A few months ago, I accidentally came across a brief work-in-progress by Abe Young, a 2nd generation Taiwanese American who was inspired to write about the generally touchy subject of Taiwan-China-US relations. What captured my attention most was his wonderful ability to explore the depth and breadth of the issues, yet frame it through a captivating conversation that he had one day with his two fellow volunteers at the Housing Works Used Books & Cafe. I was so impressed by his writing that I emailed him immediately to express my support.
Over the past few months, I have been able to watch his work evolve from simple manuscript to now fully published book entitled Humanity at Stake: On why the world should now end China’s military & political aggression, understand Taiwan’s democracy, and defend 23 million citizens’ human right to self-determination. (Phew! That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?)
I feel privileged to have been an official advance reviewer of Abe’s book and to also have my quote printed on the back cover, sandwiched between Dr. June Dreyer, a previous commissioner of the United States Economic and Security Review Commission, and Shawna Yang Ryan, an award-winning fiction author who was previously featured on TaiwaneseAmerican.org. Despite my lack of literary or political expertise, what I can assure you is that this book is an interesting and quick read, but more importantly, will bring you up to speed on some of the most current and pressing issues facing Taiwan in the world arena today. And, you won’t feel like you’re learning it from a textbook…
I recently caught up again with Abe to ask him a few questions.
A: Hello Ho Chie. Thanks for inviting me to this interview. Hello, fellow readers of TaiwaneseAmerican.org!
H: Abe, you’ve written this wonderful book based on a conversation revolving around Taiwan-China-US politics that many of us have had, and yet others try to avoid. What do you personally hope will come of this “discussion?”
A: I’m glad you and others have taken so positively to Humanity at Stake’s narrative. Even more, I’m glad you view the book as a tangible object in the real world that can really instigate and facilitate discussion on this difficult subject. As for what will come out of this discussion, or anyone’s discussion really, is anyone’s guess, but one simple hope is that readers who are new or familiar to the Taiwan-China-world issue will be that much more likely to engage with friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers, and their political representatives. In other words, I would not presume to guess the effects and outcomes of any group of people’s discussion, but I do know that no positive change comes out of the absence of this type of engagement.
H: I’m quite fascinated by the fact that you’ve captured the essence of the political issues through the eyes of two other individuals: Chris, who was an American military pilot during the first Gulf war, and Wang, who is an ethnically Chinese immigrant college student. Have you had a chance to talk to them since the book was published, and what have they had to say?
A: In the week after I wrote down our conversation and finished the first draft of the entire document–I thought of it as a document, back then–I got in touch with Chris and Wang and told them about my writing. Chris is an American Airlines pilot and was out-of-state at the time, so we conversed over the phone and he immediately remembered that discussion the three of us had at Housing Works. He later emailed and told me that he had a “very enjoyable time in the basement that February morning. The conversation was so interesting and from points of view/experience so different to mine.” Around the same time I got to meet up with Wang one day, since he’s a student in Manhattan, at a coffee shop not far from Housing Works. Wang is a journalism student and at the time he was working on a student-run newspaper. So when I showed him the manuscript we enthusiastically chatted about our writings, and he was excited to see our dialogue written down in this unique format. And actually, just last week I spoke to Wang again when a reporter from Sing Tao Daily was asking me some details about the three of us for his newspaper article. Fortunately, Wang and Chris are very kind, thoughtful, and open-minded people–or else our initial conversation wouldn’t have had the stamina or engagement that it did!
H: Yes, that’s so true. Plus, the way in which you step into their shoes throughout the narrative and conversation really helps to bring the issues to life. There’s a certain sense of vibrancy and youthful exploration in this approach of yours. Speaking of youthfulness, it might be said that you are a very young author and new on the scene. Did you face any challenges through this writing or publishing process?
A: Young? That’s great to hear because I just turned 26 today and I’ve been feeling old–over a quarter-century old! As for whether I faced challenges through this writing or publishing process: yes and yes. Both, very much so. The bulk of my time, energy, and focus was spent after I had written down the conversation in its entirety. Finding the heart and character of the book, and adding the appropriate layers and improving and improving was difficult, and felt unending at some points. But it was always exciting because I felt this work was on to something. As for the publishing process, that has been an entirely new set of challenges, on a daily basis–but I wouldn’t want to bore you or TaiwaneseAmerican.org readers with those mundane details. One interesting thing I’ve often thought of, though, is back when I worked in book publishing I always thought critically of the elaborate marketing and publicity operations that seemed to distract from the integrity of the writing itself–but now being on the writer’s side trying constantly to get the word out on this book to as wide an audience as possible, often I’ve wished I had a marketing department, or experienced publicist to help expand these efforts, and to take the work of “selling” off of my hands. It has been tough to keep up with everything since the book’s publication. To be honest, I wish I could go back to spending my time writing and reading instead of this–but I guess for now, it is hard to avoid the necessary time commitment to try to get this book to mainstream America.
H: It definitely sounds like a lot of hard work! But, I have no doubt that the book will make its way out there. Out of curiosity, where did you grow up? And what were your significant experiences that influenced you to discover your identity as a Taiwanese American?
A: Growing up I was in a few locations like kindergarten in Iowa and three years of grade school in Taiwan, but most of my formative years I grew up in Miami, where I was born. The so-called “discovery of my identity” as a Taiwanese American was not unlike many other Taiwanese Americans who attended college on the East Coast or California. Our campus TA organization at Brown my freshman year was a bunch of friendly, cool, quirky kids and I got conned into joining the fun at some free food events–then my sophomore year I attended BITSA and ITASA and met cool friendly Taiwanese American kids from all over the country, and back on campus I once got interested in helping research Taiwan’s history for 10/10 holiday to make flyers to hand out on campus, and from there, I fell in love with learning all about Taiwan–a subject I hadn’t known much of anything about but a subject that had been personal for my family members growing up. And once I learned more, I felt confident about “my identity” more, and I began to love sharing Taiwan with anyone and everyone, etc. And I have to say, there is no better setting to learn-&-share–to engage–than on a college campus.
H: Have you written other books or essays previously? When did you discover your love for writing?
A: Yes. In 5th grade I wrote a book with color markers called “The First Coconut”. It entailed two cavemen, one named Nut and the other Cocoa, and when Cocoa (the dumber caveman) was walking and counting his fingers one day, he ran into a tree knocking down a hard round fruit. Then Nut (the smarter of the two) found Cocoa lying on the floor, found the fruit, sliced it open with a sharp rock, and together they drank the sweet juice–since they both helped discover it, from then on it was named “Coconut.” It had cool illustrations. After that, I generally took a long sabbatical from writing, and only discovered my love for language in college, where I fell in love with writing intricate essays analyzing Faulkner novels for class, then also writing short stories about my fat cat, a drunken Texan-Mexican who looking for a urinal stumbled into church, and a homeless wanderer on the side of a highway. In the past 5 years, though, my love for literature and writing has mostly taken me into American poetry, and–aside from a few op-eds I wrote during college–Humanity at Stake has been my first venture into nonfiction of this sort.
H: Coconut. I like that one! You’ve come a long way! Anyways, a good portion of the proceeds from your book sales will go towards supporting the non-for-profit organization Human Rights Watch. That is quite admirable of you. Give us some insight into your personal thoughts on human rights beyond Taiwan and on the global level.
A: The bold and essential work that Human Rights Watch does in the world is what’s admirable. In the past year when I’ve often read about the tragic assaults on individual rights told through a news article, email, or website, it is always HRW, Amnesty, or the proactive people at mission-driven organizations like these, who have chosen to dedicate their jobs, skills, and lives to standing up for what they see is right, giving voice to those who deservingly, and urgently, need it. Also, those proactive people do the sometimes controversial but always important work of bringing unwanted attention to the aggressors and violators. For instance, in a blog and emails I’ve written to friends trying to help give voice to Chinese human rights activists like Hu Jia currently being silenced by the Communist Party and thrown in jail, I’ve often put to use the great resources at hrw.org like their publication of Hu Jia and Teng Biao’s open letter to the Chinese government, “The Real China and the Olympics”. Pressure on dictators and violators will only come with disseminating information, and truthful information under a dictator will only come with people who are vocal, passionate, and driven. Also, the other side of what is needed is an audience of many people who are willing to listen, to lend their ears and minds, and in turn to engage by pressuring the violators–thereby completing the transformative loop. In fact, all these components I just mentioned were present and critical during the Taiwanese struggle for individual rights in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, which enabled Taiwan to finally transform into the full human-rights respecting democracy that it is today. I’m not sure if all this is along the lines of an answer you were looking for, Ho Chie, but anyways these are just some thoughts that come to mind about human rights in the world. But what do I know–I’m just a young twenty-six year old thinking about the big world!
A: Meet people, think about the things in the world, and hopefully do the things that I love to do.
H: That’s what I love to hear. Keep up the good work, and thanks so much for your time today! It was a pleasure discovering your initial writing, which lead to this final composition. I have no doubt that many people will learn much about the current issues facing Taiwan and the world through your book. I look forward to catching you on tour sometime!
TaiwaneseAmerican.org is proud to offer autographed copies of Humanity at Stake to three readers of this website! To be entered in the raffle, send an email to [email protected] with the subject line “Humanity” and on June 22nd the winners will be chosen at random.
*EDIT* Congratulations to Daphne L. of Fremont, CA, John T. of New York, NY, and Deborah C. of Owings Mills, MD on winning the books!