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book review

A traditional house in Lin family Garden in Taipei, Taiwan, as seen on Aug. 2, 2015.Jui-Chi Chan/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

  • Title: Home Sickness
  • Author: Chih-Ying Lay, translated by Darryl Sterk
  • Genre: Short fiction
  • Publisher: Linda Leith Publishing
  • Pages: 188

When I started reading Chih-Ying Lay’s first book, translated into English early this year, it was under very different circumstances from when I now review it. Can’t be helped: No writer controls their reader’s context, though a global pandemic is an extreme case.

At first, I noticed some wistfulness – not quite nostalgic – to how Lay’s narrators remembered the past, but it was impossible to ignore the overriding melancholic tone. Now when I reflect on that earlier reading, the isolation that haunts these characters feels like a strange precursor to our present circumstances. The play on words in the book’s title – not Homesickness one word, but Home Sickness, two – has become loaded with new resonances during our pandemic life.

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As it turns out, the title is the creation of Darryl Sterk, who translates here from Lay’s original Mandarin. Translation is always more than transliteration, though it likely remains invisible to most readers just how much of a co-creator the translator is. In the case of Home Sickness, Sterk draws attention to how active he has been, in the book’s English title and in the epigraphs that open each story, explaining Lay’s many allusions to Chinese and Taiwanese literature. For a reader with limited knowledge of Taiwan’s literary scene – I’ve read Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle (incidentally, also translated by Sterk), but not much else – this is helpful.

All of the stories are set in Taiwan, where Lay was born and has won several literary prizes. But Lay is also Canadian, having lived in Montreal since 2008. It’s fitting that a writer who calls two places home would decide to tackle the subject of how we define just what “home” means.

What makes a home a place you want to stay? How do we find that human connection? Lay’s focus is on his characters’ unease with these topics, rather than any answers. In the title story a man recounts how his grandfather opened an inn in a country town: “Grandpa said this had been his dream as a student in Japan. He’d been a stranger in a foreign land and knew what it was like to feel homesick.” The customer most enthusiastic in his praise about the inn’s hominess ends up killing himself, though – hardly a favourable review. The narrator comes to view the countryside as funereal. When he’s drawn back into town by his friends’ craze for “homestays” – country bed and breakfasts – he avoids engaging anyone who knows him there. That push-pull Lay’s characters feel, the desire for home but dis-ease with it, feels akin to at least some of our present anxieties.

The reasons to stay home right now are undeniable, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing well with it. I work from home in normal times and I live alone. It’s a solitary existence but usually not a lonely one. I’ve watched others fumble with the transition to working remotely (my best advice: differentiate between sleep pyjamas and work pyjamas).

Lay’s characters are also disconnected from those they want to be close to, and this is a source of anguish. Several are gay or, as a Western reader would interpret it, queer-coded, but this isn’t the source of their loneliness. Taiwan was, after all, the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Nor is their alienation the direct result of Taiwan’s modern history: more than 50 years under Japanese and Chinese rule, followed by martial law, which ended in 1987. The one notable exception is the first story, set during the White Terror, during which an estimated 140,000 citizens were tortured, imprisoned and executed by the state for their perceived pro-Communist sympathies.

Or maybe this political history is pertinent to the characters’ alienation, and I’m just missing it because it’s not expressed in political terms, but in fraught familial relations. Men who are called “Grandpa” and “Daddy” are not necessarily deserving of these titles. Young children puzzle over the words “mother” or “father,” because these figures are absent from their lives. A grown man breastfeeds his mother. A boy gives birth to a worm.

Nowhere is the brokenness of the family unit more apparent here than in several stories that suggest the presence of pedophilia. Many readers will not want to read this material at all, which is fair – it is uncomfortable reading – though it does explain the characters’ sense of malaise if they inhabit a world in which adults cannot be trusted in this most fundamental way. Lay is showing us this tension between a desire for home and the reality that a person’s experience of home might be a sick place. Psychologically, this is as high stakes as you can get. These stories can be hard to look at sometimes, but it is also hard to look away.

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