Sandi Tan’s debut, The Black Isle (2012), is a dark and wild coming-of-age story that left me wide awake after finishing it late in the night. The novel is part-horror and part-historical fiction that spans 480 pages. The protagonist, Cassandra, is gifted (or cursed) with the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. She is the only one in her family who has such supernatural powers, and why she saw her first ghost at the age of seven is untold. In the beginning of the book, the readers find her leading a quiet and lonely life of exile in Japan after having lived for almost a hundred years. Rejecting all personal ties, she spends her remaining days going to a local library to look at a book that includes a photograph of her younger self. However, one day she finds out that someone has been destroying all the evidences that she existed, ripping out pages from books across libraries. Cassandra feels her haunted past finally encroaching upon her and locks herself in her house to hold fort against it. I wondered at that point, who is she afraid of? Is it a vengeful ghost or a bloodthirsty human?
The Black Isle might be too sweeping in its historical and geographical scope to include successfully in a course syllabus. However, the novel touched upon certain aspects of trauma that I have been thinking about in relation to other Asian American literary texts, especially with speculative elements. In Greek mythology, Cassandra is the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, and the fraternal twin of Prince Helenus. As Greek deities tend to do, Apollo gives her the gift of prophecy, but subsequently curses her by preventing others from believing her words. Cassandra of the Black Isle, whose birth name is Ling, faces a fate quite similar to her mythical counterpart. When her father loses his job teaching poetry due to growing anti-bourgeois sentiment in China, he decides to find work overseas. He boards SS Prosperity bound for the Black Isle with Ling and her fraternal twin, Li. However, Ling’s agoraphobic mother and her younger twin sisters, Xiaowen and Bao-Bao, are left behind in Shanghai.
Ling’s ability to contact ghosts is significant because it makes her not only the bearer of her own traumas but also that of countless others. I found the stories of the ghosts that she encounters profoundly sad because they reflect the deeply entrenched inequalities and violence they unleash in the world. Yet, the story arc involving Ling’s growth as a medium was all the more compelling for that reason. One short passage that was particularly memorable offers a brief description of Sago Lane where the elderly Samsui women, amahs, and coolies rent bunks and wait to die.
Through Ling’s eyes, the lane looks like a gallery of the migrant dead:
“I could hear them—a soft, murmuring stew of regional dialects, like a sonic compass to rural China. I could never make out the individual voices, but the emotions transcended them all the same: desolation, nostalgia, regret. In a word, homesickness. Their pain was so powerful I tried to imagine my way into it.”
Although there is no one to guide her, Ling tries to come to terms with the burden in her own way:
“I told myself that ghosts were just another facet of its lush, equatorial diversity—the dead walking among the living, everybody sharing the same air, the same soil. This die-and-let-live attitude was part of the Island’s social contract. As much as some of them frightened me, I had to learn to get used to them.”
The most fascinating element in the novel is probably the Black Isle itself. Though Ling is not born on the isle, she feels an immediate connection to it. At times, it feels like Cassandra’s role is really to be an eye witness to the isle’s history. The Black Isle survives British colonial rule through the 1920s and Japanese occupation during the WWII, and ultimately transforms into a cosmopolitan financial hub similar to modern day Singapore. Yet, Tan seems to be more interested in literally digging up the bones that have been buried underneath that miraculous tale. I feel like this is why the heroine had to be a medium, though some readers may feel like the supernatural elements and historical elements do not quite meld together.
All in all, Cassandra is a survivor and I admired how she fought against all the men in her life, who kept making a claim over her identity: her father, Li, Daniel Wee, Kenneth Kee, and Taro Rukemoto. In that Cassandra assumes multiple identities in order to survive — Ling / Pandora / Shadow / Cassandra / Momoko / Lady Midnight — The Black Isle reminded me strongly of Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine. Although most of the gendered dynamics in The Black Isle are deeply problematic, there is one exception: Cassandra’s non-romantic relationship with Issa, who is the only other significant character with magic or ilmu as sea gypsies call it. By the end of the novel, he was probably one of the very few main characters that I had sympathy for.
Last but not least, I should mention that this novel does include some very disturbing scenes. Some of them push against sexual taboos and others involve the infamous Unit 731’s human experiments during the WWII. One scene in particular made me think, what is it with all the octopuses and squids? My hint: Park Chan Wook’s 2016 film, The Handmaiden.