The book cover of Want
I read two novels back to back, Want by Cindy Pon and Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome by Nancy Taforo-Murphy. Both of these novels are centered in a particular city – Want is centered on Taipei, and Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome (which from now on I will abbreviate as ‘AMCatPoR’) is centered on San Francisco. Reading these two novels one after another – and my familiarity with these two cities – made it apparent that these books are not only about two different cities, but they are presenting those cities from very different perspectives.
I have an odd relationship with Taipei. I lived in Taipei for a few months, and I worked in Taipei for years (my job in Taiwan was split between Taoyuan, Taipei, and Hsinchu), not to mention all the times I went to Taipei to run errands/meet with people/make a transit connection. On the one hand, I got to know Taipei very well because I commuted there so often, but it never became ‘home’ to me the way that Taoyuan did.
In any case, I definitely noticed that Want focused very much on the touristy parts of Taipei and ignored anywhere which was not touristy. For example, they go to the touristy Shilin Night Market, but not the more-popular-with-locals Shida Night Market (confession: I went to the Shilin Night Market more often than the Shida Night Market, but that was only because I went to the Shilin District often – everyone I knew who lived in Taipei preferred the Shida Night Market). I was almost expecting them to go to the National Palace Museum at some point. They go to Snake Alley, which is a place you pretty much only go to if you are a tourist or you are with a tourist. They go to Yangmingshan, the most touristy mountain in Taipei, rather than one of the many other mountains around the Taipei Basin.
Meanwhile, there are many features of Taipei which I found prominent, but the novel ignores. I was amazed by all the rivers in Taipei because I had never lived in a city with a river before, let alone FOUR rivers (yep, there are four rivers in Taipei – the Dahan river, the Keelung River, the Xindian river, and the Tamsui river). Yet the novel hardly ever mentions the rivers at all, not even to say something along the lines of ‘the rivers were such toxic polluted messes that they all had been buried in tunnels to prevent their corrosive chemicals from destroying the buildings whenever there a flood’ (yeah, this is a dystopia novel).
I know that Cindy Pon was born in Taipei. I don’t know how much time she has spent in Taipei, but the novel read like it had been written by someone who had visited Taipei, but never immersed themselves in the city.
(I was also wondering the whole time what was going on in other parts of Taiwan. I understand why the writer wanted to keep the action focused on Taipei, but the way they never, ever mentioned anywhere else in Taiwan, not even places like Tamsui or Kaohsiung, was weird. People who live in Taipei often do reference other parts of Taiwan in everyday conversation. On the other hand, people who do not live in Taiwan often do not know about any city/town other than Taipei itself, so the complete lack of recognition any part of Taiwan ex-Taipei contributed to the feeling that this was a shallow outside perspective).
Book cover of Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome
By contrast, AMCatPoR offers ample description of San Francisco, yet barely mentions any touristy areas, and on the rare occasion it mentions a touristy place, it does so in the same context that a local resident would think about the touristy place. In particular, AMCatPoR focuses on the Sunset District. I grew up on the outskirts of the Sunset, and I can tell you that this novel offers a very accurate picture (even though I grew up in a different part of the Sunset than where the novel takes place). I cannot judge if it presents 1940s Irish-American Catholic culture accurately, but it obvious that it was written by someone who knows the Sunset very well.
There is also the matter of audience. Want is written in English, and most people in Taipei do not read novels in English, thus the people of Taipei are not its target audience. AMCatPoR, based on the reviews I’ve found, is mostly read by people who are long-term residents of San Francisco, and I suspect it is to a large extent aimed at San Franciscans. That may be another reason that Want (in spite of having protagonists who spent their whole lives in Taipei) reads like a tourist guide, whereas AMCatPoR reads like a native San Franciscan engaging in nostalgia.
Mind you, I’m not saying that writing about a city from a visitor’s perspective is bad. For example, if I am a traveller, I want my guidebooks to be written from a visitor’s perspective. And in fiction, if the protagonist is a visitor to the city, then a visitor’s perspective is probably appropriate.
I am very used to media presenting San Francisco from a visitor, rather than a residential, perspective, which is why I am so sensitive to whether a writer is writing about San Francisco from the perspective of a visitor or the perspective of a resident. This is the first time I’ve seen Taipei in a fictional presented from a visitor’s perspective, which might be why it was a bit jarring.
I’m not sure if I would have picked up on this if these novels were set in cities I do not know well. I wonder if it possible to write about a city from a resident’s perspective without ever having been a resident. I think it is, but would require good research, and most of all, to mentally put oneself in a resident’s shoes (i.e. ask oneself whether a resident of Taipei would ever want to go to Snake Alley, or whether a resident of San Francisco would ever want to go to Fisherman’s Wharf).