Carmella reviews Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Notes of a Crocodile

Trigger warning: this review discusses suicide.

What do crocodiles and lesbians have in common? Plenty of things, as I learned from Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile.

The novel, first published in Chinese in 1994, is a fragmented, broody, and often puzzling coming-of-age tale. The main story is told through journal entries by our narrator, a college student nicknamed Lazi.

In her first year of study, Lazi begins a turbulent relationship with a fellow student, Shui Ling. Although she knows her love for other women is innate, Lazi is filled with self-loathing: she sees her identity as a crime. As a result, she sabotages the relationship to avoid confronting intimacy.

Over the remainder of her college years, Lazi returns obsessively to her experience with Shui Ling, which she sees as her one great love – but only great because it ended before it could become really real. In the meantime, she forms other relationships – some romantic, some sexual, some platonic – with a variety of queer people.

Notes of a Crocodile isn’t a plot-heavy book. Rather, it’s about the introspective development of a character. Lazi is romantic but melancholic, self-absorbed but self-hating. She’s likeable, but she can also be a bit much!

Lazi’s main quest, as I see it, is to learn how to love. More specifically: how to love as a lesbian. With no societal script to guide her, it’s a messy process of trial and error. Her experiences are mirrored by her friends’ relationships, which can be seen as various models for how queer love can be. They’re a vibrant cast of characters, from a loud-and-proud bisexual gangster and his depressed journalist ex-boyfriend, to a try-hard overachiever and her slacker guitarist sweetheart. Getting to know them is one of my favourite parts of the book.

But don’t get me wrong: none of them any good at love either! Lazi has to learn from their bad examples. As she says towards the end, “On how to love well: instead of embracing a romantic ideal, you must confront the meaning of every great love that has shattered, shard by shard.”

And what about the crocodile? Well, it crops up in a series of satirical vignettes that break up Lazi’s narrative – which is much-needed, given how bleak her story can be.

The crocodile has lived its whole life wearing a human suit, trying to fit into a human-normative society. Despite its desperate longing to connect with its own kind, because all other crocodiles also wear human suits, the crocodile can’t be sure that it’s ever met another one for real. Does this sound like a familiar experience? It certainly resonated with my teenage memories!

While society hates and fears crocodiles, it’s also fascinated with them. During the course of the novel, Taiwan’s media is whipped up into a crocodile-frenzy, obsessed with finding out every detail of these outsiders who live among the normal populace. Headlines scream: “BREAKING NEWS: CREAM PUFFS ARE A CROCODILE FAVOURITE!” Should the crocodile feel flattered, or fetishised?

Oddly, although these crocodile sections are humorous, they were also the ones that touched me the most.

Around the time of the book’s first publication, lesbians were under a similar scrutiny in the Taiwanese media. That same year, a TV journalist secretly filmed patrons at a lesbian bar, resulting in many being outed without their consent. In a separate incident, two female students (who attended the same high school where Miaojin had once studied) committed a double-suicide, leading to media speculation that they had been in a lesbian relationship. Medical experts and psychologists were called to comment and analyse the girls’ motives. As Miaojin satirises, “various crocodile experts had begun to crop up” – all of them spouting contradictory pseudo-scientific nonsense.

From the outset, I was expecting this to be a sad book. I’ve read Miaojin’s other novel, Last Words from Montmartre, which is an extended suicide note. Miaojin herself committed suicide in 1995, at the age of 26. So I was unsurprised by how self-destructive the characters in Notes of a Crocodile are.

However, I was surprised by how defiant the book felt as well. Yes, Lazi is miserable, but she keeps on trying to build human connections, to find a love that will last. I didn’t come away feeling miserable. Or, at least, not too miserable. And I enjoyed its puzzles and parallels, the way you have to pick apart metaphors and pop culture references to understand what’s being said. I still don’t understand it completely – but that’s part of what makes me like it.

Marthese reviews Their Story (Tamen De Gushi) by Tan Jiu

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“What’s up with her today?” “Youth”

Their Story (Tamen De Gushi) is a full colour Manhua (Chinese Comic) that is still ongoing, about Sun Jing and Qiu Tong, two girls from neighboring schools.

Sun Jing, a popular girl at her school has a crush on Qui Tong, who she sees at a bus stop but cannot talk to her. Despite being confident and coming off as a bit of a player and heart breaker, one smile from Qui Tong make Sun Jing redden and unable to speak. After a burst of confidence however, the two become friends.

We get to see short glimpses into their interactions, with some subplots and side characters. There are even holiday special strips, with one of them including a recipe! I really like when comics or books teach you things (I read a 4 volume manage called Stretch by Higashiyama Shou that has two female main characters that teach readers how to do stretching in everyday life! It’s a series that you never knew needed in your life)

The art is rather nice. It feels like a mix between simple and detailed and the colours are really warm. The plot starts almost immediately and we get to see scenes, then after a couple of chapters we get to see the actual backstory.

The interactions between Sun Jin and Qui Tong are super cute, sometimes awkward and very realistic. Sometimes we get to see the same scene from the two protagonists’ perspectives, which gives us more of an insight in their mind rather than the scene just being narrative.

Sun Jing is rowdy, has mostly male friends – her main best friend is Qi Fang who is also rather popular and tends to be ditched by Sun Jing and serves as her wingman- and is refreshingly honest. She does not over-think too much. She’s also a bit of a tomboy and rather funny.

Qui Tong is also popular but does not have that many friends. She misunderstands Sun Jing at first but soon learns the truth, twice. She does cute things from Sun Jing and it will make your heart melt and squee sound effects are guaranteed.

Because the narrative part are mostly told from Sun Jing’s perspective and in the setting is mostly her school, Qui Tong is more mysterious. Let’s hope for more development in her character soon!

I wanted to review this manhua because, let’s admit, there aren’t that many manga/manhua/manhwa  featuring queer women as main characters that are great. Despite Tamen De Gushi being still ongoing, it may be worth a read, or a bookmark. That’s right, as it is not officially sold in English, Scanlators (people that scan and translate than upload on the internet) have taken it upon themselves to show us this great story. This reddit topic may help: https://www.reddit.com/r/manga/comments/2s0vue/disc_their_story_ch_3137/

A reminder that Manhuas are read from left to right not from right to left like Mangas!

Marthese reviews Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

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Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a novella based on Chinese mythology that takes place in modern Hong Kong. This was an interesting premise and although I found it somewhat different from the fantasy that I usually real, it came recommended by a friend, so I gave it a go.

The story follows Julianne Lau, a 24 year old Hong Kong native. She lives with her two aunts, Houyi and Chang’e who to be clear are married to each other not related! This story starts with Julianne meeting a viper, a creature that looks like a human but isn’t. The viper is draw by the divine aura around Julianne which was acquired with her living with goddesses. The viper, called Olivia or Xiaoqing tells Julianne who she meets a couple of times that she wants a meeting with Chang’e, her aunt. Grudges among divine creatures last very long and there are a lot of enemies or past enemies for such a short book.

Julianne has body image issues, self-esteem issues and had encounters with depression. However, she is trying to be better. Like her aunt Chang’e, she is kind and she tries to control her sense of wanting attention sometimes with consequences.

There are some interesting relationships in the story. First off, I want to mention that we see some of Julianne’s past and about to be past relationships with women. For being such a short recount, it’s very queer.

Chang’e and Houyi have a good relationship based on affection and trust and so Julianne takes them as role models for her love life. Houyi buys Chang’e candies dates even when Chang’e is abroad and she picked her up from the airport in a tuxedo. That’s the level of sweetness that their relationship has. Despite this, they do not spend that much time together as their divine jobs take over a lot of time. Their past as well is tangibly full of sorrow apart from love.

Interesting was to see Houyi’s relationship with Julianne. Although she is technically only an in-law, she seems to be the main ‘caretaker’ while Chang’e, with her kindness takes over soothing roles when needed.

The relationship, as abrupt and like staccato as it was, between Xiaoqing and Julianne was also interesting. Xiaoqing shows Julianne that demons are complex and tells Julianne her story, after which she says she wants Julianne for who she is. Julianne for her part doesn’t care for what her partner looks like and learns to not judge people by the myths that are on them.

‘Demons’ , in this novella, are not villanized instead they are shown to be flawed and wanting to survive but also very diverse and complex with a system of their own

The writing is very descriptive, sometimes like poetry but I felt that at times it was just stretching too much. There are some styles that I liked such as sentences with only one word to describe routines. At times, as there were two sets of names being used, it is very easy to get confused especially if you are not familiar with the myths involved. It also takes a while to make sense after the beginning of a new segment as there are time and special hops, without much explanation.

We see the briskness of Hong Kong. I think this novella captures the metropolitan feel with its description of people and business and billboards.

This story takes on elements from myths such as the gods of sun and moon and the white snake and queers them up. Apart from the queer spins and retellings, it is heavy laden with gender issues and thought. Needless to say, but I will just in case, that this story being based on myth inherits all the strange gore that myths tend to have, so beware!

To end, I thought it was interesting reading a queer retelling of Chinese mythology by a Thai author no less,  instead of British, Canadian or American. I think the style would need some time to get used to, but it’s worth to read it. It lulls between complexities of plot and gender and the easiness of long descriptions that relax you (like one of those relaxation classes).