Marshall Islands: telling tales

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)

13 responses

  1. This is one of those posts that I wish – due to my lack of geographical knowledge – came with all kinds of info on the book’s source country (map, population, etc. simply to know something about a place I shamefully know nothing of)….

  2. Try “For the Good of Mankind” by Jack Niedenthal, a marvelous oral history about the people of Bikini Atoll that includes ancient stories, available on Amazon.

    • Sounds great, thanks Jimbo. Do you know of any other texts from the Pacific Island nations – Palau, Tuvalu, Kiribati etc (preferably by nationals of the countries)? These are going to be some of the toughest to find books for…

  3. Hi, LondonChoirGirl!

    I appreciate this post more than you will ever know. I lived on Kwajalein Island, Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands from August 1991-1993. I worked for the U.S. Government in the Army Post Office on “Kwaj”. I tried to engrain myself as much as possible in the Marshallese culture, but few opportunities existed to do that. I could tell you SO much more about my experience on Kwaj, but my fingers would get tired of typing.

    Suffice it to say that I loved the experience so much that I developed a website (Kwaj-Net – http://kwajnet.tripod.com – in 1994) to raise awareness of the Kwajalein experience and to tell my personal story as well.

    Most recently, I decided to create other Kwaj-Net Web Properties in order to get the word out even further. In addition, I set up a Twitter account (http://twitter.com/KwajNet) to Tweet news about not only Kwajalein, but the Marshall Islands, CNMI and broader Micronesia.

    The Kwaj-Net Facebook page (http://facebook.com/KwajNet) has REALLY taken off since I launched it March of this year.

    To find out more about the purpose of Kwaj-Net, please read the inaugural blog post (http://kwaj-net.blogspot.com/2012/04/inaugural-kwaj-net-blog-post.html).

    Feel free to visit and join any or all of the Kwaj-Net Web Properties. …and I wish you the best of luck in your Marshall Islands research and reading. 🙂

    Kommol Tata and Yokwe,

    Bob Raymond

    • Hi Bob

      Great to hear from you. Your website sounds fascinating – I look forward to checking it out.

      It sounds as though you might be the person to help me find a book from the Republic of Micronesia. Do you or any of your network know of any books by Micronesian nationals that I might be able to read in English?

      I’d really appreciate any help you can give me as I’m still drawing a blank with that one on my list.

      All the very best wishes to you and thanks for stopping by.

  4. I think what you are doing is absolutely fantastic! Well done! I agree that finding a Marshallese author is difficult.

    However, I have some really good news on the Marshallese literature front: WorldTeach and I (I’m an editor and typesetter, living on Majuro Atoll because my husband works at the U.S. Embassy here) have just launched The Unbound Bookmaker Project, where children in the Marshall Islands write and illustrate their own stories. The first book, which was part of a test run at the best school in the country—a school that actually has chairs and school supplies, unlike many others in the outer islands—will be published hopefully this week and will be available on Amazon. Its title is ”The Important Book about Majuro” and is totally authored and illustrated by 27 fourth graders living here. It has made me laugh and cry as I’ve put the book together.

    The other 30 books—if we can get funding to make them—will be published in both English and Marshallese, which will hopefully support literacy efforts in the coming years.

    We’re looking for donors and grants (since printing a copy and sending it way out here to every child involved requires funds!), so please, if you know of anyone interested in promoting literacy in countries where owning a book—a book that is not a Bible—is a rare privilege, please pass on our webpage:

    http://www.unboundbookmaker.com/the-unbound-bookmaker-project.html

    The webpage also contains a link to some extra short stories that the children did after the project was finished. They are incredible!
    I will definitely follow your blog from now on. We’ll be posted to Tunisia next, and who knows where after that, so I’m going to check out your post on Tunisia!

    Jamie

    • Great to hear from you Jamie. The Unbound Bookmaker Project sounds fabulous. I wish you every success with it and hope that you get the funding you need to do all the books. I’ll add ‘The Important Book about Majuro’ to the list on this site so visitors can check it out too.
      Equally, if you have contacts in the region who might be able to help me find books from some of the other Pacific Island nations, in particular Palau, Tuvalu, Micronesia and Kiribati, I’d be very grateful to hear about them. Good luck in Tunisia.
      Very best wishes
      Ann

  5. Hi Ann, I used to live in the Marshall Islands, also as a WorldTeach volunteer, so it was really interesting to see your post.

    There’s a book of short legends called Bwebwenatoon etto (which I think is probably similar to the legends you read) that I also really like and have a copy of somewhere, found this on Google (http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Bwebwenatoon_etto.html?id=GmuBAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y). I also remember reading a short novel for teenagers that was translated in English about a family living on Bikini Atoll and a neighbouring school used that for students, although I’m not 100% sure if the author is Marshallese. As others have said, for the Good of Mankind, and Peter’s book Surviving Paradise are also great RMI related reads!

    I’m looking forward to reading some of your other posts on countries I’ve been to and future destinations!

  6. I stumbled on your blog. I want to thank you for the kind words. This is Daniel Kelin, the editor/collector of the volume. I appreciate your taking the time to read, respond and praise. It was, as the book notes, a joy compiling, but mostly spending so much time in so many places in the Marshalls, a jewel of a place. I enjoyed reading your writing.
    Aloha,
    Dan

  7. Pingback: Reading POC is Grand but Why Aren’t We Reading Natives? | The Ploughshares Blog

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