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 She suggested several organisations and people to contact on the islands before mentioning that she had a couple of unpublished manuscripts of her own.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
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March 1, 2012
I knew I had to read Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s book as soon as I saw his Wikipedia entry. Being forced to join a snake cult after a childhood run-in with a jungle python would be more than enough of a life story for most people. But then to set yourself the goal of running away to Greenland after you found a book on the place and saw that it had no snakes and no trees in which they might hide? And to succeed? I had to find out more.
I was more than a little apprehensive, though. In my experience, people who have extraordinary tales to tell are often terrible at putting them across, the bravado and impulsiveness required for having adventures not usually sitting well with the diligence and reflection required for good writing.
Luckily, Kpomassie proved to be an exception: not only is An African in Greenland, his account of his ten-year odyssey to meet and live with ‘the little men of the North’, told with warmth, humour and humanity, it is also exceptionally skilfully written (it won the 1981 Prix Litteraire Francophone).
Having travelled his way up through Africa and Europe, learning languages as he went by correspondence courses and working in whatever jobs he could find, Kpomassie has the talent for looking at any society he finds himself in with an outsider’s eyes. This pays dividends when it comes to describing the customs of his tribe in Togo — where the second-born twin is considered senior because he or she sends the first one out as a scout, where chickens are used in healing rituals, and where teenage boys find extraordinary uses for desiccated lizards — and in Greenland.
At times, Kpomassie’s descriptions of the widespread promiscuity and alcoholism he discovered in southern Greenland and the reactions of the Inuits to the ‘first black man’ to visit them are startlingly frank. Open and ready to think the best of those he encounters, despite his early traumas with the python worshippers, Kpomassie describes the world with enthusiasm and honesty, revealing many of its marvels and flaws.
Yet the book is a testament not only too Kpomassie’s positivity and determination and the wonder of the world but to the warmth of humankind. In fact, his descriptions of the many spontaneous offers of accommodation, help and support he received during his journey remind me of the generosity I’m repeatedly encountering from book lovers around the globe as I pursue this project to read a book from every country in the world this year. The book and the extraordinary story it tells are proof that with energy, hope and a little bit of luck, almost anything is possible.
Tété-Michel, I don’t know where your travels are taking you now, but if you’re ever passing through south London dinner’s on me.
An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (translated from the French by James Kirkup). Publisher (this edition): New York Review Books (2001)