Miaojin, Qui. “Notes of a Crocodile”, (NYRB Classics), translated by Bonnie Huie, New York Review of Books, 2017.
A Queer Taiwanese Coming of Age Novel
The English-language premiere of Qiu Miaojin’s “Notes of a Crocodile”, coming-of-age novel about queer teenagers in Taiwan is a cult classic in China and winner of the 1995 China Times Literature Award.
The novel is set in the post-martial-law era of late-1980s Taipei, and is a coming-of-age story of “queer misfits discovering love, friendship, and artistic affinity while hardly studying at Taiwan’s most prestigious university”. The story is told through the eyes of an anonymous lesbian narrator nicknamed Lazi and is a postmodern mixture of diaries, vignettes, mash notes, aphorisms, exegesis, and satire by a major countercultural figure. Our narrator is dealing with her fatalistic attraction to Shui Ling, an older woman, and so she turns for support to a circle of friends that includes a rich kid turned criminal and his troubled, self-destructive gay lover. There is also a bored, mischievous overachiever and her a slacker artist girlfriend.
This is a novel of social defiance and liberation from the strictures of gender through radical self-inquiry. It is something of a “survival manual for teenagers”. Author Qiu Miaojin moves back and forth between two narratives whose only connection is thematic. The first story is “the coming-of-age of a group of queer misfits” while the second story provides the novel’s title: a crocodile wearing a human suit reflects on how people vehemently advocate both for and against crocodiles, despite knowing nothing about them and not even realizing that at least one crocodile lives and works among them. The common theme between the two stories is separation, isolation, and the tendency of some to make authoritative statements about a group with whom there are no shared experiences. We see that in the final analysis, our knowledge and understanding of crocodiles is almost nil but as is the customary practice of advanced nations, we safeguard information within our grasp and hold onto it as if we depend upon it to stay alive. The strong message we get here is that the more we love and the more we feel compassion for, the more we realize that there are others who suffer just as we do. We begin to understand that human civilization is ugly and cruel, and the only thing to do is to destroy it so that we see that closeness is the one true constant in relationships.