- Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz
I first encountered Ed Lin’s delicious Taipei night market mysteries when I was given the opportunity to interview him at the Texas Book Festival in 2014. His second in the series, Incensed, came out last October, and is just as delicious and aware as Lin’s first in the series, Ghost Month. Incensed follows Lin’s Joy-Division-loving hero, Jing-nan, as he attempts to shepherd Mei-ling, his gangster uncle’s wayward teenage daughter, safely through the city. Ed was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about the book, the series, and Taiwanese politics.
Molly Odintz: Your latest novel tackles some hot topics in Taiwanese politics. Could an author living in Taiwan have written about GLBT rights in Taipei with the same honesty and support you bring to the LGBTQ characters in the novel? And how about that Trump call?
Ed Lin: Taiwan doesn’t really have censorship issues–anymore! Back in the days of martial law (1947-1987) news and other media were heavily censored. A popular story is that the film “The Sound of Music” was edited down to one hour to prevent theatergoers from deriving inspiration in escaping a repressive regime! I think an author in Taiwan could have written this book, surely better than me! As it is, Taiwan is the most LGBTQ-friendly country in East Asia. Most of the public supports same-sex marriage, but there are these fringe “religious” groups that vehemently oppose it. I was reading about this one idiot at an anti-same-sex marriage rally who showed up dressed head-to-toe in a Nazi uniform. He claimed that the Nazis were against gay marriage, so he supported Nazis.
I have a lot of feelings around the Trump call with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen. I support a higher profile for Taiwan in international affairs. Taiwan already punches above its weight economically, but its culture and history should be more recognized, perhaps as much as other island nations such as Jamaica and Ireland–both of which have populations much smaller than Taiwan. On the other hand, while many China-watchers have found that country to be opaque about its thoughts and actions, it is clear that any perceived interference with Taiwan will result in a war. I have no doubt that China is willing to sacrifice international goodwill and lives to prevent the formal independence of Taiwan. I actually dream of an independent China, a country free from dogma of the past. After all, isn’t China being selective of what past pieces of land constitute the Chinese nation? Korea and Vietnam were parts of past Chinese dynasties and for longer than Taiwan was, but there’s no call for them to return to the “motherland.” Trump’s call to Tsai wasn’t reckless in itself, but he publicizing of it has been. It should have been kept private with an eye to future support, perhaps a free-trade agreement?
“In my Taiwan series, I’m portraying crime as a societal outgrowth. Only crimes that a society deems intolerable are illegal, after all.”
MO: I loved the dynamic between Jing-nan and Mei-ling – it felt like Paper Moon meets Born Yesterday. What was your inspiration for the interactions between the two?
EL: When I was a kid, a few of my younger cousins moved to the U.S. and I sorta helped them get acclimated. They’d be all passive and yielding at first but we’d always reach a point where they would push back and become assertive. Jerky, even! I tapped into that for their relationship.
MO: Incensed is, and isn’t, a crime novel – it does contain gangsters, guns, and murder, but it’s just as much about Taiwanese politics and Taipei nightlife. How did you balance the topics you wanted to explore with the crime genre?
EL: I’m trying to challenge the paradigm of what a crime novel is. I am really against the good-vs-evil dynamic. I feel like everyday people are capable of monstrous acts under certain circumstances and that we all have positive and negative elements to our personalities. I think about the taijitu, the so called “yin-yang” circle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taijitu#/media/File:Yin_yang.svg). In places where the white or black is still dominant, there are still small circles of the opposite element.
In my Taiwan series, I’m portraying crime as a societal outgrowth. Only crimes that a society deems intolerable are illegal, after all. I saw a documentary on PBS that profoundly affected me. A single mother working two jobs lost them both and fell behind on her mortgage payments. The bank repossessed her house and held a bankruptcy auction. Someone bought her house for $20,000. They got a bargain. The bank got its tax writeoff. The single mom had sank $30,0000 into that house over the years and she and her kids ended up in a homeless shelter. That’s a crime but perfectly legal. I think about that a lot, the individuals who suffer from what society accepts and tolerates.
In Incensed, I’m likening homophobia, and immigration to a lesser degree, to that line dividing acceptable and tolerable. There are “good” and “bad” people on both sides. Jing-nan himself finds himself to be more homophobic than he likes to admit, hence the book’s epigraph! How can he call out Big Eye’s prejudices when he himself embodies some of them?
MO: The food in Incensed seems just as delicious as the food in Ghost Month, yet I hear rumors that you’re a vegetarian! What kind of gourmet research goes into writing these novels?
EL: Rumors that I’m a vegetarian are nothing but lies! Well, I will shamefully admit that I am allergic to all seafood–shellfish, fish and crustaceans. Surprisingly, there is still quite a bit of eating exploration that I can do, and I do for the books. I do have to ask my wife to get something like an oyster omelette and grill her immediately in mid-bite what it tastes like and how it makes her feel. There’s always something new at the night markets in Taiwan when I visit and at the joints in Flushing, Queens, and southern California (both Taiwanese American strongholds). Lately, more places in Manhattan’s Chinatown have been flying the Taiwan culinary menu–there’s even a biandan restaurant there now! Biandan, derived from the Japanese bento, are the box lunches originally served on Taiwan’s railways but have exploded in popularity as a format on their own. When I’m in Taiwan, I’m amazed by the rush of people buying lunches at the rail stations who aren’t even going to ride the trains.
“Everyday life in Taipei can be can be ordinary. Everybody overworks, even the criminals. People know what legitimate businesses are owned by criminal organizations and it’s not a big deal.”
MO: What are you working on next? Will there be a third book with Jing-nan?
EL: There will be an infinite number of books with Jing-nan, unless he is killed. The third book continues to tackle issues in contemporary Taiwan. Have you also noticed that each book thus far is pegged to a holiday in Taiwan? Ghost Month was focused on Ghost Month. Incensed, on the Mid-Autumn Festival. I’m looking at the Double Ninth holiday, which is a day to appreciate senior citizens (they get government payments that day) and also a very high “yang” day (9 is the highest odd single number, after all), so one must indulge in “yin” activities (climbing mountains, drinking chrysanthemum tea) to offset it.
MO: Your characters have excellent taste in music – what’s your soundtrack when you’re writing? Do you listen to as much Joy Division as Jing-nan?
EL: Joy Division is his favorite band. Mine is probably Swervedriver, and there are still a number of other acts I’d put in front of Joy Division, as well, although I really like them. I’m a punk-rock kid who is grateful for being able to see one Husker Du concert! When I’m writing, it’s instrumental things (surf/drag music, instrumental jazz).
MO: There’s some blurring of the lines in Ghost Month and Incensed between gangsters, police, and community authorities. This sometimes works against your characters, but more often they exploit these blurred lines to escape perilous situations. How much does that dynamic reflect everyday Taipei reality?
EL: Everyday life in Taipei can be can be ordinary. Everybody overworks, even the criminals. People know what legitimate businesses are owned by criminal organizations and it’s not a big deal. I’ve met this guy who works at a cable station owned by a local boss who is very nice, buying the staff dinner when they stay late. On the other hand, there are certain boundaries and rules that are understood as well and anyone transgressing them can expect consequences. A few years ago (and there are video captures of this on YouTube) a policeman was beaten to death by a crowd of gangsters outside a nightclub. As I understand it, he was unhappy with his payout and he wanted more. The gang didn’t think the terms of the agreement were subject to change. I’ll say this about Taiwanese people. They absolutely do what they say they’re going to. A pact or promise, even if it isn’t in writing, is sacred, even if it straddles the line between “legal” and “illegal.”
You can find copies of Incensed on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.