Palau: a world apart

November 26, 2012

From very early on in the year, this country of around 21,000 people spread over 250 islands, 500 miles east of the Philippines distinguished itself as the most difficult Pacific island nation to find books from. Every other literary globetrotter I’ve heard of has struggled to find a Palauan story, with many people resorting to anthropological works and histories by Western academics in the absence of anything by writers from the place.

My own experience bore this out. While I was able to find people to contact for recommendations from all the other Pacific nations – no matter how tricky the books ended up being to track down – it was difficult to know where to start with Palau. The few emails I fired off to people in the country disappeared into the ether without a trace. And any experts on the region I contacted simply said Palau would be difficult and left it at that. Things were starting to get desperate.

And then my resourceful colleague – who, by the way, I’m beginning to suspect is some kind of secret agent, so uncanny is his ability to find leads in the remotest of places – sent me a link to a Palauan writers Yahoo group. Judging by the absence of recent activity on the site, it might well have turned out to be another dead-end. However, there was an email address for the list owner. And so, not holding out much hope, I sent a message to it.

After about a week, a detailed email came back from Susan Kloulechad, a Canadian citizen who is married to a Palauan, with whom she has three children, and has lived in the country for nearly 20 years. She suggested several organisations and people to contact on the islands before mentioning that she had a couple of unpublished manuscripts of her own. One in particular, Spirits’ Tides, caught my interest. And so, judging that Kloulechad’s long association with the nation qualified her work to be considered as Palauan, I asked her if she would let me read it.

Moving back and forth between New York and the imaginary archipelago of Lekes, which Kloulechad says is a fictional version of Palau (the name is taken from a place in her husband’s village), the novel tells the fraught love story of Jonathan C Durston Jr and Micronesian girl Rur. Worlds apart in terms of their lifestyles and experiences, the two are really spirit companions who were separated when they entered time and were born at opposite ends of the Earth. They meet again when multi-millionaire tycoon Jonathan crashes his plane in the sea by one of Lekes’ deserted islands and Rur helps save his life. An attraction develops quickly between the pair, but, with so much separating them, a relationship between these star-crossed lovers seems impossible.

Jonathan’s crash-landing in the heart of Lekes provides Kloulechad with a great opportunity to reveal Micronesian culture to the reader. With Rur as a guide, we learn about everything from how to catch a coconut crab to the region’s strong family values and wedding rituals, as well as some of its folk tales. I was particularly pleased to come across the story of the race between the fish and the wily crab, which I read first in Marshall Islands Legends and Stories and now feels like an old friend.

The author balances this with a great evocation of New York City in winter, as seen through Rur’s eyes. Reading it made me deeply nostalgic for strolling through Central Park in the snow and my fingers itched to get online and book a flight – testament to how well Kloulechad captures the place.

There are some good touches of humour in the narrative too. Moments such as Rur’s mischievous pretence that her ability to start fires derives from island magic, rather than the lighter in her back pocket, and her fabrication of a story about the extent of Jonathan’s injuries to help them get a flight more quickly bring the novel alive.

On the downside, the balance slips during some of the debates between Jonathan and Rur so that the book often feels more like a two-dimensional manifesto for ‘the value of a simple life’ in Micronesia than the dramatisation of the meeting of two worlds. At times Rur seems to be hectoring not only Jonathan, but also the Westerner the author seems to envisage reading the book.

In addition, there are problems with the plot: the pact between scheming girlfriend Caroline and Jonathan’s father to entrap the hero in an engagement stretches credibility, while Jonathan’s forging ahead with plans for a marriage he doesn’t want and his reluctance to discover the identity of the employees embezzling funds from his company feel more like a decisions required by Kloulechad to keep the tension going rather than choices the protagonist would make. I was also uncomfortable with the use of Caroline’s desire to work once she’d had children as a way of vilifying her.

Nevertheless, as a light, romantic novel the book has potential. The raw subject matter is rich and Kloulechad’s skill in evoking places makes for some lovely moments. With a bit of structural underpinning and some fine tuning of motivations, it could be a very enjoyable read. And if it finds a publisher, it will also – as far as I can find out – be the first Palauan novel to make it into print. Now that’s something I’d love to see.

Spirits’ Tides by Susan Kloulechad

The Rest of the World vote closes on Friday 30 November at 23.59 (UK time). Make sure you have your say!

Tuvalu: how to make it rain

November 17, 2012

There’s tough and then there’s Tuvalu. The number of messages I’ve sent about this place –the third least populous nation on Earth after Vatican City and Nauru – over the past year is probably nearing the 50 mark. And though many of the people I contacted were willing to help, there was no getting round the fact that there was simply very little to suggest.

Somewhere along the way, however, I got in touch with scholar, writer, photographer, restorer of antique radio equipment, and community volunteer Peter McQuarrie. Though based in New Zealand, McQuarrie is married to a Tuvaluan and has connections with the Tuvaluan community in Auckland. He promised to ask around and duly came back with the suggestion of Tuvalu: a history, a book written by 17 Tuvaluans and published in 1983, a few years after the nation declared its independence.

As I explained to McQuarrie, I have tended to disregard history books so far during this quest, regarding them as being some way out of the scope of literature. However, the collaborative nature of the work, and the fact that it chimed in with the genre of national-identity stories I’d already discovered in Pacific works like Luelen Bernart’s The Book of Luelen and Sethy John Regenvanu’s Laef Blong Mi, made me hesitate. In the end, I decided to give it a go.

Written by people drawn from all walks of life on the nation’s nine islands during a series of workshops run by the University of the South Pacific, this collection of essays and personal accounts paints a picture of Tuvaluan life stretching back as far as folklore, hearsay and patchy historical records allow and reaching up to the time of writing. The pieces are divided by subject, with the writers tackling different aspects of the country’s culture, such as creation, religion, land, singing and dancing, and independence, in an effort to tell the story of their newly minted nation.

As in several other Pacific Island works I’ve read this year, the writers often make little distinction between factual and symbolic truth. The accounts rove back and forth between myth and history, mingling tales about cannibals and magical eels with maps, diagrams, and explanations about the islands’ names, geography and politics. Indeed, the fantastic and the factual sometimes seem to blend together, with anecdotal accounts about chiefs who could charm fish and the story of the old woman who knew how to make it rain:

‘Taia Teuai, an old woman who died in 1982, was generally recognised as having inherited from her grandparents the power to make it rain. Shortly before her death she explained how she did it:

‘”If there is a long drought then I will make the rain fall. First I go to the bush to gather coconut leaves and flowers with which to weave myself a garland. Later, towards sunset, I put oil over my body and wearing a clean dress and with a garland on my head go down to the beach to meet a team of ‘rain-makers’. These are little clouds sailing towards the setting sun. I look at them and dance, and sing a song such as this one:

‘”Little clouds, little clouds!/Bring rain to me,/To moisten my body.

‘”In about three days time there would be heavy rain. This sort of rain can easily be recognised because the drops are much thicker than those of ordinary rain.”‘

This blending of anecdote and historical research gives rise to some wonderful insights into Tuvaluan life. We learn, for example, how to hitch a ride on a turtle’s back – apparently the trick is to hang on without getting your fingers jammed between the neck and the shell or too near the mouth – as well as the islanders’ rather alarming traditional methods of dealing with troublemakers, which involve a leaky canoe without a paddle. We also discover the toll that Western influences have taken on the nation, from the blackbirders who came to kidnap people to work in the Peruvian mines in the 19th century, through to the suppression of dancing and singing by the missionaries, and the ravages of world war two – during which the Americans destroyed 22,000 of Nanumea’s 54,000 coconut trees building their defensive airfield.

The subject matter may be varied, but through all the accounts runs a sense of the gravity of the task the writers are undertaking. This is established from the first page, with the foreword from prime minister Tomasi Puapua, who describes the book as being of ‘considerable significance in the history of the young nation of Tuvalu’ because the accounts are, for the first time, ‘written by Tuvaluans interpreting events as they themselves see them’. This is perhaps most movingly borne out in Enele Sapoago’s brief essay ‘Today and Tomorrow’ at the back of the book, which describes in fresh and passionate terms what independence means.

That said, it’s hard not to feel the hand of the non-Tuvaluan workshop leaders on the shoulders of the writers at points. The essay form becomes stilted and awkward at times, and the later chapters dealing with events leading up to independence feel very dutiful and dense, and are often hard to read. In addition, it is difficult to ignore the fact that most of the historical source material the writers have to work with necessarily comes from the jottings of Western visitors to the archipelago. I sometimes found myself wondering who exactly the writing – carried out in English – was intended for.

Nevertheless, there’s no question that this is an important book. As the first concerted effort of Tuvaluans to tell their story, it is informative, passionate and sometimes surprising. Nearly 30 years on from its publication, it’s surely time we had some more.

Tuvalu: A History by Simati Faaniu, Vinaka Ielemia, Taulu Isako, Tito Isala, Laumua Kofe (Rev), Nofoaiga Lafita, Pusineli Lafai, Kalaaki Laupepa (Dr), Nalu Nia, Talakatoa O’Brien, Sotaga Pape, Laloniu Samuelu, Enele Sapoaga, Pasoni Taafaki, Melei Telavi, Noatia Penitala Teo, Vaieli Tinilau, ed Hugh Laracy (Institute of Pacific Studies, 1983)

Tonga: empire line

November 8, 2012

When my fiancé Steve saw my Tongan book he said: ‘Cor, that’s a good, manly title, isn’t it?’

I looked glum. Manly or not, the rather pugnacious sound of A Providence of War by Joshua Taumoefolau was one the reasons that I’d been trying to avoid having to read this book for some months. The others concerned its length – a cool 600 or so pages – and the fact that it was self-published. (Alright, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised by most of the self-published books I’ve read so far this year, but doing without those layers of quality control that usually come with traditionally published works is always a gamble.)

But the truth was, there really wasn’t much else to choose from. In fact, Taumoefolau’s novel, the first in a planned series of epics, had been the sole recommendation for Tonga from the Multicultural Services Team at Auckland Libraries, which ran a Pacific books festival called ‘Pasifika’ this March.

At last, having exhausted most other lines of inquiry I could think of, I decided I’d been dodging the novel long enough. I went to lulu.com and used my school German to navigate through the checkout and get my very own copy winging its way to me.

Beginning in AD 1120, when the Tu’i Tonga Empire was at the height of its powers, the novel follows warrior Crown Prince Talatama as he travels to the domain’s farthest corners on King Tu’itatui’s business. After years of turbulence and trouble from rebellious overlords on the remotest islands, peace and prosperity seem to reign. Yet beneath the calm surface of the ocean realm, trouble is stirring. It is up to Talatama and his small band of followers from the region’s many diverse groups to risk everything to defend his father’s sovereignty in the face of a plot that threatens to destroy not only the empire but history itself.

Swashbuckling doesn’t begin to cover it. Bristling with battles, betrayals, secret pacts, mass murder, rape, pillaging, riddles that must be solved on pain of death, sorcery, volcanic eruptions and even cannibalism, this is a book of action. As in several other Pacific island stories I’ve read this year, we see myth and reality blending together in the shape of magical characters such as the witch Mo’unga, who has the power to summon sharks to finish off her opponents, and Talatama’s ally Maui Atalaga, a mortal descendant of the god Maui. These characters introduce magic to the narrative so that the novel straddles historical fiction and fantasy and is a surprisingly gripping read.

Yet this is more than a rollicking yarn. Based on meticulous research by the author into archaeological finds in the region and such historical documentation as exists about the empire, the book – though necessarily fictional because of the lack of formal records from the era – is an attempt to record and build pride in Tongan heritage, as Taumoefolau explains in his ‘Historical Note':

‘My personal fascination with the Tu’i Tonga stems from a personal connection to ancient ancestry. Taumoefolau, my great-great-grandfather, from whom my surname has its origin, was the grandson of the 37th Tu’i Tonga, Ma’ulupekotofa who inherited the title around A.D.1770’s [sic]. Thus, from a lineage of father to son, I am able to connect a line back to the very characters that appear in this story.

‘But in a greater vein, my passion for this ancient period  is fuelled by two aspects: the nature of its obscurity, an epoch so coloured with grandeur yet so remote in the living memory of my people who never had the benefit of written records, and the goal of glorifying our legends and tales through the medium of historical fiction in hope that these stories and their heroes are not forgotten, but remembered.’

As a result, the novel carries several fascinating insights into Pacific customs. We learn, for example, about the origins of the kava ceremony, which was apparently introduced to the empire by King Tu’itatui as a way of educating people about the importance of respect, reverence and loyalty. And we hear more Pacific creation myths – this time more fluently woven into the narrative than is sometimes the case in books from the region.

Taumoefolau’s writing is at its best in action scenes, where it is usually lean and muscular like the warriors it describes. Elsewhere, his prose can become overwritten and awkward. Too many chapters begin with a weather report when they should plunge straight into the drama and some of the sex scenes in particular are a touch cringeworthy – I found myself writing ‘hmmn’ in the margin next to the description of Mahina being ‘completely drunk with [Talatama's] manly tang’. In addition, as the extract above suggests, some of the phrasing is odd and the occasional malapropism creeps in.

However, these are mostly things that a professional editor would have sorted out. Structurally, the book is sound and Taumoefolau marshalls his large cast of characters with all their attendant sub-plots well. As a whole, it is surprisingly enjoyable – and all the more impressive for being apparently a lone Tongan prose voice on the world-literature stage.

A Providence of War by Joshua Taumoefolau (Lulu, 2009)

I emailed a lot of people during the search for this book. Some of the messages bounced. Others disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again. But lots of people did get back to me, usually to tell me one or both of two things: that there was no Kiribatian prose that they could think of and/or that there was someone I should contact at the university/library/community project across the way who might know more.

This impromptu game of e-tag led me through Guam, New Zealand, Kiribati itself, Samoa, Fiji, Hawaii and the States, until at last I emailed Sudesh Mishra, an associate professor in the school of creative and communication arts at Deakin University in Australia. He suggested that I look up Teweiariki Teaero and gave me his email address at the University of the South Pacific. Perhaps the poet would have a prose manuscript I could read.

I dropped Teaero a line. He replied the very next day to say that while no novel, short story collection or memoir by a writer from Kiribati existed, his anthologies On Eitei’s Wings and Waa in Storms contained prose pieces as well as poems. Would I be interested in reading one of those?

Curious to see how this mixing of genres worked, I asked which collection contained the greatest amount of short stories. A few weeks later a copy of Waa in Storms arrived.

Bringing together Teaero’s poetry, prose, drawings and paintings, the anthology comprises work from a particularly dark period in the author’s life, during which his parents fell seriously ill, his youngest daughter was hit by a car, and his home community on the atoll of Tarawa was shaken by a series of vicious child rapes. Melding depictions of particular moments and more general reflections on extreme emotions with anecdotes, satirical sketches and occasional rants about island life, the pieces present a rich and layered picture of Teaero’s year.

The use of language in the book is fascinating. While some pieces, including all the prose work, are written entirely in English, others, such as ‘Te Faika’, mix together verses in the Kiribatese language and verses in English. Yet others are written exclusively in Kiribatese. Teaero explains in his introduction that the reasons for this are tied to his desire ‘to express an idea as vividly as possible… [whether] this comes through the use of English, Kiribatese, visual image or any combination of the three’.

For the author, it seems, the three modes of expression have different strengths when it comes to certain ideas and emotions. Although it’s impossible for an English-language reader like me to tell what the subject matter of most of the Kiribatese work is, a note at the end of ‘E Kaaki Baina Te Ang’ (‘Teaia, Tarawa. 18th August 2000. The day my father passed away’) suggests that some of it at least contains extremely personal reflections on the writer’s emotional and family life, while many of the English pieces are outward-looking, focusing on politics, ecology and the wider community.

The inclusion of background details at the end of most of the pieces adds a fascinating layer of meaning to the collection. While some reveal the inspiration for the work, others such as the note, ‘Composed while sitting on the sand dunes in Sigatoka town. 28th January 2001,’ at the end of ‘Sad Parade’ introduce a powerful sense of immediacy to the act of writing, as though we are reading the story of the composition as much as the pieces themselves. And then there are the quirky observations that raise a smile and introduce a huge amount of warmth into the collection, such as the postscript to ‘Size Unlimited':

‘Suva. 5th December 2000. Composed in the Botanical Gardens of USP. The frogs were very happy, hopping about and croaking joyously every-merry-where! Perhaps they were having an early Christmas party.’

Teaero’s writing seems, for the most part, disarmingly simple. He uses this to great effect in satirical stories such as ‘Merrily Verily Messing with Missing Milkfish’, where the sing-song, childlike tone of the piece is a great tool for sending up corrupt government officials. It can also pay dividends in poems such as ‘Tab-ulous Reunion’ where the almost banal heaping of platitudes on a former teacher builds in a mysteriously moving way. At times, however, the work does feel a little bald, particularly at the end of some of the prose pieces, where Teaero steps out from behind the narrative to appeal for a range of reforms, from equipping the police with breathalyzers and planting more trees at the local hospital to greater transparency in politics, as though he does not trust the story to speak for itself.

But perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that the distinction between poetry and prose in the collection often seems rather meaningless. Several of the poems read as stories, while prose pieces such as ‘Island Time’ and ‘Crowded Buses’ read more as poems that happen to be written in full sentences that stretch across the page. In addition, much of the work incorporates visual aspects, with font sizes and weights and the shape of the poems on the page adding emphasis. Just as outside events and Teaero’s life experiences bleed into and mingle with the works, so the forms mix with and change each other.

The result is a distinctive and memorable collection. Organised into four ‘Waves’, which loosely chart Teaero’s progress through what he calls his ‘annus horribilis‘ in the introduction, the work pulls together to tell a story of suffering and change. It is in many ways every bit as much a narrative as the novels, short story collections and memoirs I’ve read so far this year – and a striking challenge to the system of categorization I’ve used to talk about literature for much of my life.

Waa in Storms by Teweiariki Teaero (Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 2004)

I was running out of ideas for the FSM. I had been in touch with a whole range of Pacific Island literature experts and academics based at universities in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and Guam. I had emailed cultural associations, community radio stations and local celebrities. And I had left messages on every sort of blog to do with Oceania that I could find.

Everyone who got back to me said the same thing: if I was looking for poetry, there would be no problem. There were lots of Micronesian poets knocking around. There was even a Micronesian Poets Club. And of course Emelihter Kihleng represented the country at Poetry Parnassus in London this summer.

But as for prose. Well… from a nation that size I’d be very lucky to find anything at all.

Beginning to despair, I looked Emelihter Kihleng up on Facebook. Perhaps she might be able to suggest something?

Kihleng very kindly replied: there was a creative history of the island of Pohnpei by Pohnpeian Luelen Bernart. It was out of print, but if I dug around online I should be able to find a copy.

I looked the book up. My heart sank slightly when I found that it had been published posthumously in 1977, two years before the formation of FSM’s constitutional government and nine years before the country declared independence from the US. Could it really count as literature from FSM?

However, as I read more about village chief Bernart, who died in 1946, having grown up before the island came under foreign control, I began to feel that there might be a case for relaxing my rule that literature must have been written since the foundation of the country in this instance – particularly as, as an island nation, the boundaries of Pohnpei have in one sense not shifted for hundreds of years. Besides, I was intrigued about what was inside.

Containing spells, songs, legends, lists of plants, tools and star names, and even a potted history of the deaths of the apostles, The Book of Luelen sets out to tell the story of life on Pohnpei from the dawn of creation up until the time of writing. Part mythology, part history and part personal testimony, with a smattering of biblical tropes and stylistic techniques thrown in for good measure, the work is one of the most eclectic and ambitious pieces of prose going.

Bernart’s writing is richest in its handling of lore and mythology. Whether he is describing the underworld beneath the sea, the second heaven or ‘place for people who had poor voices in singing’, or the development of civilization on the land in between, the author is engaging and often surprising. We hear of the battles between the Arem (humans) and the Liat (cannibals), the story of the magic man Taimuan who drops his defects off on surrounding islands in order to trick a woman into marrying him, and the spirit who travels the world and writes a song about his adventures, not to mention a whole host of recipes, tips and explanations for why certain plants, rituals and ceremonies sprang up.

Exhilarating though the sheer scope of the work is, it can also be problematic. Bernart, who worked on the book for 12 years and dictated the closing chapters to his daughters shortly before his death, clearly feels a pressure to get as much down as he can, sometimes at the expense of narrative coherence. As he explains in his preface, the point of the exercise as he sees it is to get the information written in the first place – ‘let those who know hear and correct this later’, he writes.

This impatience manifests itself in a number of ways. From repeated assertions that there is not enough time to explain certain concepts in the text, to pat generalisations that ‘the people of this age are better than those of olden times’, which the author seems to expect us to take on trust, Bernart bustles us along with a briskness that can make for rather bewildering reading. In addition, the sudden introduction of historical dates and statistics when the narrative comes to the events of the 19th century feels rather startling.

It is perhaps only when we understand the context of the work that such anxious haste makes sense. When he penned the book, Bernart was not only up against his own mortality but also the fact that, apart from translations of The Bible and a few religious tracts, no stories had been written in his language (he spoke a Kiti dialect). Using a written system that had itself been developed by American missionaries in the 1850s, his book was the first complete record of the nation’s history according to a Pohnpeian. It was a political act as much as an act of conservation.

And the importance of that act showed: although the work was only formally published in 1977, it was circulated in numerous manuscript versions around the island after Bernart’s death. Even in this edition, with numerous forewords, introductions and notes by Western academics (who even published a supplementary volume of annotations to convey their full interpretation of the text to the English-language reader) the passion of the writer to tell his story his way shines through. In many ways it is an attempt to contain not just a nation but also an entire universe. Marvellous.

The Book of Luelen by Luelen Bernart, translated from the Pohnpeian dialect and edited by John Fishcer, Saul Riesenberg and Marjorie Whiting (Australian National University Press, 1977)

PALAU APPEAL: Do you know anyone who might be able to help me find a book or prose manuscript from Palau, the final Pacific Island nation to solve on my list? Any ideas of writers, bloggers, friends, relatives or other contacts in the region would be brilliant. Leave a comment and let me know…

This was another pick from Thomas Slone’s storeroom at Masalai Press in California. Charting Sethy John Regenvanu’s memories of his early life, his experience of being the first boy from Uripiv island to go away to school, his work towards his country’s declaration of independence in 1980 and his time as a minister in its new government, Laef Blong Mi (or My Life) documents a key period in Vanuatu’s history. It weaves together political events and Regenvanu’s own story, with the help of the author’s photographs, to reveal the personal and social impact of gaining sovereignty and what it means to build a nation from the ground up.

The narrative brims with cultural insights, particularly in the early sections. From learning the lost art of fishing with black sea slugs to discovering the rituals of a Vanuatuan circumcision ceremony, the reader encounters a whole host of information about traditional life on the islands. Despite having a total population of fewer than 250,000 people, the archipelago is divided into a series of communities that differ enormously from one another – so much so that when Regenvanu went away to school on mainland Efate he was the only pupil there who spoke his language.

However, perhaps most striking of all is the revelation that Regenvanu, having no official birth date and finding himself obliged to ‘pinpoint when [he] had begun’ by the Franco-British colonial administration, plumped for the date 1 April 1945, both from a sense of lightheartedness – because this is the Western April Fools’ Day – and because this is the day the UN was founded.

This sense of the interconnectedness of his own story with national and international events is a theme throughout the book. From a young age, as the possibility of independence beckoned, Regenvanu felt the desire to use his education to help lead his compatriots ‘out of our former status of being non-persons in our own land to becoming proud citizens of the new nation of the independent Republic of Vanuatu’. He writes passionately about his belief in the state and its potential, as well as the importance of holding to the ‘spirit of struggle and unity of purpose’ that fired the early years.

Nevertheless, Regenvanu, who is also a church minister, is clear-eyed about the challenges the new nation faced. Contending with everything from black magic practised by opponents  to a widespread lack of self-belief engendered by decades of colonialism – not to mention the interference of the occasional American millionaire set on using his wealth to create his own ‘Utopian dream’ from the fragile, new nation – Regenvanu likens his task in some of the ministerial posts he held to ‘trying to force the negative and positive ends of an electric pole together’. Sometimes this was almost literally the case, as when Regenvanu found himself in a tug of war with the representative of a rebel faction, who was trying to hoist an illegal flag in the midst of an attempted coup.

Inevitably for an autobiography Regenvanu’s views are partial and shaped by his political standpoint and beliefs. Some of the later chapters also get a little too caught up in technicalities that clearly still rankle for the writer but mean little to a reader at this remove of time and distance.

However it is hard not to be impressed by Regenvanu’s integrity and evident desire to work for the good of his people and nation. Coming from a country where politics can often seem to be more about the advancement of personal agendas and careers than about effecting meaningful change, it was humbling to read the words of someone who saw his time in power as a chance to improve the lives of his compatriots. His story is a powerful reminder of what aspiration, education and determination can achieve.

Laef Blong Mi: From village to nation by Sethy John Regenvanu (Institute of Pacific Studies and Emalus Campus, University of the South Pacific, 2004)

Nauru: small triumphs

July 26, 2012

Every so often on a literary adventure like this, you come across someone who, as if with the wave of a magic wand, is able to solve several of your dilemmas at a single stroke. Thomas Slone is one such written-word wizard. As owner of US-based Masalai Press, a company specialising in work from Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Islands, Australia and Southeast Asia, he knows a thing or two about books from some of the most remote and least published nations in the world – and has a store of rare and out-of-print texts that simply aren’t available through many other sources.

I was put on Slone’s trail by the team at the University of Papua New Guinea Press, which in turn was recommended to me by Kate, who kindly responded to my halfway appeal for help with countries I have yet to find books for. After months of hassling people about Pacific Island literature, it seemed almost too good to be true when Slone not only came back with a list of recommendations for titles from several nations in the region, but also looked out some works that I could buy right there and then, among then Stories from Nauru.

Perhaps fittingly for a book from the world’s smallest island country, Stories from Nauru is a tiny work. Weighing in at just 20 pages, it looks at first glance as though it might sit more comfortably in pamphlet territory rather than trying to fight its corner among volumes ten times its size. The books dated cover design and yellowed pages also make it seem as though it hails from another era altogether, rather than from 1996, the year my edition came out.

The book’s slight appearance, however, belies the scale of its ambitions. Published off the back of a University of the South Pacific workshop on Nauru in 1990, ‘organised so that a conscious effort would be made to encourage Nauruans to write and to record their folklore in the attempt to build up a Nauruan literature’, as the Foreword explains, the collection has grand aims.

However, unlike other short story anthologies I’ve seen from the region, this book is not merely an attempt to document the island’s traditional tales. Instead, it is a collection of fresh creative writing, informed by but not confined to folklore. While some stories, such as Ben Bam Solomon’s ‘The Origins of Nauru’, which features three giants, clearly draw on local mythology, others like Jerielyn Jeremiah’s ‘The New School’, a tale of one girl’s experience of prejudice at  boarding school, deal with the practicalities of modern-day life.

Perhaps most startling of all is ‘A Plea for Help’ by Elmina Quadina, which is about a 30-year-old woman who is losing her hearing. It is impossible to know whether Quadina and her narrator are one and the same, but the piece’s plain language and simple power act like a hand reaching out from the text to draw you into the bleak existence facing disabled people in this remote corner of the world in a way that feels almost too personal to be anything other than real:

‘People, including my colleagues, think I’m stupid. They think I’m just a silly, stupid creature because I cannot hear properly. I don’t blame them for thinking of me in this way because I know it’s hard to talk to someone who is deaf. It’s like talking to a brick wall or a naughty little child who does not wish to listen. But it’s not like this with me because I have my brain and I wish to listen, hear and learn, But how? There is no-hearing [sic] aid or any other aid to help me.’

What the collection does have in common with other texts I’ve seen from the region is a recurring concern about the erosion of traditional culture and the encroachment of the Western world. Indeed, there is a slightly panicky air about some of the pieces, such as Roy Degoregore’s ‘Nauru: The Way it Used to Be’, which feels like a kind of literary Kim’s Game in which he tries to get down everything he remembers about the old customs before time runs out. Other stories, like Lucia Bill’s striking ‘Egade’ have a more wistful, haunting air.

As you would expect from stories produced in workshop conditions, a few of the pieces lack polish and there is a fragmentary, unfinished quality to some of the writing. However, the overall effect of this varied and surprising collection is impressive. The storytelling is, on the whole, fresh and immediate – far from the dry and earnest exercise in cultural preservation the Foreword might lead you to expect. I’d be very interested to know whether the book spawned further such workshops as Nauru clearly boasts some good writers among its 9,378 residents.

Stories from Nauru by Ben Bam Solomon et al (The University of the South Pacific Nauru Centre & Institute of Pacific Studies, 1996)

This was another recommendation from The Modern Novel  – and a welcome one too, given that the list entry for the Solomon Islands was ominously blank. There just seemed to be nothing out there from this tiny archipelago hovering some way above Australia in the big, blue Pacific.

So when my copy of John Saunana’s 1980 novel The Alternative arrived from a bookseller in Spain, I was interested to see that when it was published it had been held up as the great white hope of literature in the region. ‘At a time when contemporary Solomon Islands writing is growing in scope and depth, this novel will stand as a signal achievement, as a challenge to other Solomon Islands writers,’ proclaims the blurb, while the flyleaf boasts the support of a range of illustrious organisations.

I couldn’t help wondering where the fruits of this apparent late 20th century burgeoning of Solomon Islands writing had got to. As far as I’d been able to find out, those looking for written work in English from this Commonwealth nation would find very little alternative to, er, The Alternative.

Exploring the effects of colonialism, the novel tells the story of Maduru, an intelligent boy forced to inhabit two universes. Singled out for education at an exclusive, British-style boarding school, dubbed the ‘Eton of the Pacific’, he finds himself pulled between the culture he was born into and the one that has been imposed on his island home. At last, as British decolonisation sets in and old certainties begin to crumble, he is forced to choose between his place in the world and his sense of self.

The novel is strong on its depiction of the way colonialism seeps into and warps an individual’s sense of identity. Portraying Maduru’s moments of wishing to be white and his contempt for the ‘bush kanakas’ in his home village, as well as his internalisation of Western attitudes, Saunana is skilled at showing how subjection spreads its roots through everyday life. Perhaps the most powerful example of this comes in the early chapters, when Maduru, indignant at being cast as the Virgin Mary in a school play, rebels against his teachers in his mind: ‘if I were Samson I’d tear you to pieces like the lion, and pull down this chapel like the Temple and kill everybody in it,’ he thinks, unaware that his choice of imagery betrays exactly how deep into his consciousness Western culture has sunk.

Saunana’s anger at the injustice and discrimination of the colonial regime comes across clearly too. At times, this takes the form of highlighting the absurd reality of living in a ‘colonial relic’, subject to decisions taken by penpushers in a drab, rainy country on the other side of the world. Elsewhere, it is expressed more extremely, as when the headmaster, driven to distraction by Maduru’s unionisation of the student body to get a teacher removed, gives vent to a rant about ‘this God-forsaken place’, which lays his prejudices bare. There is also the interesting decision to put some of the later dialogue in Maduru’s mother tongue, excluding English language readers from understanding the full meaning.

Without doubt, this is a novel of its time. Some of the attitudes, in particular Maduru’s unashamed sexism, read oddly in 21st century London.

There are also some pacing problems in the narrative. Saunana has a strange habit of spending the last pages of a chapter building a dilemma for his hero, only to diffuse it and sweep it away in the final paragraph, leaving the reader nonplussed. Digressions – some delightful, some downright odd – are rife and there are moments of hyperbole, which teeter on the verge of the ridiculous in the school context, although they work better if understood as metaphors for a wider national struggle.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating, strange and engrossing book. Anyone with an interest in colonial and post-colonial literature will find much to chew on here.

And if you do know what happened to all those other Solomon Islands writers of the early eighties, leave a comment and let me know  – it’d be great to hear of any more works out there.

The Alternative by John Saunana (University of the South Pacific, 1980)

The Marshall Islands posed a dilemma: preliminary research showed that all storytelling on this remote archipelago in the Pacific was done orally. As far as I could find out there was no such thing as a Marshallese writer.

Beginning to wonder if I was going to have to fly to the Pacific to listen to the stories myself, I contacted Peter Rudiak-Gould. An anthropology PhD student at Oxford University, he has written a textbook on Marshallese and Surviving Paradise – an account of the year he spent as a volunteer English teacher on one of the Marshall Islands. If anyone could help me, surely this was the man.

Rudiak-Gould came back with two suggestions: Melal: A Novel of the Pacific by Robert Barclay (a non-Marshallese national – although he did grow up in the Marshall Islands) and Marshall Islands Legends and Stories collected from indigenous storytellers by Daniel A Kelin II, a non-Marshallese national and Director of Drama Education for the Honolulu Theatre for Youth.

Both sounded like contenders, but in the end I plumped for the Kelin. This was because I was curious to see what the country’s traditional stories were like, but also because I wanted to test how it felt to read stories that were originally told in another medium. I had a suspicion that folk stories transcribed and set down in a book might have the dry, correct feeling of exhibits in an old-fashioned museum: neatly curated and labelled, with all the life and sense of their original purpose sucked out of them. Would Kelin, himself a performance artist, have managed to preserve some of the immediacy of the tales?

The 50 stories in Kelin’s collection present a broad and intriguing picture of Marshallese folklore. These are creations in which the impossible is commonplace: whales sleep on the roofs of houses, women fly, children are born 12 at a time and kingdoms exist at the bottom of the sea. Sometimes containing explanations of aspects of island life – such as how turtles first came to the nation or how women learnt how to survive childbirth – they weave a complex web of duties and preoccupations, in which the importance of hospitality and respecting customs and authority jostles with a love of ingenuity, wit and cunning. There is the youngest son who defies his older brothers to feed his family, the iroij (chief) who strikes a deal with demons and gets washed out to sea when he fails to keep it, and the fishermen who lose the art of magic fishing because they do not pay attention to their elders.

Even more interesting than the stories themselves are the potted biographies of the storytellers and their incidental comments (included in italics), many of which reveal an extraordinary sense of connection with the tales they are telling. ‘They invited me to eat with them that day. If you ever stop by my island, I’ll show you the hole where the boys stayed,’ says Tonke Aisea at the end of a story about brothers tricking a demon, while Jeljel Jerbal leans out of his house to point out where the boy who wrestles a demon to death in his story lived.

This sense of ownership is complemented by Kelin’s explanations of the lengths he had to go to to obtain permission from the local iroijes to hear the stories  – the right to tell and listen to the stories is only granted to a lucky few – and the narrators’ moving comments about the slow death of their tradition through the westernisation of the younger generation. In addition, there are the illustrations by local artist Nashton Nashon, which give the book a striking character – so striking in fact that a woman on the tube even asked me what the book was about because it looked so unusual.

There’s no doubt – particularly in the tales with a lot of poetry and song – that something of the experience of hearing the stories in person is lost in the book. There were points when I found my ears straining in vain to catch the voice singing or chanting far away across the sea.

On the whole though, it was hard not to be impressed with Kelin’s passion and diligence and his evident efforts to present as much of the experience of listening to the stories as he could, even down to including photographs of many of the narrators. It made me glad that I had trusted him to transport me rather than making the trip myself. Besides, who’s to say whether I would have been allowed to hear the tales when I got there?

Marshall Islands Legends and Stories told by Tonke Aisea et al, collected, edited and translated by Daniel A Kelin II, illustrated by Nashton T Nashon (Bess Press Inc, 2003)

This book was recommended by The Modern Novel, a blogger writing about the development of the literary novel worldwide. TMN kindly posted a comment on this site helping me out with a few of the harder to reach destinations (there are still quite a few gaps on that there list and plenty of countries with only one or two titles suggested – go on, have a look and let me know what I’m missing).

Several of the recommendations weren’t available in translation – much more linguistically gifted than I am, TMN reads in French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, as well as English – however there were some great additions to the list among them. The Crossing by Luis Cardoso was one of these.

In actual fact, The Crossing is not technically a novel, it’s a memoir. Like me, TMN holds the view that the boundaries between these two genres blur the more closely you look at them, which is why we’re both including memoirs in our projects.

Telling the story of Cardoso’s childhood and adolescence in East Timor, the book reveals the nation’s troubled recent history through a small and touchingly precise lens. As waves of Portuguese, Japanese and Indonesian colonialism wash over the country, the author records the tragic impact of these events on the ‘people lost in time’ who have to live through them, caught between the oppressive yet relatively stable patterns of the past and the fragile freedom ahead.

This is a book as much about forgetting as it is about remembering. While Cardoso’s traumatised and exiled father frames the narrative – bumbling about Lisbon where his son is studying trying ‘to recover the memory he had lost’, all his fire and bluster gone – Cardoso himself seeks to reconcile the partial versions of events he encounters with his own fragmentary memories of his homeland.

A nostalgia for Portuguese rule – warmer than any other attitudes to colonialism I’ve read about so far this year – permeates much of the book. For characters like Cardoso’s father the Portuguese administration, despite its enforcement of apartheid, and its rigid and sometimes brutal practices, is ‘the erstwhile mother country [...] even though the umbilical cord had been cut in such a way as to make the child bleed and the mother grieve’.

As well  as blending novel and memoir, Cardoso brings in elements of poetry too through his descriptions that conjure places and people as deftly as the briefest of stanzas. Time and again, he captures complex situations in a net woven only of a single sentence, as when he sets out his father’s deluded hopes for his son’s future:

‘He dreamed that, one day, I would take up a post in [an] administration [made up of people educated in Portugal] – the dreams of someone who has built a boat and wants to go on sailing through time, along the lost route of the colonizing caravels’.

The huge cast of walk-on characters and vast catalogue of events mentioned in this relatively slim book mean that occasionally the narrative can jump like a scratched record from one scene to the next. Several times, I found myself having to turn back a page or two, trying to work out how I had been thrust into a storm that seemed to have gusted up out of nowhere. Sometimes, there wasn’t really an explanation.

Taken as a whole, though, this is a touching, lyrical and sometimes playful account of the search for identity in a land you can only fleetingly call your own (East Timor only managed a few months of independence in 1975 before it was conquered by the Indonesians and at last gained its sovereignty in 2002). It makes a compelling artwork out of a shifting kaleidoscope of personal and political allegiances. A great suggestion.

The Crossing: A Story of East Timor (Cronica de uma travessia: A epoca do Ai-Dik-Funam) by Luis Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Granta, 2000)

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