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Forum held to review literature on human rights in Taiwan

  • Date:2020-03-07
Forum held to review literature on human rights in Taiwan

A literary forum centered on human rights took place at the Jing-Mei White Terror Memorial Park in New Taipei on March 7. Organized by the National Human Rights Museum (NHRM), authors and speakers from the Czech Republic, Germany, and Taiwan examined narratives of transitional justice at the intersection of culture, history, and memory.

Following the publication of "Return and Representation: Anthology of Fiction About Taiwan's White Terror (讓過去成為此刻:臺灣白色恐怖小說選)" earlier this year to help readers revisit Taiwan's darkest chapters through literature, a series of forums on similarly themed novels is now being planned, NHRM Director Chen Chun-hung (陳俊宏) said in his opening remarks.

With today's event being the trial run for future forums, Chen said he seeks to initiate dialogue with the nation's complex history of injustice — through global and regional comparison of "dark" literary works on human rights.

Joined by celebrated Czech writer Radka Denemarková as the keynote speaker and Taiwanese writer Wei-Yun Lin-Górecka (林蔚昀) as the panelist, the first session explored how literature affects history from their respective Eastern European and Taiwanese vantages.

Denemarková, the four-time winner of the prestigious Magnesia Litera prize for Czech literature, compared her literary works to the sugar apple (釋迦), a Taiwanese fruit with sweet flesh and hard pits. The shiny black seeds embedded in the fruit represent the core values that drive discussions on historical trauma and injustice, said the author of "Peníze od Hitlera (Money from Hitler)," a novel that sheds light on one of the most painful episodes in Czech history.

While many people think that the past "had to happen the way it did," Denemarková, who is now writing a novel about Tainan's Nanning Street (南寧街), said she will continue to prove that is not the case through her words. "Only through literature can the truth be told," she stated.

Lin, an author and a translator who has been devoted to promoting Polish literature to Mandarin readers for years, said many Taiwanese literary works are now documenting the pursuit of historical understanding.

Meanwhile, Taiwanese author C.J. Anderson Wu (吳介禎), who served as the chair of the panel, noted that through literature, condemning traits such as selfishness and cowardice in human nature can be better explained. Readers will learn that there is no absolute right and wrong in history, Wu added.

Chaired by Wu Chieh-hsiang (吳介祥), an associate professor with the National Changhua University of Education, the second panel unfolded with discussions on where literature and transitional justice would meet, beginning with German writer Thilo Diefenbach's (蔣永學) 2017 compilation titled "Kriegsrecht: Neue Literatur aus Taiwan," a German-language anthology of Taiwan's literary works from the martial law period.

Speaking on the late writer and social activist Yang Kui's (楊逵) "Declaration of Peace (和平宣言)," which was the first work included in his anthology, Diefenbach said the declaration provides readers with a more solid historical context for what the implementation of martial law meant for the Taiwanese at that time. Yang was imprisoned for 12 years for publishing the declaration that called on the government to release political prisoners.

While there has been more recent works surrounding themes of historical memory and culture, literature should not only serve as a medium to document historical events, Diefenbach pointed out.

Taiwanese poet Hung Hung (鴻鴻) and Wu said that perhaps there has been too much blankness in the history of Taiwan's authoritarian rule; literature and arts therefore provide a better idea of historic truths.

Citing late auteur Edward Yang's (楊德昌) 1991 drama "A Brighter Summer Day (牯嶺街少年殺人事件)," the poet said although it is unlikely for viewers to learn the whole story of Taiwanese lives under martial law, the film can always enrich sociological interpretations of modern society.

In the process of realizing transitional justice, NHRM Director Chen said, memory and culture play important roles in facilitating comprehensive reflection of a nation's institutions and practices. Through discussing related topics and exchanging ideas about literature on human rights, the museum hopes more dialogues and debates on literature and history will follow suit.

Throughout the event, participants wore surgical masks. All visitors whose temperatures tested higher than 37.5°C were denied entry at the entrance to the venue.