Breaking the Vicious Cycle for Taiwan’s Economic Migrants

Migrante by J.W. Henley. Camphor Press, 2020. 310 pages.

Canadian journalist and author J.W. Henley’s third novel casts in literary form the struggles faced by migrant workers in Taiwan.

One of the most difficult exercises a novelist can undertake is writing from another cultural perspective. Harder still is writing from the perspective of someone from a background so far removed from your own that it can only be described as “worlds apart.” Attempts to do so sometimes work out, but at other times can come off as strained and tone-deaf.

Taipei-based, Canadian-born journalist and author J.W. Henley pulls off this feat masterfully in his new novel Migrante, which in rich prose and heartbreaking detail tells the story of a Filipino migrant worker’s journey from the cemetery slums of Manila to the deep-sea fisheries of Taiwan’s east coast and back.

Migrante follows the travails of Rizal, an impoverished young Filipino who resides with his mother inside a decaying mausoleum in a Metropolitan Manila graveyard. He whiles away most days fetching contaminated water for his mother to sell to the surrounding community of cemetery dwellers, killing time with his ne’er-do-well friend Kidlat, and avoiding encounters with Datu, the local gravedigger who Rizal perhaps sees as a symbol of his own mortality.

The young protagonist believes his fortunes may change when he learns of the opportunity to work on fishing boats in what he initially mistakenly believes is Thailand. Soon after, he learns from smooth-talking local labor broker Benjie that it is in fact Taiwan that he will be going to, a place that he and his relations lack the faintest knowledge about.

What is in store for him is likely beyond the imagination of many readers unfamiliar with Taiwan’s guest worker system. The island’s fisheries have earned a reputation for being particularly brutal and lawless, and this is where Rizal finds himself as he arrives in Nanfang’ao, a fishing harbor on Taiwan’s Pacific east coast. Straddled with the debt he owes on predatory loans from both Benjie and Taiwanese labor broker Mr. Chen – and now subject to the whims of sadistic boat captain Li – he is left without options.

Photo: Martti Chen

The abuse and exploitation suffered by many of the nearly 800,000 migrant workers currently living and laboring in Taiwan is well-documented, and Henley’s journalistic work over the past several years has been instrumental in bringing those injustices to light in English-language media. He has also reported extensively on the phenomenon of the Philippines’ most destitute making their makeshift homes among the dead in its cemeteries, and has chronicled the stories of the victims of Duterte’s brutal drug war. His writing in Migrante demonstrates a profound understanding of these disparate worlds, which makes the book a realistic, compelling read.

Henley is likewise acutely aware of the privileged position he is writing from, noting in the book’s foreword that he came to Taiwan not out of economic necessity, but because it seemed like an enjoyable thing to do – the polar opposite of Rizal’s situation. As an avid believer in human rights and social justice, however, he dedicates Migrante to those he encountered during his reporting work who faced sometimes unfathomable levels of oppression and discrimination. In that spirit, Henley has chosen to donate his share of the proceeds from sales of the book to Serve the People’s Association and the Yilan Migrant Fisherman’s Union, two NGOs dedicated to furthering the cause of migrant worker rights in Taiwan.

The vicious cycle of poverty and despair that Rizal and his fellow migrant workers find themselves trapped in is a recurring theme in Migrante. As Rizal returns to his native Manila near the book’s conclusion, he is once again placed at the bottom of an informal caste system that prohibits him from finding legitimate work.

What is he to do? Does he starve on the streets or languish in the same cemetery he was born in? Or does he return to the hellish environment in which he can earn a paltry sum for thankless, backbreaking labor and eventually pay off his debt? The cycle continues.

Migrante can be a tough read. The dull, repetitive nature of Rizal and his shipmates’ work on the fishing boat; the lack of nutrition and shelter they experience as their employer virtually starves them and ensures they never leave their water-borne prison; and the realization that few people, if any, are willing or even able to help them at all in the strange new land – these descriptions can leave the reader with a deep sense of discomfort. “We are the nameless dead now” is the book’s consistent refrain, repeated at points of stark realization of the main characters’ fate.

Yet the dreariness and existential dread is lifted at times with moments of genuine humor and kindness. The men working together on Captain Li’s boat form the kind of unshakable bond that is only possible in terrible circumstances, and one can’t help but smile as they find temporary joy and relief in an evening of escape from the ship. And the awkward coyness Rizal displays in the presence of new friend and love interest Jasmine is a lighthearted reminder of his youth and inexperience.

No writing effort as ambitious as Migrante is without its faults. At times the book’s narration and characters engage in long-winded expositions that, while helping the story along, can feel less than authentic. And although Henley has a true writer’s knack for similes and metaphors that avoid sounding like clichés, the often flowery descriptions of the mundane tend to distract the reader from the simple, powerful message being conveyed.

Overall, though, these minor criticisms pale in comparison to the depth and compassion displayed in Migrante. The central message of the novel is of urgent importance as well – Rizal’s story is currently playing out in real life among countless migrant workers. As their stories are told more frequently by Henley and others, hopefully those in a position to change things will take action, finally breaking the cycle.

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