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CAT Book Club: Notes of a Crocodile

Qiu Miaojin, A Writer’s Writer

Have you started Notes of a Crocodile yet?

Even from the very first page, it’s clear that Qiu Miaojin is up to something far more complex than merely telling a love story. Let’s look at the initial scene, shall we? The narrator goes to pick up her university diploma and conjures the voices of a cast of notable (all-male) Japanese writers whom she no doubt read while at university: Osamu Dazai, Yukio Mishima, Haruki Murakami. It’s a bold beginning to a novel that continues to surprise me.

In this essay published years before her full-length publication of Notes of a Crocodile, translator Bonnie Huie wrote about Qiu’s style and, in particular, the first page:

Qiu is what you’d call a writer’s writer, usually someone you read because you love to follow the motions of his or her voice. Her prose reads like non-fiction, a genre which is, above all else, about cultivating a style. It lays out its own aesthetic blueprint, a constellation of writers and filmmakers of real spiritual conviction and of real artistic risk, a somewhat reserved school of thought which answers a work’s own call to necessity, knowing that whether it succeeds or fails, it all looks the same from above. The epigraphs on the first page of Notes of a Crocodile are entirely made up, but they clearly indicate what gifts she wanted to receive from her literary forefathers who, in this case, are all giants of modern Japanese fiction. From Dazai, something erotic and personal. Not quite autobiography, yet impossible to separate the author from the story. From Mishima, the most beautiful writer in the language, easily the mightiest pen. Burn his biography and perfect artistry will survive in his works regardless. From Murakami, a brand-name degree that means nothing unless you can communicate with the general public. The easier the sentence, the further it will travel. These are all aspects of a single persona that come together organically, exquisitely in the voice of a young woman writing in Chinese. At the same time, there’s a bit of swagger in the mouth. Partly a natural boyishness, partly the college kid talking, and partly the mature writer who openly flouted linguistic conventions and boundaries.

This is a perfect introduction to Qiu Miaojin and explains her very unique writing style, blending together elements that you seldom see in the same novel. And so, in part, this novel feels like a book about writing. The narrator even goes so far as to break the fourth wall and describe her writing practice to us at times: “Locked the door. Shut the windows. Took the phone off the hook and sat down. And that’s how I wrote. I wrote till I was exhausted…”

Writing feels like a muscle in this book. You can feel Qiu flex when she transitions between styles, or when her confessional tone veers into a particularly poetic description. The purpose of the text seems to continually transform. Is this the narrator’s diary? Is it a survival guide to be read by other queers? When the crocodiles begin to crop up, we suddenly feel like we’re reading a surreal and symbolic story. What is interesting is how Qiu folds all of these different styles into one, so that even the crocodiles become part of the same realistic world in which Lazi lives.

Background Reading:

Los Angeles Review of Books on the role of the reader:

“With its confessional intimacy and its single-blind narrator, you may not realize that you, as the audience, have been constructed just as much as any other “character” in the novel; and that, in a kind of role-reversal, it is you who are the novel’s intimate object. You are Qiu’s conscript confidante and, as uncomfortable as that may be, this displacement (or misplacement) of agency in the emotional grammar of the memoir is one of this author’s signature literary achievements.”

Asian Review of Books on the layered meaning of the crocodiles:

“These crocodiles in hominid clothing represent the non-hetero citizens of the island. They attempt to fit in. Sometimes they pass as normal. Other times they fail. All experience pain. As much as this novel is about Lazi’s story, the crocodiles’ ‘notes’ are also meant to speak to this larger, queer population.”

“The Legacy of the Crocodile” gives some background on queer literature in Taiwan and, specifically, the legacy of Qiu Miaojin.

The New York Times describes Notes of a Crocodile as a “futuristic text, as it contains conversations about identity that are happening now.”