Liz Wan Yuen-Yuk reviews an authoritative new collection of one of Taiwan’s most respected writers from the turn of the century.
Loa Ho, Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Loa Ho, translated by Darryl Sterk and introduced by Pei-yin Lin (Honford Star, 2018), 247pp.
Scales of Injustice is a collection of Loa Ho’s twenty-one short stories on various kinds of unfairness experienced by many Taiwanese people during Japanese rule. Unlike other translated versions that arrange the stories chronologically according to when they were written, this edition is discreetly sectioned by the translator Darryl Sterk into six parts, namely “In the Olden Days”, “Old Meets New”, “Growing Cane, Eating Opium”, “(Resisting) the Police Lord”, “Loa Ho’s Story”, and “It’s All We Can Ever Do”. The order of these parts show progress, from stories set in an older period and a rather rustic setting, to a more modern age in bigger cities; concurrently, the presence of oppressive forces become increasingly pervasive.
Correspondingly, the levels of injustice grow from more personal to more political realms. The image and concept of “scales” form a recurring theme, existing in forms from more tangible cases that involve actual scales (as in “Bumper Crop” and “A Lever Scale”), to more abstract instances that invite readers to define the degree of injustice. Loa covers a myriad of topics, from the most basic means of livelihood such as farming, to conflicts between teenagers; to broader social issues such as education (in particular language policies that stress on Japanese and undermine Taiwanese), law and order, social hierarchies; to relatively more daring and sensitive topics at the time such as race (for instance, how Japanese people have privilege over locals in, say, wages and housing benefits) and gender (especially regarding the plight of women as merely abject tools of reproduction), and so on. The stories are at once accessible but also filled to the brim with the complexity of the situation in Taiwan.
Due to the deliberate ordering of the stories, the tales start off as rather direct and straightforward. The first story, “The Story of a Class Action”, uses the protagonist as a brazen mouthpiece against social injustice; the second story, “The History of the Rich Clans”, employs the method of hearsay, probably to create a distancing effect to give more objectivity. Both kinds of narratives have the common outcome of recreating shared experiences on paper, hence giving importance to the oppressed in an unmediated manner. The ostensible binary opposition created between the authorities and the (defiant) people might have given commoners an anchor for their identity. Considering that Loa never published books during his lifetime, but instead via newspapers, journals, etc., the seeming simplicity of his stories would have made sense and appealed to his target audience, and in turn empowered them.
Nonetheless, the genius of Loa lies in his ability to deconstruct his own binaries. Despite his perceptible siding with the people, he has also added in differing perspectives the ugly side of humanity. On the lighter side, the occasional inclusion of the oppressor’s thoughts, such as that of the petty daijin (Japanese official) in “A Disappointing New Year”, enhances the effect of comic relief when he loses face. More often, however, human weakness occupies a significant position in Loa’s detailed depictions. He shows, instead of tells about, cowardice and the desire of self-preservation, as in “The Tragedy of the Deep-fried Dough-stick Seller”; and helplessness coupled with selfishness in “A Comrade’s Letter”. Yet even so, the narrator seems to be unable to hold back, and exclaim, “Are the people who talk about justice really so helpless when the bullies lord it over everyone?” (129). The directness here becomes a necessity, not merely rhetoric. To further deconstruct the people/authority binary, in the stories which are interpreted to be more autobiographical (to be found in the second-last part of the anthology) the author takes up the persona of a callow fellow who expresses insensitive views not less provocative as “Why not eat cake?” in a time of famine. Such inconsistency of the narrators broadens the range of ‘the people’. Hence, instead of pointing fingers at a single party, the narrator implies that the masses are fluid and thus constitute an unstable construction.
Simultaneously, underneath these supposedly simple writings lie layers that open themselves up to more profound interpretations. For instance, Loa weaves poems to conceal deeper meanings, such as that at the end of “Going to the Meeting”, which even the translator finds obscure; the last story, “Keep Going!”, is an allegory with unspecified sources of threats, which is another brain teaser. The author also exhibits playfulness in the face of censorship (which was prevalent in his time): as if to mock the system, he substitutes words in certain phrases with symbols, all the while having the phrase easily guessable. The act may be both a challenge to the authorities, and a manifestation of the unstoppable nature of language to produce meaning.
Another aspect for admiration is how delicately the author keeps the scale between overtness and subtlety in balance. A few stories show how some characters pity others but are powerless to help, yet they bottle up their sympathy and instead eject cold responses; readers may soon become aware of their omniscient view, and the fact that the suffering characters have no knowledge of the real sentiments of their interlocutors. In other words, what the narrator paints are pictures of explicit suffering, in which the outward mercilessness of certain characters implicitly invokes even more pity. All these metafictional elements increase the potency of the stories.
One final point worth mentioning concerns Darryl Sterk’s nuanced and authoritative translation of Loa’s writing. He has clearly stated the distinctions between his rendition and the rest in his “Translator’s Note”, setting expectations for the readers—and meeting them. Meticulously, he has found balance between naturalism and alienation: while making the target text as readable as possible with colloquial English idioms, Sterk has also kept the complexity of Loa’s language by retaining the Taiwanese (台語T’ai-y’u) and Japanese vocabulary in the source text. The effect is intriguing: some parts are smooth, whereas reading others feels like walking with a piece of chewing gum stuck to the shoes. In many cases, one needs to flip to the notes to grasp the meanings of the Romanised/transliterated Taiwanese or Japanese words. Yet the beauty of it is that the process makes one more aware of the presence of the original, and therefore more appreciative of the important cultural and historical contexts to the phrases which beguile the reader. Thankfully, Sterk’s notes are extremely detailed and helpful: even calculations are seriously treated (e.g. Note 4 on P.234); and personal interpretations of abstruse references are professionally provided. Hence, Sterk’s annotated translation greatly enriches one’s reading experience of Loa’s writing.
In conclusion then, Scales of Injustice is exceptional in the sense that it is down-to-earth in the portrayal of the plight of poor people, while elevated in the craft of encompassing complexities. One of the most powerful scenes is in “Disgrace?!”, in which a play is staged for people who are “all vaguely waiting for a miracle” (126), and “[b]y watching this play they could pretend that the bullies, thoughts, and nasties could be swept away, and the good and the weak would achieve the final victory” (127). This is what Loa’s works are oriented towards. The metafictional moment precisely showcases the power of literature: to offer temporary relief, inspire, and call for action. Loa’s stories are seeds; some have sprouted, and some are still waiting for the right moment to blossom around the world. Sterk’s translation has the potential to introduce Loa’s voice to a new readership, and in this way signifies a new round of seeding; we just have to “Keep Going!”.
Liz Wan is an MPhil candidate in English Literary Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She has had work published in Hong Kong Studies and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. She loves music, nature, languages, photography, late-night scribbling, and a bit of sports.