Jessica Lee
(photo: Paul Capewell)

Jessica Lee describes herself as British-Canadian-Taiwanese, or more specifically, British-Taiwanese by heritage, with Canadian and UK citizenships. When she was working on her memoir, Two Trees Make a Forest, she was in Taiwan for three months, and continues to visit it regularly. Recently she added a new home to her collection, having moved to Berlin in September 2014 for a pre-doctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. There she stayed at first for six months, went to London for fieldwork, and then returned to Berlin in May 2015 to live and write. Last October she moved back to the UK to start a job at the University of Cambridge; she now lives in London. Asked where she considers home to be, she answered, “All of these are home to me—I could never be made to choose between Toronto, London, Taipei, and Berlin.”

Canadian Writers Abroad asked Jessica Lee, the recipient of the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award, what she thought of the end of this award. “I think the closure of the Taylor Prize is a huge loss to the literary landscape—nonfiction needs to be championed, and without the prize we have one fewer space for highlighting the extraordinary range of Canadian nonfiction.” Extraordinary is exactly the word to sum up her work thus far. Founding editor of The Willowherb Review since 2018, and author of a memoir on swimming the lakes around Berlin, Turning: A Swimming Memoir (Virago, 2017), Jessica Lee’s work has already garnered several honours: for Two Trees alone, there is the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the 2020 Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, and her memoir was chosen by Melissa Harrison as one of The Observer‘s Best Books of 2019. Two Trees Make a Forest is also being defended on this year’s round of CBC’s Canada Reads.

A taxi driver asked me why my Mandarin was so good for a foreigner. “My mother is from Taiwan,” I explained, and he turned on me in reprimand. “Then why is your Mandarin so poor?”
—Jessica Lee, Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of my Family’s Past among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts. Hamish Hamilton Canada, p. 103.

An Identity Quest across Generational and Geopolitical Fault-lines

Review of Jessica Lee’s Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of my Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts (Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2020) by Tim Martin.

Identity is complicated for all of us, and integrating your identity when parents are from different continents living in a third is the lofty summit Jessica Lee sets out to climb in Two Trees Make A Forest. Without being pedantic, the author compels us to confront the universal human problem of existing as unique individuals composed of distinct and irreducible parts. Jessica Lee’s mother is from Taiwan and her father is Welsh. In Two Trees Make a Forest, she tells a personal story through geology, ecology, history and geopolitics. This memoir of her identity quest is written with literary originality and scholarly depth. The author is an environmental historian, and this shapes the book. Geography and history are vivid and alive in her writing.

In addition to the author, the major protagonists are Po and Gong, her grandmother and grandfather. In the aftermath of the Second World War they fled their ancestral lands on the mainland for Taiwan. They were among the million Chinese who followed the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. Lee follows their paths from mainland China to their exile in Taiwan and migration to Canada in search of her roots.

Throughout, Jessica’s prose suggests a parallel between the contested identity of Taiwan (independent or part of China) and her own divided identity. “Born into conflict at the junction of two volcanic arcs, Taiwan is an unstable landmass in perpetual confrontation.” (p. 6) Later, struggling through a difficult high-altitude hike, Jessica writes: “I am not built for heat anymore than my mother was built for winter. I speak in broken tones, making half sense to everyone I meet in Taiwan. My worlds exist in halves.” (p. 108) Lee tries to understand the pieces of her Taiwanese identity by knowing the island as a place.

After forty years in Taiwan, Po and Gong moved to Canada. Po is quiet, loving and attentive to Lee. Her grandmother, “could wound with a word, and often would” (p. 14). Her grandmother sends her grandfather away from Canada to die in Taiwan after he develops Alzheimer’s.

“My grandmother died a decade after my grandfather. I had long believed that her death would mark not simply the end of her life, but of the possibility of knowing a past for my mother’s family.” (p. 29) The prospect of losing this link to the past precipitates an urgent crisis for Lee. Hints of inter-generational trauma and Lee’s hunger to learn her family’s past create tension and drive the story forward. Going through the chaos of papers and old clothes in Po’s apartment after her death, Lee and her mother find a phone bill with unknown numbers. Lee’s mother calls one number and discovers family in Taiwan that they’d “believed lost forever.” (p.31)

Lee’s mother also finds unsent letters from Gong that are an autobiography of his life and times. Lee keeps them close even though she can’t understand the writing or the language and is grief stricken by her loss and inadequacy. The painful impossibility of true translation from the rich symbolic meanings of Chinese characters to our way of writing and thinking is another intriguing theme woven throughout the book. “Think of the Chinese Character for “island,” the single bird on the lone mountaintop” (p. 51).

The centrepiece of the book is Lee’s trip to Taiwan in 2017. “I have come alone with a plan to stay for three months to work on my Mandarin, to write and, above all, to hike.” She joins a hiking group of ten strangers to climb the peak of Qilai Mountain. Her hikes take her by landmarks of Taiwan’s history, like the suppression of the Indigenous peoples by the Japanese, including the use of chemical warfare. The theme is trauma, change and impermanence of the earth and people. “Landslides tell us how little is eternal.” (p.80)

Lee’s writing has needlepoint precision and her style is sincere. Here is how she describes the Stryan’s bulbul, endemic to Taiwan. “Their wings glistened in the afternoon light, bellies quivering with the staccato, pitchy tune they piped without end.” (p.47)

The author respects the reader and expects the reader to arrive with a high level of multi-disciplinary literacy. She deploys her scholarship in interesting and surprising ways. Plate tectonics, botany and the root meaning of Chinese characters add colour and metaphorical depth to her story. My understanding of Taiwanese-Canadian identity and experience was enriched and deepened by Two Trees Make a Forest.

Lee’s style is restrained. She doesn’t tell us about her job or love life. Nor do we really meet any Taiwanese as individuals. The action is low-key and the jeopardy of her quest is emotional in nature. For example, after being startled by a monkey on a trail, she runs and her “knee pulses in pain and tears well up. What exactly was I hoping to find?” (p. 111) Her grandparents lived through deep geopolitical tragedies. As a former diplomat and now a fiction writer interested in war crimes, I was hoping to learn more about that, and her thoughts on inter-generational trauma.

Two Trees Make a Forest is a significant and timely Canadian book. A finalist on Canada Reads 2021 and a New Statesman Book of the Year, it has a literary and social message for our moment. At a time of utter rejection of systemic racism, Jessica Lee gives us a dignified yet vulnerable picture of the dilemmas and richness that come with a dual identity. 

Tim Martin
(photo: Jena Martin)

Former ambassador Tim Martin is the author of Moral Hazards, the first of his international thrillers that draw from his 30-year experience in international peace and security. His high-level diplomatic service includes leading Canada’s civilian work in southern Afghanistan, the Kimberley Process to ban conflict diamonds and Middle East Peace negotiations. Moral Hazards is about a Canadian human rights lawyer fighting to protect victims of sexual violence in the largest refugee camp in the world.

Berlin (photo: Martin Riese)

Further Reading

  • Jessica Lee website
  • Tim Martin website
  • Jessica Lee and her father on a quest in Wales, in The Guardian
  • Lovely photos on location in this article by Jessica Lee about her writing space: “My writing space can be wherever I am.” How Jessica J. Lee thinks outside the box when it comes to process,” CBC March 2, 2021
  • Lee’s dissertation: Of Field and Forest: Aesthetics and the Nonhuman on Hampstead Heath, York
  • Kristen Schott’s review “The Language of Self-Discovery: On Jessica J. Lee’s Two Trees Make a Forest,” LA Review of Books
  • The Willowherb Review
  • Subscribers only: Jessica J. Lee on her ‘life-changing’ Writers’ Trust Prize win for Two Trees Make A Forest, Globe and Mail

Banner photo of Taiwan mountain range Hehuanshan (合歡山) by Jenna Jarvis.

Posted by Debra Martens

author, editor