On June 26, 2016, a political commentator (my uncle), a university professor (my other uncle), and a deeply insignificant 19-year-old (me) shuffled into an apartment building in Xinzhuang, Taiwan to interview Su Beng for a nascent book of poetry about Taiwanese American identity.
Small details swell with grand, wistful nostalgia. The trees in front of his building, by then iconic from how often they’d been the backdrop of frenzied, polarizing reporting. The portrait of Che Guevara, to whom he is often compared.
This meeting was the honor of my life. This man was the polaris of over three generations of Taiwanese people; his book, Taiwan’s 400 Year History, and its English translation, a bible of sorts. It was the first time the history of Taiwan had been written as an anti-colonial source of truth; not as collateral gains from strategic or imperialist conquest, but as a country with a story of its own.
The rallying call of his works resounds: 自己的歷史自己寫. This is the fundamental expectation of all of Taiwan’s modern revolutions, from the Sunflower Movement to the “Write in ‘Taiwanese'” campaign: collective responsibility and accountability. Agency. Authority, not just power. Toni Morrison, another loss in 2019, commands us to write the stories we cannot find. Su Beng’s imperative: to overwrite the histories falsely told of us. From both, we glean our purpose: to make something of what we’ve witnessed.
Su Beng’s death is a staggering loss to all who identify as Taiwanese. May we do right by him.
Learn more about Su Beng:
A Life for an Island: The Life of Su Beng