Paul Lisicky | Qiu Miaojin

#APStogether June 17, 2021

Read Qiu Miaojin's Notes of a Crocodile with Paul Lisicky in the July edition of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs, free and open to all. Starting July 8, you can read Paul’s daily posts, and comments from our fellow readers, on our Twitter and Instagram accounts. And join us for a virtual discussion at the end of the book club, on July 20. Register, and submit questions, here.

What did it feel like to be queer and alive in 1990s Taipei? How to be a college student adrift on a surf of lust and frustration? Qiu Miaojin aims to capture those questions and more in this mashup of letters, aphorisms, and meditations on a reptile, a vehicle for a country’s fixation on taxonomy at a time of newness, after thirty years of martial law. Satiric, irreverent, frank, poignant, exasperating, self-destructive, tender—part diary, part novel, part experimental film.

Paul Lisicky is the author of six books including Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, an NPR Best Book of 2020; The Narrow Door, a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a finalist for the Randy Shilts Award; as well as Unbuilt Projects, The Burning House, Famous Builder, and Lawnboy. He directs the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden, where he is an associate professor and the editor of Story Quarterly. He lives in Brooklyn and Provincetown.

Qiu Miaojin (1969–1995)—one of Taiwan’s most innovative literary modernists, and the country’s most renowned lesbian writer—was born in Chuanghua County in western Taiwan. She graduated with a degree in psychology from National Taiwan University and pursued graduate studies in clinical psychology at the University of Paris VIII. Her first published story, “Prisoner,” received the Central Daily News Short Story Prize, and her novella Lonely Crowds won the United Literature Association Award. While in Paris, she directed a thirty-minute film called Ghost Carnival, and not long after this, at the age of twenty-six, she committed suicide. The posthumous publications of her novels Last Words from Montmartre and Notes of a Crocodile made her into one of the most revered countercultural icons in Chinese letters. After her death in 1995, she was given the China Times Honorary Prize for Literature.

Reading Schedule:

July 8 | Day 1. pp. 5-34 (through “That’s the kind of song Meng Sheng wrote for me.”)

July 9 | Day 2. pp. 37-58 (through "If that many people secretly liked them, that’d be totally embarrassing.")

July 10 | Day 3. pp. 59-82 (through “Why, my dear crocodile, how are you?”)

July 11 | Day 4. pp83-105 (through “Take a cue from the media, and show them where you draw the line.”)

July 12 | Day 5. pp106-129 (through “This woman had to be part of some hellish eternal recurrence.”)

July 13 | Day 6. pp130-153 (through “I’ve never met another crocodile before.”)

July 14 | Day 7. pp154-177 (through “I wanted to go home. Home….”)

July 15 | Day 8. pp181-204 (through “And because it wasn’t love.”)

July 16 | Day 9. pp205-225 (through “There was tenderness in her eyes.”)

July 17 | Day 10. pp226-242 (through to the end)

July 20 - A virtual discussion of Note of a Crocodile with Paul Lisicky.

Day 1 | July 8
pp. 5-34 (through “That’s the kind of song Meng Sheng wrote for me.”)

The crocodile, a major figure in the book, makes an early appearance without much in the way of context. Is it some figment of interiority? A figure for queerness? An actual talking animal? Miaojin enjoys keeping the reader destabilized. As we read about the power outage and other mishaps, we might be thinking these are metaphors for starting a novel. Then: “That’s how it is, writing a serious literary work.” The narrator lets us know she’s in on the joke, quick to laugh at herself.

The words about cruelty and mercy suggest that the narrator is trying out an idea, and the book before us might be a dark survival guide. But when she talks about having to learn cruelty, she sounds half-hearted about it, as if she’d rather not.

Shui Ling, the narrator’s major love, initially appears as a set of fragments, too overwhelming to see clearly. The fragments contain little in the way of a face. Instead we get the bus, the street.

“People in this city are manufactured and canned” says the narrator, and alongside this critique of the system, she tells us she knows how to thrive in it, despite being “pure carrion inside.” Needless to say, this brings no comfort.

Loneliness eats at the narrator. The married couple across the hall, the housemates who don’t talk, the dried noodles from the store. Miaojin sketches this desolation with bold, precise strokes.

Attraction arises as affliction, at least for Shui Ling, who’s nervous, speechless. But in one gorgeous moment, the narrator is soothed by holding Shui Ling’s purple backpack: “mildly contented by the closeness of its weight.”

Day 2 | July 9
pp. 37-58 (through "If that many people secretly liked them, that’d be totally embarrassing.")

“I’m the same as you,” says Shui Ling to the narrator, and we suspect this is as close to acknowledging queerness as they’re going to get. How does the imperative to be indirect (or secretive) complicate their attachment? Does it drive them apart?

In a book that’s “inclined toward realism,” the passages about the crocodile work as counterpoint. The fantastical gives us an alternate lens through which to consider identity and otherness. And it keeps us from being too certain.

For the narrator college is bleak, a place in which people “arrive covered in a layer of muck” and smear it onto others. It’s a place of multiple compulsories (education, work, marriage). The unsaid? Compulsory heterosexuality.

Notebook 2 introduces us to Meng Sheng, walking life force. Embodiment of queerness: mutable, vulnerable, outrageous. Plus, he cracks up the narrator and vice versa, always a flash of joy on the page.

The afternoon by the lake, the rain storm, the drenching—Miaojin is excellent in these moments of cinematic vitality in which the inner life is captured by the outside world, always elusive, shifting, too beautiful to hold.

A wonderful turn after the narrator muses on those pop songs from high school: “but I still knew the words by heart—do you?” You being the reader? Shui Ling? Both? Some space is closed: intimacy.

Day 3 | July 10
pp. 59-82 (through “Why, my dear crocodile, how are you?”)

The stunning coldness of the breakup! The narrator: “I was just writing you the letter in which I dump you.” Shui Ling dishes it back after a recovery: “That won’t be necessary.” & the allusion to a story in which murder is foreseen but can’t be stopped.

The aching tooth, the “red-hot piece of wire up a monkey’s ass.” It’s not just the intimate inside-the-body pain that upsets; it’s the homophobic violence implied by the wire, which the narrator connects to Shui Ling’s words.

The darkness of the aforementioned is balanced by the crocodile’s dream, which seems whimsical at first, then plays out as a queer birth theory. Unsettling that the crocodile must suppress the “ferocious creature within itself.”

The narrator’s involvement in the student organization comes with relief. We see her banter with the lively Tun Tun and Zhi Rou, and here she’s finally given a name, Lazi, a Taiwanese term for “lesbian,” which she seems happy to own.

Miaojin’s dazzling eye for description. The October sun shimmering. “The candy-striped umbrella over the tables…starting to slouch.” The new students likened to a powdered beverage not fully blended, “the clumps floating on top.”

We hear more about Lazi’s failed relationship with her parents here than at any other point. It’s a testament to her integrity that she’s able to see the difficulty from their side too: “It’s caused them no small amount of pain.”

Day 4 | July 11
pp. 83-105 (through “Take a cue from the media, and show them where you draw the line.”)

The indelible portrait of Tingzhou Road attic, not just the space (“a narrow slit of a room”) but Lazi’s roommate, who gives the impression of someone who’d borrow money and never pay her back. Estrangement, aloneness—they’re enacted in every word.

More descriptive wonder in the scene with Chu Kuang, who wears the “same pair of purple-and-green denim pants with a thin gold belt, like something a nightclub host might wear.” Interesting that he and Lazi interact as “caricatures.”

Chu Kuang’s account of the fight with Meng Sheng (“I could eat the guy alive”) in all its emotional violence electrifies Lazi, as if she’s looking into a mirror. Of fighting she says: “Does that mean it’s mutual love or bitter hatred?”

Lazi is especially touching in her call for candor, even though she might not always be ready to be honest about herself. To Chu Kuang: “When you’re around me, just be your genuine self.” No “censored version.”

Tun Tun’s “wall of absurdity” appears to arise from not having the language for attraction. “I have a problem, and…I’m not completely sure what that problem is.” Lazi responds with empathy, a gush of “intense affection.”

Day 5 | July 12
pp. 106-129 (through “This woman had to be part of some hellish eternal recurrence.”)

What to make of Meng Sheng calling upon Lazi to witness Chu Kuang’s moment of anguish? That howl appears to require an audience member so that they can be “attuned to a common frequency.” Though the grief is real, Lazi watches as if it’s theater.

Strange that Meng Sheng tells Lazi the story of saving Chu Kuang from drowning while talking about him in the 3rd person and stroking his nose. As audience member, Lazi is enthralled by Meng Sheng’s simultaneous hardness and softness, his polarity.

Sex is rarely described in this book, but when it is, it comes at a significant dramatic moment. I’m thinking of Chu Kuang’s account of the minutes after being saved, sex itself being a shock to the system, part of a “will to live.”

Chu Kuang talks acutely of the dangers of loving too much, giving oneself to “a thing so dangerous it refused to be contained” in spite of sweetness. And what comes of that? Letting himself be treated badly.

Prescient moment alert: Lazi’s declaration that they’ve been “warped by gender labels” and her belief that they should found a “gender-free society.” Elation arrives with those words, as if they’re coming upon that idea together, in real time.

A very important and sly sentence almost buried, and easy to miss: “Secretly, though, I did sort of enjoy being a fucked-up mess.” Important to hold on to that wry wit when Lazi’s everyday experience begins to feel all too wretched!

Day 6 | July 13
pp. 130-153 (through “I’ve never met another crocodile before.”)

In the letter to Shui Ling, it’s startling to hear “you and my family were the only ones who loved me” when this family is rarely on the page. Is that the unspoken story, the one too hard to tell? Their inability to welcome a queer daughter/sibling?

That letter draws a sharp, unsettling contrast between Shui Ling, for whom “being in love with a woman is natural,” and Lazi whose desires turn her into a monster, making her grotesque, wounding her self-worth and exposing her.

On a single page, Derek Jarman, Jean Genet, Hemingway, and Faulkner make appearances. Artistic forebears, and almost too much variety to process all at once. We sense Lazi’s allegiance is with Jarman and Genet, whose marks are all over her work.

Can’t you just picture Meng Sheng and Nothing’s performance in a David Lynch-ish film? Lazi’s response to this moment of rare strange beauty is to throw up in the “ladies’ room,” explaining that her mind and body are out of sync.

Maybe it’s just that she’s been awakened to dark feelings by the performance: “As long as there’s a woman for me to love, I’ll know I’m headed somewhere!” Which might sound corny coming out of another mouth, but not from irreverent Lazi. Not here.

One of the loveliest strategies of this book is its movement toward uplift when it feels like life is stacked against this narrator. “Courage swept over me, and I embraced him.” And here that courage appears to be a matter of Lazi rallying her agency.

Day 7 | July 14
pp. 154-177 (through “I wanted to go home. Home….”)

For Lazi, lust is a barrier, a complicator. It gets in the way of her longing “to be close to someone.” She decides that platonic love is the way out of her “prison,” so she vows to be more affectionate and real with Tun Tun and Zhi Rou.

When circumstances grow darker for Lazi, she decides to “take responsibility” for the “state of her misery.” But is it exactly possible to “open up" to others in a still-repressive society, after the end of 30 years of martial law?

Lazi is so enchanted by Zhi Rou’s vulnerability that she focuses only on her openness and doesn’t react when she’s told that her older sister “tried to hang herself twice.” Her love for form gets in the way of content, sometimes.

Much of the book feels outside of clock time, like an extended dream, and then there’s a reference to liposuction or The Smiths, and we’re shocked back to the late 80s. Does Lazi know about AIDS? Is the threat of it in the air in Taipei?

The loveliness of Lazi coming out to Zhi Rou. The directness, so hard won. And the relief of Zhi Rou’s causal acceptance after she freezes momentarily: “The absolute tenderness in those eyes.”

Lazi going back to Shui Ling—no! We read knowing this is an awful idea. (“…the warmer, simpler Shui Ling of the old days emerged like a dainty white bud, untouched on the mountainside.”) Even her language has been corrupted. No!

Day 8 | July 15
pp. 181-204 (through “And because it wasn’t love.”)

Meng Sheng, “freewheeling lunatic,” distracts Lazi from despair after the second breakup with Shui Ling, but his role is complex. While he saves Lazi from self-destruction, he pushes her toward “total depravity.” Is their making love a part of that?

It’s a relief that Lazi has a friend to go to for help. And Tun Tun’s playfulness around the matter of sex—“The Buddha was never anti-sex”—is just the kind of lesson that Lazi might need, even though seducing the dept. chair isn’t the best idea.

Lazi has an unerring ability to describe others, especially by way of their clothes. (See Tun Tun, Xiao Fan.) The lone exception is Shui Ling, who rarely had a face, a body. Is that what happens when "the boundaries are nearly nonexistent?”

It’s unnerving to hear Lazi interpret Xiao Fan to her face; she calls her needy, "warm and feminine,” neat, organized, Type A. Perhaps she needs to control her, fearing she’ll get burnt by another mess, this time by someone much older.

“Xiao Fan was the only woman I ever made love to,” says Lazi, whose words might be literal. Sadly, she thinks of her ardor as a relinquishment of self-respect, “a new low." And yet she describes their four years together as the one time she was happy.

Day 9 | July 16
pp. 205-225 (through “There was tenderness in her eyes.”)

Fascination with the other morphs into a need to control. Mioajin captures that idea so acutely and darkly with National Crocodile Month, “an opportunity” for crocodiles to register with government agencies.

Lazi’s final letters to Shui Ling are hard to read, especially given that they feel like they’re written into silence, with no response. But they do enable her to say “I wish the best for you, & I am grateful,” which wouldn’t have happened in person.

Lazi’s fixation on Xiao Fan is simultaneously electric and awful, and full of thrilling writing including this: “She was like a freewheeling bachelor who was being forced to masquerade as a woman.” Lazi craves the larger than life. (See Meng Sheng.)

Though Lazi is upended by the fight with Xiao Fan, it does give her a fix of the intimacy she’s had to “lock up.” It also gives her the chance to be hilarious, if in a sad way: “You should just pretend I’m your building superintendent!”

I don’t think I’ll ever get over the fact that Lazi listens to Dan Fogelberg and Don McLean as wake-up music, but that is my problem, and who knows—maybe she hears their hidden subversive strains, and irony's the comfort she needs.

Day 10 | July 17
pp. 226-242 (through to the end)

The collision of Xiao Fan's illness, her boyfriend's betrayal, her boyfriend's firearms accident, her clueless request of Lazi to check up on him. No wonder Lazi needs to detach and extract herself from the "jaws of suffering" to the point of cruelty.

After Chu Kuang excises himself from Meng Sheng, he talks of “a stain that washed itself out after a good rinse." Is Lazi persuaded by his example? Does she want to be "nice and clean again” post-Xiao Fan? Is she worn out by drama?

The strangeness of section 6’s end is easy to miss. In the wake of Chu Kuang’s loving warning, Lazi thanks him, but she doesn’t react, inwardly or outwardly. I’m worried. She bikes away, and we don’t know what she’s thinking. If she’s thinking.

No one comes to Lazi’s commencement. Which means her family. Which means her friends & former loves. And there she is running in circles on the field, until she lets the flowers & trees take center stage, & she’s getting drenched in her full regalia.

Shui Ling’s accusation is absurd, especially in that it’s Lazi’s commencement day, and this is before the era of cell phones. So Lazi seeks out the company of Meng Sheng, whose shooting up feels like a different betrayal.

Meng Sheng’s doom functions as a wake-up call, and the book that might have seemed like “a burning temptation to die,” as Leopoldine Core puts it, reveals its deeper intention: finding the will to go on.

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