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Interview with Wu Ming-Yi, author of The Stolen Bicycle

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

written by Helen Stenbeck

Photo Credit: Wu Ming-Yi

First Taiwanese author long-listed for Man Booker Prize (2018)

“But as I grew older, I discovered that people living for their own happiness often bring pain to those around them. They don’t seem able to consider their family members’ opinions, or their feelings.” (167; The Stolen Bicycle)

Professor Wu Ming-Yi from the department of Sinophone literature at National Dong Hwa University Taiwan is an extraordinary writer. Combining skills in nature sketching, and photography, as well as an enthusiast of environmental issues, Professor Wu Ming-Yi is one of the most prolific and copious creators in the contemporary Asia literature arena.

The Stolen Bicycle (2015) juxtaposes several stories between the period of Japanese occupation and the Second World War in Taiwan. The spindle for all the stories in The Stolen Bicycle focuses on one mundane object: the bicycle. Wu utilizes the bicycle as the main subject, traces the history of the bicycle industrialization during the Japanese occupation, and creates a part fiction, part auto-biography atmosphere in this work. The novel contains the story of one man’s journey in search of his father’s lost bicycle, the history of a long-lived elephant that experienced war and treacherous life in southeast Asia, intertwined with “Bike Notes”; the research data that Wu has compiled of the evolution of bicycles in Taiwan.

The Taiwan Film Festival in Australia interviewed Professor Wu about the experience in creating The Stolen Bicycle, his writing style, his views surrounding Asian literacy, and the importance of diversification in our readings.

Photo Credit: Wu Ming-Yi

Writing Style

When creating The Stolen Bicycle, Wu took a very personal angle to establish the narrative. Growing up in the Zhong-Shan Market in Taipei during the 70s and the 80s, Wu’s writing developed from the observations of the ‘shi-jing-xiao-min (市井小民)’, ‘the citizens of the street’. Wu emphasizes the importance of giving the voices that once were neglected as the core value of sharing stories and presenting different perspectives to the wider public. Wu highlights the idea of expanding from writing self-experience narratives. He advises his students on the necessity as a writer to amplify the stories of others and diversify writing manners which would eventually create a personalized style of writing.

Wu reflects on his years of writing and how the writing process establishes the poetic meaning for his readers and himself. Wu referenced Leonard Cohen’s work, Beautiful Losers (1966), with its high density of words it had aroused certain poetic emotions that transcended more than the meanings of the words. It also humanizes the consciousness of the literacy an artistic work tries to convey. Even with the vulgar expletive language and many references on the context of sex in Beautiful Loser, Wu comments this literature piece has taken him beyond the social aspects of moral value and still captures readers’ search of idyllic and poetic feeling when reading a book.

Wu’s process of writing The Stolen Bicycle had influenced how he perceives history through the research he’d done on the Second World War. The critical thinking surrounding different aspects of history was something he found he had developed during the time of writing The Stolen Bicycle. For Wu, most historical-based fictions have focused mainly on the ‘heroes’ or someone who had a major achievement in history; he wanted to highlight the unknown characters that were once important in history. And those unknown or not well-known characters may not be human. In The Stolen Bicycle, a narrative is devoted to Lin Wang, a long-lived elephant that once was an iconic symbol in Taipei zoo that was popular for kids growing up in Taipei city, but few knew about its past during the Second World War.

Literature as an escapism

“The original purpose of literature was for entertainment,” Wu said. If entertainment is derived from human feelings, it can certainly create the feeling to escape our daily grind. He describes that both writing and reading are essential to expanding one's horizon and perspective of understanding this world. To Wu, literature is a form of escapism, to escape family, escape your place of birth, or even escape the authoritarian regime. He spoke of socio-scientists’ theory on the competition of new brain and old brain; new brain absorbs new rhetoric of the world, respecting individual races and sexuality, whereas old brain maintains the primitiveness of the selfishness of humans. The competing rhetoric is where writers should challenge, to challenge the areas that the god of religions has not stepped into, this is the enlightenment that writers should reach out for.

Differences Between Taiwan and other Chinese Literature

Wu elaborates on the difference between Taiwan and other Chinese literature through the differences in historical background. Taiwan holds a strong literacy bloodline from the indigenous community that was once neglected by the Chinese immigrants that held the power of political status from 1949. The bureaucracy and the stringent restrictions in the creative industry forced most writers to accept the literacy aesthetics mainly from China. However, with the breakthrough of political power, and the opening of international communication from the late 1960s, the local culture was further explored by the local writers, and the literacy world in Taiwan became more vibrant and diverse. During the same time, China’s literature arena entered a draught stage due to the turbulence of the political situation. The creativity through literature was ceased by much of the socio-political movement. The diversification between Taiwan and other Chinese literature aspects became very clear by the way both sides of writers differ in writing observations of their society.

Wu emphasizes the freedom of localization writing in Taiwan. The social system that once suppressed the indigenous literacy and the creole/pidgin of Taiwan, Tai-Yu (Taiwanese) are fast becoming popular in the next generation. Wu reiterates the significance of self-identified Taiwanese writers pride themselves on the usage of local languages and the promotion of local cultures. The essences for the land to maintain its originality of language and stories are the duties of artistic creators and writers. Wu comments on the importance of indigenous writers to express through their original language rather than the hegemony language of a country. Even through translation, the writer is required to convey the feeling and ideas with the original spirit of the land. This indeed would create an expansion of horizon for readers, understanding the vast differences in literacy work through the lens of a different culture. Wu highly recommends literature work by Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安) of the Dawu tribe in Taiwan. Rapongan’s work focuses on the interpretation of the oceanic culture through the eyes of the indigenous community by the sea. Rapongan’s ingenuity through words is a brilliant representation of Taiwan as an island with the diversification of many cultures and languages.

Join us for the first Taiwanese Bookshelves event - In Conversation with Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle on 17 July. Book now


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