Even if this book is neither popular nor serious, at least it’s sensational. Five cents a word.
–Notes of a Crocodile
When I volunteered a few cycles back to write a bit on Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile, I had no idea that Taiwan’s parliament would be voting to legalize same-sex marriage this month. I really had no way of knowing that the friend who’d borrowed my copy would keep forgetting to return it until the very same weekend of that vote. All that’s to say: this is a serendipitous time to talk about queer culture in Taiwan, and that means talking about Qiu Miaojin’s landmark work.
Notes of a Crocodile is a novel in the form of eight notebooks, reconstructed journals written and then re-written by its college-age protagonist, a nameless young woman given the nickname Lazi by her friends. Like a lot of people her age, Lazi is uncertain about her future. School is an afterthought and the narrator rarely talks about it; even her eventual graduation is mentioned only in passing. She skips out on her Chinese Literature classes but reads foreign literature (Haruki Murakami, Abe Kobo, and especially Jean Genet) and watches foreign films (Leos Carax, Andrei Tarkovsky, and especially Derek Jarman). She struggles with money.
She is bored with school and hungry for knowledge. She becomes restless, and sometimes the restlessness paradoxically leads to indolence: at one point she laments the fact that her body has entered “overproduction mode. Its mostly unsaleable products were piled in a warehouse, and the warehouse soon had to be demolished.”
She’s also immediately and painfully human. Her emotional needs are transparent and guileless even when she isn’t. She needs to be around people and she needs to be alone, sometimes at the same time. She is life-affirming and self-destructive, often at the same time. She falls in and out of love. But what made Notes of a Crocodile sensational when it was written in the early 90s is that Lazi doesn’t know exactly what kind of person she wants to fall in love with, and sometimes (usually but not always), the objects of her affection/obsession are other women. That isn’t to say that Qiu play coy with queerness or encodes it ambiguous ways–quite the contrary, in fact–but that Lazi herself is driven by emotional needs that aren’t yet codified in her own language and experience (How uncodified? The name “Lazi” would enter the language as a slang term for “lesbian”), and even the possibility of that codification threatens to take something away from the transparency of that experience.
Suddenly the attraction to Genet and Jarman makes even more sense… Jarman’s The Garden provides her with an inspiration to assert her self in the face of restrictions that encroach from all sides…
One of the small miracles of the Qiu’s fictionalized journals is how successfully they evoke the real thing–that is, the emotional starts and stops, the indecision alternating with manifesto-like certainty, the rambling contradictions of a young person’s doodlings towards self-identity–without actually being the real thing. That is, this not a young person’s actual journal and all the elliptical tedium that implies, but a purposeful thing, a tightly sculpted work of fiction, that nonetheless evokes the feeling of spontaneity and emotional transparency. (The translator, Bonnie Huie, has been careful to distinguish between Qiu’s voice and Lazi’s.) Here’s how Lazi describes her process, already with a bit of that tongue-in-cheek edge that so defines her as a narrator:
Based on ten massive journals’ worth of material, I wrote eight manuals that can be read as admonitions for young people. A clean transcription was made using a ballpoint pen before each notebook was stuffed into the bottom of a drawer. Whenever my memory failed me, I would take out a notebook and look at it, and go over the events that made me who I am. They illustrate a process.
The first two notebooks, though, are meager compared to the rest. They didn’t have journals to serve as a reference, so I had to rely on dwindling impressions, which meant tinkering around until it sounded right.
Everything is purposeful, everything is organized, and yet: the emotional registers are too messy to be circumscribed so neatly. Notes is a postmodern book in the very best sense of the term, an engagement with post-information-revolution life submerged in global popular culture where traditional values are not so much challenged as rendered irrelevant. It can be directionless in the way that life is directionless but also playfully self-conscious about its own artificiality. There are times when she jokingly points out how the demand of novelistic pacing contradict the mundane nature of “real-life” events: after describing a touching moment between her and an early obsession, Shui Ling, she interrupts the narrative to say
This is a metaphor. I can drone on and on about my own love story, which takes place in the short distance between Wenzhou Street and campus. Or I can throw down a few samples à la hip hop or reggae. These readymades serve as interludes to keep you from getting sick of the monotonous commute back and forth between these two same locations, again and again.
The novel’s great stroke of genius, though, is its crocodiles. Periodically Qiu interrupts the story to include vignettes about Taiwan’s crocodiles… who wear human suits, do their best to act “normal,” and sometimes succeed. Some of these vignettes are laugh-out-loud funny, like the crocodiles who try to blend in by shopping at a Lacoste store. Mostly, though, they are the subject of salacious and scandalized nightly news stories, the terrified howls of moral scolds who worry that your children might be at risk of coming in contact with, and being influenced by, a crocodile. That said, they do have the courtesy to interview a Pro-Crocodile pundit, too.
Lazi’s personal life intersects with the crocodile stories a number of times, but the biggest setpiece occurs when she reads an advertisement for a Crocodile Party (“It had never occurred to the crocodile before that there were other crocodiles, and what’s more, they had already formed a club!”) and attends under the alias Derek Jarman. On first arrival the crocodile is filled with a kind of communal warmth, but Lazi sours on this immediately: “the guest of honor was none other than a corporate sponsor.” Then the toast:
We’d like to give a big thank you to the Chemical Trust Corporate for supporting this tenth edition of the Crocodile Club. For nearly half a year, the corporation has been carrying you top-secret research on human suits to benefit humanity’s keen and longtime interest in crocodiles. Just a few days ago, it launched a new product, the Human Suit™ 3, designed to meet the needs of those who exhibit latent crocodile tendencies. We hope that each and every one of you will upgrade your current suit for a brand-new one.
For those of you who follow the politics of de-queering Pride, this passage may feel awfully familiar, even already in the early 90s, when the LGBT community in this country was commodified long before it was decriminalized. There’s a lot going on in Qiu’s assessment of the politics and philosophy of queerness both individually and communally, which keeps the material from feeling didactic or too cute by half. Crocodiles are persecuted, sure, but just because someone is a crocodile doesn’t make them a good person, either. And what about the crocodiles who don’t want to be communal creatures?
Taiwan’s legislative approval of same-sex marriage was something of a fait accompli, since it was all but demanded by their courts two years ago. The response, the crowds of people celebrating in the streets, was intoxicating to watch. I’m not sure how Lazi would have felt about the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, whether it would feel liberating or stifling or some uncomfortable combination of both. I’m also not sure how Qiu, who took her own life in 1995, would feel about her status as a martyr to the cause of queer liberation. But she wrote a couple of very good books, and that’s more than can be said about this crocodile.