Remembering Sanmao, the Taiwanese travel writer who lived in the desert
She was born some eighty years ago today.
Hello, I’m Emily, and this is a newsletter about how we seek and tell stories to make sense of a rapidly changing world & our personal and collective place in it.
Friends & readers,
Have you heard of Sanmao, the Taiwanese travel writer who inspired generations of young women in the Chinese-speaking world? She was born some eighty years ago today, in 1943, and on this occasion, for your Sunday reading, I’m republishing here an essay I wrote for Mekong Review of her collection, Stories of the Sahara, which was translated into English for the first time in 2019 by Mike Fu—whom I also did a Q&A with (we had an interesting conversation about the line between fact/fiction and also his experience navigating thorny issues of identity). It’s also an opportune moment to remind ourselves of the forgotten war in Western Sahara that has persisted for over six decades, as new tensions surge.
I only really registered Sanmao when the Spanish translation of this book was published a few years ago. (I think my Taiwanese auntie might have mentioned her briefly before, but I may well be imagining this in hindsight.) So if you’ve grown up with her work, or if you’ve read the book and have any thoughts, I would be curious to hear it ❤️
When I learned recently about the vagabond Taiwanese writer Sanmao, she came as a curiosity more than a revelation. The lone Asian woman, travelling to far-flung places and defying well-trodden paths laid out for her, is nothing so unconventional today, but it must have been decades ago.
Not known to me, generations of Taiwanese and Chinese women had come of age with Sanmao as an inspiration. Many who are named Echo apparently trace their name’s origins back to her, as it was the English name she sometimes used. The retrospectives I read depict her as a literary celebrity in her day, staring out from photographs with melancholic kohl-rimmed eyes, posed in long flowy dresses with an air of effortless glamour. Until her death in 1991—reportedly by suicide, about a decade after her Spanish husband José María Quero died in a diving accident—she travelled to more than fifty countries and published more than twenty books, and also wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed film Red Dust.
I have long wrestled with my own proclivities for wandering, which has similarly taken me to remote, unfamiliar lands, and I was intrigued by Sanmao. We had been to different places, but I had also often travelled on my own and learned to speak and navigate part of the world in Spanish, and I wondered if her journeys would reveal anything to me about mine.
“I couldn’t understand the feeling of homesickness that I had, inexplicable and yet so decisive, towards that vast and unfamiliar land, as if echoing from a past life,” she writes in Stories of the Sahara, recently published in English for the first time. Due to some discrepancies in the historical detail, I realised the book to be a mix of memoir and fiction—though it’s not introduced as such and does not attempt to draw a line between them—about her time in the desert, published in Mandarin in 1976 and since translated into various languages, with more than fifteen million copies reportedly sold.
In fact, Sanmao is her narrative persona, derived from the protagonist in a well-known Chinese comic strip: a homeless boy who has only three hairs on his head—chosen, she said, to reflect how she wanted to record the lives of ordinary people whose voices often went unheard. Her real name was Chen Ping, and she was born in 1943 in Chongqing before fleeing with her family to Taiwan when Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. She dropped out of school after troubles with a teacher, read philosophy at university, studied and worked in Spain, Germany, and the United States, learned many languages, travelled alone to various places, and suffered an early tragedy when her first fiancé died of a heart attack. By the time she arrived in the Sahara in 1974, lured by a National Geographic spread, it seemed she had already lived several lives.
In her stories, Sanmao claimed that when she set out, she had intended to become the first female explorer to cross the Sahara. Due to the logistical impracticalities the desert presented for an independent traveller, however, she never did. In the end, she wasn’t there alone either. Upon learning of her plan to live in the desert, José—whom she first met in Madrid years before—quietly found himself a job there with a phosphate mining company so he could be with her, and they married there.
Instead of spending months in wandering solitude, she ended up in a strange domesticity on the outskirts of El Aaiún (or Laâyoune)—a settlement with “just a handful of streets, a few banks and a couple of shops”—amid the “poetic desolation” of dunes and plains. Then, it was the capital of Western Sahara under Spanish control. Today, it’s still disputed territory—between Morocco, which annexed it in 1975, and its indigenous Sahrawi people. “Why had I wanted to come to this long-forgotten corner of the world all by myself?” she asked herself. “As there were no answers to these questions, I continued to settle in, one day at a time.”
Sanmao lovingly fashioned a home for her and José in the desert, building furniture out of scavenged wooden coffins, and befriended her Sahrawi neighbours and Spanish expatriates. She figured out how the basic details of life worked in El Aaiún: getting a driver’s licence, carrying water on foot for miles before they bought a car, reckoning with sandstorms and power outages. When José was away working for longer stretches, she ventured into the desert on her own, tagging along on the big trucks that sold water and camped near nomadic herders to document them. Occasionally, she and José would dress up for the Hotel Nacional in town and watch films at the only cinema in the desert. In time, she learned to inhabit a place simultaneously miserable and enchanting with “artfulness and pleasure”.
Sanmao describes her time in the Sahara as both lonely and liberating, and I feel the truth of that completely. It took me back to my first extended solo travels in Central America. I remember hopping onto any chicken bus along the main artery winding along remote highlands in Guatemala, stopping at each village along the way for at least a night or two, maybe a week, maybe longer, and often being the only foreigner in the whole place. These were not places with attractions, and there was nothing, really, to do but take a walk in the cool air, break bread with the people who live there, and get on the next bus again.
For Sanmao, however, the loneliness skirted self-destruction. A deep thread of melancholy pervaded her being throughout her time in Western Sahara, especially in the early months when she and José spent more time apart because of his work, and she hadn’t yet made many friends. “I was so low in spirits I’d often weep. The Sahara Desert was stunning, yet living here required an unfathomable determination to adapt,” she writes. In a foreshadowing of the tragedy that would come years later, she wondered if she harboured a “subconscious impulse” to end her own life.
For the most part, though, Sanmao doesn’t dwell on her inner world, at least in writing. Her Sahara stories began as columns in Taiwan’s United Daily News and have a breezy conversational quality to them—alternately self-aggrandising, deprecatingly funny, and disarmingly sincere in facing up to the absurdities of life. They are filled with riotous anecdotes of her teasing affections with José and her frustrating and heartwarming encounters with the Sahrawi. She seemed to have a knack for getting entangled in strangers’ lives, spurred on by a well-meaning, unbridled compassion that often made José comically anxious.
She tells of how Sahrawi women came knocking on her door asking her to cure their ailments with her stash of medicines, with one woman begging her to deliver her baby when she had never done so. How, after they bought a car and she was driving, she would pick up anyone she saw trudging along her way. How a young man from the grocery store implored her to help him write love letters to a woman in Monte Carlo who had entrapped him to swindle his meagre savings. How she tried to save a mute slave from his owners. I wondered how much of all this was inspired, not quite real—but nonetheless the observations and feelings underlying the stories feel heartfelt, and ring true.
“It was different here. Back in civilisation, life was too complicated. I wouldn’t have thought other people or things had anything to do with me. But in this barren land, fierce winds howling the year round, my spirit was moved by the mere sight of a blade of grass or a drop of morning dew, let alone a human being,” she writes. She could not turn away anyone in need—even if it put her in the crosshairs of communities with existing enmities that, as an outsider, she had no hope of resolving.
In his translator’s note, Mike Fu described his difficulty in squaring Sanmao’s “profound empathy” with the few instances where her judgment of Sahrawis may come off as “insensitive at best, derogatory or racist at worst”. One might read this in the way she describes their hygiene and traditions, their apparent mendacity in so freely borrowing her things, the voyeurism with which she sometimes expressed her curiosity, and the paternalism she assumed in taking it upon herself to divest them of their ignorance or superstitions. At the same time, one can risk being too much of a relativist while travelling to places that practise vastly different cultures, and her reactions to customs like child marriage and slavery at least feel honest. Seen in a different light, not hiding her distaste feels less condescending. And she doesn’t expect anyone to be unimpeachably “good” in order to befriend them, complicated as the friendship might be.
Stories of the Sahara is largely the account of one woman’s life in the desert, narrowly focused on herself, her marriage, and her direct interactions with people. Some of it feels quotidian, and obscures an awareness of the territory’s historical context and political tensions brewing beneath the veneer of everyday life. But when it does come, bursting forth with narrative force in the penultimate chapter, it’s a complete testament to Sanmao’s romantic imagination. There’s a star-crossed love triangle involving Bassiri, the guerrilla leader fighting for the Sahrawi people’s independence—and it ends with his lover’s public lynching. Within the timeline Sanmao placed him in, the real Bassiri had in fact already disappeared, presumably executed.
Regardless of which parts are true or embellished, Sanmao writes about longing for the world and yearning for connection most evocatively in her quieter moments. Reading her Sahara stories reminds me of the lure of desolate places I’ve been to—places ignored by the correspondents of the world until wars come for them, alluring in part because of the imaginativeness it wills in its inhabitants in order for them to survive.
I keep coming back to one passage in the book: “An indescribable vitality and joy can be found wherever humans exist. Even this barren and impoverished backwater was teeming with life, not a struggle for survival.”
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Thank you for this wonderful Sunday essay, Emily. I'm just discovering Sanmao.