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A Writer Retraces Her Family's Past in Taiwan

In 'Two Trees Make a Forest,' environmental historian Jessica J. Lee offers a welcome disruption to the travel-memoir genre

Lee’s memoir is, in many ways, her attempt to appease a phantom homesickness. (Photo: Angela Lo/Unsplash)
Lee’s memoir is, in many ways, her attempt to appease a phantom homesickness.

“No single word can contain the movements that carried our story across waters, across continents,” Jessica J. Lee writes of her family’s many migrations in her sweeping memoir Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts. Her maternal grandparents were born in mainland China, her mother was born in Taiwan, and Lee and her sister were born in Canada. The past has many words for them, she writes: “Political migrants. Exiles. Colonists. Diaspora.” But none seem to fit, and with each label, Lee finds herself even further displaced from any identity she can claim, adrift with no land in sight to call home.

The book—a hybrid work that is equal parts nature writing, travel writing, environmental history, and memoir—follows Lee on two trips to her mother’s native Taiwan as she looks to piece together a fragmented family history that was only made known after her maternal grandfather’s passing.

A decade after Lee’s grandfather’s death, and shortly after her grandmother’s, Lee’s mother finds a sealed envelope while cleaning out their small bungalow in Niagara Falls. Inside are 20 loose-leaf papers written in Lee’s grandfather’s hand. They document his former life as a pilot and an instructor for the Republic of China and through the Second Sino-Japanese and civil wars that brought him to Taiwan, where he met Lee’s grandmother. It is the most intimate portrait of a man Lee knew only as a quiet, affectionate grandparent, who spoke to her more in gestures than words. But the account he leaves behind is both disjointed and incomplete—a by-product of encroaching Alzheimer’s disease that eventually interrupts his narrative and leaves it unfinished.

His handwritten autobiography reawakens in Lee a longing to know her motherland. Growing up in Canada—where her grandparents immigrated from Taiwan—Lee had limited opportunities to immerse herself in and claim her mother’s culture. Lee’s memoir is, in many ways, her attempt to appease a phantom homesickness.

A trained environmental historian, Lee adopts a unique approach to making sense of her new landscape. Rather than following a linear chronology, each section of the book focuses on a different natural element: dao (island), shan (mountain, hill), shui (water, river), and lin (forest, woods, grove, or a group of like persons). In each section, Lee weaves together descriptions of the landscape and its history with stories of those who inhabited the island: Indigenous peoples, colonizers, and her own relatives. The natural world, we learn, is Lee’s lingua franca. At times when her elementary Mandarin proficiency fails her, and English can’t make up the deficit, she turns to other languages in which she feels more fluent: “to plants, to history, to landscape.”

Lee also offers comprehensive histories of botany, geology, cartography, and even landscape painting in Taiwan, showing us how these disciplines are connected to colonial efforts “to render the teeming island knowable.” In the early 1900s, for example, when Taiwan was under Japanese rule, painter Ishikawa Kinichiro was sent to draw topological maps of Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range. His drawings were then sent back to Tokyo “to demonstrate the colonial government’s success in ‘civilizing’ the wilder reaches of the ‘savage’ island,” Lee writes. By linking the development of these varied disciplines to incursions into the land by foreign powers, Lee establishes a tradition that she’s careful not to follow: that of the visiting foreigner who has come to conquer the land by making it known to them.

As she attempts to recover the gaps in her grandfather’s stories, Lee’s journey through Taiwan departs from what we typically see from female protagonists in travel writing. As Jessa Crispin writes in the Boston Review, the most popular female-centered travel stories are ones in which the protagonist uses exotic foods, sights, smells, and customs to fuel her self-discovery. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, Crispin writes, “the focus of attention is the self, and the beautiful locale becomes the backdrop of the real action, which is interior psychodrama.” But Lee’s memoir is not an insular journey of self-discovery; instead, it’s motivated by a desire to connect with a landscape that, before now, only ever existed in her childhood imagination as a place inherited from her mother’s memories. 

In the process, Lee offers a divergent model for a travel memoir, in which the land is the lead character in the work, itself an ancestor that she longs to know. Although Lee does not place herself at the center of the narrative, she is in the frame, where her actions and intentions are scrutinized as much as the landscape. Her perspective provides a refreshing departure from the norm: for Lee, it is not the landscape that is foreign but the author herself. Although she is a descendant of this land, she makes sure to establish herself as a respectful visitor, giving the island room to reveal itself to her as it wishes to be seen.

At times the sheer amount of sensory and contextual detail slows the pace of the book. But in her meticulous approach to the terrain, I recognize the feverish work undertaken by many diasporan writers trying to commit every inch of their ancestral homelands to memory. “I want to know this place,” she writes, “to feel some sense of familiarity, but that is not simple.” While traditional travel writing has inherited a colonial desire to “possess” places through knowledge, Lee applies the same approach to achieve the opposite effect: Lee’s journey reflects her yearning to be claimed.

According to the geographic record, Taiwan is a place defined by its many disruptions and faults, with natural forces such as quakes, landslides, and typhoons routinely decimating landscapes and rewriting them anew. The island, she writes, is “forged in movement.” And in that rhythm of violent removal and displacement, Lee finds an echo of her maternal family’s migrations from mainland China to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, across the Pacific Ocean to Canada, and, eventually, back to Taiwan.

In learning Taiwan’s landscape, Lee discovers some reflection of herself. She finds kinship with the Barringtonia asiatica, a tree whose fruit is dispersed by water and has been known to survive floating on the sea for longer than a decade before it makes landfall. “A tree ever in search of newness, it makes a home wherever the sea might send it,” she writes, and takes comfort in the fluid origins of a migrating species. So, too, does she find comfort in the endangered black-faced spoonbill, a migratory bird that shelters in Taiwan every winter but inhabits many homes along the East China Sea. And in the island’s alpine plants, which are forced to inch ever upward, potentially into extinction, as they are slowly displaced by lower-elevation species creeping into higher altitudes due to climate change. They too know what it is to move when life demands it.

While the longing that hums beneath Lee’s words is never entirely satisfied, it is eased and relieved. Ultimately, she finds that her motherland is a place of perpetual migration, and at long last, she feels less adrift.

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