Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Book 120, Wallis and Futuna: "Futuna: Mo Ona Puleaga Sau", eds. Elise Huffer and Petelo Leleivai

I need to be frank about the folly of this project. You know how much I spent on this book? US$36, which is S$45, thank you very much. Shipped here all the way from the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, which, come to think of it, is probably closer to my part of the world than New York.

It's not even a great read, though it's purportedly the first book ever to be written by Futunans: 12 authors (though though I'm counting 11, plus the female editor maybe), and each of them are writing about different aspects of the island's history and culture: the mythology, the 18th century civil wars, the traditional architecture, the kava-drinking ceremony.

Pretty dry and disconnnected, though it does admittedly read much more beautifully in French than English. (Although this book's title is in Futunan, the contents were written in French, and are accompanied by an English translation. The sub-subtitle is "Les deux royaumes/the two kingdoms", since the island's divided into the kingdoms of Alo and Sigavé, both of which are administered from Wallis Island way in the northeast, which itself is administered by France. Why didn't I read the whole thing in French? Because life is short, I'm afraid.)

There is interesting stuff in here, though. Look at the legendary origins of the monarchy: a visit by the handsome fisherman Faniutasi to the world of the gods, where he weds a heavenly princess and comes back Futuna to rule as the island's first divinely ordained king, only he sleeps around with another gal and the princess leaves him, leaving the two mortals to sire the Saufekai, aka the Cannibal King, whose dynasty wreaks havoc on the valley.

And did the king have any kids with the princess, you may ask? Yeah, sure, he was abandoned and adopted and named Ufigaki. And then this happens:

"When he became an adult, he began to work wonders but everybody hated him instead of loving him. He eventually disappeared, sinking voluntarily into the earth."

You could base an entire soap opera on this tale. But no, we've gotta move on to another essay on emigration to New Caledonia, or monarchic hierarchy, or the transition from being a protectorate to an overseas territory. Yawn.

Another complaint: in the cultural sections, there's way too much Futunan jargon for readers to keep up with. I can only remember than ago means saffron; how am I supposed to digest a sentence that follows, describing the process of the Lautilo evaluating how many workers, tama and kumete he'll need?

But of course, this is a book that's created for the sake of academia, not for pleasure-seeking fools like myself. The lives and cultures of other people do not exist for my amusement.

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Representative quote: Tous ces produits artisanaux sont vendus sure place par les du pays. Les clients les achètent pour les offrir à leurs amis. Ils se vendent bien à Wallis, car seul Futuna possède les matières premières. On les exporte également à Tahiti pour les expositions artisanales. C'est une source de revenus pour la plupart des personnes qui essaient d'en exporter le plus possible en métropole ou à l'étranger. Ces produits font la plus grande richesse du pays. Cependant, beaucoup envisagent de ne plus vendre les siapo, tapa et produits artisanaux à l'extérieur afin d'attirer clients et touristes étrangers qui viendraient découvrir nos richesses. Ce serait une occasion de faire connaître notre île au monde entier.

All these handicrafts are sold locally. Customers buy them as gifts for their friends. Handicrafts also sell well in Wallis because the raw materials are only found in Futuna. They are often exported to Tahiti for handicraft fairs. They are a source of income for many people who try to export as many as possible to France and overseas and are the country's greatest treasures. However, many people are contemplating not selling siapo, tapa and other handicrafts overseas so that they can attract customers and tourists to Futuna. The latter would then discover our treasures. For us, it would be an opportunity to make our island known to the world.

Next book: Ingjerd Hoem's A Way with Words, from Tokelau.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book 119, New Caledonia: "Penelope's Island" by James McNeish

Eastern Heathens has been launched, and it looks fabulous, hurrah! We're planning a Kinokuniya event in 20 or 27 April - no confirmation yet, so stay tuned.

Also, we’re back in the world of good ol’ epic novels: stories of revolution and betrayal, cultures clashing, men and women caught between loyalties and choosing ultimately to do what is right.  And all from a country most of us had no bloody idea existed!

(The author’s a Kiwi, though. Seems he likes to do these stories set in the Pacific islands.)

The Penelope in the title's the narrator - a nature photographer who ends up improbably marrying a Caldoche, one of the white New Caledonians descended from French penal colonists (yeah, it was France's Australia for a while). She herself happens to be Jewish-Hungarian-British by way of Canberra, which seems even more probable. But there's a method to the madness, as we'll soon discover.

The crazy thing is, the guy Penelope marries - a not-very-employed outdoorsman named Felix - is pretty racist, kicking around the house servant Baptiste for no reason, saying awful things about the Kanaks (the natives of the island) as they try to fight for independence. Violent streak, too - shoots his pet deer without a qualm when he hurts his girl, wants to shoot their dog too at a whim. So the reader's thinking getoutgetoutgetout this racist bastard's gonna destroy you.

And then what happens? Well, first we have the Mayor, Dominique, coming by a lot. He's the first Kanak man to hold the post, and Felix treats him civilly, never mind that he's Baptiste's half-brother. Then we gradually realise that Felix is different: he's not as racist as his fellow Caldoches, wasn't even raised among them: was left for useless with his club foot and raised instead among the Kanaks, leaving him with a culture split halfway between deserving white privilege and actually getting precious few of those privileges till this Brit girl married him.

And when the independence movement breaks out - and it really did happen the way the book describes it, it seems, in 1984, with election boycotts by the Kanaks, takeovers of the land, city by city, and the Caldoches retaliating violently, guerrilla-style ambushes on civilians in cold blood, and not even facing trial for their murders - well, Felix has to take sides. Penelope knows she's on the side of the natives, what with her British sense of fair play and her actual memories of having to flee her land as a little girl in WWII. But when Felix changes - seeing what's happened to Baptiste and his other Kanak "friends" - well, he's forced to realise that the business of being a French settler/colonist is just too much bloody-minded awfulness than he can take. And he does what he can for the side of independence.

I suppose it's not giving away too much to note that New Caledonia remains a French Overseas Protectorate, and that they're still doing pretty badly under French colonial rule. Doesn't sound as racially segregated as it used to be, but rural poverty pulls them down, and there doesn't seem to be that same connection to their skull-templed roots as there was in the eighties, when this book was written. (The publishing date is 1990, but it sure doesn't feel like a nineties book - it's got the heaviness and sorrow and anger of the sixties or seventies.)

But back to the title - why use Penelope at all? Why not describe the story of Felix from his own perspective, or else the tribulations of the Kanaks themselves?  Well, in the wake of Chinua Achebe's death, it seems important to consider the relationship between literature and politics, especially when your readers are people living far, far away from the politics you're describing. As privileged, First World folks, we can only understand the way of the Kanaks through the eyes of white people. We can't even understand their oppressors. We've got to find a third party, someone similarly privileged, and bring her close to oppressors, and watch them transform.

Strategies for empathy. Fiction itself.

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Representative quote: At first I didn't see him because of the mist. He appeared before me like a wraith. Baptiste had a sense of the dramatic and I was not surprised to see him - he would turn up unexpectedly, when he wasn't working for Felix, and often at odd hours. He wore his old khaki shirt and his legs, beneath the skirted pareo, were wet. He's come through the coffee fields, I thought. A scent of gardenia, from the dripping coffee flowers, clung to him.

"Madame," he said, keeping his eyes lowered - and then, for a man who seldom spoke more than a phrase or two at a time, he delivered himself of an oration.

He said that, if we left, the crops would perish. The coffee would die, the valley would be laid waste and the crabs run to the river and be drowned. There would be a great fire. The house would fall down. The crabs would come out from beneath the foundations, the river would rise, the bamboos turn from silver to red and everything would end in the river.

Next book: Futuna: Mo Ona Puleaga Sau, Aux Deux Royaumes, the Two Kingdoms, from the Wallis and Futuna Islands.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

New Book: "Eastern Heathens", an anthology of subverted Asian folklore!

I know we're not really due for another segue, but Eastern Heathens is FINALLY going into print!

What is it? Well, it's an anthology of stories inspired by Asian folklore - there's realism, fantasy, historical fiction, oriental steampunk, horror, comedy, sex... and I'm one of the editors! Mind you, it's mostly drawn from the inspiration and the sweat of my co-editor Amanda Lee Koe - and from the contributors. (I tried submitting a story, but we agreed it wasn't good enough.)

We sent stuff to the print shop yesterday and we're holding the launch next Saturday, at the Arts House, aka The Old Parliament House. It's part of the Literally 9 festival to celebrate the arts centre's ninth anniversary. Alfian Sa'at, Cyril Wong and newcomer Bryan Cheong should be reading! I'm hosting, methinks.

Venue: Arts House, Living Room
Date: 23 Mar 2013
Event Timing: 6.30-7:30pm
Free admission
Facebook page:

The authors, btw, are:

Bryan Cheong (Singapore)
Hoa Pham (Australia)
Cyril Wong (Singapore)
Jeannine Hall Gailey (USA/Japan)
Alfian Sa'at (Singapore/Malaysia)
Amanda Lee Koe (Singapore)
Jon Gresham (Australia/Singapore)
Anila Angin (Singapore)
Chan Ziqian (Singapore/Poland)
Jennani Durai (Singapore)
Li Huijia (Singapore)
Abha Iyengar (India)
Zeny May Recidoro (Philippines)
Jason Erik Lundberg (USA/Singapore)

Seeya there!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

What I was reading in the Philippines!

So here’s something really dumb: I’ve found out Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip is set on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, NOT New Caledonia.

No worries - I'd been meaning to read the book for a while, ever since I enjoyed Jones's non-fictiony novel The Book of Fame - he's another of those guys I met in Ubud, and I remember telling him about the ridiculous censures that MOE had laid against me and him telling me he couldn't even imagine his writing being censored...

Anyhow, the book was a great companion in Manila. Wasn't my only legible friend, either: I coincidentally finished a lot of Singapore lit: Fish Eats Lion (ed. Jason Erik Lundberg) and Koh Jee Leong’s really excellent version of The Pillow Book, f’ristance. Also Damian da Silva’s Rebel With a Course - a culinary memoir that’s rather fascinating in terms of its info on 1960s-70s Singapore dietary culture, but not exceptionally well written, alas.

I was staying with the filmmaker Jade Castro – interviewed him last year about his movie, Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings – and I ended up raiding his collection of comic books.

Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo was really fantastic: a surreal odyssey of an outlaw demon-fighting swordsman born without eyes, nose, ears, limbs, bellybutton, etc, but instead assembled from prosthetics. Daniel Clowes's David Boring, which I’d started on years ago in my Columbia days, was more of a bummer – a listless hetero boy who keeps being dicked around and shot at. Honestly, I wouldn't have realised it's a classic without being told.

But my big discovery was Gerry Alanguilan's Elmer - a Filipino creation, but internationally recognised as freaking amazing. It's set in a parallel world where chickens everywhere suddenly started attaining human-level intelligence in the 1970s, sparking off a worldwide civil war (remember, they breed cocks for fighting in the Philippines). But the framing story's set in the 2000s, when the listless son of the eponymous hero is just an angry marginalised minority in a world where Chicken-Human relations have pretty much stabilised. All kinds of creepy and wonderful and weird. There was a shout-out by Neil Gaiman in the end notes. (Jade hasn't even read it yet - he says it's been sitting in the magazine rack of his bathroom for yonks.)

Of course I did a teensy bit of shopping of my own: bought a copy of landmark English-language novelist Francisco Silonil José's Po-on and Miguel Syjuco's Man Asian Prize-winning Ilustrado, since there's no way I'll get them for cheap in Singapore (except at the library - how about that?).

But me, I'll be focussing my attentions on my actual New Caledonian novel: James McNeish's Penelope's Island. Solid stuff so far.

You'll see the cover next week. In the meantime, news has come out that Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng has won the Man Asian for The Garden of Evening Mists! Whoop-de-doo! Another guy I interviewed for Fridae! Go Southeast Asia!

... And that's a lot of covers this week, huh? Yeah, I likes them bright colours. Saves me the trouble of filling up my blog with text.

Early night tonight. Goodbye!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Book 118, Tuvalu: "Time & Tide" by Tony Wheeler

So I couldn't convince the National Library to purchase Philip Ells's Where the Hell Is Tuvalu?. Kein problem - they have their reference section books available for lending at selected branches. Of course, this makes no sense in terms of categories, but I'm not complaining, because I was able to borrow this:

Yes, yes, it is essentially a photo book (credits to Peter Bennett for the images!), but it does also have a substantial amount of written content, rather well crafted, from the king of the Lonely Planet empire himself. Seems that in 2000, the travel writer and the photographer flew over to Funafuti as part of an environmentalist quest, inspired by the anti-global warming rhetoric of then-PM Ionatana Ionatana, determined to document the culture of these low-lying islands that the world stands to lose when the oceans rise.

While Nauru was a dystopia, Tuvalu's described as a utopia - nine atolls of peaceful, not-very-hierarchical people who're still holding on to traditions of family and feasting and feitu (a colonial system of dividing each island into two competitive teams, which seems fairly benign today). A simple diet of fish and coconut and pandan, supplemented by crabs and turtles and papayas and sadly canned food, which is sold in collective convenience stores, not megamarts (community ownership seems to be the only way to do capitalism in this culture). Sun, sand, happiness. Some money coming in, because the sons are prized as merchant sailors across the world. Deep love for children. Deep love for God. Deep love for land.

One-dimensional? Maybe. There are some cool interviews with people who recount trauma: the Peruvian slavers who came in the 19th century, Cyclone Bebe in 1972, a dormitory fire which killed 18 schoolgirls and which inspired national mourning (the country has less than 10,000 people). And of course there's some obesity and litter dumping because of the processed food, and some university grads can't get used to the slow pace of life after experiencing the cosmopolitan delights of Australia and New Zealand and Fiji (?!). But no deep sense of malaise. No, foreboding is reserved for the danger of inundation, of permanent ecological exile.

Not going to be terribly critical. Had a great experience teaching travel writing using this guy's anthology, and am headed to Manila tomorrow using this guy's guidebook. Safe to say I'm pretty much a convert.

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 Representative quote: In the Tuvaluan language, a person without land is known as fakaalofa, literally, a person deserving of pity. But in a hundred years, all Tuvaluans may well be fakaalofa.

Next book: Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip, from New Caledonia.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Book 117, Nauru: "Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature" by Carl M. McDaniel and John M. Gowdy

Um. A bit preachy, this one. Nor is Nauru really the point: it really is just being used as an exemplar of a nation ecologically destroyed by short-sighted capitalism.

Basically, it's a clumsy version of Jared Diamond's Collapse.

We've got three chapters about Nauru - the first about geological/biological history, the second about human history, the third repeating chapter two but with a more pointed environmentalist slant... And then four more chapters looking at the greater problem of how our culture pushes humans to live beyond their resources (see the Viking settlement of Greenland and the decline of the Rapa Nui civilisation on Easter Island; for alternative, sustainable cultures see the Australian Aborigines, the Kalahari !Kung and the Ladakhis of the Himalayas).

I mean, yeah, I get it. There's actually a little travelogue as a coda, because the authors felt bad that they'd written all this without really exploring the culture of Nauru today, so one of 'em stopped by for four weeks and wrote about how it was doing.

And how is it doing? Well, it's almost always been a nice place - it was called Pleasant Island by colonists; the remarkably non-violent native population of about a thousand was living happily off fish, pandanus and coconut and had very little worth exploiting until an Australian guy realised that a doorstopper rock from the island was actually made of guano-compounded phosphate, super-useful as a fertiliser to turn the deserts of his island nation into agricultural fields.

So the Ozzies and Brits and Kiwis came and plundered the hell out of Topside, the mountain of phosphate deposits in the centre of the island. But it wasn't until independence in the 1960s that the Nauruans began to demand a proper cut of this fortune, whereupon they became super-rich and super-fat on an imported diet of Spam. And with this embrace of capitalism and wealth there was a rapid loss of native culture too - no more of the Pacific idyll described by Time Magazine, instead everyone driving around in air-conditioned cars despite the fact that it'd take only four hours to walk around the whole island.

But the phosphate's running out - and it's the island's only resource. They never tried focussing on making it renewable (seems it's possible: if they'd allowed certain areas to lie fallow during independence in 1966 they might have been able to allow the bird poop to replenish itself indefinitely). And after a series of bad investments - including a flop of a West End musical, as the authors never fail to remind us - this ship seems sunk.

Odd thing is, when McDaniel and his wife visited, he found the people were still pretty happy, thriving with their happy-go-lucky culture despite the oncoming tsunami of doom. The authors claimed this is representative of the human condition: we still live on in hope despite the obvious signs that we've cut the gravel from beneath our feet and the big Malthusian end is nigh. But seriously, I thought, if the people are happy, can't you consider that there might be something a little off about your gloomy thesis?

Then I remembered: I actually met a Nauruan girl myself in Makassar, Sulawesi, last year, and she agreed - the whole island's full of unemployed young people, angry and confused at the future of prosperity they've been denied. This book was published in 2000: a dozen years later, the collapse has happened sure enough.

The authors claim the Nauruans never gave up their forager culture: phosphate made life easy even after modernisation so they never had to develop a Protestant work ethic. Seems a little colonial in outlook, but the greater truth is that the idea of constant economic progress is what's dooming Earth right now. Our civilisation is unsustainable. Now what?

Al Gore said in An Inconvenient Truth that in order to make people change their ways you have to inspire people with some promise of better things ahead. Not much of that here. Just dooooooooooom.

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Representative quote: In North American publications some westerners express moral indignation at the Nauruans' plight: "Here was Nauru with a history of affluence. But having dug out all their island for the phosphate so stupidly, they stupidly spent their money as well. They need to take the blame themselves. They are in a lot of trouble because they have not saved for a rain day," and "Nauru's decline has to do with human nature. It's what happens when incentives are taken away and people don't have to work." But what is the reality of the Nauruans' situation? They did not bring Europeans to their island, nor did they create the market economy that physically destroyed the island and destablized their civilisation. These things happened as a result of two influential beliefs in Western culture: that native cultures are expendable for progress and that natural environments exist for the purposes of making money and supporting progress by feeding the growing market economy. The Nauruans had an enduring pattern of habitation prior to 1800; therefore, these failures should not be ascribed to them but to the market economy.

Nauru has served as a crystal ball in which to view the consequences of beliefs and actions prevalent in our market-based world. We can appreciate how difficult, if not impossible, it would be for the current population of Nauruans to live at this time on their island's impoverished biological and physical resources. It is certainly not prudent to denude the entire earth the way Nauru, Banaba, Beijing, London, Mangaia, Manhattan Island, Mexico City Moscow, Rapa Nui, and so many other places have been denuded.

Next book: Tony Wheeler's Time and Tide, from Tuvalu.