Five Questions with… Wu Ming-Yi

Wu Ming-Yi, author of The Man with the Compound Eyes and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.

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IFOA: Where did  the inspiration for The Man with the Compound Eyes come from?

Wu Ming-Yi

(c) Chen Meng-Ping

Wu Ming-Yi: Around the year 2000, I wrote a short story called “The Man with the Compound Eyes,” about a butterfly valley in southern Taiwan. An ecological park had been built in this valley and a scientist had been employed to design a camouflaged multi-cam installation. At the time I wrote the story, we already had the technology to disguise cameras (as flowers, leaves and rocks) and to compile video mosaics. However, no iPad device had appeared. In the story, visitors to the park watch a butterfly video mosaic on an iPad-like device I called a Watcher. I like to think this was technological prescience on my part. Unlike the visitors, the scientist character takes a walk into the forest, meets a man with compound eyes, an encounter which shocks him into the realization that reliance on technology has deprived people of the ability to see and estranged them from nature.

Several years later, I read a news report about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating soup of garbage in orbit around Hawaii. At about the same time, the Hsuehshan Tunnel—an epic engineering effort that has sped up the development of Taiwan’s unspoiled East Coast—was completed. Soon I would begin writing the novel The Man with the Compound Eyes. The man with the compound eyes would make a second appearance in my fiction, but this time he would bear a different symbolic meaning.

IFOA: This is your first book to be translated into English. Who are some other Taiwanese authors you would like to see translated so that they could be read by a wider audience?

Wu: Taiwan has many outstanding writers. When I was growing up, I devoured stories by senior writers like Chang Ta-chun, Cheng Ching-wen and Guo Songfen. Some of their works are available in English. I highly recommend them! Luo Yijun, who is a bit older than I am, is a challenging, experimental novelist whose works would be very difficult, but also very interesting to translate. Kan Yao-ming, who is about my age, would give western readers a fascinating introduction to Taiwan’s history, language and culture.

IFOA: You’re a butterfly scholar. Tell us one little-known fact about butterflies.

Wu: Taiwan has over four hundred kinds of butterflies, an extremely high number for a country of Taiwan’s size. Butterflies have been a source of inspiration for my fiction. The park in The Man with the Compound Eyes is based on the Purple Butterfly Park in the Maolin National Scenic Area, where species like the purple crow and the blue tiger butterflies travel via a “butterfly stream” to overwinter. Such a long journey! Like the journeys monarch butterflies make along migration corridors in North America as they hasten to spectacular seasonal gatherings. Though lepidopterists can explain this butterfly behavior, it is still a mystery to me, a kind of revelation.

IFOA: If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

Wu: I would travel back to the 19th century, when people discovered the virtue of sticking metal bars (rebar) in cement to make reinforced concrete. Without reinforced concrete, modern and postmodern architecture would not have been possible. In some sense, modern civilization wouldn’t have been possible. As a visitor from the future, I would not try to convince 19th-century people to give up this marvelous building material. But I would let them know about the drawbacks. It has made it too easy for people to invade natural spaces (like rivers, marshes, the ocean itself). It has allowed us to construct living spaces in which we can almost totally ignore mud, wind and water. It has caused us to lose our native respect for nature.

IFOA: What are you currently working on?

Wu: I’ve just finished a collection of literary essays about photography. I’m thinking about calling it Above Flame. Then I’m going to write a few other works, the most important of which is a novel. This novel is rather hard to describe, but I’m going to name it after Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief), and it’s going to be about a man who obsessively buys the same kind of bicycle—the same make and model—on the internet, until he finally finds the one he wants. It turns out to be his father’s bike. He goes on to track down the owners of this bicycle, hears their stories, which allow him to shed light on the first chapters of his own story: his father went missing when the traditional “mall” where his family worked and lived was torn down for the sake of urban renewal, and soon after the bike went missing, too.

His search for this bicycle is a search for his father and for himself. In telling this tale, I will set the protagonist’s search in the context of Taiwan’s urban development and the growth of Taiwan’s bicycle industry, and trace the transnational trajectories of modern Taiwanese lives. The novel will deal with issues of conflict, ecology and identity.

Wu Ming-Yi is a Taiwanese writer, painter, designer, photographer, professor, butterfly scholar and environmental activist. He will be discussing process of translation on October 26 at 4pm with Darryl Sterk and Rui Zink.