Taiwan as my literary muse

I was honored last month with an offer to speak on the subject of Taiwan in Literature and Taiwan as my literary muse at a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival called  “The Beautiful Island: Taiwan in the Literary Imagination.”

The panel will be held on June 4 at 11:45am, and if you’re interested in showing up, come to the Journey’s Stage at the Osher Studio (map here) in downtown Berkeley.  

The invitation comes at an interesting time for me personally, as I’m working on the second draft of my novel Spinning Karma, a story in which Taiwan plays a major role. (Currently in deep edit of the middle act, or the muddle. Fellow writers will know what I’m talking about.)

Taiwan, due to its strange geopolitical status, can be a tricky muse. Yet its been mine for as long as I can remember. So long, in fact, that I sometimes forget why. An incident a few days ago reminded me.

Specifically, a friend of mine got run over. By a truck. In Taiwan.

(No, this is not the stuff of usual travel writing!)

So as not to risk burying the lede, this friend is fine (at least as fine as can be expected after such an event) and already planning his return trip to ride around Taiwan in the autumn.

I met Jeff Barth last year after taking a gig as consultant and tour guide with a company called Bicycle Adventures.  We led two tours 11-day together through Taiwan last autumn, and got to know each other pretty well. (Spending close to a month in hotel rooms with a guy you’ve just met will do that.)

Though I couldn’t do the spring trip, Jeff and I have remained friends and I’ve been following his current cycling trip through over Facebook, happy to see that a new group of people are learning to love cycling in Taiwan.

So naturally, I was concerned a few days ago to see a photo of Jeff laid up in a hospital bed. The photos had been posted not by him but by one of the drivers from the group, Simon Lee.  I made a few calls and found out what happened. Near as I can tell, the details were Windy road, fast descent, and a truck driver who….well, Jeff said it best on his own Facebook post a few hours later:

“He is a good man who made a terrible mistake.”

Jeff made the quip after the driver came to visit him, both to make amends verbally through a translator and to work out a reparation plan. The post was beneath this photo.

Inline image 1

Jeff, shaking hands with the driver through a hole in the bicycling jersey he’d been wearing when hit.


For me, the take-away from this is that decency is so ingrained in Taiwanese society that even an incident as objectively awful as being run over by a truck can end on a positive note. Something…life affirming, even.

Which brings me back to thoughts of Taiwan as my muse.

Though it’s been ten years since I wrote my first book, Vignettes of Taiwan, it remains the one I’m still most proud of. Some of the stories in it are more of the travel journalism variety, while others are more personal vignettes. Of the latter category, about half fall under the category stories about things not going as planned.

These include

The Unhappy Affair at Happy Kids Kindergarten (Getting hauled in by the police for teaching at an unlicensed school)….Fight Club (having my ass kicked by a kid half my age, in front of an audience no less)…Shotgun Wedding (a cultural misunderstanding turns a first date very awkward).

These things were not fun while they were happening. (I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they didn’t suck as much in the moment as, say, two bone fractures requiring surgery; in my defense, the cop who interrogated me for four hours in Hsinchu didn’t offer me codeine first.)

But the events made for good stories, made all the more good by the fact that they a) taught me things, and b) ended well.

Taiwan has never bored me, often taught me, and has yet to kill me.

Could anyone ask for a better muse?

Get well soon, Jeff, and see you on the road!

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