Kiribati: crossing boundaries

I emailed a lot of people during the search for this book. Some of the messages bounced. Others disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again. But lots of people did get back to me, usually to tell me one or both of two things: that there was no Kiribatian prose that they could think of and/or that there was someone I should contact at the university/library/community project across the way who might know more.

This impromptu game of e-tag led me through Guam, New Zealand, Kiribati itself, Samoa, Fiji, Hawaii and the States, until at last I emailed Sudesh Mishra, an associate professor in the school of creative and communication arts at Deakin University in Australia. He suggested that I look up Teweiariki Teaero and gave me his email address at the University of the South Pacific. Perhaps the poet would have a prose manuscript I could read.

I dropped Teaero a line. He replied the very next day to say that while no novel, short story collection or memoir by a writer from Kiribati existed, his anthologies On Eitei’s Wings and Waa in Storms contained prose pieces as well as poems. Would I be interested in reading one of those?

Curious to see how this mixing of genres worked, I asked which collection contained the greatest amount of short stories. A few weeks later a copy of Waa in Storms arrived.

Bringing together Teaero’s poetry, prose, drawings and paintings, the anthology comprises work from a particularly dark period in the author’s life, during which his parents fell seriously ill, his youngest daughter was hit by a car, and his home community on the atoll of Tarawa was shaken by a series of vicious child rapes. Melding depictions of particular moments and more general reflections on extreme emotions with anecdotes, satirical sketches and occasional rants about island life, the pieces present a rich and layered picture of Teaero’s year.

The use of language in the book is fascinating. While some pieces, including all the prose work, are written entirely in English, others, such as ‘Te Faika’, mix together verses in the Kiribatese language and verses in English. Yet others are written exclusively in Kiribatese. Teaero explains in his introduction that the reasons for this are tied to his desire ‘to express an idea as vividly as possible… [whether] this comes through the use of English, Kiribatese, visual image or any combination of the three’.

For the author, it seems, the three modes of expression have different strengths when it comes to certain ideas and emotions. Although it’s impossible for an English-language reader like me to tell what the subject matter of most of the Kiribatese work is, a note at the end of ‘E Kaaki Baina Te Ang’ (‘Teaia, Tarawa. 18th August 2000. The day my father passed away’) suggests that some of it at least contains extremely personal reflections on the writer’s emotional and family life, while many of the English pieces are outward-looking, focusing on politics, ecology and the wider community.

The inclusion of background details at the end of most of the pieces adds a fascinating layer of meaning to the collection. While some reveal the inspiration for the work, others such as the note, ‘Composed while sitting on the sand dunes in Sigatoka town. 28th January 2001,’ at the end of ‘Sad Parade’ introduce a powerful sense of immediacy to the act of writing, as though we are reading the story of the composition as much as the pieces themselves. And then there are the quirky observations that raise a smile and introduce a huge amount of warmth into the collection, such as the postscript to ‘Size Unlimited’:

‘Suva. 5th December 2000. Composed in the Botanical Gardens of USP. The frogs were very happy, hopping about and croaking joyously every-merry-where! Perhaps they were having an early Christmas party.’

Teaero’s writing seems, for the most part, disarmingly simple. He uses this to great effect in satirical stories such as ‘Merrily Verily Messing with Missing Milkfish’, where the sing-song, childlike tone of the piece is a great tool for sending up corrupt government officials. It can also pay dividends in poems such as ‘Tab-ulous Reunion’ where the almost banal heaping of platitudes on a former teacher builds in a mysteriously moving way. At times, however, the work does feel a little bald, particularly at the end of some of the prose pieces, where Teaero steps out from behind the narrative to appeal for a range of reforms, from equipping the police with breathalyzers and planting more trees at the local hospital to greater transparency in politics, as though he does not trust the story to speak for itself.

But perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that the distinction between poetry and prose in the collection often seems rather meaningless. Several of the poems read as stories, while prose pieces such as ‘Island Time’ and ‘Crowded Buses’ read more as poems that happen to be written in full sentences that stretch across the page. In addition, much of the work incorporates visual aspects, with font sizes and weights and the shape of the poems on the page adding emphasis. Just as outside events and Teaero’s life experiences bleed into and mingle with the works, so the forms mix with and change each other.

The result is a distinctive and memorable collection. Organised into four ‘Waves’, which loosely chart Teaero’s progress through what he calls his ‘annus horribilis‘ in the introduction, the work pulls together to tell a story of suffering and change. It is in many ways every bit as much a narrative as the novels, short story collections and memoirs I’ve read so far this year – and a striking challenge to the system of categorization I’ve used to talk about literature for much of my life.

Waa in Storms by Teweiariki Teaero (Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 2004)

Federated States of Micronesia: his story

I was running out of ideas for the FSM. I had been in touch with a whole range of Pacific Island literature experts and academics based at universities in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and Guam. I had emailed cultural associations, community radio stations and local celebrities. And I had left messages on every sort of blog to do with Oceania that I could find.

Everyone who got back to me said the same thing: if I was looking for poetry, there would be no problem. There were lots of Micronesian poets knocking around. There was even a Micronesian Poets Club. And of course Emelihter Kihleng represented the country at Poetry Parnassus in London this summer.

But as for prose. Well… from a nation that size I’d be very lucky to find anything at all.

Beginning to despair, I looked Emelihter Kihleng up on Facebook. Perhaps she might be able to suggest something?

Kihleng very kindly replied: there was a creative history of the island of Pohnpei by Pohnpeian Luelen Bernart. It was out of print, but if I dug around online I should be able to find a copy.

I looked the book up. My heart sank slightly when I found that it had been published posthumously in 1977, two years before the formation of FSM’s constitutional government and nine years before the country declared independence from the US. Could it really count as literature from FSM?

However, as I read more about village chief Bernart, who died in 1946, having grown up before the island came under foreign control, I began to feel that there might be a case for relaxing my rule that literature must have been written since the foundation of the country in this instance – particularly as, as an island nation, the boundaries of Pohnpei have in one sense not shifted for hundreds of years. Besides, I was intrigued about what was inside.

Containing spells, songs, legends, lists of plants, tools and star names, and even a potted history of the deaths of the apostles, The Book of Luelen sets out to tell the story of life on Pohnpei from the dawn of creation up until the time of writing. Part mythology, part history and part personal testimony, with a smattering of biblical tropes and stylistic techniques thrown in for good measure, the work is one of the most eclectic and ambitious pieces of prose going.

Bernart’s writing is richest in its handling of lore and mythology. Whether he is describing the underworld beneath the sea, the second heaven or ‘place for people who had poor voices in singing’, or the development of civilization on the land in between, the author is engaging and often surprising. We hear of the battles between the Arem (humans) and the Liat (cannibals), the story of the magic man Taimuan who drops his defects off on surrounding islands in order to trick a woman into marrying him, and the spirit who travels the world and writes a song about his adventures, not to mention a whole host of recipes, tips and explanations for why certain plants, rituals and ceremonies sprang up.

Exhilarating though the sheer scope of the work is, it can also be problematic. Bernart, who worked on the book for 12 years and dictated the closing chapters to his daughters shortly before his death, clearly feels a pressure to get as much down as he can, sometimes at the expense of narrative coherence. As he explains in his preface, the point of the exercise as he sees it is to get the information written in the first place – ‘let those who know hear and correct this later’, he writes.

This impatience manifests itself in a number of ways. From repeated assertions that there is not enough time to explain certain concepts in the text, to pat generalisations that ‘the people of this age are better than those of olden times’, which the author seems to expect us to take on trust, Bernart bustles us along with a briskness that can make for rather bewildering reading. In addition, the sudden introduction of historical dates and statistics when the narrative comes to the events of the 19th century feels rather startling.

It is perhaps only when we understand the context of the work that such anxious haste makes sense. When he penned the book, Bernart was not only up against his own mortality but also the fact that, apart from translations of The Bible and a few religious tracts, no stories had been written in his language (he spoke a Kiti dialect). Using a written system that had itself been developed by American missionaries in the 1850s, his book was the first complete record of the nation’s history according to a Pohnpeian. It was a political act as much as an act of conservation.

And the importance of that act showed: although the work was only formally published in 1977, it was circulated in numerous manuscript versions around the island after Bernart’s death. Even in this edition, with numerous forewords, introductions and notes by Western academics (who even published a supplementary volume of annotations to convey their full interpretation of the text to the English-language reader) the passion of the writer to tell his story his way shines through. In many ways it is an attempt to contain not just a nation but also an entire universe. Marvellous.

The Book of Luelen by Luelen Bernart, translated from the Pohnpeian dialect and edited by John Fishcer, Saul Riesenberg and Marjorie Whiting (Australian National University Press, 1977)

PALAU APPEAL: Do you know anyone who might be able to help me find a book or prose manuscript from Palau, the final Pacific Island nation to solve on my list? Any ideas of writers, bloggers, friends, relatives or other contacts in the region would be brilliant. Leave a comment and let me know…

Nauru: small triumphs

Every so often on a literary adventure like this, you come across someone who, as if with the wave of a magic wand, is able to solve several of your dilemmas at a single stroke. Thomas Slone is one such written-word wizard. As owner of US-based Masalai Press, a company specialising in work from Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Islands, Australia and Southeast Asia, he knows a thing or two about books from some of the most remote and least published nations in the world – and has a store of rare and out-of-print texts that simply aren’t available through many other sources.

I was put on Slone’s trail by the team at the University of Papua New Guinea Press, which in turn was recommended to me by Kate, who kindly responded to my halfway appeal for help with countries I have yet to find books for. After months of hassling people about Pacific Island literature, it seemed almost too good to be true when Slone not only came back with a list of recommendations for titles from several nations in the region, but also looked out some works that I could buy right there and then, among then Stories from Nauru.

Perhaps fittingly for a book from the world’s smallest island country, Stories from Nauru is a tiny work. Weighing in at just 20 pages, it looks at first glance as though it might sit more comfortably in pamphlet territory rather than trying to fight its corner among volumes ten times its size. The books dated cover design and yellowed pages also make it seem as though it hails from another era altogether, rather than from 1996, the year my edition came out.

The book’s slight appearance, however, belies the scale of its ambitions. Published off the back of a University of the South Pacific workshop on Nauru in 1990, ‘organised so that a conscious effort would be made to encourage Nauruans to write and to record their folklore in the attempt to build up a Nauruan literature’, as the Foreword explains, the collection has grand aims.

However, unlike other short story anthologies I’ve seen from the region, this book is not merely an attempt to document the island’s traditional tales. Instead, it is a collection of fresh creative writing, informed by but not confined to folklore. While some stories, such as Ben Bam Solomon’s ‘The Origins of Nauru’, which features three giants, clearly draw on local mythology, others like Jerielyn Jeremiah’s ‘The New School’, a tale of one girl’s experience of prejudice at  boarding school, deal with the practicalities of modern-day life.

Perhaps most startling of all is ‘A Plea for Help’ by Elmina Quadina, which is about a 30-year-old woman who is losing her hearing. It is impossible to know whether Quadina and her narrator are one and the same, but the piece’s plain language and simple power act like a hand reaching out from the text to draw you into the bleak existence facing disabled people in this remote corner of the world in a way that feels almost too personal to be anything other than real:

‘People, including my colleagues, think I’m stupid. They think I’m just a silly, stupid creature because I cannot hear properly. I don’t blame them for thinking of me in this way because I know it’s hard to talk to someone who is deaf. It’s like talking to a brick wall or a naughty little child who does not wish to listen. But it’s not like this with me because I have my brain and I wish to listen, hear and learn, But how? There is no-hearing [sic] aid or any other aid to help me.’

What the collection does have in common with other texts I’ve seen from the region is a recurring concern about the erosion of traditional culture and the encroachment of the Western world. Indeed, there is a slightly panicky air about some of the pieces, such as Roy Degoregore’s ‘Nauru: The Way it Used to Be’, which feels like a kind of literary Kim’s Game in which he tries to get down everything he remembers about the old customs before time runs out. Other stories, like Lucia Bill’s striking ‘Egade’ have a more wistful, haunting air.

As you would expect from stories produced in workshop conditions, a few of the pieces lack polish and there is a fragmentary, unfinished quality to some of the writing. However, the overall effect of this varied and surprising collection is impressive. The storytelling is, on the whole, fresh and immediate – far from the dry and earnest exercise in cultural preservation the Foreword might lead you to expect. I’d be very interested to know whether the book spawned further such workshops as Nauru clearly boasts some good writers among its 9,378 residents.

Stories from Nauru by Ben Bam Solomon et al (The University of the South Pacific Nauru Centre & Institute of Pacific Studies, 1996)

Fiji: no man is an island

Regime change seems to be the theme of the moment. No sooner had I finished YB Mangunwijaya’s satirical portrait of post-independence Indonesia than it was time to start Peter Thomson’s Kava in the Blood, an account of the coups that shook Fiji in 1987.

I was particularly intrigued to read the book because Dr Chakriya Bowman, Director of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s  Economic Governance Programme, found it for me after stopping by this blog. She very kindly visited the University of the South Pacific’s bookshop and emailed me the details and pictures of all the books she found that fitted the AYORTW criteria. Thomson’s EH McCormick Prize-winning memoir was one of these.

In fact, as Thomson acknowledges in his 1999 Foreword, Kava in the Blood contains not one story but two. Alongside his ‘account of what happened at Government House’, where he worked as Permanent Secretary of Information during 1987, he tells the poignant story of his love affair with the country his family emigrated to from Scotland four generations before he was born.

The question of what constitutes nationality and national identity is at the heart of the book. Not only is this the catalyst for the coups, sparked after Fiji’s first non-indigenous-dominated government came to power, but it also forms a powerful theme in Thomson’s personal life.

Despite having been born and brought up in Fiji, Thomson is forced to confront the fact that he has not been completely accepted into the ‘closed shop’ of Fijian society when the indigenous community closes ranks against ‘outsiders’ in the wake of the first coup. ‘I felt a creeping sense of delusion at being part of a country which, because of my European forbears, was now pointing a finger at me and saying “vulagi” — the Fijian word for visitor, or in this sense, foreigner’, he explains, going on to write wistfully of the ‘sense of oneness’ his indigenous peers must feel with the landscape and culture he loves.

This love is apparent throughout the book. It shows itself in Thomson’s humorous accounts of some of Fiji’s more bewildering traditions — ‘to those not used to it, a kava [Fiji’s national drink] session can have similarities to Chinese water torture,’ he writes — his deep knowledge of the nation’s culture, plants and animals and history, and his lyrical descriptions of life under the ‘arching starscape of our southern skies’.

The narrative is packed with fascinating and affectionate insights into Fijian society, including reflections on everything from Fijian patois through to the island’s prison system and the after effects of British colonial rule. Thomson’s recollection of establishing a polling station on Naqelelevu in 1976 in his capacity as district officer the day only one of the six eligible villagers turned out to vote is particularly memorable:

‘With absolutely no sense of the ridiculous the polling station was declared open. The voter went through the identification process and then turned to the little audience of seated villagers, ballot paper in one hand […]. Grinning self-consciously, he stood there long enough for the audience to take their mental snapshots of his moment of importance, and then another official guided him to the white wooden polling booth we had shipped with us.

‘The booth had been set up some distance from the table, giving the event an added sense of space and time. The official politely advised the protagonist to take his time with his vote. Inside the booth he did just that, while the rest of us on Naqelelevu that day looked on solemnly. Finally the booth started wobbling as he went through the motions of pacing his mark on the ballot paper. He emerged. Everyone pointed to the ballot box, and he went over to it and dropped the paper into its slot. He then stood for a while in front of the box like someone whose [sic] just won a TV gameshow, with a sheepish grin and not knowing quite where to put his hands.


‘With [the] lonely ballot paper… inadvertently eliminating the principle of the secret ballot, we packed up our gear, and bade farewell, sailing off to the south and leaving the islanders to their thoughts on the wonderful machinery of democracy.’

These rich recollections, along with Thomson’s exquisite accounts of his childhood on the islands, which read like extracts from a tropical Swallows and Amazons, more than make up for the jerky and episodic nature of the book, which sometimes feels more like a series scrapbook notes and jottings than a memoir. The addition of Thomson’s photographs into the 2008 edition heightens this impresion, giving the whole thing an immediate and personal quality. At points reading it feels as though you are sitting with Thomson under the giant rain trees outside his Waijevo residence, looking at his family album and waiting for the kava cup to come round.

Although writing in exile, after the second 1987 coup and four days of unlawful incarceration, during which he says ‘the umbilical cord to my homeland was cut’, Thomson’s love for Fiji clearly persists. As his two Afterwords suggest, his story of his island homeland is one from which he finds it hard to tear himself away. I did too.

Kava in the Blood by Peter Thomson (Booksurge, 2008)

PACIFIC APPEAL: do you know any good novels, short stories, memoirs, writers or even oral storytellers from other Pacific nations? Do you have friends or relatives in the region who might be able to suggest stories? Leave a comment or email ann’at’ and let me know.