One of The Guardian's Best Books of the Year
"Part travel guide, part memoir, part history, the new book by environmental historian Jessica J. Lee takes us on a journey through her ancestral home of Taiwan as she examines the landscape, the wildlife, the legacy of colonialism and her own roots. The book beautifully captures the deep connections between the natural world and family history." —Karla Strand, Ms. Magazine
"When Jessica J. Lee discovers letters written by her immigrant grandfather, she decides to head to her ancestral home of Thailand to connect with his experiences . . . Through this time, she learns more about her family's past, including how colonialism shaped their fate." —Laura Hanrahan, Cosmopolitan, A Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
"Jessica J. Lee's stirringly beautiful book, which mingles elements of memoir, travel writing, and history lesson, is intensely personal and profoundly generous, offering readers a glimpse into the rich legacies of both Lee's family and their homeland, Taiwan . . . A stunning journey through a country that is home to exhilarating natural wonders, and a scarring colonial past. Lee makes breathtakingly clear the connection between nature and humanity, and offers a singular portrait of the complexities inherent to our ideas of identity, family, and love." —Kristin Iversen, Refinery29
"Lee offers a divergent model for a travel memoir, in which the land is the lead character in the work, itself an ancestor that she longs to know . . . Her perspective provides a refreshing departure from the norm: for Lee, it is not the landscape that is foreign but the author herself. Although she is a descendant of this land, she makes sure to establish herself as a respectful visitor, giving the island room to reveal itself to her as it wishes to be seen . . . Ultimately, she finds that her motherland is a place of perpetual migration, and at long last, she feels less adrift." —Frances Nguyen, Outside
"Love is attention, as the saying goes, and in this, Lee’s memoir truly shines. A remarkable exercise in careful attention, be it to the nuances of language, the turns of colonial history, or a grandfather’s difficult–to–read handwriting, Two Trees Makes A Forest is a moving treatise on how to look closely and see truthfully, even as the fog rolls in." —Rachel Heng, BOMB
"After unearthing her grandfather’s hidden memoir, Lee becomes determined to piece together her family’s history as they moved from China to Taiwan to Canada. Her search brings her home to Taiwan where she explores the language, history, and memories of her family’s homeland. Her end product is a beautifully written book that is equal parts personal narrative, history of Taiwan, and meditations on nature." —Sophia LeFevre, Book Riot, One of the Best New Memoirs Written by Asian Authors
"After discovering her grandfather’s fragmented autobiographical writings, Lee—who has a doctorate in environmental history—travels to the island of Taiwan to hunt down lost parts of his story and attempt to reconnect with distant relatives. She offers a poetic tour and anti–colonial reclamation of the island through her descriptions of its flora, fauna, natural disasters, and political history." —Electric Literature
"Lee finds her own ways of imprinting her rediscovered homeland on her spirit . . . As Taiwan reveals itself, Lee comes to a kind of peace. Gong’s past and her present, so evocatively examined, suggest the forest she needed to find." —Priscilla Kipp, BookPage
"In the plants, history, and landscape of Taiwan, [Lee] comes to terms with her own identity . . . poetic and emotive, unfurling to reveal passages about her family, her pain, and her exploration of Taiwan’s myriad habitats . . . While we don’t know what will come next on her journey, we are left with hope that she will continue searching—not to fill a void or patch a past with which she will never be able to fully make amends, but that she will define herself by growing into her heritage. And that is the best any of us can do."—Kristen Schott, Los Angeles Review of Books
"As an environmental history scholar and nature writer, Lee brings a fascinating perspective to Taiwan based on an immersive connection to the land. Lee eloquently describes Taiwan’s landscapes and natural history from Qing times, when modern scientific methods were first developed, and impresses upon readers the magnificence of its mountains that climb to almost 4,000 meters from sea level." —Hilton Yip, Asian Review of Books
"[Jessica J. Lee] combines a botanist’s precision with a poet’s eye and ear . . . One of the most exciting voices exploring landscape and identity today. In Two Trees Make a Forest, she has created a powerful, beautifully written account of the connections between people and the places they call home."—Elizabeth Dearnley, Times Literary Supplement
"[An] elegiac book, which smoothly incorporates historical and travel threads . . . A beautiful and personal view of an island—and an author—shaped by environment and history."—Kirkus Reviews
"I want to go to Taiwan to experience the woodlands, the wetlands, the highlands, the lowlands, and the creatures in, above, and underneath, as Jessica J. Lee does with all her senses, including that sense too many of us ignore—the inner self. Then again, she has taken me there with this splendid book." —Jack E. Davis, author of The Gulf, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize
In this latest work, Lee (Turning) offers a touching memoir-cum-travelog that connects the physical environment and history of Taiwan to the story of her family. As a child growing up in Canada, Lee was not very familiar with the maternal Chinese/Taiwanese side of her family. Her window into that world was visits to her grandparents' home where she communicated with them in limited Mandarin. The death of her grandfather sparked an interest to learn about their lives, and to gain a better understanding of her identity. Her grandfather's letters, discussions with her grandmother and mother, as well as a sojourn to Taiwan helped her put together some of the pieces. This book alternates between various time lines, telling the story of her grandparents' lives from China to Taiwan to Canada, while also describing the author's exploration of the flora and fauna of Taiwan's mountains and coasts. VERDICT A poignant and beautifully written account of family, time, and place. Readers of Rowan Hisayo Buchanan's Go Home!, which discusses home and belonging from the perspective of the Asian diaspora, or Anna Sherman's The Bells of Old Tokyo, which explores a place alternately in the present and the past, will also enjoy.—Joshua Wallace, Tarleton State Univ. Lib. Stephenville, TX
A family memoir that incorporates elements of environmental and colonial history and celebrates the subtleties of language.
Lee, a Berlin-based British Canadian Taiwanese author, began her journey and historical excavation after discovering her grandfather’s attempts at an autobiography, “just a series of fragments, circled and repeated—pieces of his life told to no one before, pressed to paper, and perhaps forgotten by him soon after writing.” The author grew up in Canada with her mother and grandparents, all of whom had relocated there from Taiwan. After she found her grandfather’s letters, written when the “Chinese Communist Party was formed,” Lee became increasingly drawn to the island that she had visited as a baby but never considered a significant part of her identity. This elegiac book, which smoothly incorporates historical and travel threads, was born from the desire to embrace her heritage. With a doctorate in environmental history and an impressive grasp of botany and geology, Lee takes readers on a fascinating tour of the island and its past. Settled by the Dutch and Spanish, and then Chinese, in the 17th century, it was transferred to Japan in 1895 following the First Sino-Japanese War, and then back to China after World Wari II. Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party retreated there in 1949, and Lee's grandparents arrived separately shortly thereafter. On the author’s engrossing tour, we are introduced to a landscape that is filled with colorful flora and fauna but is also subject to earthquakes, mudslides, and typhoons, all of which Lee describes in often poetic language—e.g., “the otherworld of the earthquake lake is a blackened shroud, but the quarter-mooned sky stretches light forever.” Chronicling her adventures in the mountains and along the shores, she comments insightfully on contemporary issues of politics, prejudice, and pollution as well as her efforts to master the language and bond with long-lost relatives.
A beautiful and personal view of an island—and an author—shaped by environment and history.