Tonga: empire line

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)

Samoa: myth fits

Deciding which book to read from a particular country can be tricky. However, as I work my way around the world with the help of readers across the globe, I’m finding that some titles choose themselves.

That’s certainly what happened with my Samoan novel. In fact, everyone whose been in touch with me about Samoan literature – from the Auckland Libraries Service to the Director for Economic Governance of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat – mentioned the same book among their recommendations, saying it had caused a sensation in the region. One person even stopped by the blog to tip me off when it was on sale for download.

With such widespread enthusiasm for this particular title, it would have been perverse not to choose it. And so Lani Wendt Young‘s Young Adult fantasy novel Telesa: The Covenant Keeper joined the other titles jostling in my virtual library.

From the little I know of the YA fantasy fiction genre – gleaned mostly from sharing a flat with a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan in my early twenties – Wendt Young’s book conforms to a tried and tested formula: misfit teen with supernatural powers is forced to make difficult choices and sacrifices in order to save the world.

In this case, 18-year-old American-Samoan Leila returns to her dead mother’s homeland, Samoa, in search of her roots. But as the secrets about her past begin to come out, Leila discovers that she is not as helpless as she first thought and that the very things that made her feel like an outsider at her Washington high school could be the source of extraordinary power, whether she likes it or not.

So far, so Sarah Michelle Gellar. What lifts the story out of the familiar mould, however, is Wendt Young’s use of Polynesian myths and culture as the framework within which Leila’s supernatural powers exist. Discovering that she is Telesa (a kind of spirit woman with powers connected to Mother Earth), Leila is forced to inhabit the mythology of her island heritage to gain control of her gifts and head off disaster.

Samoan culture plays a fascinating role in other aspects of the novel too. From siva songs and dances to malu tattoos, Wendt Young has the knack of weaving traditions into the narrative without making their inclusion and explanation feel worthy or forced. Her bold choice of making one of Leila’s best friends, Simone, a fa’afafine (one of Samoa’s ‘third gender’, as Leila’s uncle explains) is particularly intriguing – I suspect there aren’t many other YA novels that feature a transvestite teenage boy without making that the main subject of the book.

This cross-cultural element adds another layer to the novel’s discussion of identity. As Leila confronts her own fears about being an ‘in-between nothing’, she is given a powerful insight into the blind spots and failings of the Western culture she grew up with, not least the limitations of po-faced political correctness. ‘You Americans are so easily offended by our Samoan indecency’, teases Daniel, the boy Leila has a crush on.

The editing could have been tighter. There were a few too many will-they-won’t-they moments between Daniel and Leila and, as I followed Leila from Geography to Maths, to English class and back again, I found myself wishing with her that I could have cut school.

Overall, though, this is an enjoyable and engrossing book with a gripping story that whips the reader along. Its depiction of Leila’s struggles with identity, sexuality and society’s expectations will resonate with teens and ex-teens all over the world, while its warm portrayal of Samoan culture gives it a character all its own. No wonder it’s already found so many fans.

Telesa: The Covenant Keeper by Lani Wendt Young (Lani Wendt Young, 2011)

PACIFIC APPEAL: do you know any good novels, short stories or memoirs from other Pacific nations? What about people who tell stories in other ways – through poetry or song? Do you have friends or relatives in the region who might be able to suggest stories? Leave a comment or email ann’at’annmorgan.me and let me know.

United States: supersize gods

When you’re trying to get through 196 books in a year, size matters. If a book’s more than 300 pages, it’s a challenge. If it’s more than 400, it’s pushing it. And anything over 500 pages is just having a laugh.

Weighing in at 672 pages, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods nearly disqualified itself on girth alone — particularly when I discovered that the 10th anniversary edition featured an extra 12,000 words not published before. To my page-swamped mind, this was bordering on rude.

There was another objection too: despite having lived in the United States for 20 years, having children there and being married to an American, British-born Gaiman is not a US citizen and has said that he has no intention of taking citizenship. Would this book by a perpetual outsider really count as US literature?

But Carol, who recommended the novel, was very insistent and so, kissing my weekend goodbye —  and dodging the glares from Roth, Steinbeck, Oates, Hemingway, Chabon and the host of other American greats up on my bookshelf —  I holed myself up and began to read.

Bold, baggy and mind-boggling, the novel traces the fate of the gods brought to the land of the free by immigrants, right from the arrival of the earliest prehistoric visitors to the refugees and fortune-hunters of the present day. The story is told through the eyes of Shadow, who gets out of prison to find that his wife and employer have been killed in a car crash, taking with them his hopes of a normal life. With nothing to lose except his new-found freedom, Shadow goes to work for the mysterious Mr Wednesday, who seems to know an uncanny amount about his life.

Wednesday’s omniscience is no accident. As head of the collective of traditional gods who are finding themselves sidelined for the ‘gods of credit card and freeway, of internet and telephone’, he is rallying his troops for a battle between deities old and new. But as the storm approaches and breaks, it seems that the gods themselves may be labouring under false beliefs.

Gaiman’s writing is refreshingly approachable. At times echoing the stripped-back voices of Hemingway and Steinbeck, the narrative manages to carry humour and philosophical reflections equally lightly, blending fantasy, mythology and a quirky, humane perspective that is all Gaiman’s own. This is helped by some surprising imagery — the description of driving into Chicago, for example, so that the city ‘happened slowly like a migraine’, and the presentation of the hinterworld ‘behind the scenes’ are particularly memorable.

Gaiman also has the knack of making us care quickly. The narrative veers off repeatedly into stories of some of the many travellers who came to America to make a life and, for the most part, these are compelling in their own rights, as well as giving the philosophical and mythological arguments in the book a human face.

This gives rise to some great reflections on what it means to be a nation of immigrants. ‘Nobody’s American. Not originally. That’s my point,’ says Wednesday at one stage, articulating sentiments that resonated particularly strongly for me as a Londoner proud of having grown up in a city that is home to people from nearly every nation of the world. Given the definition of US nationhood Gaiman posits in his novel, he, as an ex-pat Brit, fits right in.

By rights, I should be angry with this book. It kept me up at night, it made me late for trains and towards the end it made my eyes go a bit fuzzy. If this book were someone I knew, I’d definitely be thinking about unfriending it on Facebook. But as a book, it’s an impressive achievement that leaves readers very little room for doubt of its power or the pleasure of spending time in its company. Several novels further into my quest to read the world, Gaiman’s characters still people my daydreams. Thanks Carol for introducing us.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Publisher (Kindle edition): Review (2011)