Darren Huang reviews Jessica J. Lee’s hybrid work of nature writing, memoir, and history investigating Taiwan and her family’s past.
Jessica J. Lee, Two Trees Make a Forest (Catapult, 2020), 282pp.
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the American writer Annie Dillard famously described her transformative year within the woods of Virginia’s Roanoke Valley. In the tradition of Thoreau’s Walden and other wilderness writing, the 1975 diaristic memoir recorded her observations of wildlife, her encounters with primal forces of creation and destruction, and most remarkably, the philosophical revelations of a mind awakened through its deep engagement with nature. Dillard devoted a naturalist’s attention to the outer world, while poetically mapping the changes of her inner self, which she termed her “trace of mind.” It is this fierce attentiveness to both the natural world and the inner life in the wilderness that characterizes Jessica J. Lee’s meticulously researched, lyrical, and textured work of memoir, history, and nature writing, Two Trees Make a Forest. Lee is a Berlin-based writer and environmental historian who was raised in Canada by a Taiwanese mother and British father. She describes a year in Taiwan when she explores the land by hiking its mountains, researching its political and natural history, and studying its rivers and its animal and plant life. Like Dillard, her engagement with nature confers a newfound clarity as well as a transformation of the inner self. For Lee, reconnecting to her ancestral land becomes a means of recovering family history from erasure and making sense of an identity dislocated by forces of history, migration, and loss.
The impetus for Lee’s return to Taiwan is the discovery of a long letter from her grandfather, Gong, immediately following her grandmother, Po’s, death. It is addressed to Lee’s mother and offers an autobiographical account of his life from his childhood in mainland China during the May Fourth Movement, to his coming of age during the political changes of the following decades, to his time as a pilot in the Sino-Japanese War, and abruptly ends with his years in Taiwan, when he was an instructor for the Republic of China’s Air Force. The letter is scattered and repetitive, a reminder and metaphor of Gong’s Alzheimer’s disease, which wasted away his memory in his final years. Nevertheless, the letter stirs in Lee a desire to recover her family’s past, much of which has been lost or suppressed by her grandparents’ silence. The letter becomes a cipher for her to puzzle out her family’s history, as she pores over its contents to reconstruct her grandparents’ story. One of the central themes of the book is mapping as a means of deeper knowledge about a place and its past, whether a mountain trail, a Taipei street, or the genealogy of a cypress forest, and Gong’s letter functions as Lee’s incomplete but essential map to her family history.
These various forms of mapping comprise multiple strands that Lee places in conversation with one another. Chapters on her naturalistic observations of Taiwan’s land and wildlife are interwoven with passages describing her earlier years with both her mother and grandparents, accounts of Taiwan’s political and natural history, translated excerpts of Gong’s letters, and musings on the Chinese language. In this blending of disparate elements, Lee suggests that all these forces—natural, politico-historical, and familial—inform the fraught relationship to one’s ancestral land. She essentially avoids the question of her relationship to Taiwan and the Taiwanese part of her identity until Gong’s death. In the book, she works to reestablish this relationship through a process she calls the “stitching of stories”—those of past and present, from nature and family history. This process is metaphorically represented by a sculpture created by a Japanese artist Lee meets in Tainan. The artist shows her a coil of “plaited newspapers turned into rope, the kind of thick, seafaring cable I’ve seen at the docks.” Its distinctive composition is significant in that it is also stitched together with human stories—what Lee regards as “things that tie places and people far distant close together.” The sculpture reflects the hybrid form of the novel and also represents the composite tether that Lee seeks with Taiwan and its land.
Lee admits there are limitations to reclaiming her ancestral land. Her poor Mandarin often results in a sense of estrangement from Gong, whose letters she cannot read without her mother’s translation, and Taiwan, with whose people she can only partially communicate. These limitations to reclamation are not only linguistic but also geographical. Lee recognizes that unlike her mother she didn’t grow up in Taiwan. Therefore, she doesn’t possess her mother’s instinctive sense of Taiwan as home, her “topographic history,” which allows her mother to place herself in Taipei despite decades of modernizing change. Lee also has to resist teachings from her formal education warning against anthropocentrism – the idea of nature as a means for resolving human predicaments. Her reclamation rests on a personal engagement with nature and through that process, a way of belonging to an estranged land.
Nevertheless, by the end of this prismatic work, Lee transcends these limitations to stitch together a composite but sturdy tether to Taiwan, as well as clarify obscured elements of both identity and family history. Towards the end of the work, Lee offers the idea that trauma can be inherited through generations. She suggests her grandparents’ irrevocable loss of their Chinese homes still haunts her and this loss restages itself in places across Taiwan. This idea recalls what psychoanalysis terms “transgenerational haunting,” the unconscious passing of historical trauma between generations. Transgenerational haunting recurs in this text not only when Lee recognizes the loss of her ancestral home but also when she seeks to serve her grandparents. Lee excerpts a passage from Gong’s letter, when he writes of his deceased mother’s love and his guilt at not being able to fulfill his duties to her. Lee’s work is essentially an act of atonement for her guilt toward her grandparents, a reconciliation with the same sort of familial loss. Like Gong, she too is haunted by Confucius’s phrase: “The forest wants to be still, but the wind will not relent. The child wants to care for its parents, but the parents are gone.”
Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in Manhattan. His work has been published in Bookforum, Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, Gathering of the Tribes, and other publications. He is also an editor at Full Stop and editor-at-large for Asymptote.