Reviews / September 2015 (Issue 29)

Mapping an Archipelago of the Self: Fantasy and Identity in Su Wei-Chen's Island of Silence

by Arielle Stambler


Su Wei-chen (author), Jeremy Tiang (translator), Island of Silence, Ethos Books, 2013. 278 pgs.


Su Wei-chen's Island of Silence is a provocative, perplexing exploration of the formation of one woman's selfhood. In her afterword, Su writes about her inspiration for the novel: "I was drawn to the fragmentary nature of human existence … Novels offer the possibility for unfinished human affairs to move towards completion." This reflection raises two of the work's most important questions. Su's protagonist, a young Taiwanese woman named Huo Chen-mian, embodies the idea of fragmentary identity, but she uses fantasy to move her "unfinished" personality toward an ideal of an independent, complete selfhood.

Fantasy exists in various forms in the novel, but two major strands are "out-of-body" and "in-body" experiences. The work begins with a surreal "out-of-body" event. Chen-mian has grown up in a highly dysfunctional family—her spiteful mother murdered her father and was sentenced to life imprisonment. At the age of 25, Chen-mian's family breaks down entirely when her mother dies in prison and her sister elopes in England. In an effort to start afresh after her family life is shattered, Chen-mian imposes upon herself a psychological transformation: she "splits" her identity in two and "creates" a "Huo Chen-mian whose experiences were opposite to hers."

The original Chen-mian then leaves her native island for a series of other Asian islands—first Hong Kong, then Bali, then Singapore—entangling herself in a complicated romantic relationship with a European PhD student, Danny. Meanwhile, the counterpart Chen-mian remains in Taiwan and, although she has the stable family life and marriage that the original Chen-mian craves, begins an extramarital affair with Zu. The ever-changing statuses of these entanglements feel arbitrary. What stands out is the overall pattern: these relationships move like waves around islands, alternating between crests and troughs. Both Chen-mians undergo a transformation—a growing up—through their connections to these men, but the original Chen-mian's development is a more complicated process than the linear growth of the counterpart Chen-mian.

The original Chen-mian is immediately attracted to Danny because he "seemed able to stay a long time in a place that held no memories for him." He represents the state of being she wishes to attain—after family trauma, the peace of a memory-less fresh slate. But at the same time he radiates a "unique personality," which Chen-mian feels she lacks. Her yearning for blankness creates a void within her, and she goes through painstaking effort to confirm her own existence, tasking Danny with "call[ing] out to the 'her' of the previous day" each morning. In particular, Chen-mian uses intimacy with Danny and others to ground herself in reality, which constitutes the second kind of fantasy prevalent in the novel: the intense "in-body" experience. She has affairs with many men, a lost soul trying to discover her body in order to unlock a self-awareness she lacks. But because she can never get pregnant (the only kind of reproduction she is capable of is asexual, the creation of her other self by herself), she has no ability to create a family of her own.

For the counterpart Chen-mian, the situation could not be more opposite: "[e]verything in her life seemed to be going her way." Even so, this fantasy life is unfulfilling. This Chen-mian's father "hope[s] something big happens to [her], some kind of pain or loss" so that she can "find out what life is really like." The catalyst for said "pain or loss" enters right on cue when she meets Zu. This Chen-mian has the opposite problem of the original: instead of needing to escape her memories, she lacks them altogether. She is attracted to Zu because he offers to "manufacture memories for [her]" if she will keep him from loneliness. As their relationship develops, this Chen-mian begins to change, becoming aware of a nagging feeling that her life is controlled by someone else—the original Chen-mian. She admits to Zu that she "can't control [her]self, not [her] body nor [her] behavior, nor even [her] soul." She faces the same trials as the original Chen-mian—the difficulties of settling into her independent adult personality—but, ironically, the original Chen-mian is the source of these troubles for her counterpart.

This novel's style is difficult; readers will struggle if they try earnestly to piece together the perplexing puzzle of symbols, themes and weighty declarations Su presents them with. It is impossible to know exactly what elements of the original text have been lost or altered in this English translation from the Chinese. Major plot points often happen quickly and unexpectedly, but because the novel's action intentionally repeats itself—when an important event happens in one Chen-mian's life, an echo of the event reverberates in the life of the other—these dramas become predictable. Instead of examining the connections between each individual event or motif, readers need to step back and look at overall trends in the novel.

As the work progresses, the original Chen-mian becomes increasingly associated with two of the novel's most important motifs, which come from the title: "silence" and "island." When Danny asks her questions, she "answer[s] him with silence" and feels like "an island of silence" even when they are together. Meanwhile, as the counterpart Chen-mian becomes increasingly entangled with Zu, she develops more independence and self-awareness, until she is a stranger to her creator. One night, the original Chen-mian "saw the other Chen-mian" facing Zu while she faced Danny and "[t]o both their backs was the ocean." Eventually, each Chen-mian becomes an island unto the other.

But the original Chen-mian ultimately does not need her counterpart or Danny to force herself into personhood. It is the very entity she has been fleeing all along that finally tethers her back to reality: her family. Chen-mian's sister commits suicide suddenly at the end of the novel, forcing Chen-mian to see that her "family's unique history would force them to remain on the same island forever." She both is an island and is not an island. Her life is both separate from and deeply intertwined with the lives of others, but her past is an essential part of the self she is piecing together. Shortly after her sister's death, Chen-mian becomes pregnant. Convinced that the child is Danny's and a reincarnation of her sister, she feels relief that she "finally [has] someone in the world directly connected to her." It is through a new family, an island of her own creation, that Chen-mian will finally embody a complete self tethered to reality.

Each of us is an island, unable to fully communicate with anyone else and sometimes unable to fully communicate with ourselves. But Chen-mian says she loves islands because they "feel complete" and because "[l]arge spaces feel meaningless to [her]." In the same way that Chen-mian uses fantasy to search for meaning in her own life, so too does Su Wei-chen offer up this novel as a fantasy-soaked island rife with the potential for meaning-making. In communing with this island, then, for a brief span of time, we become a little less like islands ourselves.

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