The reluctant biographer

I was recently asked by the New Greater New York Region- Overseas Taiwanese Pen Club to speak about Su Beng and the work that I have been doing to write his biography.

I've decided that my talk will be about my experiences as Su Beng's biographer. And so this has made me think back to how I evolved into this role of being Su Beng's biographer. I am most certainly not a historian, professional academic or expert on Taiwan. And I certainly didn't set out to be a biographer. At first I resisted and then for a long time I didn't completely accept myself in this role.

For years, I've thought about someday taking a stab at writing- perhaps something fictional, in the historical fictional genre, a novel, perhaps something about Taiwan. When I heard about Su Beng there was something about his perseverance, determination, and idealism that gripped me. I had this feeling that it was a story that just had to be told. I saw seeds for a novel, and endless possibilities for the telling and retelling of this story, even adaptations of it in various forms. I had in all this mind when I approached him. Little did I know what I was in store for.

In the beginning I simply asked Su Beng if I could meet with him, if he'd give me a bit of his time to tell me his story. It started off as a series of interviews that I fit in around my teaching schedule. I'd been teaching English full-time in Taiwan for about three years when I took on this project. So I'd make trips up to Taipei from Kaohsiung on the weekends with my digital audio recorder and video camera in tow to talk to Su Beng about his life and adventures. As I started to dig into the details of this man's life, people close to me asked why I didn't just write his life story. I resisted, in fact I didn't even want to consider the idea. I just wanted to write something creative, inspiring and fictional. I didn't want to be known as a biographer. I didn't want to get sidetracked from my original plan to write a fictional novel and ideas for fictional adaptations.

But as time went on, I was clearly becoming increasingly absorbed in the details of this man's life. I blame it on my penchant for details and thoroughness. Finally, after about six months of talking to Su Beng, I realized that I was already well on my way to documenting this man's life, this man who is a living piece of history. So I surrendered and accepted the responsibility. I told Su Beng that I would like to write his biography in English and asked his permission to be his English biographer. He of course agreed.

But for a long time after wards, I felt uncomfortable calling myself a biographer since I didn't feel qualified to claim myself as an expert on any of this. I didn't completely embrace or claim this role. I am perhaps the most "unsuitable" or unlikely of people to take on such a project- an American born Taiwanese woman, who only speaks Taiwanese fluently enough for conversation, but not as fluently as a native speaker, someone was not an expert on Taiwan's or Asia's history. What does it mean to be someone's biographer? Su Beng and I don't exactly have a formal contract or agreement, but a mutual understanding and by now, a good working relationship.

It wasn't until I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, I realized what it takes to be a biographer- the commitment and responsibility.

So after starting to talk to Su Beng, I ended up in Taiwan three more years, meeting with Su Beng outside of my full-time teaching job. All the while, amassing hours upon hours of audio and video recorded interviews.

Another thing I resisted along the way were suggestions to establish some sort of a foundation for my project in order to do fund raising. The resistance was partly because I didn't want to deal with all of the logistics and in the beginning it didn't cost that much- just my travel expenses between Kaohsiung and Taipei, and the video recording equipment- i.e. lots and lots of miniDV tapes.

All of this research was piling up and I knew that I'd have to reckon with it eventually. In 2007 I decided that I would leave my teaching job in Taiwan. I had started to feel stagnant and unchallenged and I knew that I needed to take some time off to translate and organize everything I'd collected for the biography. Fortunately I'd managed to save something from my teaching job over the years, so I decided to take a year off to focus on the biography. It has been a tremendous challenge and at times an uphill battle. I think I am coming through the worst of it- which has been the translation and organization of data collected thus far.

When I loose focus and motivation, I look at what this man has accomplished in his life, his personal trials and tribulations, and enduring spirit, and somehow I'm able to press on.