The inside-outs of J.W. Henley’s ‘Migrante’

The last time Joe Henley signed a book for me, he made it out to his “colleague in debasement.” Sounding like a possible song title for his next musical project, this was surely an accolade.

We had worked – individually, together – on a series of textbooks, and the process had indeed been soul-destroying. Never again, we agreed when the torture finally did stop – at least not for what they were paying.

Thankfully, he wasn’t signing copies of the dross we’d churned out but his then-new novel Bu San, Bu Shi – a waist-deep wade through the viscous mire of Taiwan’s underground punk scene, brimful of rebellion and nihilistic vigour, topped off with a twist of T-pop redemption.

As bleak as parts of that (nevertheless engaging) work were, they couldn’t even begin to portend some of the more harrowing passages from his latest novel Migrante, which was released last week.

I’ve not yet received my pre-purchased hard copy of the novel, but Joe was generous enough to forward an advanced e-version to me for review a few weeks ago. I held back on writing anything else, as I’d pitched short reviews to a couple of publications, one of which “usually ask[s] for exclusive consideration” but has magnanimously told me to “feel free” to shop it around. Instead, I’ve decided to put something completely different up here. 

The jumping-off point for the review I pitched was a famous quote from Wittgenstein that represents a dialectic of sorts, between saying and showing. I won’t go into that here, in case that review does get picked up, but the crux of my argument was that Henley had deftly created a powerful impression of his protagonist’s tribulations and the resulting trauma without attempting to lay bare the psychology.

Here, I’m going to draw on the work of another philosopher, the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard as a framework for analysing another dialectic that emerged as I was reading Migrante. (I had initially considered using it for the first review but space constraints and guidelines that cautioned against excess abstrusity dissuaded me from doing so.) What follows is not so much a review as a look at a particular aspect of the text that I found intriguing.

Since I bought it back in 1995 as part of the required reading for a course on an abortive undergrad journalism degree, Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space has been a book to which I’ve returned repeatedly. There’s a fair amount of it I don’t completely understand, but the ideas it raises through the integration of an incredible range of thinkers – poets, psychologists and political theorists among others – have stayed with me over the years and, like all the best philosophy, pop into my head for no discernible reason, often at the strangest moments.

Along with most of my collection in the UK, which was languishing in the cellar of my old house in London, the book made its way to Taiwan a couple of Christmases ago, courtesy of My Old Man the Drummer. I’m not sure that I have dipped into it since then, but I quickly found myself reaching for it while reading Migrante.

Elements of works such as Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, which was also on the aforementioned reading list, are also relevant here, particularly in terms of the depiction of the city as a prison for the disenfranchised. Likewise, Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (which was one of the books I brought with me when I came to Taiwan in 2001, and which I am pretty sure someone pilfered – own up was that you, the G?), Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons etchings and the work of Henri Lefebvre, with which I am admittedly less familiar, are all relevant and inform the following discussion, however hazily and tangentially. A discussion of the spatial dynamics in the soundscapes of the Wu Tang Clan even came to mind.


The Poetics is divided into sections on corners, nests and shells among other categories of space. However, it is the chapter on The Dialectics of Outside and Inside that I find most relevant. It is prefaced with a triplet of quotations, the first two of which – lines of verse by the French poets Paul Éluard and Pierre Jean Jouve – give an indication of the direction things will take. Éluard writes of “the solemn geographies of human limits,” while Jouve reflects that “we are where we are not” (Poetics, p.211).

Both of these aphorisms have resonance with the characters in Migrante on multiple levels. Firstly, there is the notion that, as miserable as the migrante experiences in Taiwan are, they might not be that much worse than the lives the workers have left behind. This is not so much – or not only – due to the geographical limits placed on the disadvantaged – limits that render migration little more than a herd-like, hither-and-thon shuttle between comparably bleak environments and circumstances, but conversely, as Éluard indicates, the human limits on geography that trap migrantes and refugees in what the spoken-word performer Bama the Village Poet calls the “Ghettos of the Mind.” 1

At first, Rizal does not grasp this. As he heads down the gangway, he is overcome with panic at the unknown world that beckons. 

The world, he thought. When the airplane door opens again, the world will never be the same. In that world I will know nothing and no one. In that world no one will know me. I, Rizal, will not exist (Migrante, p.50; author’s italics).

In one sense, he is right: he will no longer exist, at least not as the type of outsider he was in Manila, festering on the fringes, among the corpses of the public cemetery he calls home. Back in the Philippines, he was what me might call an inside-outsider, an entity of sorts, with a vague, tenuous sense of belonging but no form or function, offering no discernible value or contribution to a society from which he and his ilk remain largely obscured.

In Taiwan, in contrast, Rizal has a purpose, however repulsive and demeaning, yet is denied even even a peripheral existence. He is outside the system in this new world, precisely because he has been sucked so far inside the vortex as to have had his being negated.

For all that, it is quickly apparent that this world is little different to the one Rizal has fled; he has simply exchanged one set of miserable circumstances for another. This is early made clear in his observations of the local people who stare “from behind lightly tinted windows and windscreens covered in bug splatter” during the crew’s sole excursion around the environs outside the boat. “In their strangled hope,” we are told, “Rizal felt a sense of home” (Migrante, p.91).

In fact, the existence of these disembodied observers, just like that of Rizal and his companions, seems to hinge on a Berkeleyan type of subjective idealism – “God was here, as he was in Navotas” – while another type of inside-outside dialectic calls into question the existence of the universal perceiver – “yet absent all the same.” Instead, “[l]ike hope itself, God was a mystery, something to be grasped at rather than understood” (Ibid).

This second sentence echoes Wittgenstein’s concept of das Mystische, which is essentially at the root of the aforementioned conundrum of saying vs showing. (Indeed, this is why Wittgenstein said of work that its point was ethical.) There is also a hint of Martin Buber’s classic treatise I and Thou in the way Rizal perceives his relationship with god:

To man the world is two-fold in accordance with his twofold attitude.

The attitude of man is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words which he speaks.

The primary words are not isolated words, but combined words.

The one primary word is the combination I-Thou.

The other primary word is the combination I-It; wherein, without a change of word, one of the words He and She can replace It.

Hence the I of man is also twofold.

For the I of the primary I-Thou is different from that of the primary word I-It (I and Thou, p.15).

Jouve’s paradox of place – “we are where are not” 2 – reinforces the notion that we are bound by our origins or that, at any given point in time, we are defined by where we have been as much as where we are.

As someone who has been fortunate to travel widely for pleasure, and for whom travel has been a lifelong obsession, I frequently find myself transported back to the places and spaces I’ve been – often, perhaps understandably, while engaged in the most mundane activities. Waves of nostalgia sweep over me for a melange of locations – a field church where I stopped to charge my phone in Estonia; ramshackle markets in Managua, a park bench beneath the sussurating canopy of Shooter’s Island on Prague’s Vltava River on a late-summer’s afternoon.

These impressions, not to mention those of the destinations I failed even to reach – and there are so many – are tinged with traces of regret at somehow having lost or let slip from one’s grasp an ineffable part of one’s being. Here, Calvino comes to mind:

Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice. Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or, perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little (Invisible Cities, p.78).

For Rizal, confined to the fetid deck of the fishing boat, Taiwan is here, as brutal reality takes hold, but still very much there, as he languishes, invisible in plain sight. He is everywhere and nowhere, forever struggling to escape the tombs of Navotas. Crumbling panopticons in miniature, where god and death rotate guard duty, they plague his dreams :

He wanted to leave; to go back to the home they had lived in before. The place they had left just that morning. Rizal pulled at his mother’s hand, tugging her back in the direction from which they had come. “Let’s go, Mama. Let’s go home.” His mother pulled him back. She crouched beside him. “This is home, Rizal,” she whispered, drawing him close to her body, arms wrapped around him. Then softer, like a gentle wind through an open window, “We are the nameless dead now” (Migrante, p.66).

Expounding his analysis of the inside-outside dialectic, Bachelard observes, “Philosophers, when confronted with outside and inside think in terms of being and non-being. Thus profound metaphysics is rooted in an implicit geometry which – whether we will or not – confers spatiality upon thought; if a metaphysician could not draw, what would he think? Open and closed for him are thoughts” (Poetics, p. 212). Bachelard then quotes from a lecture by his compatriot Jean Hyppolite (a progenitor of the post-structuralist “philosophy of difference,” which holds that identity is created only through its opposition to differentiation):

Hyppolite spoke of “a first myth of outside and inside.” And he added: “you feel the full significance of this myth of outside and inside in alienation, which is founded on these two terms. Beyond what is expressed in their formal opposition lie alienation and hostility between the two.” And so, simple geometrical opposition becomes tinged with agressivity. Formal opposition is incapable of remaining calm … “This side” and “beyond” are faint repetitions of the dialectics of inside and outside: everything takes form, even infinity. We seek to determine being and in doing so, transcend all situations, to give a situation of all situations. Man’s being is confronted with the world’s being … The dialectics of here and there have been promoted to the rank of an absolutism according to which these unfortunate adverbs of place are endowed with unsupervised powers of ontological determination (Ibid, p.212).

The most obvious examples of the alienation, hostility or exclusion engendered by this opposition and its ontological implications can be found in the physical spaces in which Rizal exists. Firstly, there is the mausoleum. As the previous quote indicates, Rizal did not actually start life there. Instead, his mother “would be forced back to the cemetery,” with a 5-year-old Rizal in tow, (Migrante, p.4) by circumstances.

The outsideinside opposition thus frames the narrative from the offset. This was not some kind of predestination; things might have been different; Rizal was once outside – where hope glimmers for even the most downtrodden. True, life is not much easier. From the inside Rizal gazes out at “the corrugated iron rooftops of the neighborhood around the cemetery, the people there barely better off than the people living within the burial ground, living choc-a-bloc in one-room flats built from scrap wood and sheet metal, families of four, five, six, or more sleeping and living on top of one another on dirt floors and busted planks” (Ibid, p.41).

Yet, at the very least, there is the potential for social mobility or self-improvement of some kind. Once inside the portals of the cemetery, “we are the nameless dead now” (Ibid, pp. 66, 79, 108).

It is telling that these words from Rizal’s mother, repeated like a mantra throughout the text, are the first that come to Rizal’s mind when, coated in slime and the scent of saury, he arrives back at the harbour aboard the fishing boat, following an exhausting first day of work.

In many ways, the boat is simply the cemetery in reverse. Sprawled out on the deck amid rusty puddles of brine, as they struggle to get a moment’s rest under a ferocious sun, the migrantes resemble desiccated corpses; going about their back-breaking labour with empty minds and bellies, they are like the maganang kumain zombies on “their twilight march through the lanes, seeking their next hit of shabu” (Ibid, p.42).

As Rizal and his colleagues discover on that fateful first attempt to extend their world beyond the deck, the gunwales of the “decrepit tub” (Ibid, p.224) will strictly demarcate the extent of their movements from now on. And there is an irony in being shackled to a vessel that can take them into the “expanse of open water” (Ibid, p.73) – a tantalising reminder of the seemingly boundless possibilities offered by a world that remains forever out of their reach.

Quoting the Franco-Uruguayan writer Jules Supervielle, Bachelard makes just such a point about the “endless rides on the South American pampas” (Poetics, p.221): “Precisely because of too much riding and too much freedom and of the unchanging horizon, in spite of our desperate gallopings, the pampa assumed the aspect of a prison for me, a prison that was bigger than the others” (Ibid).

In the scenes where Rizal and his crewmate Datu are thrown overboard by the tyrannical Captain Li, Henley takes this idea even further, reminding us that these inviting arms that suggest freedom can quickly transform into a deadly choke-hold.

As represented by the boat’s wheelhouse, inside now provides – if not a gateway to freedom – at least a safe haven from the hostile elements. Naked and exposed on deck, Rizal and his fellow workers naturally gravitate towards the only private space available to them, taking turns to sleep and shelter there during the hours when Li is away.

By occupying the wheelhouse, albeit fleetingly, the migrantes are able at some level to challenge Li’s unchecked power to control their space. The only other option is mutiny and judicial confinement, as they will “probably be fed better in there than out here” (Ibid, p.115; my emphasis), but the idea is immediately abandoned when Datu raises the issue of justice for “four brown men who murder a Taiwanese captain.” (Ibid).

Following Rizal’s escape from the hellship at Nanfang’ao, his movement remains restricted. At the restaurant – a public space where people come and go all day – he cannot leave for fear of being picked up by immigration. Even on the inside he is further inside, confined, as he is, to an office, which – while it is easily the most comfortable space he has ever slept in – is nonetheless a sterile, dispassionate place, unambiguously a work space where time and space are ipso facto controlled (Cf. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for the discussion par excellence of this subject.)

The manager Rosie tells him, “Unfortunately you’ll be stuck here until I come back in the morning. If there’s some kind of emergency you go out the exit in the back. But if you go out and the door closes behind you, you’ll be trapped outside(Migrante, p.196). Rosie also confirms that she is not ready to give Rizal the keys yet, thus denying him the physical tools required to move between the two states of inside and outside.

Fear of this unknown outside, which is confirmed as legitimate by others, is enough to dissuade Rizal from any attempt to access it. Instead, he fines a degree of control in a borderland between the two zones:

Outside, away from the restaurant. Away from people. Someplace he could just be alone. Remembering the place where he had first spoken to Jasmine in private he stood up and strode back through the kitchen to the rear exit, propping the door open with a crate. He turned to the left and paced the narrow alley, stopping after a couple of turns to press his back against the bare concrete. He looked up at the sky, dotted with high-ranging puffs of white cloud, blinking against the bright light shining down into the narrow crack between the buildings. He stood there until a voice called to him. He turned and saw Rosie leaning partway out the door. “Rizal,” she said, beckoning him inside with a wave of her arm, “time to get to work” (Ibid, pp. 211-12; my emphasis).

Following his arrest, Rizal is processed through a two-tier system of space management at the National Immigration Agency centre. “Some were kept in holding cells, waiting to be deported back to the Philippines,” we are told. “Others, like Rizal, were relatively free, though not so much that they could leave the bounds of the cavernous lobby, except to go to the bathroom” (Ibid, p.227).

While sitting in a waiting area, preparing to be interviewed, Rizal watches as the detainees are summoned to one of four rooms, “some entering and leaving quickly, others remaining within for an hour or more” (Ibid, p.222). This series of discrete spaces and the proceedings that take place within them is initially embued with mystery and menace. Once Rizal has entered one of the rooms, a surreal depersonalisation takes hold:

[It]t was as though his temperature and that of the room around him were one, and he could fade into it, becoming the same as the walls, the table. In his mind he became the same as the furniture. Another object, like the chair, something that gained name only by someone sitting on it; deciding its purpose (Ibid, p.224).

Here, again, Berkeley and Buber are evoked as Rizal is literally dehumanised and objectified. But who, apart from the NIA officials, is watching him this time? Has god forsaken him?

At the conclusion of the statement that Rizal gives the immigration officer, we get one of the most powerful expressions of the spatial dialectic as “[t]he room seemed to breathe in and out with him, unsure of whether or not to expel him back into the world of the living” (Ibid). Having sucked Rizal in, and separated itself from his being, gaining full personification in the process, the room is now a force of nature unto itself, against which it is pointless to struggle.

Once spewed out, Rizal and the migrantes who have been given leave to remain in Taiwan are held for three days, then “told to gather their things, if they had any, and brought outside. There a series of vans were waiting, headed for shelters scattered around the country”(Ibid, p.227).

The shelter where Rizal next finds himself is the first place in Taiwan to afford something approaching freedom of movement. Of course, the space is still controlled, albeit in a way that is ostensibly to protect rights rather than deny them:

This room is for the men. The one beside is for the women. Not all shelters have men and women staying under one roof, but we do. It’s important for you to know that you cannot go into the women’s room unless you’re invited. And even then, only during the day. Understand? Rizal nodded quickly (Ibid, p. 230).

Yet, even when the opportunities present themselves, Rizal shows no inclination to take advantage of this new-found liberty. When the shelter’s manager proposes trips to parks or his fellow inmates discuss visits to Taipei to organise and protest the migrante lot, a rally where “[t]hey would march and chant and dance and sing” (Ibid, p.241), Rizal “said he would go with them, but in his heart he knew it wasn’t true” (26. Ibid, p.242). Instead, the balcony is as close as he gets to outside.

The final space that Rizal encounters is the factory in Zhubei. Like the boat, the factory remains nameless, one of the thousands of buildings that occupy the chain of science parks down the west coast of Taiwan. Once inside the compound, the inside-outside dialectic very quickly emerges again, as we learn that “Everything within had a look of newness about it. An appearance of things that were to be passed by, seen but not touched” (Ibid, p.250). Moments later, when Rizal is caught flouting this unspoken rule, the notion that this pristine, artificial region of inside is out-of-bounds is cemented.

When Rizal is taken to his dorm, it becomes clear that, in some ways, this will be the most restrictive environment of all:

Rizal felt Mak brush by him and followed him through, Miss Liao closing the door behind them. The path took them to the employee dorm, a building that looked less permanent than the one they had just left. It was two stories, walls gleaming white, thin even at the most furtive glance. Square protrusions, air conditioning units, poked out at intervals every few feet, windows not far from them. Miss Liao moved past the men and strode to the door ahead, swiping a key card through a machine that beeped, its red LED light turning green. The door buzzed open and she pulled it wide, motioning the two men inside. They stepped through into a hallway. Miss Liao stopped them there, pointing back to the door. She tapped her key card. “Managers have key,” she explained. “Workers no have key. You in dorm, you stay in. No out. When you work in factory, no go in dorm. No key card, no can go inside. Understand?” …

Down the hallway they walked past closed doors spaced a few feet apart, looking more like entrances to storage closets than living quarters. When they reached a door near the end of the hall, Miss Liao swiped her key card through a sensor above the door handle. The light there turned from red to green and the door popped open. She bid them inside. Mak went in first, Rizal following. A few steps was all it took to reach the far wall. On either side of the room were narrow beds, sheets folded neatly at the end of the mattress. A small dresser sat between the beds, opposite the door, a fan suspended in the upper corner of the room on the left …

She left them there in their new home, two men, hardly better than strangers, now sharing a space not much bigger than the mausoleum Rizal had shared with his mother. At least here, though, there was a window. Taking in a breath of stale air Rizal stepped to the window to open it up, hoping a breeze from outside would chase some of the odor of paint and carpet glue from the room. When he got there, he froze. He studied the window for a time, looking for a latch to unlock it or a track along the bottom on which it would slide open and closed. Through the tinted glass with its dark plastic coating to keep out the sunlight, he looked down to the ground below and then to the view of the admin building beyond. He tapped the glass with his finger and it rattled in place, fixed, keeping the two men and the stuffy air within (Ibid, pp.255-7).

Here, for the first time, almost every aspect of the inside-outside dynamic is beyond Rizal’s control. Access to the various spaces within the building is limited according to rules designed to literally keep workers in their place, and even the the possibility of venturing outside-outside is kept at arms’ length, if not by physical coercion, then by more insidious means:

It was Sunday. Supposedly a day off. But as Rizal had learned quickly, life at the factory in Zhubei was little different from that on the boat in Su’ao. Though the methods differed, the results were the same. The minders found ways to ensure the men were at work every day without fail (Ibid, p.261).

Rizal watched from the corner of his eye as Su moved from one man to the next, speaking briefly then smiling as he scratched out something against the backing of his clipboard, finally patting each man on the shoulder. Soon he stood next to Rizal. “Good week, my friend, yes?” Rizal nodded. “Good work, good pay.” Rizal slackened his grip on the accelerator of his jack. His feet ached as they hit the concrete floor, the steel toes of his company-provided work boots squeezing his feet. “You want day off tomorrow, or you want to make more money?” Su asked, not waiting for a reply. “The others, they all work tomorrow. They work so hard. Earn big money. I think you are the same, yes?” Rizal felt his heart sink. Though he could not understand every word out of Su’s mouth, he knew what was asked all the same, his English improving day by day. He was planning to use his days off to go to Zhongli to try and find Jasmine. Now Mr. Su stood in his way, eyes expectant. He raised up his clipboard. A list of names, each with a check next to it. Rizal nodded glumly and a check was placed next to his as well (Ibid, p. 262).


Back in March 2013, I had the chance to meet and chat briefly to the writer Pai Hsien-yung (白先勇),after a talk he gave on his father, the Nationalist General Pai Chung-hsi (白崇禧), to support the publication of photo-biography on Pai, Snr’s role in Republican China

I asked Pai about his most famous work, Taipei People (台北人), and whether the title was – as indicated in the preface to the Chinese University Press edition – intended to be ironic, given the scarcity of Taiwan-born characters found in the collection of tales. He confirmed this, pointing out the allegorical quotation from the Tang Dynasty poet Liu Yu-hsi (劉禹錫), which refers to the “powerful and cultured emigré families” as well as the “numberless commoners” (Taipei People, p.iv) who fled from a barbarian invasion in the fourth century AD to re-establish the Chin Dynasty at modern-day Nanjing.

The allusion was to the the the Kuomintang’s “re-establishment” of the Republic of China in Taiwan, which was always seen as a temporary move until the “mainland” could be retaken. As such, many of the characters in the stories spend their time wistfully reminiscing about the good old days in China.

All of this, I understood, but my question to Pai really concerned whether he saw the relegation of Taiwanese characters to the periphery as part of this irony or whether they were simply extraneous to the narrative. (Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, but I wondered whether this other side of the equation had occurred to him.) When I reframed my question in this way, his somewhat puzzled reaction confirmed my suspicions that the latter was the case.

The near-absence of Taiwanese characters reminded me of Edward Said’s “contrapuntal reading” of a text, which takes account of “what was once forcibly excluded”(Culture and Imperialism, p.66). Even in those texts where there is no explicit reference to colonies and the colonised, they loom large as having made possible the lifestyles depicted in European novels and, indeed, the very creation of those works.

This, then, is the most important way in which the notion of inside vs outside informs a reading of Migrante, namely through the counterpoint of those who have for too long been absent from Taiwan’s story. The country’s much-vaunted economic miracle has been assisted in no small part by the types of people depicted in Henley’s novel yet up until now, they have been conspicuous by their invisibility.

In the foreword to the novel, Henley admits to having harboured misgivings over whether he should be the one to tell this story. This is understandable: he is himself an outsider to the life he portrays and, as he admits, a privileged one, to whom the types of restriction and exclusion Rizal suffers are largely alien. Yet, in giving form to these issues, Henley has undoubtedly helped move them closer to the realm of public consciousness. How long they will linger on the threshold, the “cosmos of the Half-open” (Poetics, p.222), no longer completely outside but not yet quite in, remains to be seen.

Postscript: I’ve just seen the date for the book launch party for Migrante (Saturday, 22 August 2020 from 16:00-23:00 at Taipei’s Vinyl Decision), and it looks like I might not be able to make it. I would urge anyone who can to get along there and pick up a copy if they don’t have one. Not only is it a rivetting read, Joe’s share of the proceeds is going to migrant worker advocacy groups. Hopefully I’ll get my copy signed in the not-too-dim-and-distant with no recent (known) instances of debasement to reference this time. 

Bibliography of quoted works :

Bachelard, G. The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 1994.

Buber, M., I and Thou, T&T Clark, Ltd., Edinburgh, 1996.

Calvino, I. Invisible Cities, Vintage Books, London, 1997.

Henley, J.W., Migrante, Camphor Press Ltd, Manchester, United Kingdom, 2020.

Pai, H-y, tr. author and Patia Yasin, Taipei People, The Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 2010.

Said, E. , Culture and Imperialism, Vintage Books, New York, USA, 1994.

  1. Like so many relics of obscure 1970s music, I was introduced to this by way of hip-hop sample – in this case the Pete Rock & CL Smooth tune of the same name.
  2. I think this can be read two ways, though I am not sure whether that ambiguity exists in the original French and, if so, whether that is intentional. Depending on whether the emphasis is on are or where, this could an ontological statement or an observation about our present location being defined in opposition to other location(s) where we cannot currently be.

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