In the first of its kind for the HKRB, Carolyn Lau curates a special issue on the pioneer of Taiwanese queer literature, Qiu Miaojin (邱妙津).
Ari Larissa Heinrich contributes an English translation of Qiu Miaojin’s archival student film, which was based on the author’s award-winning story “A Carnival of Ghosts”.
“A Carnival of Ghosts: A Film Transcript of a Student Film by Qiu Miaojin.”
Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich
Qiu Miaojin (1969-1995) was a Taiwanese novelist who ended her life in Paris, at the age of 26. A collection of Qiu’s previously serialized short fiction called A Carnival of Ghosts (referred to elsewhere also as The Revelries of Ghosts) came out in 1991. Her novel Notes of a Crocodile (translated to English by Bonnie Huie and published by New York Review Books in 2017) was awarded the China Times Award for Literature in 1995, and became a queer cult classic for its lesbian themes and vocabulary. Her final novel, an experimental memoir written on the eve of her death, titled Last Words from Montmartre (translated to English by Ari Larissa Heinrich and published by New York Review Books in 2014), earned Qiu recognition in broader literary circles as the quintessential “author’s author” and a writer of exceptional genius.
Although a two-volume set of Qiu Miaojin’s diaries was published posthumously in 2007, it was only recently that some of her archival student films were uncovered. Below is a transcript of her film “A Carnival of Ghosts,” adapted from the title story of Qiu’s earlier collection, along with some film-stills. Narrated in the first person, the film depicts in moody dark hues and scenes varying from ocean-side contemplation to lengthy passages choreographed to Stravinsky, a young man’s meditations on his complicated relationship to his deceased “sister.”
Narrator (Jinyang): Three days before my 19th birthday and halfway through brushing my teeth in the morning, I burst into tears. Why was I such a pussy? I’d been avoiding these big questions. Why now, with a mouthful of toothpaste, were they rising to the surface, causing my chest to tighten? I didn’t even know what the questions were, but I had three days to figure it out.
[Scene 2: on the beach]
[Scene 3: dancing]
Dancer: Disappear! Disappear! Disappear! Disappear!
[Scene 3: on the street]
Narrator: On November 27th, three days before my birthday, I went to see a wild dance performance. When it was over, the dancer fell down drunk by the exit. I had to carry him down the street on my back.
Jingyang/Jinyang: So you’re awake at last.
Dancer: Give me your beer.
Jingyang/Jinyang: Drink what you like, I’m leaving.
Dancer: I want more beer, I want more beer…
Jingyang/Jinyang: Are you even 20 years old?
Dancer: ‘Are you even 20 years old’! I hide out in the graveyard all day making love, yeah, ‘20 years old’—20 bullshit years old.
Jingyang/Jinyang: Don’t you think it’s pathetic to live for beer like this?
Dancer: I’m not drunk. Oh, Lord, just make me disappear, disappear! Disappear with you like… Lalalala
Jingyang/Jinyang: What are you doing?
Dancer: Dance with me. Are you alive? Dance, come on, dance with me. Let me show you what it means to live.
Dancer: Come on!
Dancer: Come on, let’s live. Let’s really live. Take off your body shell.
Jinyang: Ho ho ho
Dancer: La la la…Yahoo! Yahoo!
Jinyang: Ha ha ha…
Dancer: Let’s dance, and live.
Dancer: I want to live.
[Scene 4: on the beach]
Tape recorder: It is now November 29th. In a few hours it will be the 30th and I will be 20. I plan to record every word I think of for three days before the stroke of midnight. Tape recorder, don’t you recognize me?? I used the money I earned washing cars to pay for you. I—Jinang—was orphaned at a young age. I had a sister, but…never mind all that bullshit. I study frog vocalizations at a very prestigious university. Allow me to demonstrate. Ribbit ribbit ribbit…
The dancer fell down drunk at the exit to the theater. I had to carry him down the street on my back. He just carried on drinking, singing, dancing, making love amidst the headstones…I wanted to be just like him, to burn myself out.
Narrator: Happy birthday, Jinyang.
Tape recorder: I wanted to be just like him, to burn myself out… Ha ha ha, don’t leave… Don’t do this… Jinyang, your feet are just like chicken-claws. Hee hee hee, no, stop, that tickles. What, like a rooster? Like a hen?
Narrator: Si-ping, it’s the voice of Si-ping on her 18th birthday.
[Scene 5: in a park by school]
Jinyang: Hey, this looks like a good spot. Why don’t we eat here?
Siping: Eat before it gets cold.
Jinyang: You too.
Siping: I was at the plant a while ago. As soon as they opened the rice-steamer, I brought you your lunchbox.
Jinyang: I got you out of the orphanage, but now you are the one working to put me through school.
Siping: Stop overthinking; your food will get cold.
Jinyang: You work so hard every day at the plant.
Jinyang: When the drillmaster saw me at the flag-raising ceremony this morning, he scolded me again for wearing broken old shoes.
Siping: No worries, I’ll buy you a new pair.
Jinyang: Ok. Let’s eat.
Siping: I made you your favorite for lunch today.
Jinyang: Ok. But as soon as I graduate high school, you’re next, ok?
Siping: Sure, definitely.
[Scene 6: fishing]
Tape recorder: November 28th, two days till my birthday. I went to watch the fishermen. It was cold out. On the bridge, a guy wearing an undershirt was casting a line. He did not look like a fisherman. He kept staring at me.
Fisherman (in Taiwanese dialect): Hey kid. I often see you standing here at the beach. You find the sea so beautiful?
Jinyang: I don’t know.
Fisherman: You don’t know? You kids always are always saying you don’t know. If I had the time you kids have, I’d just go home, make tea, watch TV, and have sex with my wife. Don’t know shit!
Fisherman: What are you crying for?
Jinyang: Do you think that what you see at sea is real?
Fisherman: You can’t see anything when you’re on a boat in the ocean. Whatever you think is real, is real. Making money, now that’s real. Ever noticed how money has a picture of Sun Yat-sen’s face printed on it? Every day he reminds you how hard your life would be without him, how you’d die.
Jingyang/Jinyang: In two days I’ll be twenty.
Fisherman: Twenty or not, just go home!
Fisherman (singing in Taiwanese dialect): Sad to leave and that does you no good/Heart is breaking and that does you no good…Sigh.
Narrator monologue: Go home where?
Fisherman [singing, turns back and says]: Hey! Button up, it’s windy.
[Scene 7: Beach]
Tape recorder: It was cold that day. A person in an undershirt was casting a line from the bridge. He did not look like a fisherman. He kept staring at me. He said that whatever you see on the ocean, if you think it’s real, it’s real. He doesn’t care about all that stuff. Making money is real. Why is it so easy for him to live, whereas I’m like some kind of low-functioning idiot, nothing I do feels easy.
[Scene 8: dancing on the beach]
Siping: Stop! Hee hee hee… I can’t stand it anymore. Hahaha…
Jinyang: Hey! Don’t hide from me. Where do you think you’re going!
Siping: Hahaha… It’s my turn to tickle your feet.
Jinyang: You are not allowed.
Siping: One, two…
Jinyang: I am not scared.
Siping: Three, and four…
Jinyang: Bring it on!
Jinyang monologue: Your voice lingers.
[Scene 9: outside the record store]
Jinyang: Hm… Aren’t you supposed to be at work? What are you doing here?
Siping: Yeah. I couldn’t afford a tape recorder, so I figured I’d come here and just listen to whatever I want.
Jinyang: Let’s go. Hop on the scooter.
[Scene 10: hall way]
Siping: What’s the matter? Are you still upset because you couldn’t afford to buy me a tape recorder?
Jinyang: I got up early to deliver another newspaper yesterday.
Siping: Deliver newspapers? You’re a senior in high school. How can you take the time to deliver more newspapers? We have money.
Siping: Really. Since we left orphanage, I’ve been saving a portion of your delivery fees and my salary from the plant.
Jinyang: Then we can afford to buy you a tape recorder.
Siping: We can’t use that money. It’s so you can marry later.
Jinyang: Marry you?
Siping: I’ll always be your sister.
Jinyang: Give it to me.
Siping: Give it back!
Jinyang: I’ll wash it myself.
Siping: You are going to ruin it.
Jinyang: Leave it.
Siping: If you don’t give it back, I am going to spray you with this hose. I mean it. I’ll do it.
Jinyang: If you don’t want to be my wife, then don’t wash clothes for me.
[Scene 11: in the room]
Siping: We are brother and sister. I am so scared. I am afraid that you will ask me to be your wife. I can’t do it. I really can’t.
[Scene 12: beach]
Tape recorder: Sigh! What bullshit! I did indeed have a younger sister. I always treated her like a wife. Stop ruminating. There’s nothing there worth thinking about. Tape recorder, you know how long it’s been since I thought about her. As for that big question, will I live past twenty?
Scene 13: in the room]
Siping: Jinyang, you promised we would only tickle each other.
Jingyang/Jinyang: Oh! [laughs]
[Scene 14: open-air movie on the street]
Jinyang: Look, what a coincidence. Today is your birthday, and there’s an open-air film showing at the entrance to the laneway!
Siping: That’s right. We haven’t gone to a movie in a long time.
Jinyang: I’ll take you again for your birthday next year, when you turn nineteen.
Siping: Um, you don’t need to wait that long. You can go to the movies with others first.
Jinyang: Then I’d rather go to the movies alone. Ping, you know what? After today, you are no longer a child.
[Scene 15: in the room]
Jinyang: Happy birthday, Ping. Make a wish. Come on, look at the birthday present I got you. Check it out!
Jinyang: Like it? I bought this with the money I secretly earned washing cars.
Jinyang: Come on, let’s have a tickle fight.
Siping: Ok. What? Tickling? No, you know how ticklish I am.
Jinyang: Really? You, ticklish? Let’s see.
Siping: You first.
Siping: Aiya. No fair. First we have to make rules.
Jinyang: The rules are simple. You give me your foot, and I give you my foot…
Siping: Give it.
Jinyang: Then start tickling. Whoever can’t take it anymore first has to eat the whole cake. Begin!
Siping: Aaa, aaa… No.
Jinyang: Hey, ha ha…
Siping: I’m so ticklish.
Jinyang: Ha ha, can’t take it, can you?
Siping: Why do you keep hiding from me?
Jinyang: I’m not hiding. I’m just not ticklish.
Siping: Why aren’t you more ticklish? I can’t take any more!
Siping: Can’t take any more! Ho ho..
Jinyang: So you can’t take any more.
Siping: Ha ha…
Jinyang: You can tickle me. I want to let you win, so just tickle me wherever you want.
Siping: Fine. I’ll tickle you somewhere else.
Jinyang: Don’t try to escape. Don’t try to escape. Hey, you cheated! Accept defeat!
Jinyang: Hey hey hey…
Siping: Ha ha! No, I refuse.
Jinyang: Still don’t want to accept defeat?
Siping: Okay! You win!
Jinyang: Don’t want to accept defeat, huh? Tickle me wherever you like.
Siping: Aah! Stop! Hee hee
Siping: Jinyang, now what are you up to?
[Jinyang is panting, and suddenly throws himself on Siping]
Siping: Don’t! I’ll die. Ha ha
[Scene 16: street]
Siping monologue: I know you like me. I feel the same. But how can I do such a thing with my elder brother? I don’t blame you. I don’t know why, but suddenly it’s as if the whole world has changed. Take good care of yourself from now on.
[Scene 17: on the beach, then the room, and then the beach]
Jinyang: I’m the one who killed her.
Jinyang: Ha ha! Ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha!
Jinyang: November 29th, I will be twenty after today. As for whether to keep on living, now I finally have an answer. I started picking up my room and have prepared to burn absolutely everything. I took all my belongings with me on the 9 o’clock train and moved to the beach. Ping was dead. Died the day after her 18th birthday, killed herself. Ping, “neither two bulls nor the angry sea” can keep us apart. Sounds so absurd, but we loved each other. Why did you have to die? I’ve been like this for the past year, but not because of her. But her life ended at eighteen, and I just had to keep going and going. The past is just a realistic story that in fact is nothing. All this time I’ve kept going to class, going to work, meeting people, moving from one place to another. I tell myself not to grieve, and just to keep on living, but I’m adrift, just floating from place to place. What is real? This empty shell of a body? There’s nothing to push me forward; will there be an oasis ahead?
Ari Larissa Heinrich is known for translations of key works of queer literature from Taiwan in the late 20th century, including Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words from Montmartre (New York Review Books, 2014) and Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes (under contract with Columbia University Press). Heinrich’s writing has appeared in venues ranging from the Los Angeles Review of Books to Duke University Press’ “Perverse Modernities” monograph series. Heinrich is Professor of Chinese Literature and Media at the Australian National University.