TiBE 台北國際書展 2024.2.20-25

Readers Guide to Syaman Rapongan

2 September 2019 /

Eye of the Sea—Syaman Rapongan

                                    By Yu-lin Lee (Research Fellow, Academia Sinica)


“Our world is complete,” I am a writer of the world, an island, and the sea.


        In the prelude to The Eye of the Ocean (Mata nu Wawa), Syaman Rapongan (1957-) described how he arrived in Taiwan from a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean and first came into contact with modern civilization. He later realized that he was being conditioned by modern civilization, so he decided to renounce modern civilization and return to his homeland. Back on his island, he embarked upon a journey to rediscover his tribal roots and to follow in the footsteps of the elders in his tribe. Syaman Rapongan’s literary work provide readers with a very different view of the ocean, and a view of the natural world and the world at large that is very different from contemporary society.


        The protagonists in Syaman Rapongan’s writings often renounce civilization and attempt to return to tribal life. This seems to be a recurrent theme in his works of literature. Syaman Rapongan is a member of the Tao people (The Tao people, also known as the Yami people, are an Austronesian ethnic group native to the tiny outlying Orchid Island of Taiwan.) The Tao people have inhabited Orchid Island, a beautiful island in the Pacific Ocean on the southeastern coast of Taiwan. Before the Japanese and Han Chinese arrived on the island, the Tao people have already thrived for centuries on the island, relying on fishing for survival. They have a rich tribal heritage that spans more than a thousand years.


        Syaman Rapongan writes about his writing life and mental state, using “the wander’s body” as a metaphor. As a wanderer, he finds himself torn between two extremes: the imaginary world and the real world, tradition and modernity, as well as the past and present. The state of wandering between two worlds reflects the writer’s reality. In the autobiographical writings from the early days, readers get a sense of the writer struggling between two lifestyles and value systems. It is a romantic journey with a lot of drifting around and movement. Be it in the meandering lanes and alleys of the urban landscape or homeward bound navigation routes at sea, the writer presents himself as a lone wanderer, contemplating the bitterness of life in solitude. It is a solo journey filled with suffering and angst.


        Apart from portraying himself as a wanderer (or solo traveler), the protagonist that often appears in the writer’s work is usually a wanderer as well. Wandering is also the fate of many characters in his writings. The seafarer Lomabika in this novel is one such example. A man of few words, Lomabika only speaks about the sea and his island. The seafarer has no relatives or friends in Taiwan, nor is he married or in a relationship. Alone, he observes his solitary existence, suffering and mortality. Lomabika is the manifestation of an alienated wanderer. He is away from home, but his homeland is everywhere. In the novel, his homeland is a homeland in absentia. Yet, in a paradoxical way, all his memories stem from his absent homeland. The tiny Orchid Island is the source of inspiration for Syaman Rapongan. All his stories can be traced back to Orchid Island. The Seafarer is Lomabika’s namesake, the wanderer at sea. The seafarer is neither here nor there. Lomabika has become a parable of the wanderer.


        Syaman Rapongan reminisces about his tribal life on Orchid Island. Many of his memories are related to the ocean currents. They include the ebb and flow of the ocean, the waves crashing on the shores, the fish, the sampan boats, the huts, the forests and the starry skies. And of course, there are indelible memories of his parents, relatives, neighbors and the elders of the tribe. Apart from describing these memories in detail, the writer also connects the people and the places in an organic manner. Through the connections, Syaman Rapongan ingenuously portrays a society and civilization borne of the ocean, and displays a creativity enriched by this primordial civilization. Syaman describes this as a “primitive fertility.”


        While writing, Syaman Rapongan tries to capture the rhythm of the ocean currents with music-like language. Readers notice music motifs galore when they enter Syaman’s world of literature. Syaman often describes sounds as he writes about the environment and the lives of the Tao people. The swishing sound of fish swimming through the waves, the roar of flowing water, the clashing of the waves, set against the racing pulse of Tao warriors, all create a grand symphony. Of course, various objects, events and even species all join in to form a glorious orchestra.


        In his stories, we hear the sound of the ocean, inner monologs, the wind and the birds, the rustling of leaves, the nagging of women and the diatribes of the elders. All these sounds are woven together and blend into repetitive chants sometimes high, sometimes low, sometimes impassioned, sometimes muted, sometimes linear, and sometimes meandering. The ancient songs and chants shared by members of the tribe make a particularly lasting impression, because they seem to reverberate with the waves of the ocean. The songs reveal the emotions, beliefs and tradition of the Tao people, and ancient tunes reflect the mythology and legends. The songs and melodies, when sung simultaneously, become a more beautiful, polyphonic whole. Like counterpoint in music, this is a very important part of Syaman’s literary style.


        Syaman Rapongan does his best to describe the landscape, scenery, rituals and rites of his island, as well as the aimless navigations and explorations of the wanderer. His writings cut across different genres, and his stories are different, but the themes are repetitive and similar. In his work, the characters and places seem familiar. But this is not because the characters (me, wife, father, wanderer, and the seafarer) share similar personalities and fates, or that they appear in similar places (bottom of the sea, by the sea, balcony, grocery store, etc.). On the contrary, even though the similar characters and places appear repetitively, they are presented with unique motives and storylines, and when played out against each other, they blend into counterpoint, and resonate with the ocean and nature. Through literature, the writer attempts to capture the harmony between primordial society and nature.


        If Syaman Rapongan has created a “complete” world, it isn’t just because he has portrayed the primordial society of the Tao people, but also because he has depicted a civilization closely connected to the ocean and the natural world.  Furthermore, he has illustrated a literary atlas in which different peoples, different species and different events are all inter-related and drawn together in a musical symphony in this melodic yet chaotic universe.



Translated (with some editing) by Michelle M. Wu