Chelsea Leu at Bookforum:
As I read, I kept wondering why Sanmao’s persona was so magnetic. Is it simply because she was so unusual, out there in the vast and largely unpeopled desert, likely the only Taiwanese woman for miles around? Part of the draw of Stories of the Sahara is that it promises to satisfy our curiosity—what was she even doing there? But I couldn’t shake a sense of vertigo. I learned of Sanmao’s existence recently, through a teacher who had in turn learned about her from an article in the New York Times. And yet: “Of course we know who Sanmao is,” my parents told me over the phone. They grew up in Taiwan in the 1970s; they were in college when Sanmao began publishing her Saharan dispatches. One of my mom’s go-to karaoke songs is “The Olive Tree”—Sanmao wrote the lyrics. (“Don’t ask from where I have come / My home is far, far away.”) Who was this person, whose stories had traveled—across far-flung borders and multiple language barriers—from my parents’ lives into my own?