Understanding Taiwanese Literature: an Interview with Jenna Tang
by Writing Workshops Staff
3 weeks ago
WW: Could you share with us what inspired you to create the 'Understanding Taiwanese Literature' workshop? How does your background as a Taiwanese writer, educator, and translator influence the structure and content of this course?
JT: As a translator who brings Taiwanese Literature to English-speaking audiences, I’m very much aware that there are still a lot of great stories, poems, memoirs in my languages that have never been translated into other languages. And therefore, there are very few resources in English to get to know Taiwanese literature the way I was immersed while growing up as a Mandarin speaker. I thought having a course like this would encourage students, including myself, to share the stories we love and get to explore more authors, places, and new works together.
WW: For someone enrolling in your workshop, what should they expect in terms of the learning experience? How will the sessions be structured to facilitate understanding and appreciation of Taiwanese literature?
JT: All lectures will be powerpoint introductions. I will be presenting a new theme every week, introducing the most relevant authors––translated or not, let students read English excerpts of these works before class, and introduce a few sources, such as independent bookstores in Taiwan, to provide not just literary experiences, but also ideas of where to explore, especially if students have been meaning to explore Taiwan on a deeper level.
WW: The course outline indicates a focus on different literary styles shaping Taiwanese literature. Can you elaborate on some of these styles and how they reflect the cultural and historical context of Taiwan?
JT: Ghost stories are omnipresent in Taiwan, be them folklores, campus legends, or full narratives. I believe ghost stories aren’t just popular in Taiwan, but they are the stories that shape where I grew up. Telling surreal & strange stories sometimes meant telling the history and the many sides of cultures that have once shaped the people. Take the White Terror period as an example, just trying to get to know this time on the island will lead us to so many stories based on visceral, historical records and other contexts.
WW: Your course covers a wide range of topics, including Indigenous literature, LGBTQ+ voices, and environmentalism. How do these diverse perspectives shape Taiwanese literature, and what do you hope students will take away from these diverse voices?
JT: Back when I was a student, all these themes mentioned were less-explored genres. Very few of these voices are made official in our literature textbooks––partly because, for example, Indigenous languages don’t always have a well-established written system, or that the laws back then didn’t permit certain contents to be learnt by the readers. By reading more of underrepresented voices, I’m hoping that we all get to explore what it’s like to read about non-dominant cultures and to reflect on ways to preserve and respect voices that are meant to be amplified in the years to come.
WW: How has your personal journey from Taiwan to the United States shaped your perspective on literature and translation? Do these experiences bring unique insights into the classes you teach?
JT: The experiences of moving between cultures and places gave me alternative perspectives to look at stories in both languages from both sides. I often wonder what it’s like to understand Taiwanese literature through English, and what it’s like to translate English-speaking works into Taiwanese culture. Translation is not just about translating these languages, but also the concepts, logics, and ways we make sense of both worlds. It’s also to think about, how do we live with this duality, or multiplicity?
WW: You mentioned using writing prompts and activities in your course. How do these methods enhance the learning experience and help students engage more deeply with the material?
JT: The writing prompts and other activities are meant to spark interests and let students explore their own writings––especially if they find connections between their own works and getting to know literature from another culture through a specific lens. After all, inspirations can always come from unexpected places!
WW: What are the key takeaways you hope students will leave with after completing the 6-week workshop? How do you envision this course impacting their understanding or appreciation of not just Taiwanese literature but world literature as a whole?
JT: I would love everyone to have fun in this class, getting to learn some slangs, local dialects, get to know less explored places in Taiwan, and to have their questions about Taiwan answered. It is through traveling into another language, another world of literature that new perspectives, new experimental approaches can be born. There is a special immersion that only literature can bring, and it is also getting to know how our emotions engage with a world we haven’t yet known that we learn how to write our own stories.
WW: Looking towards the future, what trends or emerging themes do you see in Taiwanese literature? How important is it for these voices to be translated and recognized in the global literary community?
JT: I believe more sci-fi and strange & surreal narratives will be published in their own experimental ways. Taiwanese literature in general houses a lot of nostalgic voices, narratives about the past, and maybe in the future, it’ll be not just about learning history, but learning how the future will be shaped by climate changes, technologies, and our own imaginations. We all call this small island home, isn’t it surreal to have a variety of literary works translated and be out in a much bigger world?
WW: Can you describe how participants in your workshop will interact with each other and with the texts? What role does discussion or collaboration play in this learning environment?
JT: :The core idea of the class is to provide a space for us all to share, to discuss, and to read together. Students will get to learn ways they enjoy to explore new authors, new kinds of literature, and think about their own works. As language enthusiasts, lovers of books, I hope we get to know each other more and to form a community to support one another.
WW: In your view, how does literature serve as a bridge between different cultures, especially in the context of Taiwanese literature being introduced to an English-speaking audience?
JT: We’re all just a book away from a voice or a culture. It’s all about turning these pages for ourselves and diving into another world. Literature in translation brings in more international audiences, so the works can be discussed in more than one language in a diversity of perspectives. All in all, it makes a culture even more seen.
WW: Your course outline mentions the use of music and films related to the works being read. How do these multimedia elements enhance the understanding of Taiwanese literature in your workshop?
Visual storytelling has always been fun, no? Sometimes, it’s through a movie trailer, a song, or a piece of music that inspires us to get to know the background history or the book. Taiwan is known for its filming culture, and there is a full treasure land of movies and series that inspired me to become a storyteller, and I would love that energy to be shared in the class.
WW: What advice would you give to aspiring translators and writers who are interested in exploring and working with literature from cultures different from their own, particularly Taiwanese literature?
JT: Have a lot of fun exploring––there are always some authors, poets hiding somewhere with their newly published works in independent bookstores. Stay connected with the culture through social media, through the books you’ve read or are going to read. And of course, find your ways to enjoy all the experiences, translate something you love and bring it into another language!
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Learn more about Jenna's upcoming classes here.
Instructor Jenna Tang is a Taiwanese writer, educator, and translator who translates between Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, French, and English. She is a board member and chair of the Equity Advocates Committee at the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). Her translations and essays are published in McSweeney’s, Latin American Literature Today, World Literature Today, Catapult, AAWW, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. Her forthcoming translations include prose from Lin Yi-Han (The Paris Review) and Lin Yi-Han’s novel, Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise (HarperVia, HarperCollins).