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.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

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!)

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