‘Notes of a Crocodile’, The Taiwanese Queer Cult Classic Now in English Translation

Many can relate to the sense of being a monster in a human suit, of being “unnatural”, of the ways in which queer people are constantly reminded that something is amiss about their desire.

Many of the satirical moments ring true precisely because the slow shift in queer rights discourse in my country of Malaysia took a similar turn.

Notes of a Crocodile by the Taiwanese writer Qiu Miaojin is a bittersweet, idiosyncratic anti-novel of vignettes, diary entries, and letters. It was first published in Chinese in 1994 and the English translation by Bonnie Huie was released by New York Review of Books in early 2017. The sensitive and fluid translation by Huie presents a work that is charmingly postmodern. Told in a series of eight notebooks, it charts a young woman’s queer awakening without false hope and a denial of sadness but with plenty of subtle humour throughout.

The young narrator of the book is a university student nicknamed Lazi, which is slang in Taiwan for lesbian. She falls into a doomed love relationship with the woman of her dreams, Shui Ling, and enters into an unconventional friendship with a handsome, possibly bisexual man named Meng Sheng who is given to alarming behaviour, forcing a friendship with the reticent, awkward Lazi by writing her a note saying that he will beat her if she doesn’t see him. “It was strange, to say the least, to be waiting around for some guy I’d met only once to come and beat me up, but in fact, I felt like we were old friends.” Meng Sheng turns out to be both alarming and a true friend, recognising in Lazi’s sadness an element of her queer desire that she herself is unable to fully articulate.

The book is suffused with queer sadness. Another one of Lazi’s friends, Chu Kuang, is in love with Meng Sheng but may himself be dealing with schizophrenia. Despite this, Meng Sheng doesn’t abandon Chu Kuang though he still dreams of his lost “goddess”, a girl he admired from afar from school and never approached. Lazi also meets two winsome, brilliant girls who enter the college as new students while Lazi is busy throwing herself into the university’s various extracurricular activities in the hopes of putting Shui Ling out of her mind. These girls, Tun Tun and Zhi Rou, bring out the big sister in her, drawing her out of her dark cocoon of pain that is her ever-present condition since meeting Shui Ling. “There was something about them, a kind of enviable pedigree. It was a quality I knew all too well.” They remind Lazi of the girls she had known while at a prestigious all-girls school in Taipei, and as she gets to know them she learns that they love each other but also can’t be together.

Miaojin is able to draw on the particularities of their individual dispositions without making the impossibility of queer relationships, at that precise historical moment in Taiwan, seem like the result of mere problems with individuals. In fact, all of these unhappy queer people in love with people they can’t be with begin to add up to a problem that is more than just personal failings. “I remember back in high school, we were a bunch of misfits, always having fun. There was something going on every day. We were part of a community. Now life’s all about being tied down by a man,” says Tun Tun, summing up the central issue of the book: how to live a life of queer imaginaries outside of the strictures of heteronormative society. In another conversation that Lazi has with Chu Kuang about his relationship with Meng Sheng, he tells her, “How about if the three of us agree to have post-gender relations? I’m done talking about it. In the end, all three of us have been seriously warped by gender labels.”

This central issue of labels and the requisite adoption of an identity, and its attendant requirements, visibility and “coming out”, is gently parodied in the chapters focusing on the character of “the crocodile”. In these surreal, absurdist passages, the crocodile tries to be human without being seen for what it is: a crocodile. It wants to go on picnics, knit, and eat cream buns without having humans peer at it and study its every move.

The crocodile’s biggest problem is the media. There’s a TV crew that always wants to make a spectacle of its life, and there are always crocodile “experts” willing to appear on media to explain the crocodile to humans. There are Pro-Crocodile groups and Anti-Crocodile groups debating live on TV while the crocodile is having imaginary conversations with its idols Osamu Dazai, Yukio Mishmima, and Haruki Murakami. After work, the crocodile hides in its bedroom — “‘hid’ because it feared the people on the living-room TV might burst in at any moment and discover its forbidden feelings for so many people,” Miaojin writes.

These chapters on the crocodile are a commentary on the required hypervisibility of the queer subject in the age of queer rights dominated by corporations, corporate-sponsored NGOS, and straight allies-turned-experts. Queer people are a spectacle and a media event, and this was especially the case in Taiwan as the martial law was revoked and “globalisation” proceeded apace. The dialectics of queer rights — the promise of emancipation via “coming out” vs. the danger and reification of hypervisibility, of being constantly being seen as excessive — are at the heart of this book. As it turns out, even Lazi herself directs her camera towards the crocodile to film a documentary. Visibility is sometimes self-inflicted but marginalised people are rarely in the position to control how the image is presented and circulated.

In her book Situating Sexualities: Queer Representation in Taiwanese Fiction, Film and Public Culture, Fran Martin has a chapter on Miaojin’s book and the social and political context in which it was written. With the lifting of the martial law in 1987, there were shifts and transformation in discourses on gender, sexuality, and homosexuality in Taiwan (which Martin takes care to note was occurring on a wider scale throughout Asia as well). Martin says that the “dominance of television as a news and entertainment medium in 1990s Taiwan” meant that the media of voyeurism was the means by which queer people gained visibility in Taiwanese culture in the ’90s. She cites an incident in 1992, when a female TV reporter infiltrated a lesbian bar with a hidden camera and filmed the surroundings and people without the permission of the bar’s patrons.

Miaojin’s book is situated within that context, which might go over the heads of many people reading the book outside of Taiwan, or outside of Asia specifically. To me, many of the satirical moments ring true precisely because the slow shift in queer rights discourse in my country of Malaysia took a similar turn. Martin quotes the words of Lucas Hsien-hsiu Lin on the politics of queer visibility as part of the requirement for queer rights in neoliberal conditions: “When a homosexual fails to hide her or his sexual orientation, she or he is immediately adored with the halo of ‘courage’, the price of which is the compulsion to endless exposure and explanation of both soul and body.”

Lazi’s writings and confessions are poignant and heartbreaking precisely because of the impossibility of existing outside self-hate when queerphobia is rampant in society. The crocodile slides in and out of the book, constantly wary of the endless exposure that Hsien-hsiu Lin talks about. However, as in the words of Chu Kuang and Tun Tun, her motley crew of friends are trying to exist outside of labels and identities while trying to honour their love and desire for people that doesn’t necessarily need to be boxed in “heterosexuality” or “homosexuality”. Although this book might be triggering for many people because it does not shy away from Lazi’s agonising torment about loving women and desiring their bodies, and thus deals head-on with self-hate — something that queer people, living in this brutally heteronormative world, don’t need more of — it’s also true, as translator Huie explains in this essay for Kyoto Journal, that it’s a “survival manual for teenagers” and adults who are outsiders. It’s primarily concerned with how to live. “The fact is, most people go through life without ever living,” thinks Lazi as she feels the push-and-pull of her desire, an acknowledgment that honouring one’s desire often makes life very challenging for the sensitive introvert. It’s like a ray of bright light shining into one’s retina. Yet retreating from it is also agony, because it requires a negation of the self.

There are parallels, of course, between Lazy and the crocodile; the sense of being a monster in a human suit, of being “unnatural”, the ways in which queer people are constantly reminded that something is amiss about how they desire. The novel is a pastiche of styles; while the sections taken from Lazi’s diaries and letters are sentimental and romantic, the crocodile chapters are sly and droll, certain parts taking on a distant tone of a news report or academic analysis. This gives the reader room to breathe, something that Miaojin is acutely aware of: “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 in 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 same two locations, again and again.”

All of this renders a deft, playful story that’s also deeply melancholy; towards the end, there are fragments of notes in from something cited as “Suicide Studies”: “Like everyone else when they’re young, I harbored lofty expectations but lacked the self-knowledge to comprehend my own passions and vices.” It’s can be read as a grim foreshadowing of Miaojin’s suicide, but reading it solely from that perspective is a disservice to the characters in the book and their flawed, brutal, tender and yes, hopeful ways of living. It’s not enough to think of Miaojin’s action as an individual one; or Lazi’s despair as a personal failing. There’s always Meng Sheng to remind us of an affirming version of queer futurism: ”Any history that says I have to die is bullshit.”