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)