Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts. Hamish Hamilton
Grief is an indeterminate familiarity; it is an emotion that shatters and rebuilds until it eventually becomes a close companion—perhaps, even a friend. In Two Trees Make a Forest, Jessica J. Lee grapples with grief and makes sense of it in two distinct ways: tracing her multiple roots, and mapping her identity through her grandfather’s letters. However, the journey she decides to undertake is peppered with nagging doubts that seed as internal fractures, especially for someone who navigates three cultural spaces—British, Taiwanese, and Canadian. The pathway she follows through the mega-diverse geography and complex history of Taiwan becomes one that she has to forge alone if she wants to make sense of these fractures within.
In the book’s fourth chapter, Lee introduces us to the fault lines in Taiwan: “One map [of Taiwan] has a list of geohazards and a pile of statistic on Taiwan’s natural disasters; another—a seismicity map—has the appearance of a Jackson Pollock painting, only the splatters are denser, set to overwhelm” (43). That her own mother, who immigrated to Canada when she was twenty-one, had to grow up with these hazards is unfathomable to Lee; it is even more baffling to her that the Taiwanese—and many others who live in and around the Pacific Ring of Fire—experience a thousand earthquakes a year that they can physically feel, and fifteen thousand more that they cannot. Indeed, living with fault lines is a life flourished on the precipice of a disaster; yet it is also an existence that cultivates a kind of strength that Lee witnesses in her grandfather Gong’s narratives and in his letters—whether this strength involves uprooting his entire nuclear family’s life from one country to another, or walking away from a plane crash almost unscathed. This strength is also present in the stoic companionship that her Gong and Po (grandmother) share with each other, in the unanswered questions of their emotions, and in the lives they lived before her existence—all of which infiltrate Lee’s consciousness.
Two Trees Make a Forest is introduced as a book about a second-generation immigrant Canadian woman’s journey to trace her family’s past through her grandfather’s letters, but it is more than what it promises. There is Taiwan in all of its complexity and stunning beauty. There is also Lee’s exploration of identity and family relationships. While Lee struggles to make sense of her Gong (grandfather) and his past, she also struggles to make sense of this island that her grandparents feel kinship with the most. The autobiography is well researched, with patient explanations of Chinese characters and their interrelationship with other languages that Lee is familiar with or fluent in. Further, she skillfully juxtaposes memories from her childhood with the reality of the Taiwan that she explores later in the book. With care, she expounds on Taiwan’s ever-evolving relationship with China (where Gong was born), the natural ecologies of Taiwan’s island ecosystem, and the conflicted histories that have made Taiwan what it is today. In her writing, a panging ache is present—she truly wants to fill in the blanks of her grandparents’ past, but not even the island or the letters can fulfill that.
While reading Two Trees Make a Forest, I felt a soreness within. Part of me wanted Lee to find the answers to her past in Gong’s letters, like a neat tidy bow on a box. But another part of me wanted her to continue exploring the island and find the answers there. A persistent uncharacteristic discomfort blanketed me as I navigated memory and mountains with Lee—a discomfort that is amplified since I myself am an immigrant in Canada and currently steering my own path after being saddled with insurmountable grief. For me, what makes the book more striking is that I too have been to Taiwan (in 2014), and this experience has defined me in a way that I did not expect. Taiwan, as the book affirms, is truly a fascinating and enchanting country. Lee took me back with her silent love not only for the island country of Taiwan, but also for the Asian continent that I will always call my heartland. As Asian immigrants, the heartland is the space that we wish to hold on to, but like fault lines, the crack becomes wider, bigger, every single minute we are away.
Perhaps this is what Lee’s grandparents felt when they left Taiwan for Canada many years ago; perhaps it is not. There is no distinct answer in Lee’s narratives, but there is the hope of finding herself. Identity is often a contentious thing for immigrant children; however, in the book, identity is celebrated, grieved, explored; it is okay for it to be multiple, undetermined. The discomfort in Two Trees Make a Forest is what creates its magic. Lee inadvertently reminds us that there is solace in discomfort, and that there are questions that are meant to disappear into fissures. In the final pages of the book, Lee appears to reach a moment of peace on the peak of Qixing Mountain. The reader also makes peace with the thought that although the book does not offer concrete answers to the questions provoked by the earlier chapters, there is strength in thriving with uncertainty. Like living with fault lines, there is always the decision to live in fear or to just live. Lee’s choice is crystal clear as she goes back down the Qixing Mountain, the storm brewing behind her and clouding the otherwise excellent view of Taipei.
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