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Last Words from Montmartre (Qiu Miaojin) – other erin's book/poem of the month

(cw: reference to suicide)

I’ve been medium-level obsessed with the Taiwanese writer Qiu Miaojin for the past several months. I gave my younger cousin her first novel Notes of a Crocodile (translated by Bonnie Huie) for Christmas, but the little present-unwrapping dialogue of ‘Ooh what’s this’ and ‘Wow looks interesting’ didn’t satisfy me, so now you have to hear about her as well. Qiu is the greatest icon of the late 20th century Taiwanese lesbian/queer literature movement (despite resisting any sort of label in her work and life), celebrated for the power and unabashed confidence of her writing: the short stories she wrote while at National Taiwan University, Notes of a Crocodile, and Last Words from Montmartre (translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich), shortly after finishing which she killed herself, in June 1995, aged 26. 

It’s easy to just talk about this novel in relation to Qiu’s death, but there’s so much more cool stuff going on in it than just whatever she might have had in common with the narrator. First off, Last Words from

Montmartre is an epistolary novel, made up of 21 letters, which can be read in any order. This is a cool idea, and it’s really well-executed. It sort of deconstructs the idea of a novel and emphasises the role of the reader, keeping you on your toes – as a reader you’re piecing together the life, emotions, and complicated relationships of the narrator, Zoë, from what feel like very real and raw and confessional letters to and about the other characters (and sometimes back from Zoë’s ex-lover Xu), all of whom are past or potential love interests. The letters are connected by being written by Zoë and discussing many of the same events, but they are also all very individual, stylistically and tonally distinct, expressing very different emotional states and philosophies as Zoë tries to come to terms with the breakdown of their relationship with Xu and explores aspects of their life and possible selves through their relationships with the other characters.

These characters and ways of being are connected with the places where they live. There’s Xu, returned to

Taiwan from France and representing in some ways the Taiwan and life Zoë left behind. Her story slowly unfolds through Zoë’s extremely emotionally charged and powerful, as well as very changeable letters, variously blaming Xu for the end of their relationship, pleading for forgiveness, theorising about love – that

they would never really be able to stop loving Xu, or that Xu would never really be able to stop loving them, or that they were perfect together or that they would never be able to live happily together – and feeling guilty for loving Xu too much, or not enough, or not in the right way, and for not being able to marry her. And Xu’s letters back show the same desperate love and the same guilt that their relationship, stretched between continents and changing people, fell apart. But this intensely moving love story isn’t Zoë’s whole life. There’s Yong in Tokyo, a distant, but unexplored and exciting place, and a prospect for the unconditional, enduring and perfect love for which Zoë yearns. In Paris, and without tying Zoë down, is the politically engaged French lesbian – Zoë writes ‘the word “lesbian” is a term that is only really meaningful in political contexts’ – Laurence, with whom Zoë has casual sex and talks about Laurence’s very different life growing up in the French Leftist political sphere. That’s one of the only mentions of politics in the book. All these relationships are very fragile, existing against a background of extreme intolerance, but Qiu mostly keeps things like labels and politics in that background and focuses on what matters to her: the loves between the characters (and the sex).

Qiu plays a lot with identity throughout the novel. That can mean identity as constructed through being in love with someone – Zoë writes to Xu ‘I want to transform myself into an idol in the temple of my own life so that I can complete the meaning of my eternal love for you’ – or trying become a sort of idealised new self: for the married, sophisticated Qing Jin, Zoë wants to ‘reincarnate’ into ‘a Zoë who smokes cigarettes, who has long hair, who is immersed in learning the violin [...] a Zoë who is handsome and beautiful’, and, going to see Yong, they write ‘before I left Paris I had gotten a haircut, threw out my old jeans, and bought an entirely new outfit’. It also means gender identity. In Letter Eleven, trying to move on from Xu, Zoë contemplates their gender and sexual identity:

‘Then I decided to forget you, to transform myself into someone entirely different from my old self: a vital personality. Suddenly it seemed so easy, so entirely possible to imagine. It would be so easy to cast off the defining features of my old self that I couldn’t rid myself of before…

Since returning from Tokyo, I can feel the nature of my sexuality changing, gradually changing, a tectonic change so mysterious and private that I initially wasn’t sure what was happening or what triggered it. I could feel myself “becoming a woman” (according to some basic biological definition of “woman” anyway) or perhaps just becoming a Woman. […] I also dreamed I had long “feminine” hair, and in the dream I was aware that I was enjoying my appearance and that my face was becoming more beautiful (a “feminine” sort of beauty) […] And I felt a sexual relationship with a man was possible (just the sex) […] It was entirely possible; I had changed into another person. I was scared to death as it was a way, the perfect way, to escape from my erotic and romantic desires for you.’ 

This ‘becoming a Woman’, also associated with straightness, doesn’t last long. Zoë’s romantic and sexual love for women is perhaps the only clear constant of their identity in the novel. They explicitly can only fall in love with women – writing ‘ever since I was very young, it’s been a 100 percent attraction to women – but explicitly distinguish themself from being a woman and many associations with femininity, only consider the possibility of womanhood when trying to reshape themself here. They have ‘an innate “maleness”’, and write later in the same letter ‘My passion for women is so innate that it doesn’t matter if the one who falls in love with me is a lesbian or not. As long as she has no prejudices about genitals, love and sex come naturally’. Zoë’s gender is actually kept deliberately ambiguous throughout the novel, partly because they’re the writer of almost all the letters and only refer to themself with the genderless ‘I’ (我, wǒ), but also when they’re referred to in the third person Qiu switches between the pronouns 她 and 他 (both tā, meaning she and he/ambiguous). Qiu avoids stating any label which Zoë might fall into, but I think we today in English can pretty fairly say this is an assertion of some sort of non-binaryness. Do you find all this is as cool as I do? This whole novel is a radically queer rebellion against solid ideas of identity, pushing against the boundaries of language and literary form, and also it’s just really really good. Read it (or Notes of a Crocodile). 


other erin (she/her)


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