Solomon Islands: between two worlds

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)

Grenada: a class act

As the UK and Commonwealth mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, here’s a book from one of the 16 sovereign states around the world that still count her as their constitutional monarch.

I heard about writer Merle Collins through the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, an annual literary festival that takes place in Trinidad & Tobago, which writer Vahni Capildeo tipped me off about. Now in its second year, the event is home to the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and Collins’s short story collection The Ladies are Upstairs was on the 2012 shortlist.

The characters in Collins’s stories are people caught between worlds. Whether she’s describing the elderly woman Rain, ‘still lost in a childhood she couldn’t forget’, or the young man trapped between the strange disappearance of the woman hitchhiker he picks up on a lonely road and the conclusions of his rational mind, the author delights in pitting conflicting influences against one another in the rugged terrain of the psyche.

As the title suggests, class has a considerable part to play. Several of the characters, in particular Doux, who links the majority of the stories together, run up against the limits imposed by station. ‘You Should See Them in Church with Glasses on!’, in which the young Doux is unjustly accused of stealing during her first job as a maid, is particularly memorable.

In addition, Collins’s fascination with psychogeography and the pull of the supernatural makes for several deliciously spooky tales. ‘Big Stone’, an account of a midwife’s eerie encounter with a child during a walk home at dusk, is the best of these. Telling the story exclusively through reported speech, which gives the narrative a weird and distant feel, the writer draws on the atrocities buried in the Isle of Spice’s colonial past to create a compelling and unnerving backdrop:

‘What kind of night? Well, you know how those old estate places were. Those places used to have a lot of pain and wickedness in the past, but she wanted to emphasise that they were not like that today.’

The shared cast of characters, myths and memories that tie many of the stories together, give much of the work a familiar feel, so that by the final tales you feel as though you are part of the community, with a stake in the common heritage on which they rest. This makes the last piece – in which Doux, now an old woman living in an alarmed granny flat with her daughter in the USA, contemplates her loss of independence and approaching death – particularly moving.

Seen in the context of the celebration of one woman’s 60-year stint at the head of an association of a quarter of the world’s nations, this striking yet subtle collection of stories from one of its remotest corners reveals powerful truths about the common traits that link its subjects and the rest of the world.

The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins (Peepal Tree Press, 2011)