Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book 12, American Samoa: "Tutuila" by Ze Lin Xiao

I'll admit it. I was going to skip American Samoa at first. After all, most people don't even know there are two Samoas (Western Samoa is an independent nation), and I just couldn't track down an American Samoan book since I'd already read Margaret Mead's "Coming of Age in Samoa", which I do not recommend as a light read...

But then I surfed the Amazon Kindle Store and I got this for 99 cents:

It's by a Stanford computer science student. Go look her up. She's Class of 2011, which means she's 21 years old or something, and she wrote the short stories just to hold on to her memories of that place of few opportunities she was lucky enough to transcend.

And boy, from her descriptions of Pago Pago, it does sound like a place you might want to move away from - all the suburban nightmare of the American dream: strip malls and drunken teenagers and high divorce rates, coupled with the poverty and disease and underdevelopment of the tropics - trash and dogs in the street, roads where cars can only run 25 mph. But there's charm, of course - an abusive woman with a flower in her hair, screaming at a palagi (white) lady for daring to use the word "loofah", which sounds like "ufa", in a supermarket.

Unfortunately, most of the stories aren't very good. They don't have satisfying endings - they just dump you on the floor, leaving all these characters you want to know more about unfinished. Or they're about two paragraphs long.

Also I wish she'd gone into more detail about the half-Japanese and Chinese characters - I'll have to admit that one of the reasons I snapped up the book was because I miss writing about stuff by people with Chinese names. Cockroaches of the Earth, you know.

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It's short at least. And it's contemporary - published just this year, in Feb! No hard copy version, either - all virtual! And the first short story, "White Sunday" is actually rather good - her descriptions have a kind of poetry to them, and the landscapes of people's lives jump right into focus.

Will she write more? So that other people doing this project can keep an eye out for the still colonised? More power to her if she does.

Representative quote: (from "White Sunday")
The second ring was from my dad. My parents met each other at Starkist, an unlikely place, but nevertheless my story is true. Mom said that Dad was packing tuna when she first met him. He was the one who trained her to operate those large assembly line machines for the cans of tuna. Two weeks later, they were stripping off clothes saturated with fish-scented perfume in the back of a pickup truck.

Next book: Kauraka Kauraka's "Return to Haivaki" from the Cook Islands.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Book 11, Samoa: "Leaves of the Banyan Tree" by Albert Wendt

Yes, I've dissed Prof Thumboo before for his lofty style, but I have to say I'm bloody impressed by his philanthropy. Turns out the entire RDET section on Level 6 of the National Library stands for Reference: Donation of Edwin Thumboo, and the only reason I can get these South Pacific writers in the first place is that he bought (or was personally given) these volumes while on tour in the islands.

"Leaves of the Banyan Tree", for example, comes with a personal dedication to ET's wife:

For Swee Chin,
With best wishes
And alofa,
Al Wendt

Furthermore, it comes with several kilos of kickass.

It's an epic saga of a family over the course of the 20th century, as they move from poverty in the old clan system of plantations in the village to cosmopolitan nihilism in the city and back, centering on the voyage of the ambitious leader Tauilopepe who stops at nothing to gain power: mowing down the sacred bush of the village, sodomising his rival's wife, beating his children (who of course run away and rebel, and maybe one comes back...)

Ah yes, and here's the coolest thing: the book's written in three sections, each of which is in a slightly different style. The first is your standard realist post-colonial novel in third person, the second is in first person and much funnier, more sardonic (in fact, it began as the titular novella of "Flying-Fox in the Freedom Tree"), while the third is realist and third person again, only with a tinge of humour left over.

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It's really good. A pity I couldn't check it out of the library: I had to camp in and finish its 411 pages in three shots. Very readable - I love the childhood opinions of the son Pepe who goes to school in the capital city, Apia, and he's all prepared to be the hero of the village who's absorbed all the wisdom of the elders, rescuing them from the corruption of his father. But then he drops out of school and invests himself in cheating tourists out of their money and semi-abusively seducing girls and committing violent crimes...

It's a world after the Fall: no returning to the dreamworld of the gods they're named after. Criously, the characters are proud of not having been completely colonised unlike their neighbours, yet they're subsumed by Christianity and family structures and exploitative economics. Sure, some of them get rich and enter white men's clubs and go to New Zealand for boarding school and learn to say words like jake and bloody and raining cats and dogs (does it really rain animals in the winter?) but it's uncertain if independence is a triumph for them.

But it is a more optimistic ending than you'd expect, given the way everyone buggers each other upside-down in the book. Anyhow, highly recommended.

Oh, and language WIN: liberal use of Samoan words like fale, papalagi, umu (getting familiar, these are) but with a glossary at the end.

Representative quote: The papalagi and his world has turned us and people like your rich but unhappy father and all the modern Samoans into cartoons of themselves, funny crying ridiculous shadows on the picture screen. Nevermind, we tried to be true to our selves. That is all I think any man with a club can do.

Next book: Ze Lin Xiao's "Tutuila" from American Samoa

P.S. Apologies for calling this country Western Samoa when I first wrote this post! It was changed in 1997 and I never knew.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Book 10, Tonga: “Hingano” by Konai Helu Thaman

It’s strange to think that there may be another reader in another city, also reading her way around the world, and that her only impression of Singapore literature may be an amateurish volume of unstellar poetry – Koh Buck Song or Min Lim or something – that’s found its way into her public library by chance.

What I’m saying is, yeah, “Hingano” really isn’t all that. It’s the wide-eyed notations of someone who’s delighted at having mastered the English language, knowing she has a lot to say, being a rare Anglophone in an oppressed low-income nation culture.

The result is these terribly sincere poems about love and women’s power and the beauty of the natural world. Not bad, and by no means as irritating as Sudesh Mishra – Thaman is global enough to write about visiting Waikiki and Huangshan, but holds back from expounding on a planetary angst. Still, it might be making her descendants blush, just as we blush at “The Three Sisters of Sz”.

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The book is Thaman’s third volume. It’s published in 1987, with works composed between ’66 and ’86. This copy’s donated to the reference section of NLB by Edwin Thumboo. Figures.

Several of the poems begin rather well, actually, with strong striking images and phrases - but drift off towards the end into vaguely. And there’s use of quite a few Tongan words: fale palangi, ‘umu, tapa, nukulau, malie, hingano; and with no glossary. All in boldface though, which is even more distracting than italics.

I’ve included one of her better pieces (though the slightly perverse “Our Way” and the ode to Huangshan “Have You Ever” are also very good). And I’m finding my general dissatisfaction with the book is drawing me to the catalogue of the publisher, the Suva-based South Pacific Creative Arts Society. If there was a regional Anglophone literary community then, what’s happening now?

Is there someone like me in the middle of Tonga, overeducated, deracinated, nuts, also wondering his way through other people’s words?

Representative quote:


when grandmother went
to the darkened land
we wept and cursed
the gods who sent her

untold stories turn slowly
in our thoughts
her voice
clothed in Solomon dust
remains a night’s whisper

the church and grandfather
assured us that our loss
was the mission’s gain
and God’s light shines forth
through pain

now we sit and wait
by the imaginary grave
where one day grandmother
would rise and say
‘it is finished – they want independence!’

Next book: Albert Wendt's "Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree" from Western Samoa, I think...

Book 9, New Zealand: "Owls Do Cry" by Janet Frame

Woot! Finally in New Zealand, with what's purported to be New Zealand's greatest book ever, according to this list.

And we're back in kickass-ville too: the strangeness and poetry of this book is Joycean, reminiscient of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", only less academic, more democratic. Basic story is simple: four dirt-poor kids, Francie, Daphne, Toby and Chicks Withers, grow up exploring a rubbish dump near their home in the provincial town of Waimaru. Everyone looks down on them: they're covered with crud and Toby's epileptic.

Twenty years later, Francie's dead, Daphne's mad, Toby's actually functional as a blue-collar worker and Chicks is an upper middle-class housewife who worries about making intelligent conversation about classical composers and Picasso.

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But Janet Frame writes them all with spellbinding voices: in the midst of the most mundane suburban actions of riding the train or staring at mountains or deciding whether to make chocolate or coffee cake for the guests, this stream-of-consciousness flow of dreamlike images and symbols and bits of poetry - ah, this is where the post-colonial comes in, for the characters are hard at work learning and misremembering bits from the Maori Wars and the Bronte Sisters and WH Auden and Ariel's Song from the Tempest (hence the title: "In a cowslip's bell I lie;/There I couch when owls do cry").

And oh yes the evolution of New Zealand English, which writers have told us about: the reclamation beginning with words for plants: manuka, toi-toi, kauri. Also constant references to the thick pancakes called pikelets. I spent ages looking for the paragraph in the book where they talk about finding moa bones in the dump, but it was not to be discovered.

Thoroughly recommended. Unfortunately the Library didn't have it; my boyfriend Mohan had to nick me this copy from the NUS Library. Significant other FTW!

Now I also know where Lloyd Jones got his literary ancestors from when he wrote the also very NZ poetic novel "The Book of Fame".

Isn't my map irregular though? And I'd sincerely thought when I started out that I could hop straight from Australia to New Zealand to Chile. Quite a few more Melanesian/Polynesian excursions before we become Columbus, I'm afraid.

Representative quote: Then the limping woman whom the nurse addressed as Mrs Flagiron, spread a plastic cape over Daphne's shoulders and began to cut her hair until the floor was covered with hair, and Mrs Flagiron seemed not to know when to stop. Once Daphne put her hand up to feel how much was left, but Mrs Flagiron gripped her arm and thrust it under the cape.

- She guesses, Mrs Flagiron whispered to the nurse.

Daphne sat still then, waiting for the limping woman to finish. She thought, This woman is from Greece. No, she has come from the underworld. I can tell from her thick arms that she has rowed herself across many rivers of the underworld, snipping the hair from the floating bodies and collecting it in her stainless white cloth, and storing it in her home that has many many rooms, yet she is able to use only one room, and soon will have nowhere to live for every room is filled with hair. I know her. I know her.

Next book: Konai Helu Thaman's "Hingano" from Tonga.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Book 8, Fiji: "diaspora and the difficult art of dying" by Sudesh Mishra

Okay, I was pretty meh about this book.

True, I'm finally reading a citizen's perspective on a Melanesian nation, but Sudesh Mishra's so caught between his Indian roots and his international career - poems are set in Venice, Stirling, Adelaide, Aotearoa - that it's hard to gain a really concrete sense of what Fiji is, save for a place that's in-between. Singapore's the same: a place where people migrate to, a place where people migrate from.

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In fact, Mishra reminds me of Edwin Thumboo, our classic nation-building poet: there's the same lofty academic voice to his writing, the same desire for roots, the global intellectual vision, the same modest experimentation with language and form. This works out pretty well when he's writing poems about Gaza (plus he's got the fury to back him up here), but not so well when he's trying to describe his Indian-Fijian-Australian identity - sometimes it's hard to figure out what words are Indic and/or Melanesian: vanua is lan; gangajal is holy water: but what's jholi? What's kurukuru? What's ika? What's caucau?

Also the cultural context of what he's saying. Okay, in the poem "Fiji", you're describing a syphilitic Cinderella handing her severed foot to a vomiting coachman. Why? Post-colonial angst, I guess. Fiji itself is the pumpkin.

And the memories of slavery in the cane plants growing across Adelaide. And at least there are Southeast Asian words our heritages have in common: taukei (towkay), bilimbi (belimbing), coolie.

Looking at the poems, I think many of them work very well individually, but packing them all into the same volume undermines the nature of a book as an essay - the "diasporic odyssey" that the blurb writer describes disrupts the reader's desire for coherence.

I'd really meant to read more stuff by indigenous writers: really, I did. But it seems next to impossible to find stuff from people in Tonga and the Cook Islands. Alvin Pang told me he had a poet friend from the Solomon Islands, but had trouble tracking down the books themselves.

Lucky I got this from my sis at Yale Library, though. The National Library is terribly understocked with Melanesian literature, which is published in Australia and New Zealand anyway. After all, old poets in Commonwealth countries aren't terribly dissimilar.

Representative quote:
A Wishing Well in Suva

Let the tsunami come,
Let it come as an ogre in grey armature,
His forelocks in the sky.
To this town let it hum
A gravelly tune, and break
Int he sound of wind through screes
Over and over and over.
Let it come exactly
At twelve, now in the future,
When the trader is dealing a lie
To the worker, and the rake
Is drumming a lay on the knees
Of a gazelle who answers to Pavlova;
And the Ratu is consigning
All wilderness to woodchips
Over a hopsy lunch with a lumber
Baron from Malaysia;
And the Colonel is admiring
In a circus mirror his shoulder-pips;
And from his drunken slumber
A tramp is urging the tide to come in
Like scrolls of euthanasia.
Obliterating a lagoon
Where the egret grows sick on toxin.

O but let it come soon
Let it flower like the 4th of July
And wipe out everything.
Except perhaps a tuft of fern
Adorning some crevice or crack
Where once the tern
Wove a nest from sea-wrack,
And an egg shook the world
(O shook this entire beautiful world)
With an inner knocking.

Next book: Janet Frame's "Owls Do Cry" from New Zealand (finally!)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Book 7, Vanuatu: "Tales of the South Pacific" by James A. Michener

Yesssss!!! I’m finally here!

This book was one of the reasons I started on this readiing journey: watched “South Pacific” the movie in December 1997 and watched the live musical in April 2010 and loved ‘em both. It helped that there were reviews like this one, talking about how the musical was fundamentally about the defeat of racism.

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So it was weirdly disconcerting to find myself wading into a piece of fiction that's anchored firmly in the world of racism:

"Right now I can see it. Some sawed-off runt of a Jew in Dachau prison. Plotting his escape. Plotting to kill the guards. Working against the Nazis. One little Hebrew. You probably wouldn't invite hm to your house for dinner. He smells. So futile. One little Jew. But by God, I'm for him. I'm on his side, commander."

But in fact, it's clear by the end that Michener is against racism. It's not just the famous set-to-music short stories in this collection that are proof of this: Lt Joe Cable tortured over the taboo of marrying the Tonkinese girl Liat on Bali-Hai; Ensign Nellie Forbush refusing, then agreeing to marry the miscegenating French plantation owner Emile Debecque.

Check out the final story, "A Cemetery at Hoga Point": the main character whom the narrator encounters is a Negro man (yes, that's how he's described) talking in classic drawlin' Southern dialect about how there wont be a good man to replace the old Commander Hoag, killed in Guadalcanal: instead, they've got loud-mouthed bully commander in his place who calls people niggers and kikes and grease balls (that's what the Italian boys get called).

Remember, the book came out in 1946. KKK was just starting to enjoy a post-war revival. Interracial marriage was illegal in many states.

And yes, we do have a tale of a happily married interracial couple: the naval officer Tony Fry and the half-French half-Javanese lady Latouche Debecque (an elder daughter of plantation owner Emile, who also surreptitiously runs the whorehouses). They actually get married, no freaking out or nothin'. No need for a lawyer: they have a Buddhist ceremony.

But I shouldn't let the themes detract from the prose. This book deserves its Pullitzer: its best stories are really riveting, and the structure - short fictions with recurring characters, so that we truly feel as if we've gained a glimpse into the many realities of life in the New Hebrides in World War II - is something I'd really like to try for myself someday.

And yes, there's sex and violence. (Sadly, every time Bloody Mary says "fuck", it's transliterated as "soandso" in italics. 1946. What can you expect? And speaking of Bloody Mary, it's intriguing how nativeness is feminised here - not a single indigenous/Asian immigrant man among the characters.)

Hmm, not a very coherent post today. Haven't even begun to talk about the geographical range this book covers: Noumea, Norfolk Island, Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands), Fiji even, maybe.

But the most memorable of the tales happen in Vanuatu - a name of an independent nation that' isn't mentioned once in the text. And it's Vanuatu that gets to advertise to tourists that the island of Ambae is the original Bali-Hai.

Huh. I've been pretty lucky, so far: every single book I've read so far has been a winner in some way or another. Let's see what happens as I move on.

Representative quote:
(this one's about the old Tonkinese souvenir vendor, Bloody Mary, in "Fo' Dolla'")

"Stand up like a man, and tell them to go to hell, Mary," the old, tough Marines would tell the old, tough Tonk. Mary would grin, not understanding a word of what they were saying, but after they came to see her for many days in a row the old miracle of the subdued races took place again. The yellow woman learned dozens of white words but the white men learned not one yellow word.

Next book: Sudesh Mishra's "diaspora and the difficult art of dying" from Fiji

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Book 6, Solomon Islands: "Jerry of the Islands" by Jack London

Yeah, I realised I couldn’t reach Vanuatu without crossing the Solomon Islands, so I decided to grab a free online classic, available for free via Project Gutenberg and the Kindle Store.

And wow. Horrific wow.

This book is mind-blowingly racist.

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Sure, I had warning. After all, I’d heard from my sis that London is kinda screwy about race in “White Fang”. Anyway, it’s the oldest book I’ve done so far, and the first book by a non-citizen of the nation involved.

But I’m still flabbergasted. You will be too. The main character’s an Irish terrier called Jerry, bred in the Solomons by a white colonist, specifically bred to be a “nigger-chaser”. That’s right: his specific job is to run around mauling Mister Haggins’s Melanesian serfs.

He’s given as a puppy to a ship trader called Van Horn, a former wrecking crew worker from Harlem who now goes through the islands trading with tribes in calico and cigarettes and indentured manpower. And what does Van Horn (and his good-for-nothing schnapps-addicted second-in-command Brockman) get called from the perspective of the little dog? A “white-god”.

It’s freakish: the dog is ridiculously committed to the “colour line”: even the noblest of the native Solomoners will not suffice as master compared to a “white-god”.

Yet the book is intriguing, partly because of its fucked-upness – we’re seeing the world from the perspective of a dog, after all, which is so ridiculously subjective and different from our own that we end up being critical of every single figure in there.

Jerry isn’t the colonial master: he’s the colonised subaltern, abused by both the white-gods who barter him and the natives he aids in oppressing. And of course, the natives turn on him – Van Horn gets headhunted and Jerry is nearly eaten as he’s left in the community of Somo.

And it’s in Somo, where white men do not rule, that we encounter the most fascinating characters – intelligent Solomoners each deserving of his own novel: the boy Lumai, the genius chieftain Bashti, the wily devil devil doctor Agno and the blind hero Nalasu. These guys are products of their own deeply foreign culture, implicated in cannibalism and misogyny and blood feud – things that white readers of the 1910s would have immediately read as barbaric. But they’re uncolonised: unlike the Papuans of “Cry of the Cassowary”, they know who they are and do not thirst after other cultures.

But of course, Jerry can’t be happy with a black-god, can he? The kickass ninja master-esque Nalasu has to be dispatched in the least dignified way possible, so that the doggie can find his way into the arms of a silly white lady-god, Villa Kennan, and live happily ever after in California.

Oh god, this post is full of spoilers. But the book’s worth reading anyway – the prose is so bloody good, thriller action and piercing philosophical takes on the relationships between the wild and civilised consciousness of humans and dogs. There’s even loads of great pidgin dialogue (Bislama, they now call it).

Plus, it’s free, so you won’t be funding the ridiculously racist London in his own schemes to support the Great White Hope against an emerging African-American boxer. (London’s foster mother was actually an ex-slave, Virginia Prentiss. I think he must’ve just felt really fucked up about social status and race. His biography is insane.

There’s even a sequel: “Michael, Brother of Jerry”. Think I’ll keep that one for another day.

Representative quote: “Nalasu was not a white-god, but only a mere nigger god. And Jerry hated and despised all niggers save for the two exceptions of Lamai and Nalasu.… At the best, they were only second-rate gods, and he could not forget the great white-gods such as Skipper and Mister Haggin.”

Next book: James A. Michener’s “Tales from the South Pacific” from Vanuatu (yeah, I really mean it this time)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Book 5, Papua New Guinea: "Two Plays from New Guinea: Cry of the Cassowary by John Wills Kaniku and Kulubob by Turuk Wabei"

It must have been amazing to have been young in the sixties. Never mind the Beatles and Woodstock and Stonewall and the Pill: I’m talking about decolonization.

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“Cry of the Cassowary” and “Kulubob” were both performed on the evening of 14 August 1969 in Goroka, Papua New Guinea, at Goroka Teachers College, by the College Players. They’re both works created and presented by young Anglophone Papuan intellectuals, caught between the worlds of native heritage and the wealthy, civilizing West.

“Cry of the Cassowary” describes a family in which educated children are alienated from adults – Sela, the mother, threatens her crippled son Pima with superstitions about shape-shifting lizards and skulls and witches, while her daughter Mebo retorts that she can wear her skirts as short as she likes and choose to marry whatever man she loves, white or black.

Then at night – a night of darkness so threatening that Wasa brings his knife out to guard against the evil – the cry of the cassowary is heard, and Pima dies. It’s unclear whose fault this is – that of angry, fable-spouting parents for ignoring him or for the young rebels for bringing about the wind of change. In a time like this, something has to be sacrificed.

“Kulubob” retells a Papua myth of the creator god – but is he a creator god? – Kulubob, arriving in the village with gifts of rain and sun and meat and galip nuts and breadfruit and mangoes. He leaves his younger brother, Manub, to take care of the land, and one day he returns, announcing that he’s found a bride (taken from a faraway tribe, as per tradition). Manub publicly denounces his brother, revealing that the bride is none other than his daughter Sagila – and Kulubob emigrates in shame.

The colonial element only pops up in an optional Scene V: centuries later,
a missionary appears in the same spot, his canoe laden with mirrors, axes, knives, cloth, bibles. The villagers herald him as Kulubob, and cry out for gifts – the founding of the cargo cult.

Implication: the colonists are a double-edged sword: one day, they will also try to steal your children. And one day, exile?

I’m being rather generous, really: both of these pieces end rather suddenly, without that clean feeling of satisfaction you get from a well-made play. In “Cry of the Cassowary”, there’s all this social commentary that suddenly gets cut short by the arrival of ominous night omens and death – no clear connections. In “Kulubob”, there’s no character development: a huge elaborate scene to illustrate Kulubob’s arrival and then some makeshift bits that lay down the plot of his Oedipus-esque epiphany (or did he know she was his niece all along? It’s unclear).

Still, I love the earnestness of the ideas being thrown around, and the celebration of what’s Papuan amidst the impeccable English – pidgin terms like kaikai (food) and maski (never mind); old wives’ tales of fireflies hovering over doorways. I’ve read plays like this in Singapore, like “The Moon Is Less Bright” by Goh Poh Seng and “A White Rose at Midnight” by Lim Chor Pee, works by young amateurs who're nonetheless intellectual pioneers of their people, bravely reclaiming colonial language to celebrate their own cultures.

Representative quote:
You are lost. Stolen by the whiteman. You are not our children anymore.

Next book: James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”, from… well, let’s say Vanuatu. But in fact it’s the New Hebrides: the area covered today belongs to a pretty wide range of nations and protectorates.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Apologies, we will be restoring transmission shortly

Instead of proceeding directly to New Zealand, I decided to take the scenic route via Papua New Guinea and the New Hebrides (Solomons, Vanuatu) first.

This means I have to wait till a few books come through reservations at the library, and while I've got a head start on some other tomes, they're kinda dense.

But I'm still quite serious about this circumnavigation project. Why the hell wouldn't I be?