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The work of the Taiwanese author Qiu Miaojin (1969–1995) feels eerily familiar to me. Qiu was a near-contemporary of mine who died by suicide at twenty-six, and her two slim novels, Notes of a Crocodile and Last Words from Montmartre, are experimental mash-ups of letters, journal entries, and social satire about depressed lesbian university students and their tortured, impossible relationships. They offer a shared culture from the late eighties and early nineties—the song “Cherry Came Too,” the films of Derek Jarman and Andrei Tarkovsky—and a shared roster of activities that probably hasn’t changed much for students today: crying, drinking in excess, writing or receiving long hopeless love letters, eating instant noodles, skulking around waiting to run into someone, and spending endless hours analyzing the character of friends and lovers.
In the hands of most college students, this is not the stuff of genius, which makes Qiu’s ambition all the more thrilling. Writing in the journal Asymptote, the scholar Dylan Suher locates her work in the tradition of “what the Chinese call qing, which is passion as a full-blown aesthetic ideology.” The concept has a storied history in Chinese literature, and to write about it using the details of contemporary youthful melodrama—the notes in the bike baskets, the tears over beers—must have been an innovation. The journals and letters that make up the body of each book are convincingly conversational and interior, yet they achieve formal elegance. Rhythmic waves of short sentences form a flood, which lifts up the collegiate sentimentality, as when the anonymous narrator of Notes of a Crocodile writes: “Those wrenching eyes, which could lift up the entire skeleton of my being. How I longed for myself to be subsumed into the ocean of her eyes. How the desire, once awakened, would come to scald me at every turn.” Any young adult with a painful crush might recognize the feeling, but not just any young adult writes like that. We respect Qiu’s narrator when she explains that her intention is to take herself seriously, because “the significance of this special experience will disappear from the world unless I recount it. So few dare to articulate their unique experiences and try to distinguish nuances of meaning between them.” Read More