Author photo by Tang-mo Tan.
By 2100, as feared, the earth is scorched. The ocean is a second sky: humanity has migrated to the sea floor, leaving combat cyborgs to play out war games on the surface. After a childhood spent in quarantine due to a deadly virus, Momo now lives mostly in isolation in New Taiwan’s T City, lit by the glow of her screen. In the tightened grip of capitalism, Microsoft has been supplanted by MegaHard; Momo, a renowned aesthetician, applies a transparent, protective layer to her clients called “M skin,” which, unbeknownst to them, surveils their movements and transcribes their sensations, from the nip of a mosquito bite to the “$#@” of an orgasm. Even though the world of Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes is almost solely populated by women, and queer love is the norm, this is evidently no utopia—the author told me he had no interest in writing feel-good representations of queer life. “I was and am simply too cynical.” Chi’s extraordinary novella was first published in Taiwan a quarter of a century ago, and is at last available in English in a brilliant translation by Ari Larissa Heinrich. At just 134 pages, its scope is dazzling. Now, from the vantage point of the future, its playful and unsettling insights into digital saturation, the traps of consciousness and labor, and the fugitive fabulations of identity and the self, have only grown more profound.
Chi was born in 1972 and came of age during Taiwan’s sudden moment of social and cultural transformation, and economic boom in the wake of martial law. A prodigious writer, he first garnered acclaim for a series of books he published in his twenties while also working as a critic, grad student, translator, and essayist, including the 1996 collection that contains The Membranes, his longest work of fiction. Two other as-yet-untranslated story collections, In the Realm of the Senses (1995) and Fetish (1998), which meld genres and styles, are set everywhere from distant space stations to gay strip clubs in contemporary Taipei. Alongside writers like Chen Xue, Chu T’ien-wen, and Qiu Miaojin, Chi was at the center of the flourishing queer literature and arts in nineties Taiwan. Since then, he has gained renown as a scholar, and is now an associate professor of Taiwanese literature at National Chengchi University in Taipei. His most recent book, published in 2017, is the monumental monograph A Queer Invention in Taiwan: A History of Tongzhi Literature. The term tongzhi, which Chi described to me as akin to “vanilla ice cream,” is an appropriation of the word for “comrade” and encompasses LGBT+ identities.
In perhaps another instance of prescience, Momo is exhausted by the intrusiveness of video chat and prefers the “old-fashioned” medium of email. Appropriately enough, this interview was conducted over email, between April and June of 2021.
In your introduction to the 2011 edition of The Membranes, you write that “almost everybody is an android.” What does it mean for you to be an android? Has it changed since you first wrote the book?
When I was younger, I often felt that some parts of my body did not belong to me. I suffered from serious migraines in school. These migraines, which would almost tear my skull apart, made me imagine that my body would also fall apart. Back then, I happened to consult a couple of very questionable brain doctors, who announced to me and my family that my migraines could be fatal, or could be the result of a brain tumor. It is possible that these doctors were actually con men, for I vaguely remember one of them, years later, was involved in some scandals. But I did not try to—and did not want to—verify what happened to him. I was alive and kicking after I was admitted to college, but the unhappy experience led me to question the integrity of my body.
When The Membranes was first published, in 1996, I gave my email address, which at the time was [email protected], in the “About the Author” section. I kept using “android” as my username when I started my new life as a doctoral student at UCLA, and got [email protected] as my official email address. I preferred android to cyborg—I knew the former from Philip K. Dick’s fiction, and I felt it was closer, more intimate to me.
But to call oneself an android was really different in 2011, after I had spent eleven years in the U.S. I, at the age of thirty-nine, had been worn out physically and mentally. I really felt myself to be a replica of Frankenstein’s monster, but with inferior physical strength. By calling myself an android, I was referring to my body as an assembly of chunks of flesh from various sources. I was not unhealthy, but I was very hypochondriacal. Before I left the U.S. for Taiwan, I was already trying to shift my academic attention from LGBT+ studies to disability studies. Once I was back in Taipei, I became obsessed with the omnipresent clinics of traditional medicine, which were too numerous and too affordable, especially to those who had lived in the U.S. I spent a lot of time lining up and visiting clinics for acupuncture, cupping, osteopathic manipulation, and herbal medicine. My spine felt very foreign to me. When I wrote “almost everybody is an android,” the images of the fellow patients who crowded the Taipei clinics naturally occurred to me.
I think my statement betrays a desire for universalism. Being queer or a freak or a crip often feels so lonely—especially in nineties Taiwan, which was much less open-minded than it is now. To dispel this loneliness, one might be tempted to say that everybody is queer or a freak or a crip. One wants to recruit more members to one’s camp.
How did the idea of The Membranes first come about?
Francis Bacon was one of my cultural heroes back then. I was attracted to the violence, madness, and bodies in pain shown in his paintings. When I started to imagine the bodies in The Membranes, I was, wittingly or unwittingly, influenced by Bacon’s style. Throughout the nineties, I, like most boys my age in Taiwan, relied on motorcycles for transportation. I often needed to bring my motorcycle to repair shops, where the technicians would take it apart as if they were anatomizing a human carcass. The insides of my motorcycle really looked like the ribs in Bacon’s paintings.
After the lifting of martial law in 1987, it was extremely trendy for artists and intellectuals to interrogate the memory imposed by the KMT regime, and to investigate any alternative to the official narrative. Meanwhile, problematized memories happened to be common in Hollywood productions, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator series.
The original title of The Membranes, Mo, is actually from my partner’s name in Chinese—his nickname is Xiao Mo. The world of The Membranes is also inspired by Xiao Mo, who used to be a graduate student in atmospheric science, and conducted research on the ozone layer. He talked about the climate disaster often. He told me that humankind would have to live under the sea in the future.
Taking the email address “android” also seems, to me, to be tied to the medium of communication. How was The Membranes written? Did you use a computer?
The Membranes was enabled by and predicated on my feeling like an android. Donna Haraway writes about how the connection of the human to the machine heightens the human senses. I did not take creative writing seriously until I learned to write on a computer.
In my preface to The Membranes, I emphasized the “HIGH” of creative writing. I did not feel that adrenaline rush on paper, but with a computer I felt that my writing experience was suddenly enhanced and made euphoric. I enjoyed the HIGH a lot back then. The HIGH was not from any substances—I was not even drinking or smoking. It was merely from my own adrenaline. I was only twenty-three. Adrenaline enabled me to finish writing The Membranes in one month. The novel is sixty thousand characters long.
Microsoft promoted itself very aggressively in Taiwan in the early nineties. I learned to write on Microsoft Word in 1993. This was a turning point for me. The transition from paper to a word processor enabled me to focus on the act of writing. I could revise my sentences as many times as I wanted and keep the page neat. Since we had to rely on dial-up to get connected to the internet, I could not get online as often, and as a result I was not yet often distracted by the online world. The Word and I become a circuit, where I feed sentences to Word and Word feeds my sentences back to me to revise. I really felt the computer and I shared a life of symbiosis. I had never felt the same intimacy with paper. I was dependent on my laptop a lot. It was like a pet, which I brought with me everywhere.
Momo spends much of the book in front of her computer, which is her main point of contact with the outside world. Your writing captures the texture of digital life. What impact did the internet of the nineties have on your writing—especially in forging the sort of disembodied intimacies we find in the novel?
When people talk about the internet now, they generally imagine it involves multimedia, but that was not the case in Taiwan in the nineties. The queer online hangouts back then were mostly on BBS bulletins, which are text-based. People could not exchange pictures with each other, even if they did not mind coming out or revealing their identities. The gay “influencers” on BBS attracted followers with their verbose, sentimental posts, but never with photos. Thus, for gay men to make a lot of new friends, going to the gym to look swole for pics was not necessary—to produce a lot of tantalizing texts on BBS was. I enjoyed immersing myself in these texts, which enabled me to imagine an outside world without visualizing it. The multimedia experience, for me, feels redundant and suppresses the imagination.
The Membranes is rich with references, and Momo’s consciousness and memories are shaped and distorted by the films and books she is shown. What were some of the formative encounters you had with literature and cinema?
My generation relied heavily on the MTV clubs. The MTV clubs were venues where a patron rents a cubicle to watch a movie on a pirated videotape or a laser disc on her own, similar to the sex shops in the U.S. in which a patron rents a cubicle to watch porn. While it was possible for some young couples to watch erotic films of their choice, and even make out in their cubicles, people like Qiu Miaojin and I chose to watch arthouse movies, mostly from Europe and some from Japan and the U.S. As a gay boy still in the closet, I would certainly enjoy gay porn, but I was more willing to spend my limited budget on a compromise—homoerotic arthouse movies.
I was shaken by some pirated videotapes of films by the gay Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, such as Oedipus Rex, Medea, Teorema, and the notorious Salò. I alluded to him in The Membranes. I also watched and enjoyed Nagisa Ōshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, which is virtually pornographic, or even more explicit than many porn films. I was so stunned by In the Realm of the Senses that I named my first story collection after it.
When I was in high school, I did not know of resources for queer teenagers. Although I knew about Pai Hsien-yung’s novel Crystal Boys, published in 1983, I was too wary to check it out. I remember very clearly that the local newspapers in my teens often hilariously published surveys showing that most Taiwanese men did not masturbate. The media dramatically downplayed the sexual needs of local men, straight or queer. I saw sex in these films, which render impossible loves possible and forbidden desires liberated. The films were inspiring to me, a boy who was frustrated with the sexual repression of Taiwan. I did not have any gay friends when I was a teenager, as it was virtually impossible for most gay people in Taiwan to come out. I was determined to go abroad to France or the U.S. to enjoy access to the kind of gay life I imagined.
Did you read a lot of science fiction?
It is natural to presume that I have been an avid reader of science fiction. However, I have to admit that I am far from being one, though in my twenties I enjoyed reading Philip K. Dick, Italo Calvino—I also translated some of Calvino’s novels into Chinese—Jorge Luis Borges, and Chang Hsi-kuo, the author of the City Trilogy.
From time to time, people told me that they would be interested in my writing if it were not science fiction. Sci-fi was considered a ghetto insulated from so-called pure literature. I did not take it personally, since I was not interested in producing realist fiction. Literary realism has been the norm for more than a century in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China. There are rules to follow, and nation-states to serve, for those who write in the realist tradition in these Sinophone countries. As a Taiwanese citizen, I have felt insecure about Taiwan, which has been under threat from China. Partly because of this insecurity, I chose to adopt the genre of science fiction detached from present-day Taiwan, and to leave for a temporary but extended life in the U.S.
Does that relate to how you write about queer people—people who are already on the margins?
I have found queer people and Taiwan to be similar to each other, for the former are and were not recognized in a homophobic society, whereas the latter is not recognized in the global village. During the pandemic, the WHO excluded Taiwan from the fight against COVID-19. But I do not mention the analogy often, for it has become common among netizens in Taiwan.
What does it mean to imagine the future from that perspective?
I wanted to portray an alternative world where both queer people and Taiwan could be left alone—left alone by the heterosexist world and by the shadow cast by China. To be left alone is my strategy to survive.
Ari Heinrich, my translator, asked me if The Membranes shows a future I expected. I was startled by the question, for I did not really think about a future, a world to come, when I wrote the novel. I was actually imagining an alternative world that offered a shelter for queers, Taiwan, as well as other marginalized entities. I was certain that the alternative world I imagined was detached from the status quo, but I did not think clearly if it was a future that all of us would move toward.
At one point, Momo laments that her job involves intimacy with others—“She could just as easily have chosen a more solitary profession, like a novelist.” Do you feel a tension between wanting to be recognized and to be left alone?
To seek a literal shelter for peace has been my lifelong obsession. Before I went to college, I was an introverted nerd who only liked books. I was not seriously bullied in my adolescence, but I was ridiculed often enough for my effeminacy, which made me even more fearful of people in general. Because homosexuality was seriously stigmatized during my adolescence in the eighties, when Taiwan was paranoid about AIDS, I did not visit the gay venues. I feared that I would be caught and exposed to my family.
When I started to publish creative writing in the early nineties, I certainly wanted attention from potential book reviewers, editors, and readers. I hoped to sell my books and stories. And, as a newbie writer, I was naturally vain. But I also feared attention. I received letters from those who were curious about my sexuality and private life. In the early nineties, out gay people were extremely rare in Taiwan, but more and more people were interested in gay lives. My situation was complicated by the fact that I was often invited to talk on TV shows and radio. Since I depicted graphic gay sex in my fiction and I could talk about it in public, people found me entertaining. Luckily, I received virtually nothing malicious, but I was bombarded by letters from inappropriately curious women and men. Some female students even virtually stalked me and declared their infatuation. I don’t blame them. I think people were simply confused about themselves and others. I did experience actual sexual harassment from some older men. But I do not need to dwell on the past.
Partly because of these concerns, I avoided writing any roman à clef that might violate my own privacy. Thus I chose to portray women rather than men in The Membranes, for I thought a depiction of men would trigger voyeurism about my private life.
Earlier you mentioned this desire to leave Taiwan, this interest in foreign literature, and the idea that to live a gay life you would have to go to the U.S. or Europe. Your comment surprised me a bit, because your academic work has been on the history of Taiwanese tongzhi identity, and you now teach Taiwanese literature. You’ve written about tongzhi literature as a Taiwanese “invention.” Could you tell me a bit more about what you meant?
In my twenties, I presumed that queer literature in Taiwan was an extension of American queer literature, for I was taught that so many institutions in Taiwan were imitations of those in the U.S. and other first world countries. If queer literature in Taiwan was a copy, or a translation, then the original was supposed to be in the U.S.
But once I arrived in the U.S., I was expected to do my research on modern Chinese literature, which I mildly enjoyed but had not been enthusiastic about at all. Since Asian studies in the U.S. was so Sinocentric, I was naturally guided—or misguided—into looking for the tradition of queer literature in the PRC.
However, after I left the U.S. for Taiwan, I gradually realized that queer literature in Taiwan was really a local, creolized tradition of its own. It was, of course, subject to some influences from the U.S. and pre-1949 China, but it was not a copy. The two hegemonic states did not offer ready-made models of queer literary history. Therefore, I had to invent the Taiwanese genealogy from scratch. Many smaller countries have their own concocted inventions that are not passed down by bigger, hegemonic countries. Similarly, Taiwan happened to have invented its own tradition of queer literature.
You said you were interested in writing about memory, in part, to interrogate the version of the past imposed by the KMT. How does that tie into your scholarly writing on tongzhi history that had also been neglected and suppressed? What was it about the official narrative that you wanted to challenge?
My life trajectory was more or less similar to Momo’s in The Membranes. For twenty years, Momo was manipulated by fake memories. Likewise, for twenty years, I was guided by “grand narratives” that, while not fake or wrong, were not relevant enough for me. The grand narratives in question had little to do with the KMT, however. They are, instead, myths such as “the paradigm of queer literature is available only in the U.S. for me, as a pilgrim, to copy,” or “there is no future for queers in Taiwan.” These myths were all decisive to me. I am glad to wake from the past as if from a dream, not unlike Momo’s dream.
Pasolini is, if I remember correctly, the only male character in the book. What led you to create a world of women?
It was already clear to some readers in Taiwan that most science fiction texts marginalized women. I consciously built a world mostly of women in The Membranes, for I was already aware in the nineties that many science fiction narratives were criticized for their sexist presumptions—many treated female characters as accessories or sex toys for male heroes. I was so embarrassed by the sexism that I decided not to reproduce the male dominance in The Membranes.
You’re a professor now, and when you wrote The Membranes, you were also publishing criticism and articles, editing collections, and studying. What did you find in fiction that you couldn’t find in academia?
Your question is interesting, and it could be turned into another. Why do I often turn to the academic life and away from creative writing?
I was more confident and composed at university than in the world of fiction writing. I felt vulnerable and unsettled when I wrote fiction—I had to face my dark side. However, the pleasure after finishing a work of fiction is way stronger than that after publishing a book review. The more vulnerable I feel in the writing process, the more intense pleasure I get after writing.
For me, if the process of writing an academic paper is similar to swimming laps in a pool, that of writing fiction is similar to swimming in the ocean. The former seems to be manageable on a daily basis, whereas the other looks daunting, and even life-threatening. Writing fiction, especially when the writer is not using English, involves no certainties.
You are also a translator, so I wondered what the process of being translated was like? Did you work closely with Ari Heinrich?
Yes, but not in a traditional way. Ari has been a dear friend—after all, he and I are in the same academic field. Several years ago, Ari invited me and Xiao Mo to fly to a yoga retreat in Bali. I believe yoga plays a major role in his process of translation. He wanted to hang out with us there and to start, kind of ceremoniously, to translate The Membranes. We talked about The Membranes constantly, randomly, casually, not in a systematic way. I believe our conversations enabled him to contextualize and weigh the nuances in it. But I seldom, if ever, insisted on how he should translate any part of the book. I refrain from insisting on anything regarding translation, partly because I prefer to fully respect the rights of the translator, and partly because I know my fastidiousness about words tends to get out of control.
I did translate fiction, and I used to enjoy the process. I cannot do it now simply because I need to focus on other tasks. While I could not guarantee my one hundred percent loyalty to the original texts, I was not interested in being disloyal to them. I do not mean that I am well-behaved or ethical—I just know that there are many other occasions for me to rebel other than in translation.
The book feels prescient about many aspects of life that are now familiar—the monetization of everyday experience, and data harvesting, for example. Does it disturb you, the extent to which those things have come true?
Honestly, I am more disturbed by the electronic devices—computers, smartphones, and so on—in my life than by The Membranes. After all, the devices are connected to me on a daily basis. The texts I have produced are detached from me when they are published. My smartphone is already a prosthesis attached to my body, whereas my fiction is never prosthetic to me. I love how literary texts are detached from their authors.
Chris Littlewood lives in New York.
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