Why This Book Should Win – Last Words from Montmartre by BTBA Judge Monica Carter
Monica Carter is a writer and freelance critic.
Last Words from Montmartre – By Qiu Miaojin, Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich
Last Words from Montmartre is a loaded piece of work before you ever begin reading it. Qiu Miaojin, the young Taiwanese lesbian writer, committed suicide at the age of twenty-six before it was published, before it became “a bible for lesbians” in Taiwan and before her first novel, Notes of a Crocodile, won the esteemed China Times Honorary Award for Literature. The dramatic way she lived and ended her life does not overshadow this novel, but becomes an intense, self-examined manifestation of how desperately she wanted to engage in it.
Yes, as it begins, it may seem to be the paragon of the break-up novel with page after page of incriminations, recriminations, pleading, apologizing, proselytizing, and declaring. Will writer and reader both make it through this emotional excoriation? Yes because Qiu quickly and deftly makes this epistolary novel explore places emotionally and intellectually she’s been to, hold them up to the light and examine them no matter how much it hurts her or us. Last Words from Montmartre is not about these experiences, it is these experiences: being left to sob on the floor as your lover walks out the door, the harrowing pursuit of artistic expression, and the torturous yearning endured at cross-section of sex and desire. Yet, it is also so much more.
“My purity is comprised of my physical body, my soul, and my whole life, and I’ve never given this ‘purity’—as unblemished as a piece of white jade—to anyone but you.”
This is a novel of self-revelation. Composed of twenty letters, don’t take Last Words as if you’re reading someone’s letters to an ex-lover. You are reading an artist fighting for her life albeit with the awareness and control to use novelistic elements. A master of controlled inner chaos, Qiu instructs the reader before she begins that the letters, which are numbered, do not need to be read in order. This is true, they don’t. Yet since Qiu also hints at her own suicide in her dedication, there’s no pull to begin anywhere – one wants to start where she wanted the story to begin. The letters cover the gamut of emotions, but the purity of her passion is tempered the self-consciousness of a novelist. These letters are for you, the universal reader, the one ‘out there,’ not for her lover to whom they are never sent.
“Sincerity, courage, and honesty will deliver humanity. I’ve realized this since coming to France. With sincerity, courage, and honesty, one can face death, extreme physical pain, and even extreme psychological pain. One can resist persecution from individuals, society, or government. To live in preparation of adversity and finding ways to preserve your core values—this is what it means to learn ‘how to live.’”
This is a political novel. By the sheer act of honesty in her writing, Qiu was a political writer. Both of Qiu’s novels, as Qiu herself, are treasures and guides for the Taiwanese queer community. She did not want to be invisible, as the government prefers of their queer population; she wanted to be heard and seen as an artist and her sexual identity was inextricably threaded through her works. Compartmentalizing parts of herself would have only meant compromise as an artist—and lack of purity. This is precisely why Ari Larissa Heinrich’s translation is so skillful because he is able to understand Qiu as an artist, including all her tiny nuances, and her importance as an artistic figure, which he so aptly addresses in his Afterword.
“Because I have a fatal, mortal, terminal passion for you. Ultimately I have no choice but death: an unconditional allegiance, an eternal bond to you. (The ultimate rule of desire/eros is this: At their peak, ‘sexual desire’ [erotic desire], ‘desire for love’ [romantic longing], and ‘desire for death’ [the death wish] are all the same.)
This is a novel of passion: the passion to love, to understand, to know, to express, to connect, to live and to die with reason. When these desires are placed in the hands of someone as youthful and sensitive as Qiu, it creates organized chaos, a one-woman show, live on the pages in front of us, making us feel uncomfortable that it is all slightly too real. Yet anxious as she may make us feel, Qiu mining herself on so many levels for the purity and honesty of art commands our respect, our admiration. As readers, when a writer lays bare for us with such brutal honesty, truth will always be what we see.
Qiu gave her life for art, desire and love. This isn’t a book of love letters or a book of suicide notes; its a testament to the power of artistic courage in the face of pain, misery and isolation. Last Words from Montmartre deserves to win because of what it represents for Taiwan’s queer history, what it represents for truth in literature and what it represents for those who have loved and lost.