The Sunday Magazine

In Taiwan's lush landscape, Jessica J. Lee found a deeper understanding of her family's turbulent history

In her memoir Two Trees Make a Forest, Canadian writer and environmental historian Jessica J. Lee returns to her mother's homeland of Taiwan to understand the landscape that shaped her family. The book intertwines her grandparents' histories, the political history of Taiwan, and the island's geological history. She speaks with Piya about home, multiplicity and belonging.

The visit to her mother’s homeland helped Lee understand her own place in the world

Jessica J. Lee's book Two Trees Make a Forest intertwines nature writing and memoir, rooted in the forests and flatlands of Taiwan. (Hamish Hamilton, Ricardo A. Rivas)

* This story was originally published on September 18, 2020

Jessica J. Lee grew up in Ontario — a world away from the volcanoes, mangrove forests and mountain peaks of her mother's homeland, Taiwan.

Her grandparents fled to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war, and then immigrated to Canada with her mother in the 1970s. They didn't speak much about their complicated pasts, and Lee grew up thinking of Taiwan as a mythical place. 

But after her grandfather's death, she started visiting the island — trying to understand the landscape that had shaped her family, and in turn, shapes her.

"I'm trained as an environmental historian, and I realized that the language gap for me wasn't about Mandarin, necessarily, and it wasn't about filling all the gaps in my grandparents' stories. It was about finding the thing we have in common, and that was this connection to place," she told The Sunday Magazine's host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Lee's memoir Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan's Mountains and Coasts in Search of My Family's Past intertwines her grandparents' histories, the political history of Taiwan, and the island's geological history.

She spoke with Chattopadhyay about her grandparents' experiences of migration and war, what "return" means for immigrants and the children of immigrants, holding multiple places close to your heart, and why she needed to develop a "fluency" in the landscape of Taiwan to understand her own place in the world.

Interview produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

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