Chi Ta-Wei’s The Membranes is a classic of queer speculative fiction in Taiwan. Having a queer protagonist stand front and centre, was at the time, a daring concept – one that Ta-Wei never shied away from.
In the ’90s, sexuality was a taboo topic in Taiwanese society and not openly discussed. Ta-Wei used the novel to challenge these social constructs whilst exploring new concepts of sexuality and desire.
Initially published in 1996, The Membranes has recently being picked up by Columbia University Press and translated into English for the first time. Ari Larissa Heinrich does an excellent job with the translation, leaving in Chinese dialect, which is something I recently enjoyed in City of Ice.
Ta-Wei is a distinguished writer from Taiwan, with his work often emphasising LGBTQ studies, disability studies, and Sinophobe literary history. He is a professor of Taiwanese literature at the National Chengchi University.
Momo the Peach
Written in the third person, The Membranes follows thirty-year-old Momo, who’s looking back on her life. Thinking about her decisions and her treatment to become a derma care technician, she muses on what happened to her body during this strange time. However, despite her solitary nature, she has become one of T City’s most prestigious specialists. ‘Why did she have to choose a job reliant on intimacy?’
As the year is 2100, those remaining live under the sea, terrified of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, intensified by the holes in the ozone layer. This helps to drive up the need for specialist skin experts like Momo.
Within her new store, Salon Canary, Momo spends her time applying a special M-Skin to clients. This technology allows her complete unrestricted data to their private lives via a handheld scanner upon removing the artificial skin. This allows her direct involvement in other people’s lives without ever having to experience their pain (or pleasure) herself.
The book makes several key points regarding social change and the acceptance of others.
If this were written today, you’d accept it as is. But given that The Membranes was written twenty-five years ago, within a controlled Taiwan, it makes it all the more special. This was when democratic reforms were becoming more of the norm after Taiwan found independence away from China.
With changing genders in the structure, Chi Ta-Wei pushes new ground clearly and concisely. It’s evident from the start that he believes that identity and body are separate entities. Is gender genetically defined, and if so, where is it centred?
Without giving too much away, there’s an exciting twist that suggests this isn’t always the same as what we’re assigned by our bodies. Consequently, it’s even brought up on a few levels regarding the brain determining a person’s gender, not the body they were born into. Equally, there are reflections regarding what would happen if these were swapped? Would the individual be any happier?
The use of Androids does draw parallels to Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. Are they truly needed to keep humans from being lonely? As with both cases, the android serves as a best friend for the protagonists, helping out wherever possible. Here, they even go as far as being organ donors for those born sick and infirm.
Much like Suzuki’s Terminal Boredom, there’s a punk-sensibility infused within this alternative reality. Technology has advanced way beyond current expectations, and everyday lives are much more restricted by busy schedules.
External layers are explored regularly through Momo’s specialist treatment, the M-Skin. When applied, a lotion dries into a thin membrane around the person, so much so that they would never know it was there.
Whilst wearing, it collects every detail of their lives, from the time they woke up, what they had for breakfast, down to the last time they had sex and with what other gender. Similarly, this forms similar parallels, too, with both Alexa (Amazon) and Google.
As the title The Membranes suggests, an embryonic layer is key to survival (as is the case with living under the sea) and developing a shell from those around us (Momo’s solitary ways). Equally, it’s also the critical component in our birth, allowing us to grow within the womb whilst staying protected.
Under the Peach Tree
An old Japanese fable involving a peach that’s split in two by two by friends means they will be friends for life. When Momo’s two mothers decide to open up a giant peach growing in the wild, they find a newborn baby inside. They decide to call the baby Momo, which is Japanese slang for peach.
It’s remarkable to think that The Membranes is 25 years old, given that the book still seems so poignant. The topics of political unrest, identity politics and queer policies are still prevalent in the modern world.
Characters here feel rich, vibrant and even inspired in the case of Momo. I know that the category of queer literature might put some off but be bold! This is a phenomenal book that has so much to offer in terms of storyline and new perspectives, whilst remaining incredibly easy to read.