Li Kotomi’s Solo Dance is unambiguous about its subject matter from the beginning: The first chapter opens with words, “Death. Dying.” Following the story of a Taiwanese woman living in Japan, the novel is a somber reflection on finding meaning and purpose in life as a social outcast and in the wake of enduring trauma.
Chō Norie is an office worker in Tokyo who grew up in Taiwan. Written in the third person, Solo Dance alternates between narrating the protagonist’s life in the present and the past experiences that shaped her and, ultimately, led her to change her name and move to Japan. As the story unfolds, bit by bit, we see how the wounds of her past continue to manifest in the present.
From a young age, Norie has always been different, a bookworm and a bit antisocial. But in fourth grade, just as Norie is beginning to awaken to her sexuality, Shi Danchen, a classmate Norie has a crush on, dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Not long after, Norie’s home gets destroyed in the Taiwan earthquake of 1999. Deeply traumatized, she begins exhibiting troubled behavior: endless crying, screaming nightmares and actions that imply suicidal ideation. Her parents take her to a youth mental health center, but the closeted Norie can’t bring herself to tell the therapist the deep pain she carries because Danchen, a girl she loved, died.
Eventually, Norie turns to writing to find her motivation to keep going. But her youthful writing focuses on the same themes that pervade her thoughts as an adult in Tokyo: darkness and death. As Li so poignantly puts it: “It was strange how writing about death had allowed her to keep living.”
The themes of Solo Dance are deeply reminiscent of Qiu Miaojin’s iconic novel Notes of a Crocodile, which is also a lesbian coming of age story about a young Taiwanese writer. Li calls this connection out explicitly and repeatedly, starting early in the book. Norie has immersed herself in Qiu’s short life and measures her own against it:
“If she hadn’t fallen in love with Danchen, then maybe she would never have begun to write. If she’d never discovered the world of literature, then maybe she would never have encountered Qiu Miaojin’s writing. … she was here in Tokyo, a place that Qiu had once visited herself. She was in junior high school when she discovered Qiu, but now here she was, in the blink of an eye aged twenty-seven, and she had outlived her.”
It’s hard not to feel like Solo Dance is a sort of contemporary recasting of Notes of a Crocodile in a globalized world. (Though, admittedly, that is the only one of the many Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese works Li references throughout Solo Dance that I’ve actually read.) Norie’s high school romance with her classmate Xiaoxue feels reminiscent of Lazi and Shui Ling’s relationship with the recurring conversations about death and literature.
But the toxicity that defined every relationship in Notes of a Crocodile isn’t as pervasive and foundational to the relationships in Solo Dance. Three decades after activists like Qiu paved the way for the visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in Taiwan, Li’s young lovers can form a sincere bond, built on respect and trust in a way that Qiu’s never could.
Like Lazi, Norie ruminates on death and struggles to connect with others, but, even though she and Xiaoxue are both closeted, the young Norie doesn’t carry the level of despair manifested as abuse that leads Lazi to ultimately destroy her relationship with Shui Ling. For Lazi, being a lesbian is “a monstrous sin,” causing her to repress and fear her sexual desires and leading her to a deep self-loathing. For Norie, though, being a lesbian means she can’t imagine a future for herself — gay marriage not yet having been legalized in Taiwan when Solo Dance was originally published. Coupled with her early experiences and proclivity towards darkness, Norie can’t shed the sense that she’ll probably die young, like Qiu Miaojin.
Abuse enters Norie and Xiaoxue’s relationship after Norie is sexually assaulted. The traumatic experience, followed by social ostracization, deeply affects Norie’s mental health, and she takes out her fears on Xiaoxue in cruel outbursts. Norie recalls that the rapist targeted her specifically because she is a lesbian, leading her to blame her assault on their relationship and her sexuality. “It’s because we were together that I went through what I did,” Norie says to Xiaoxue in the heat of the fight that leads to their breakup.
It’s a subtle difference that shows how much and how little the world has changed. Notes of a Crocodile is a heartbreaking read because the book seems to imply that society’s ultimate rejection of queer individuals leads them to an inescapable path of self-destruction. Qiu’s suicide not long after writing it actualized that painful reality. Solo Dance has no illusions that in the present day, the implicit and explicit violence of homophobia still leaves lasting scars on young queer people. But, ultimately, this is a book about being able to integrate one’s trauma in a world where acceptance, while not universal, can be found. Norie has a future, full of ups and downs, even as she tries to escape her past, in a way that Lazi and the rest of the characters in Notes of a Crocodile simply don’t.
About a third of the way into Solo Dance, Xiaoxue says to Norie, “We’ll rewrite Notes of a Crocodile so that it doesn’t end in tragedy.” Solo Dance isn’t trite in the execution of that. Being queer and Asian continues to be a fraught reality for so many people, twenty-five years after Qiu killed herself. But in spite of all the pain and trauma, Solo Dance is a testament to the possibility of a path forward that exists for queer Asians today, a path that Qiu made possible with her works and her death.