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“Two Trees Make a Forest”: An interview with Jessica J. Lee

This is a transcript of our Green Library Event “Two Trees Make a Forest” with Jessica J. Lee. On the 5th of June in 2020, Jessica joined us on zoom and gave us some insights into her work.  She is a British-Canadian-Taiwanese author, who currently lives in Berlin where she was Writer-in-Residence at the Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Ecology from 2017-2018. She holds a PhD in Environmental History. Jessica’s first book Turning: a Swimming Memoir was published in 2017. Her second book followed last year. It is titled Two trees make a forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan. Jessica is the founding editor of the literary journal The Willowherb Review. We talked about her books and the journal.

Jessica, both of your books are memoirs. You dwell on your own life, your family, love and loss. In both books, you connect your personal story with detailed explorations of nature and environmental changes. In Turning, which is set here in Berlin, you address the warming of lake water in recent years. In Two Trees Make a Forest, you describe the high frequency of earthquakes in Taiwan. Why did you decide to tell your personal story in connection to complex environmental issues?

It is probably one of those things that I didn’t intentionally set out to do, but it was a product of many years, of my life trajectory, and of my education. I didn’t go into my career – as an academic originally – thinking that I would become a writer. But when I did start writing, what came naturally to me was to work with the language I spoke well and that was partly environmental. My training was in looking at history and landscape in particular. That made sense to me. I am not good at just writing about myself, if I can’t make connections to other things. For me, it came naturally as a manifestation of the work that I’ve been doing for a long time.

I also wanted to move away from the more cold academic tone; I didn’t want to write like that either; I didn’t want it to be clinical. I think that’s where the fusing of the two, the personal and the environmental, comes together for me. 

Were your books received differently in different parts of the world? The English-speaking and the German-speaking parts, for example? I am asking because nature writing seems to have less of a tradition here in Germany. I wasn’t even sure how to translate “nature writing” until I found the series “Naturkunden” by the publishing house Matthes & Seitz, in which the German translation of Two Trees Make a Forest will be published in October.

Yes. I mean even in German, the nature writing prize that is run by Matthes & Seitz is called the “Deutscher nature writing Preis”. We use the term nature writing even in German. That is partly because the tradition is not the same here, as it might be in other regions. So in terms of the reception of my work, my first book Turning, when it came out in Germany, was marketed as a travel book and received as a travel book. But I had a sense from readers and reviews that it was a travel book that puzzled people a little bit, because there was so much personal and environmental content. In the UK, I think it fits fairly neatly into the nature writing genre. In Canada and North America, we will see how Two Trees goes, it is not out yet. But I think there is a strong nature writing tradition there. In Germany, there is almost never a point when I can talk about these books without having to also explain the genre and the tradition they draw on.

“Home is as much in language as it is in landscape”

Your life seems to have been strongly shaped by your parents’ stories of migration and your own relocations to different cities on different continents. In Turning, you write “home is as much in language as it is in landscape”. How do you find home in landscape? Can you explain?

This comes up as a question really often for me: the question of what I consider to be home or where I’m from. And it is always the most complicated question for me because I can never say I am from this town, from this country and that’s it. I was born in London, Ontario, Canada, to two immigrant parents. From there, I moved multiple times. I lived on three continents. I can’t really condense this into one thing. So for me, this sense of finding home in the landscape is about memory, and it’s about repetition. In the book, I talk about this phrase 我回來了, which means ‘I have returned’. I think about it really often in terms of having memories to come back to in a place. When I first decided that I want to swim in lakes in Berlin – I swam in 52 over the course of a year – what I was trying to do, was to stretch over the landscape to say ‘I’ve cycled to this place, I know this place’; this is something that I can consider as known to me on some level. Obviously, every place is far more complicated and vast and can exceed that knowing, but I might be able to return to places and have a sense of familiarity. That has been the most important component of a sense of home for me. I am one of those people that obsessively likes to retrace going to the same places that I’ve been before.

Moving to different places, then, seems to expand your notion of home. At the same time, your understanding of home seems to be related to a sense of loss. It becomes particularly clear when you speak about language. You learned Mandarin as a child, but in your book you write that “in time the words disappeared” and you only spoke English at home. Can you talk a bit more about the relationship of a sense of home and language?

When I was writing Turning, and it was part of the reason why I ended up writing Two Trees make a Forest right afterwards, it was a period of my life when I realized that my German had gotten to a certain point where it was better than my Mandarin had ever been. I don’t even know how to explain how upset that made me. Not that I didn’t want to be speaking German, but it devastated me in a way. I realized that this thing that was the key to communicating with my grandparents on my mother’s side, or even to communicate with my mother in her own language — that I couldn’t do it. I started thinking about language a lot more at that point. I realized that I drew enormous comfort from hearing Mandarin spoken, because it was the language my mother spoke to us when we were babies. Even now, I watch a lot of TV or I listen to music in Chinese. Even if I don’t understand what is being said, there is a part of me that feels soothed. It’s just the familiar sounds, the familiar tones, the familiar words here and there. I think there is something in that.

But I do also sometimes feel very comfortable in German and sometimes very comfortable in other languages. When I was in Taiwan working on my second book, there was a point after a month or two after I’d been there and I’d been only speaking Mandarin and English and I met a German guy and I spoke to him in German and I was like ‘Oh this feels so different and good at the same time!’ So it’s funny how languages become a part of you.

Two Trees Make a Forest is similar to Turning in style and it also explores questions of home and belonging through place and language. But it is set in Taiwan. Can you tell us what inspired you to write this book?

I already mentioned the language component, which was a huge part of it. In 2016, my grandmother on my mom’s side died. It had been a really long time coming. But she was someone with whom we all had a really troubled relationship. I think difficult would be a generous and vague word I could use to describe our relationships with her. After she passed away, my mother was cleaning out her house. She found a number of things, among them a letter that was written by my grandfather many years before. He had already been dead for almost 10 years by that time. When my mother opened it, she realized that it was a memoir of his life. He had written it as he was developing Alzheimer’s. It was this maze of a document that looped around and repeated and wasn’t always reliable, but sometimes it was a crystal clear telling of his life story, which was incredibly remarkable. He had been born in China, became a Flying Tiger in the Chinese Air force in the Second World War, and then had moved to Taiwan. He had quite an extraordinary life, which entangled him in capital H History – big world events in governments, in the kind of stuff you read about when you study history. It was fascinating, because it was stuff we had never known.

What happens to every writer in every family is that you give that content to the writers always. That’s what people do. My mom gave me the letter, the memoir, and I couldn’t read it, because it was written in Chinese. That for me was one of those moments when I realized I wanted to do something with this passionately and deeply, but I needed to do a lot of learning in order to do it. I had been trying for many years to write my grandparents’ story – or what I knew about it – but at that point it was not much. In my early 20s, I tried writing it as a novel. But that didn’t happen. I am not very good at fiction; I am not good at making things up. I had put it in the metaphorical drawer of my hard drive and not touched it for years. When this memoir came into my life, I thought: I need to do something with this, but I need to do it in a language that I speak, which for me is landscape. That was my way in.

“Taiwan is still a colonized space”

I found the historical context that you provide in the book fascinating. Different colonizing forces that tried to colonize Taiwan appear. They entail discourses of ‘civilizing’ an ‘outpost’. Could you tell us a bit more about the different colonial ventures in which Taiwan has been historically entangled – be they European, Japanese or Chinese?

One of the first things I will always say is that Taiwan is still a colonized space and this is really important. People like my grandparents’ generation came when Taiwan was handed back to the Chinese government in 1945 – the official name of Taiwan is still Republic of China and this is incredibly controversial. It’s one of the things I write about in the book: my grandparents’ generation was a colonizing generation in Taiwan.

Taiwan was one of those spaces through the 1600s in particular that presented a problem for a lot of colonial explorers in that it was very inaccessible on half of the island. The West coast of the island became the colonized side of the island; the rest was mountainous and full of cliffs, and impossible to work with. But by the nature of its geography and what it had on the island, it was a space that was heavily sought after. A lot of battles were fought to gain hold of Taiwan. There is a fantastic historian, Emma J. Teng, who works specifically on that period of Taiwan in visual culture. She looks at maps and images and documents like colonial travelogues of that time. Her writing was helps us to understand this sense of colonialism that isn’t just a Western European country colonizing a distant orientalized other. But rather, that within Asia, we have these layers of colonization that happen within the regions themselves. Her writing helped me to understand Japan’s imperial efforts, but also China’s. Understanding contemporary history and contemporary politics in Taiwan is so deeply connected to things that happened hundreds of years ago. It’s one of those places where it is still so visible the second you start to pick at the surface. It is a space that hasn’t been decolonized.

Throughout the book, you return to different aspects of colonialism. You mention, for example, the connection of colonial endeavors and the classification of plants. You write: “Foreign botany was made possible by local knowledge and labour”. Can you elaborate on that particular aspect of colonial practices?

This is a thing that became really clear to me as a result of my language gaps. The history of Taiwan, aside from what is written in English, was inaccessible to me. When I wanted to learn about botany and Taiwan in particular, there was not a huge amount in English. So the texts I turned to in the end, because I was able to read them fluently, were colonial travelogues, which meant I had that love-hate fascination —  ‘I want to know more’, but also ‘that’s a really racist thing to say’. That was the dynamic that was playing out as I was doing the research. One of the things that is apparent in those texts – some of them had photographs, there are very detailed accounts of this – is that access to the mountains in Taiwan and an introduction to the plants, to the native ecology in Taiwan, were given by locals. None of whom actually got to name those plants. They had their own names for them, but in the official taxonomy that we use for speaking about these plants, they are named after foreigners. The worst one is Morrison. Yu Shan, the tallest mountain in Taiwan, used to be called Mount Morrison. There are two accounts. One of which is that it was named for a navy sailor and one of which is that it was a merchant sailor or a missionary. It’s one of these two Morrisons that the mountain is named after, neither of whom actually ever set foot on Taiwan. A lot of the plants that grow in the region of this mountain are named Morrisonica or Morrison something. It’s wild to me, when you really think about it: the power in that kind of naming from the period of colonial botany and plant exploration.

“We have always existed”

Apart from being a writer, you are the founding-editor of the Willowherb Review. On its website, it reads “The Willowherb Review aims to provide a digital platform to celebrate and bolster nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour”. Why is it important to increase the visibility of nature writing by People of Color?

As you just said, increasing the visibility is the thing. In the years before I founded the Willowherb, I had read endless newspaper articles and laments and Twitter complaints of people saying that there were no writers of Color writing about nature or that they couldn’t find them. With the Willowherb, what I really wanted to underscore was the sense that actually these writers do exist. We have always existed. Perhaps you haven’t been hearing us. But that’s no fault of our own. So I wanted to give that space some devoted oxygen that could allow writers to say ‘ok, I am going to publish this piece here and it will be seen by people looking specifically for this’. That was really important for me because I was just tired of explaining. You get to a point where you get tired of making lists for people of, for example, this should be your anti-racist reading list. The Willowherb was a way of banking that community and that knowledge for people. Now they cannot say ‘you are not here’. They cannot say we are not trying. That was really important to me. These writers are there and if people aren’t reading them that’s their own fault at this point.

You can find the video of the event on youtube. Our next Green Library event will be on July 8, 2020.