Li Kotomi’s novel is haunted by death

At Li Kotomi’s solo dance is unambiguous as to its subject from the start: The first chapter opens with the words “Death.” Dying.” Following the story of a Taiwanese woman living in Japan, the novel is a dark reflection on her search for meaning and purpose in life as a social outcast and in the wake of trauma. sustainable.

Chō Norie is an office worker in Tokyo who grew up in Taiwan. Written in the third person, solo dance alternates between narrating the protagonist’s life in the present and the past experiences that shaped her and ultimately led her to change her name and move to Japan. As the story unfolds, we see how the wounds of her past continue to manifest in the present.

From a young age, Norie has always been different, bookworm and a little antisocial. But in fourth grade, as Norie begins to come to terms with her sexuality, Shi Danchen, a classmate Norie has a crush on, suddenly and unexpectedly dies. Shortly after, Norie’s home was destroyed in the 1999 Taiwan earthquake. Deeply traumatized, she began to exhibit troubled behavior: endless crying, screaming nightmares, and actions that involved suicidal thoughts. Her parents take her to a youth mental health center, but Norie can’t bring herself to tell the therapist the deep pain she carries because Danchen, a girl she loved, has died.

Eventually, Norie turns to writing to find her motivation to continue. But his early writing focuses on the same themes that pervade his thoughts as an adult in Tokyo: darkness and death. As Li so poignantly puts it: “It was strange how writing about death had allowed him to go on living.

The themes of solo dance are deeply reminiscent of Qiu Miaojin’s iconic novel Notes of a Crocodile, which is also a lesbian coming-of-age story of a young Taiwanese writer. Li calls this connection explicitly and repeatedly, from the beginning of the book. Norie immersed herself in Qiu’s short life and measures hers against her:

“If she hadn’t fallen in love with Danchen, then maybe she would never have started writing. If she had never discovered the world of literature, then maybe she would never have encountered Qiu Miaojin’s writing. …she was here in Tokyo, a place that Qiu herself had visited once. She was in middle school when she discovered Qiu, but now she was here, in the blink of an eye at twenty-seven, and she had survived him.

It’s hard not to want solo dance is a sort of contemporary reworking of Notes of a Crocodile in a globalized world. (Although it is true that it is the only one of the many Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese works that Li refers to throughout solo dance that I’ve read.) Norie’s romance with her classmate Xiaoxue is reminiscent of Lazi and Shui Ling’s relationship with recurring conversations about death and literature.

But the toxicity that defines every relationship in Notes of a Crocodile is not as pervasive and fundamental to relationships in solo dance. Three decades after activists like Qiu paved the way for the visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in Taiwan, Li’s young lovers can form a sincere bond, built on respect and trust in a way that Qiu never could.

Like Lazi, Norie broods over death and struggles to connect with others, but, even though she and Xiaoxue are both locked up, young Norie does not carry the level of desperation that manifests in abuse that leads Lazi finally destroyed his relationship with Shui Ling. . For Lazi, being a lesbian is “a monstrous sin”, causing her to repress and fear her sexual desires and leading her to deep self-loathing. For Norie, however, being a lesbian means she cannot imagine a future for herself – gay marriage had not yet been legalized in Taiwan when solo dance was originally published. Coupled with her early experiences and propensity for darkness, Norie can’t shake the feeling that she’ll likely die young, like Qiu Miaojin.

Violence enters Norie and Xiaoxue’s relationship after Norie is sexually assaulted. The traumatic experience, followed by social ostracism, profoundly affects Norie’s mental health, and she vents her fears on Xiaoxue in cruel outbursts. Norie recalls that the rapist targeted her specifically because she is a lesbian, leading her to blame his assault on their relationship and her sexuality. “It was because we were together that I lived through what I did,” Norie tells Xiaoxue in the heat of the moment that led to their breakup.

It’s a subtle difference that shows how and how much the world has changed. Notes of a Crocodile is a heartbreaking read because the book seems to imply that society’s ultimate rejection of queer individuals leads them down an inescapable path of self-destruction. Qiu’s suicide shortly after writing it brought this painful reality to life. solo dance is under no illusions that the implicit and explicit violence of homophobia today still leaves lasting scars on queer youth. But, ultimately, this is a book about the ability to integrate one’s trauma into a world where acceptance, though not universal, can be found. Norie has a future full of ups and downs, even as she tries to escape her past, in a way that Lazi and the rest of the characters in Notes of a Crocodile just don’t.

About a third of the way in solo danceXiaoxue said to Norie, “We will rewrite Notes of a Crocodile so that it does not end in tragedy. solo dance is not trivial in the execution of this. Being queer and Asian continues to be a harsh reality for so many people, twenty-five years after Qiu took her own life. But despite all the pain and trauma, solo dance is a testament to the possibility of a path forward that exists today for queer Asians, a path that Qiu made possible with his works and his death.

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