democracy propaganda campaign after the war, and the island, fresh out of Japan’s colonial clutch, had believed it all. A secret idealist, Baba had too.
This critique of the government leads to Dr. Tsai’s arrest, interrogation, and torture by the Nationalist secret police. Narrowly escaping death, he is imprisoned on Green Island, home to the most infamous “threatening” political activists clamoring for self-rule for Taiwanese citizens and independence from the Nationalist government.
Martial Law is declared, ushering in the era now known as the “White Terror Period.” Taiwanese citizens lose their loved ones and freedom to the ruthless silencing efforts of the Nationalist government. Surveillance of dissidents leads to nighttime disappearances, neighbors informing on neighbors—through coercion or bribery—alerting the government of any resistance activities, and children are taught in schools that their loyalty to the state is more important than family. And then, one day, 11 years later, the narrator’s father returns home.
The history of Taiwan’s White Terror Period has been suppressed, lost, and denied—never widely disseminated or published in America until very recently. This is primarily because Chiang-Kai Shek’s Nationalist Government was not only extremely ruthless in neutralizing political threats—as the Generalissimo philosophized that it was “better to kill a hundred innocent men than let one guilty man go free”—but it was impressive in managing its Public Relations with its valued allies, none more important than America. Even the nation of Taiwan has just begun reconciliation with its violent past over the last decade, as survivors were afraid to speak up years after Martial Law was lifted for fear of violent repercussions. In a personal interview, a Taiwanese history professor collecting oral history of the White Terror Period in the 1990s told me that survivors often said, “We just can’t risk telling you what really happened. We have been afraid to speak out for so long.”
As one of only a few books published in America to ever tackle this fraught period in recent history, Ryan’s ambitious novel takes a wide view in recounting the trajectory of White Terror. Rather than focusing on one single incident and its aftermath, Green Island highlights the lingering effects of trauma over several generations. As the narrator grows up, she struggles with how to understand her father’s experience in prison. He comes back a changed and distant man, and political indictments follow him like a chronic disease. Yet when she decides to marry a neighbor’s son who has become a professor at UC Berkeley, she realizes that her husband is carrying the torch of the Taiwanese fight for independence into the next generation. The ripples of Dr. Tsai’s imprisonment echo across the Pacific Ocean to haunt his daughter on the shores of America.
History buffs and literary fiction lovers alike will appreciate the ways that Green Island depicts episodes from Taiwan’s troubling and often horrifying past with poetry and lyricism. Ryan succeeds in linking the two continents, as the watchful gaze of the Taiwanese Nationalist government follows the narrator to America like a hungry ghost. When her husband decides that their family should host an escaped Taiwanese political fugitive in their California home, she begins to see the protective boundaries of her American life as transparent and porous:
On the same day that we sat in that little church, listening to Jia Bao narrate his escape, police in Taiwan’s southern city of Kaohsiung—light scissoring across their black face shields—brought out the truncheons and celebrated Human Rights Day with beatings and tear gas … A roar rose up, a collective aah. The officers swung their billy clubs, grabbing people by their napes or by their shirts and thumping them into submissions. Gas, blood, sweat rained down.
Imperfect time travel for an imperfect world … I thought of the sweet church with its swept hardwood floors and innocent plates of cookies and the welcoming crowd that had embraced Jia Bao and his words. Words, words, words—nothing but words and ideas—as heads had split open. While our friends were rioting, handcuffed and starving, in the yard, we were the ones banging on open cell doors, bellies full, crying for our freedom.
Ryan’s beautifully woven novel spanning more than 50 years shares many untold and unknown stories of this time in Taiwan’s history, weaving a well-imagined tale of sacrifice, loyalty, and heartache. Without a doubt, Green Island’s most beautiful moments are its most subtle ones. An informant quietly drafts a damning report on the train, a mother feeds her daughters cereal and prepares to face the world alone, a daughter returns her long-lost father’s eyeglasses to him. “Baba had picked up the glasses, unfolded them and turned them around, then set them back down. ‘I no longer wear glasses like these,’ Baba had said, and I noticed how tightly [my older sister] held them in her fist when she walked back inside.”
Context in historical fiction can be a dangerous liability: provide too much, and it weighs the story down. Provide too little, and readers must dig deeper to empathize with characters—consulting external sources, making imaginative leaps, or guessing at unspoken explanations. Since Green Island is one of the first introductions for American readers to this time and milieu, I couldn’t help but wish that Ryan had focused more on Dr. Tsai’s imprisonment on Green Island itself and Taiwan’s political climate during the 1950s, the first decade of Martial Law—to anchor his family’s experience when he comes home, and more clearly define the stakes of challenging the Nationalist government throughout the rest of the novel.
Yet, when the narrator faces threats from the Nationalist government in the late 1970s—forcing her to decide whether to betray those she loves or remain loyal to her family’s independence-minded activism—Ryan finally lays all of her cards on the table, cashing in on the subtle tension she’s built over the first 200 pages. In this later storyline in Berkeley, California, the reader has a more accessible perspective into the legacy of oppression, as the narrator must draw on her own survival instincts to make the best choices for herself and her family. Here, her knowledge of the past only makes her decision more difficult.
The prison on Green Island remained open until 1987, when Martial Law in Taiwan finally ended with the establishment of democratic elections. The site of the prison now stands empty, and the ruins of barracks are slowly being swallowed up by the lush overgrowth on this volcanic island. A sign proclaims the site the “Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park,” and a discreet museum commemorates the inhumane conditions that political prisoners were subjected to. But like so many aspects of Taiwanese history during the White Terror Period, these small gestures are just the tip of the iceberg. With Green Island, Ryan has taken an admirable step towards unearthing the countless stories of Taiwan that demand to be told.