Old Tales Retold for Netflix
An Interview with Taiwanese author Fumin Yang
Born in 1987, Fumin Yang 楊富閔 is one of Taiwan’s notable young writers of the post-martial law era. In addition to his writing career, Yang is also a Ph.D. candidate in Taiwanese literature at National Taiwan University, and currently a visiting fellow at Harvard University.
Yang’s published works include the novel The Sixty-Year-Old Boy《花甲男孩》(2010), a collection of personal essays entitled Petit History of the Soul of a Post-Martial Law Taiwanese Boy《解嚴後台灣囝仔心靈小史》(2013) and The Book of Idleness: My Outdoor Creative Life in Tainan《休書：我的臺南戶外寫作生活》(2014), field research notes entitled Real Matters of a Bookshop: The Bookshop in Your Heart《書店本事：在你心中的那間書店》(2016), and a co-edited volume The Lost Cloud: The Collected Works of Liyu《那朵迷路的雲：李渝文集》(2016) with Mei Jialing 梅家玲 and Chihwei Chung 鍾秩維. The Sixty-Year-Old Boy has recently been adapted into a television series that will air on Netflix.
This interview was conducted by Chih-wei Chung, a 2016–17 Hou Family Fellow for Taiwan Studies at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and a Ph.D. candidate at National Taiwan University.
The interview was translated and edited by Jannis Jizhou Chen and James Evans. Read the original interview in Chinese by Chih-wei Chung.
Chih-wei Chung: It has been seven years since the publication of your first book, The Sixty-Year-Old Boy《花甲男孩》. Tell us about your creative process how it has developed in your more recent works.
Fumin Yang: The Sixty-Year-Old Boy is a collection of nine short stories which I wrote during my time at college. The collection begins with the story “Why is the Night so Long” and ends with “Hua Jia” (花甲). Hua Jia is about an undergraduate with the surname Hua and first name Jia, which was a name I really liked. Although this collection is only short stories, after the collection was published I read the the works as a comprehensive piece of fiction that connected a series of loose tales.
As I pursue my academic career at National Taiwan University, many have asked me if my dual identities as both writer and scholar conflict with each other. Rather than being in conflict, I believe they are complementary. Academic research helps to challenge my presumptions about literature, and reading academic papers in history and literature allow me to explore new avenues for my own writing.
Perhaps it is because of my academic research that I have shifted my creative focus to autobiographical stories, through which I hope to clarify the meaning of selfhood. My creative interest always pertains to questions of “where am I from” and “where am I going,” and it is through this historical line of inquiry that my academic training enriches my creative writing.
In terms of genre, my works after The Sixty-Year-Old Boy closer resemble personal essays, with some even echoing the characteristics of historical archives. During a recent panel discussion on the TV adaptation of The Sixty-Year-Old Boy, however, I saw how professionals from literature, theatre, and the media approach and comprehend my story from different perspectives.
I realized that my writing is really nothing more than “telling stories.” Regardless of difference in genre, I am searching for a way to tell stories while observing the different forms in which stories are disseminated in modern society. Perhaps I use personal experience to tell “my stories” in order to respond to what is happening in the present day. In other words, I hope to create a genre that can in some way represent modernity.
Chung: You have incorporated many literary references and historical materials in your own work. There are also many descriptions of various mediated experiences. Can you tell us something about your literary enlightenment, and how you “read” texts.
Yang: I’m always apprehensive when I’m asked about literary enlightenment, cultivation, and training. I was born in 1987 — just as martial law was being lifted in Taiwan — and I grew up in a large family in Danei, a mountainous area close to Tainan. My family has our own ancestral hall and fields, and the family elders play a large role in local religious activities.
I grew up surrounded by religious festivals and activities organized by local temples. I still remember doodling pictures as a child in the living room with my brother, where my drawings were often of “raojing” (遶境 tours of inspection of the deities).
Perhaps because I grew up in a large family, I often associate my own “coming of age” with the passing away of several of my family elders, meaning that temple fairs and funeral ceremonies played an important role in my upbringing. Among the different forms of funeral ceremonies, I liked the qian wangge zai (牽亡歌仔 boy singing the guiding lamentation for the deceased) the most. As part of the ceremonies, performers often interact with family members, which serves a part didactic, part consolatory purpose.
My fascination with the qian wangge zai means that, in spite of social taboos, I often attend other families’ funerals to watch. Even today, I still watch online videos about deity patrols and funeral procession to record notes about the ceremony, which I consider an enthralling part of Taiwan’s folkloric tradition.
I’ve also been a big fan of television from a young age. I used to own a small television in my tiny bedroom, but instead of watching cartoons I was more attracted to documentaries and travel shows, such as Explorers of Taiwan and Taiwan Journal. Whether it’s everyday life or folkloric traditional activities, audio-visual experiences mediated through a television or computer screen have also been how I approach and imagine “literature.” I guess this mediation would be what I would call my literary enlightenment.
Chung: It seems that your writing is very much “grounded” in your own experiences. Are there particular stories that are based on real life events?
Yang: When my brother got married last year, my father asked me to write a speech that would be read during the ancestral worship ceremony. At the same time, I needed to write a funeral oration for the TV adaption of The Sixty-Year-Old Boy. I’ve written novels, short stories, biographies, interviews and academic papers, but I’d never tried a funeral oration!
As a writer, I believe that we ought to try to write about everything and anything. More importantly, we need to pay attention to the use of ‘words’ in everyday parlance. Recently, I have been writing columns, which not only requires a strict word limit, but there is also a weekly or fortnightly timetable. It forces me to adopt a regular and disciplined way of writing, like doing exercise!
I write mostly in diary form, jotting down notes and thoughts all the time. I see diary writing as the most difficult genre. Nowadays, with a smart phone, one can easily record an immeasurable amount of data, tracing places where you have been, recording all activities in your calendar, discerning your interest through browsing history etc. Everything about ‘me’ can be recorded and represented. In a world where all triviality can be enmeshed, where does it leave the real ‘I’ as a person who deserves to be remembered? Writing a diary is therefore like regular exercise, in that one uses words to refine one’s disposition and to explore feelings that can’t be captured by technology.
Chung: You’ve previously mentioned that the adaptation of your book into a television series has actually inspired your writing. Could you elaborate?
Yang: Adaptation is an interdisciplinary, cooperative process through which I observe how the story is disseminated. It engages a variety of other professions, such as styling, lighting, and sound production. Although there is a shared narrative, each profession tells the story in its own way.
While watching the TV series, I started to think about the multiplicity of the media, as well as how it shapes our understanding of a narrative — could it be possible that another version of the story is taking shape on its own? The size of a television monitor and the image resolution might well affect how the audience perceives a story. Watching on smartphone screens and listening through headphones, one can hear the sound of the outside wind and judge the quality of the actor’s complexion.
Improved technologies direct one’s attention to details on the screen, which also invites us to pay closer attention to the actor’s skills and different production techniques. If these different factors need to adjust themselves according to changing audience tastes, what therefore are the possibilities for the script and writing to open up new possibilities for telling stories?
As for someone like me who is accustomed to ruminating through writing, the adaptation of my stories is therefore a precious experience. How could visual representation reverberate with literary narrative? How could a script avail itself with improved sound quality? Can a script make the world clearer? These are the questions I seek to explore.
Fumin Yang (楊富閔) is a Taiwanese author, Ph.D. candidate at National Taiwan University, and a 2017 visiting fellow at Harvard University.
Chih-wei Chung (鍾秩維) is a 2016–17 Hou Family Fellow for Taiwan Studies at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and a Ph.D. candidate at National Taiwan University.