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Wu Ming-yi: Rediscovering the Curiosity About the World (Part 1)

By Quek See Ling

Wu Ming-yi, one of the most influential writers in Taiwan, may be best known for his novels and prose but his critique pieces also pack a punch. Who can forget his 2014 article that criticised the then Taiwan’s Minister of Culture, Lung Ying-tai, for appointing a bureaucrat with no literary background in charge of National Museum of Taiwan Literature? His criticism highlighted the loss of humanity in the bureaucratic system, forcing us to agree with Edward W. Said that intellectuals are not supposed to interfere in matters of the social system.

Wu understood this view but decided to join the teaching faculty at National Dong Hua University’s Department of Sinophone Literatures, one of Taiwan’s earliest research institute devoted to literary creativity, to use his novels to resist the system and defend his beloved society and justice. Just 45 years old, Wu is a full professor whose literary works have won many awards and have been translated into many languages around the world. Making an appearance in BookFest@Malaysia 2016, Wu shared his writing experience in the 2 July 2016 talk titled “My Magic and Realism: About My Few Novels”.

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Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s works moved Wu Ming-yi to tears, and he was determined to become a novelist ever since.

Brave Tin Soldier in the Novel

Almost all intellectuals are interested in national education, and Wu is no different. Moments after he started speaking, Wu began critiquing the current Taiwanese education system. Wu believes that Taiwan’s literature studies is more like a language education, making it like knowledge-based technical learning, which is in stark contrast to the originality and liberalisation advocated by the literature studies. Wu suggested learning from northern Europe – separating language and literature studies, and replacing textbooks with a list of essential reading materials. His view is worthy of further thought by those in the education sector in Singapore and Malaysia.

wu-mingyi-the_bicycleWu then went on to talk about children’s reading materials. He believes that a good children’s book does not directly instil moral values to the children, but prepares them mentally to face the cruel reality. For example, Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, is a love story between the one-legged tin soldier and a paper ballerina, but the couple perished in a fire and melted to form a tin heart. This sad story gave solace to the 6-year-old Wu who had just experienced his first unrequited love, giving him the courage to go to school after crying through the night.

Growing up in a poor family, Wu had to share the approximately 89-square-foot shoe shop in Chung Hwa Plaza with his parents and six siblings. When he was 16 years old, he was praised by his art teacher and decided to be a painter. Sharing his new ambition with his parents, Wu was given a thrashing instead, leaving him lost for a direction in life. After graduating from university, Wu felt that he was not suitable for advertising – the field that he had studied in university – and enrolled in a Chinese postgraduate course. The options of being a scholar or a writer caused a great deal of anxiety for Wu, and it was when he was moved to tears after reading the works of Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, that the idea “perhaps being a novelist is my dream job” came to him.

Many have said that Wu’s writings are filled with a magical realism; he smilingly pointed out that many other writings contain such element. For example, when Donald Duck was flattened by a car in the cartoon, Mickey Mouse would re-inflate him back to normal. The fact that a car can run over a person is the truth, but the re-inflation magic lets the viewers derive some comic relief. To Wu, there is no need for too much elaboration on the storyline as the readers would understand the implicit details naturally. Details like why the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis transformed from a man into an insect, and how the prince in Dino Buzzati’s The Seven Messengers went in search of the boundaries of his father’s kingdom, were not explained by their respective writers, but both stories were able to captivate their readers.

About Wu Ming-yi

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Wu Ming-yi, born in 1971, is a multi-disciplinary Taiwanese writer, academic and environmental activist. Holding a PhD in Chinese Literature from National Central University, Wu is a professor at National Dong Hwa University’s Department of Sinophone Literatures. Wu’s famous novels include The Stolen Bicycle, The Man with Compound Eyes, and The Magician on the Skywalk. Wu was awarded the Third United Daily News Literature Prize in 2016. Furthermore, the English and French rights of The Man with Compound Eyes had been bought by overseas publishers, making Wu the first Taiwanese novelist to do so. In fact, the French version had also been awarded the Salon d’Ouessant’s International Island Literature Fiction Award for 2015. Wu’s other notable literary works like The Book of Lost Butterflies and Above Flame, had also won multiple prizes. Wu has also published many Taiwan’s nature-related writings to date.

Please look out for Wu Ming-yi: Rediscovering the Curiosity About the World (Part 2)

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