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May 27, 2017

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Writing across borders

Born and raised in California, Shawna Yang Ryan is a mixed heritage American writer. Ryan's mother is an ethnic Chinese born in Taiwan, while her father is a Caucasian American. Ryan currently serves as an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Hawai'i Manoa. She was the recipient of the Elliot Cades Emerging Writer Award from the Hawai'i Literary Arts Council in 2015.

Ryan started demonstrating a talent for storytelling almost a decade ago. Her debut novel, "Locke 1928," was released in 2007 and republished as "Water Ghosts" by Penguin Press in 2009. In the novel, Ryan skillfully adopts the established ghost storytelling form of Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. Whereas Kingston and Tan dealt with a domestic haunting in the context of family history and its relation to the identity formulation of Chinese-Americans, Ryan focuses on a specified locale, in this case Locke in the early 20th century, and goes beyond such popular topics as autobiography, the mother-daughter relationship and Chinese root-seeking. Ryan provides a unique localized vision that connects a Chinese ghostly return and the history of the small California town Locke, thus adding to the ever-growing history of Asian American literature.

Published in February 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf, Ryan's new book, "Green Island: A Novel," expands what is considered the conventional Asian-American scope and leads readers to examine the historical trauma of Taiwan's martial law era. It is notable that Chinese America is no longer the focus, with Taiwan occupying the center stage. From 1949 to 1987, Taiwan was subject to martial law under the Kuomintang (KMT). Through the pain endured by the Tsai family, Ryan retells a gruesome history of blood and turmoil under the dictatorship.

A number of Taiwanese writers have produced memorable works chronicling this part of history with references to Green Island, a real island off the coast of Taiwan which housed a political prison. "Green Island" is the first English-language novel in this collection. Ryan's "mixed" background also broadens the horizon of the literary writing on Green Island as a contested site on both political and historical levels. There have been few English novels focusing on Taiwan. Francie Lin's "The Foreigner: A Novel" (2008) and Julie Wu's "The Third Son: A Novel" (2013) are two recent examples. With its grand historical design and close engagement with identity politics across the Pacific, Ryan's "Green Island" emerges as an important addition to Taiwan studies and Asian-American studies from a transnational perspective.

The following is an edited transcript of my interview with her.

Like many other readers of yours, I am intrigued by your mixed-raced background. Could you briefly talk about your cross-cultural identity?

I grew up in Sacramento, California. My mother is from Taiwan, and my father is German-Irish American. They met in Taiwan. One aspect of being mixed race is becoming aware of race so early in my life, like being asked about my race even in kindergarten. I remember my teacher asking me, "What are you?" I still vividly remember talking to my mom about it that night, and her laying out my ethnicities, and I thought: "Boring, boring, boring — Irish? That's interesting!" So I went back and told my teacher that I was Irish. I wonder what she thought about that answer!

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