PEN Atlas this week features Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi, who takes us through the Great Pacific Trash Vortex, indigenous island tribes, and the ancient practice of storytelling – all of which inspired his first novel to be translated into English

The Man With the Compound Eyes was first conceived several years ago when I chanced upon a news story about the Great Pacific Trash Vortex, which Captain Charles Moore had discovered in 1997. Scientists still do not have any means of disposing of the ‘seas of plastic’. For some reason, the idea of this ‘trash vortex’ lodged itself in my mind, and took on a life of its own; I would be out in the wilderness, passing through small towns, or walking along the seashore, and a vision of all the detritus of civilization gathering into a floating mountain of trash would appear in my mind. Later on, a young person appeared on this garbage island. I called him Atelie, which suggests fierceness in Chinese but which actually derives from a word meaning ‘atoll’. Atelie became Atile’i in English translation. Eventually I decided that he had been born on another South Pacific island called Wayo Wayo, which had escaped the notice of civilization. Its indigenous inhabitants were the Wayo Wayoans. The Man With the Compound Eyes was well on the way to being born.

Although I had always drawn on personal or family memory in my previous fiction, I had no preconceptions about any of the characters inthis novel. During the writing process I would finish a section and the story would stall. I would wait a few days and a new character would appear and tell me where the story was supposed to go. I was not trying to fictionalize reality or experience. I was just trying to help the imaginative materials in my head find a way forward. As I proceeded, new characters kept appearing, many of them indigenous. That didn’t surprise me, because Taiwan’s indigenous peoples have been a great inspiration to me over the past couple of years.

Living all around the island, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are diverse: there are cultures of hunting, of fishing and of horticulture. There are also differences to be perceived within each of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Among the Amis (also known as the Pangcah) for instance, the Tafalong are not the same as the Vataan. But no matter how they support themselves traditionally, all Taiwan’s indigenous peoples express their culture in their daily speech. The Amis people sometimes say, “I’m going to get something out of the icebox,” before diving into the Pacific Ocean to harvest shellfish and crab. When the Bunun, who live by the mountains, say the same thing, they intend to shoulder their hunting guns and disappear down a forest path.

Taiwan’s indigenous peoples have awed me with their beauty. The bamboo chopping songs of the Atayal can move the forest animals to tears. The most beautiful eyes I have ever seen belonged to a Tsou aborigine. And there is a wonderful simplicity to traditional indigenous ways of life. Living on Orchid Island, every Dawu boy has to master three arts – diving, boatmaking and story-telling – before he can become a man.

As a highly developed economic and industrial nation, Taiwan has mastered the many modern analogues of diving and boat-making. Ours is a story of development, but there is a price to be paid for ‘progress’, and it often seems that progress has swept everyone up, like a tidal wave. From what I have observed in travels through nature and society, the island of Taiwan – in reality or in The Man With the Compound Eyes – has experienced huge changes over the past few decades. But the people of Taiwan – like the characters who populate my fiction – are all sustained by a faith in their ability to adapt. Though people sometimes talk about Taiwan as having stalled along the way, it seems to me that the Taiwanese people are casting about, trying to find a way forward. In this respect, Taiwan is a microcosm for Planet Earth, the Taiwanese people for all humanity.

In writing The Man With the Compound Eyes, I imagined myself telling tales to a small audience huddled around the fading coals. A fiery glow blazed in the eyes of some, while merely making the cheeks other listeners flush or causing them to doze off. Tears finer than the point of a pin have formed in the eyes of a few, and a very few have ended up getting up and leaving, only to realize it is raining outside. Neither heavy nor light, the rain streaks the sky like the straight lines of precipitation in a Japanese ‘floating world’ (ukiyo-e) painting.

This was the mood that sustained me through the writing of The Man With the Compound Eyes.


Abour the author

Wu Ming-Yi is a Taiwanese writer, painter, designer, photographer, literary professor, butterfly scholar, environmental activist, traveller and blogger. He is the author of the novel Routes in the Dream (2007), as well as a number of non-fiction books and short story collections. The Man with the Compound Eyes is his first novel to be translated into English.


About the translator

Darryl Sterk has translated numerous short stories from Taiwan for The Chinese Pen Quarterly, and now teaches translation in the Graduate Program in Translation and Interpretation at National Taiwan University.


Additional information

To find out more about the novel The Man with the Compound Eyes, please click here.

You can follow news about the book on Twitter via @HarvillSecker and/or #manwiththecompoundeyes