The best novels of an otherworldly Taiwan

Shawna Yang Ryan Author Of Green Island
By Shawna Yang Ryan

Who am I?

The ghostly/magical and Taiwan are two of my major interests—I have written about both in my fiction. After living in Taiwan for a few years and getting to know my mother’s side of the family, I gained an appreciation for its complicated history, riveting politics, and the energy of daily life there. Its confluence of people and histories has made it a unique cultural amalgam and these books capture the way folk religion and the spiritual/magical are wedded into the bustling contemporary urban life of Taiwan. I hope you find yourself as enchanted and intrigued by these stories as I have been!


I wrote...

Green Island

By Shawna Yang Ryan,

Book cover of Green Island

What is my book about?

February 28, 1947: Trapped inside the family home amid an uprising that has rocked Taipei, Dr. Tsai delivers his youngest daughter, the unnamed narrator of Green Island, as the city is plunged into martial law. In the following weeks, Dr. Tsai becomes one of the many thousands of people dragged away from their families and thrown into prison. His return, after eleven years, is marked by alienation from his loved ones and conflicts that loom over the growing bond he forms with his youngest daughter. Years later, this troubled past follows her to the United States, where she too is forced to decide between what is right and what might save her family—the same choice she witnessed her father make years before. 

The books I picked & why

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Ghost Month

By Ed Lin,

Book cover of Ghost Month

Why this book?

In Ghost Month, the first in a 4-book mystery series, Ed Lin vibrantly depicts nightlife in Taiwan, particularly in the night markets. I love this book for doing what John Gardner says good fiction should—it creates a “vivid and continuous dream,” bringing to life so much of the sensory experiences of Taipei. I could see, smell, hear, and taste this book!

Ghost Month

By Ed Lin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ghost Month as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Welcome to Unknown Pleasures, a food stand in Taipei's night market named after a Joy Division album, and also the location for a big-hearted new mystery set in the often undocumented Taiwan.

August is Ghost Month in Taiwan—a time to pay respects to the dead and avoid unlucky omens. Jing-nan, who runs a food stand in a bustling Taipei night market, isn’t superstitious, but this August will haunt him nonetheless. He learns that his high school sweetheart has been murdered—found scantily clad near a highway where she was selling betel nuts. Beyond his harrowing grief, Jing-nan is confused. “Betel nut…


The Hell Screens

By Alvin Lu,

Book cover of The Hell Screens

Why this book?

One of my favorite books set in Taiwan, The Hell Screens is dreamy and chilling, creating a landscape of winding alleys, dark apartments, and half-seen ghosts. It captures some of the peculiar alienation that I felt like a newcomer in Taiwan. Alvin Lu has such a unique voice and way of depicting the world—I can’t wait for more work from him.

The Hell Screens

By Alvin Lu,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Hell Screens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cheng-Ming, a Taiwanese American, rummages through the used-book stalls and market bins of Taipei. His object is no ordinary one; he's searching obsessively for accounts of ghosts and spirits, suicides and murders in a city plagued by a rapist-killer and less tangible forces. Cheng-Ming is an outsider trying to unmask both the fugitive criminal and the otherworld of spiritual forces that are inexorably taking control of the city. Things get complicated when the fetid island atmosphere begins to melt his contact lenses and his worsening sight paradoxically opens up the teeming world of ghosts and chimeras that surround him. Vengeful…


The Stolen Bicycle

By Ming-Yi Wu, Darryl Sterk (translator),

Book cover of The Stolen Bicycle

Why this book?

There is a scene in this book where one of the characters finds himself diving among the bodies of dead veterans in the flooded basement of a building. Is it real? Is it a dream? The uncanniness and careful sense of loneliness and history in the scene not only intrigued my imagination, but touched my heart too. In talking about the search for a bicycle, this Booker International Prize-nominated novel encompasses so much more—archive, history, memory, war, colonialism, butterflies. This is a surprising and expansive book by one of Taiwan’s best contemporary writers.

The Stolen Bicycle

By Ming-Yi Wu, Darryl Sterk (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Stolen Bicycle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A writer embarks on an epic quest in search of his missing father’s stolen bicycle and soon finds himself ensnared in the strangely intertwined stories of Lin Wang, the oldest elephant who ever lived, the soldiers who fought in the jungles of South-East Asia during World War II, and the secret world of butterfly handicraft makers in Taiwan. The result is both a majestic historical novel and a profound, startlingly intimate meditation on memory, family and home. Wu’s writing has been compared to that of Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, W.G. Sebald and Yann Martel.


Bestiary

By K-Ming Chang,

Book cover of Bestiary

Why this book?

Though Bestiary is not set in Taiwan, K. Ming Chang’s debut novel incorporates a sense of enchantment not only in her queer retellings of Taiwanese folk tales, but also in her dazzling language. She casts a spell on the reader as a magician of language, making nouns and verbs work together in innovative ways. 

Bestiary

By K-Ming Chang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bestiary as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Three generations of Taiwanese American women are haunted by the myths of their homeland in this blazing debut of one family's queer desires, violent impulses and buried secrets.

One evening, Mother tells Daughter a story about a tiger spirit who lived in a woman's body. Her name was Hu Gu Po, and she hungered to eat children, especially their toes. Soon afterwards, Daughter awakes with a tiger tail. And more mysterious events follow: Holes in the backyard spit up letters penned by her estranged grandmother; a visiting aunt leaves red on everything she touches; a ghost bird shimmers in an…


Notes of a Crocodile

By Qiu Miaojin, Bonnie Huie (translator),

Book cover of Notes of a Crocodile

Why this book?

This affecting and disturbing novel about a group of queer friends in late-80s Taiwan was ahead of its time in content, form, and vision. Premised on the idea of a collection of notebooks, the text incorporates multiple literary forms, and the “otherworldly” element is in Qiu’s use of the crocodile as a literalized metaphor for queer identity. A sobering and captivating read. 

Notes of a Crocodile

By Qiu Miaojin, Bonnie Huie (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Notes of a Crocodile as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize Longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize A New York Times Editors' Choice
The English-language premiere of Qiu Miaojin's coming-of-age novel about queer teenagers in Taiwan, a cult classic in China and winner of the 1995 China Times Literature Award.

An NYRB Classics Original

Set in the post-martial-law era of late-1980s Taipei, Notes of a Crocodile is a coming-of-age story of queer misfits discovering love, friendship, and artistic affinity while hardly studying at Taiwan's most prestigious university. Told through the eyes of an anonymous lesbian narrator nicknamed Lazi, this cult classic is a…


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