My Urohs by Emelihter Kihleng

This is my book from Micronesia* for the Read The World challenge. It is apparently the first collection of poetry by a Pohnpeian poet. I have to admit, I didn’t pick it up with a great deal of enthusiasm; my main reaction when it arrived in the post was oh well, at least it’s short. Because picking books for this exercise is always a bit of a lottery, but the smaller the country, the worse the odds. And the track record for slim volumes of poetry is not great either.

However, I was pleasantly surprised. The poems have the local focus suggested by the title — an urohs is a Pohnpeian skirt decorated in appliqué — but it’s a contemporary version of it, with Facebook and ramen and Destiny’s Child as well as breadfruit and paramount chiefs. It’s built up with simple effective details and the English is interspersed with phrases of Pohnpeian, some of it footnoted and some of it not. The poems touch in various ways on the issues of globalisation, identity, modernity and so on, but usually without being too heavy-handed.

I don’t want to oversell it — it’s good rather than amazing — but I did genuinely enjoy it and in the end would have been happy for it to be longer.

* Strictly speaking, the Federated States of Micronesia, or FSM, which I just find confusing because it makes me think of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Songs Of Love by Konai Helu Thaman

Full title: Songs Of Love: New And Selected Poems (1974-1999). This was going to be my book for Kiribati for the Read The World challenge, but it turns out I misread the listing: the illustrator is from Kiribati, the poet is from Tonga. But I didn’t have a book for Tonga, so that’s fine.

I’ve read some underwhelming books from the Pacific for this exercise — which is no surprise, really. Tonga has a population of just 104,000, so picking a book from Tonga is like picking a book from Colchester — if Colchester* was a fairly poor country in the middle of nowhere with little literary tradition and English as a second language [ESSEX JOKE].

I would love to be able to say that this was one of those unexpected treats that make the whole exercise worthwhile… but it’s not. Sorry. It’s OK, I’ve read far worse poetry, but I couldn’t get very excited about it. Here’s a short poem that I quite liked:

EARLY MORNING SUN

the early morning sun steals
through the tightly closed windows
touching last night’s leftovers
leaning low against the light

there is the kettle boiling
and still you will not come

It’s all lower-case, btw, even place names and ‘i’. Which is a stylistic choice I personally find a bit irritating, but hey-ho.

* or pick your local equivalent: Langley, British Columbia; Launceston, Tasmania; Burbank, California; Nancy in France; Siegen in Germany, Bolzano in Italy, etc.

» The photo of Tongan rugby fans is © Nick Thompson and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. There is no rugby in this book of poetry.

Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal

Noli Me Tangere is described on the back cover as ‘The novel that sparked the Philippine revolution’. Which sounds a bit hyperbolic, but apparently the publication of the novel in 1887 was an important moment; even more so, Rizal’s subsequent execution for rebellion, sedition and conspiracy.

So it’s a political novel, an unusually early example of a colonial novel written from the perspective of the colonised. In this case, the main representatives of colonial power are from the church rather than the civil authorities. That’s not unique; religion has often been an important tool of empire and post-colonial novels are full of priests and nuns and, above all, church schools. But the Philippines does seem to have been an extreme case, where the religious institutions were more powerful than the civil authorities.

Which means that the book is peopled with villainous friars — cruel, vindictive, scheming, manipulative, hypocritical, lustful, oleaginous — and it reminded me of those early gothic novels which always seemed to have sinister, black-hearted monks in them.* Especially since it’s never shy of a bit of melodrama.

In fact, it’s a rather lumpy mixture of melodrama, satire and long, wordy political discussions, and I can’t say all of it held my attention equally. I liked it most when it was at its most exaggerated — ferociously satirical or floridly gothic — and I found it fell a bit flat when it aimed for genuine sentiment.

A mixed bag for me, then. Bits of it are genuinely brilliant, though. There’s a scene with gravediggers at work in a badly over-crowded cemetery which is wonderfully morbid, for example; and a grotesque portrayal of an ageing Filipina who is so determined to marry a Spaniard and be ‘Spanish’ herself that she marries a useless, feckless man whose only quality is that in the Philippines his nationality gives him an ersatz respectability, then insists on only speaking broken Spanish.

Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal, translated by Harold Augenbraum, is my book from the Philippines for the Read the World challenge.

* In my memory they do, anyway, although glancing through a few plot synopses on Wikipedia, they were just as likely to be sinister, black-hearted aristocrats. Perhaps I’m just thinking of The Monk.

» The memorial of the execution of José Rizal is in Rizal Park in Manila. Rizal is apparently a full-on national hero in the Philippines, so there were many statues to choose from, but this is the most dynamic; the most in keeping, perhaps with the tone of the book.  The photo is © Joshua Bousel and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, ed. Anono Lieom Loeak, Veronica C. Kiluwe, Linda Crowl

Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands is my book from the Marshall Islands for the Read The World challenge. It’s a compilation of short pieces published for the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Islands constitution. It includes a variety of subjects, including personal memoirs, accounts of traditional crafts, and more political pieces.

The two chapters I found most interesting were both political: one was an account of the way that, thanks to lax adoption laws in the Marshall Islands and an immigration compact with the US, the islands became a popular target for Americans looking for babies to adopt.

The other was survivor accounts of radioactive fallout from American nuclear testing. The Americans seem to have treated the survivors badly, but they also failed to warn or evacuate the islanders on some of the atolls which they must have known were at risk of exposure. Usually I believe that cock-up is a better explanation than conspiracy, but given the darker corners of Pentagon’s history, you have to wonder whether they knowingly allowed people to be exposed so that they could serve as test subjects.

I found other chapters rather less interesting — there was a description of the techniques for building outrigger canoes, for example, which was just too technical for me — but to be fair I really wasn’t the intended audience for the book.

» The image is, obviously I guess, a screengrab of Google Earth centred on the Marshall Islands. Blue, innit.

Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru by Timothy Detudamo

Does very much what it says on the tin; a section of ‘legends’ (origin myths, broadly speaking) then ‘traditions’ (clothes, tools, fishing techniques and so on), and then 17 other folk tales. To quote the blurb:

In 1938, Head Chief Timothy Detudamo had the foresight to transcribe and then translate a series of lectures relating to the legends, customs and tales of Nauru, delivered by what he termed ‘native teachers’.

The book packs quite a lot of stuff into its 98 pages. And it’s all quite interesting. There is something fascinating about these Pacific island cultures where people were so isolated, and Nauru is isolated even by Pacific standards: one island two or three miles across which is hundreds of miles from anywhere.

I find the stories from oral cultures intriguing and slightly baffling: I just don’t understand the narrative logic of them; often they just seem to develop by a process of free-association. There probably is a narrative logic there, but it’s not what I’m used to.

The book also has a glossary which is so wilfully unhelpful that it’s actually rather brilliant; here’s a sample of it:

Demauduru: A type of food seen only at feasts and special occasions
Deneno: A type of food seen only at feasts and special occasions
Denodoro: A type of food seen only at feasts and special occasions
Denuwanini: A plant – a type of creeper
Derugu: A type of fighting weapon
Doboj: A type of food seen only at feasts and special occasions
Dobwidu: A type of fighting weapon
Dogoro: A type of fighting weapon

Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru is my book from Nauru for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo of the frigatebirds on perches is from the British Museum website; apparently in Nauru they use trained frigatebirds for fishing, a fact I somehow didn’t manage to learn from a book about the traditions of Nauru but found in Wikipedia.

The Big Death: Solomon Islanders Remember World War II

Or, in Solomons Pijin, Bikfala Faet : olketa Solomon Aelanda rimembarem Wol Wo Tu. The first interesting thing about this book is the language. The entire text — i.e. the introduction and so on, not just the narratives themselves — is in Solomons Pijin first and then English translation. Which gives you a chance to compare the two languages. Pijin is of course a language derived from the use of English as a lingua franca in the region, so it is almost entirely based on English in vocabulary; but the grammar is quite different.

Here’s a bit of the Pijin; at first glance it looks completely impenetrable, but if you sound it out, you start to get a sense of how the pronunciation relates to English. It’s interesting to try to make sense of it, but I’ll put the translation in a footnote* so you can compare it.

Long 1939 wo hemi kam. Japan hemi bomem Pearl Harbour. Ating hemi 1941. An long time ia evri waetman stat fo toktok abaot wo. Toktok hemi stat fo go raon nao. So mi lusim Makira long taem ia an mi go long SDA mison long Bituna. Mi go primari skul tisa moa ia. Dea nao mi stap gogo wo hemi kam long Solomon Islands. Hemi kam long Rabaul an New Britain. So evriwan stat fo ranawe nao. Mi go baek long Munda an joenem Donald Kennedy, wea hemi Distrik Ofisa. Mi save long hem taem mi stap long Tulagi.

My knowledge of the Pacific theatre during WWII is very limited — the British tend to have a Europe-centred view of the war — so I didn’t actually realise when I ordered this book that the Solomon Islands were the site of some very serious fighting. In fact, although I didn’t know any details, even I had heard of Guadalcanal.

It’s really an extraordinary coming-together of cultures; the Solomon Islands was a genuine global backwater — they had apparently still been using stone tools when the British arrived at the end of the C19th, and some of their wartime heroics recounted in this book involve dug-out canoes — and then the full weight of the industrialised military power of Japan and America come and fight their way across the islands in a campaign involving tens of thousands of deaths, dozens of ships sunk and hundreds of aircraft destroyed.

Inevitably we tend to learn about these battles from the perspective of the major powers — and especially our own side. So it’s interesting to read accounts from people who just happened to be living in the path of the war. The people whose stories are in this book took a variety of roles: coastwatching; scouting with a slice of guerilla combat; fighting with the regular army; working in the Labour Corps. It’s interesting stuff with some real hairy action to it: paddling for miles around the islands under cover of darkness to return wounded US pilots to their base, going behind Japanese lines to mine a radar station. And the last story talks about the influence of the war on the political history of the Solomon Islands, and particularly the dissatisfaction created by the contrast between how well they were treated by the Americans and how badly they had been treated by the British under colonial rule.

Sigh. Not that I feel much personal responsibility for the way that my compatriots behaved in the Solomon Islands decades before I was born, but it is a bit shameful. They took their land, paid them a pathetically small amount of money for their labour, and beat them. Then during the war the Islanders were very impressed to see that the black American soldiers wore the same uniforms and the ate the same food as white soldiers, and that the Americans soldiers would share food with the natives, and invite them into their tents and let them sit on the bed and talk to them in a friendly way; pathetically small things, really, but it goes to show what they had been led to expect by the British. And then when the Americans gave them various supplies, the British confiscated them, piled them up and burnt them, because… well, because they were dicks, seems to be the main reason.

Still, if you’re from a former colonial power and you read post-colonial literature, you have to expect to be the bad guys most of the time.

The Big Death is my book from the Solomon Islands for the Read The World challenge.

* In 1939 the war came. Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. I think it was in 1941. At that time all the whitemen started to talk about war. Rumours started to go around. So I left Makira at that time and went to the SDA Mission at Batuna. I went and became a primary school teacher there. It was there that I stayed until the war came to the Solomon Islands by way of Rabaul and New Britain. So everyone started to flee. I went back to Munda and joined Donald Kennedy, a District Officer I had known in Tulagi.

» The photograph of a Solomon Islander from the British Museum was taken by John Watt Beattie in 1906.  Munda Deep Corsair – Solomon Islands is © whl.travel and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. Seabees, 1945, was posted to Flickr by and is © TPB, Esq.

Island Boy by Tom Davis

…or to give him his full title: Sir Tom Davis, Pa Tuterangi Ariki, KBE. The ‘Pa Tuterangi Ariki’ bit was a title he got by marriage; the knighthood was all his own. Davis was the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands from 1978-87, and Island Boy is his autobiography. He was undoubtedly an impressive individual — he studied medicine in New Zealand, then took the job of Medical Officer of the Cook Islands, where he modernised a decrepit colonial medical service; then he sailed his young family in a small yacht from the Cook Islands to Boston to study public health; did some medical work in Alaska; then he took various research jobs in the US, including research on physiological adaptions to extreme conditions for the army and the nascent space program; raced sports cars; then returned to the Cook Islands to enter politics as a free market ideologue, eventually becoming Prime Minister.

So there’s lots of good material. However, although Davis wrote perfectly well, he was not a dazzling prose stylist, or a man with a gift for anecdote, and he clearly had no intention of sharing anything very personal; he mentions two marriages, a divorce and several children during the book but gives absolutely no details at all. So what you get is a straightforward, by the numbers autobiography which is often interesting but also often a bit of a chore. I don’t think he was terribly introspective, to be honest. His obituary, which I found while trying to learn more about his title, says (among more flattering stuff):

A driven and ambitious man, he was sometimes seen by his peers as arrogant and conceited.

And that does ring true. He is certainly really quite dismissive of most of his political colleagues and opponents.

I ordered Island Boy as my book from the Cook Islands for the Read The World challenge, before realising that the Cook Islands wasn’t actually on my list of countries, which is based on UN membership. But the list isn’t that rigid, and having bought it I may as well count it.

» The picture, Avarua Market, is © Daniele Sartori and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Leaves of the Banyan Tree by Albert Wendt

I think the blurb gives a pretty good idea of what kind of book this is:

An epic spanning three generations, Leaves of the Banyan Tree tells the story of a family and community in Western Samoa, exploring on a grand scale such universal themes as greed, corruption, colonialism, exploitation, and revenge. Winner of the 1980 New Zealand Wattie Book of the Year Award, it is considered a classic work of Pacific literature.

It is, in other words, a Big Novel about Important Things. And although it occasionally feels a bit self-consciously epic, on the whole I think it pulls it off. It’s the story of Tauilopepe, a matai in the village of Sapepe. I can’t think of an English title which is quite equivalent to matai, but it means he is the official head of an extended family, one of three in Sapepe. 

Having been expelled from theological college, Tauilopepe is ambitious, driven at the start of the novel by a resentful sense of underachievement, and convinced of the superiority of modern, European ways of doing things.

So the novel is partly about the decline of the traditional Samoan way of life; the coming of Western agriculture, a wage-based economy, Western buildings, and the loss of influence of the village council, the loss of the old stories. But it’s also a story of greed, power and dysfunctional family relationships that could take place in a shoe factory in Bradford.

On the whole I really liked it: it’s a successful portrayal of a time and place, Tauilopepe and his son Pepe are both great characters, and the whole thing moves along at a sufficient pace to keep me reading — it felt like quite a short 400 pages. If I was going to be super-picky, I’m not completely sure about the ending; without wanting to give away too many details, a new character unexpectedly turns up and throws everything up in the air. I’m not completely convinced by the character, who seemed a bit stagey to me, and that slightly diminished my pleasure in the ending, narratively neat though it is.

Anyway, here’s a little extract:

‘There she is,’ Toasa said, sweeping his walking-stick across the bush. ‘No one has touched her before. Anyway no one who’s alive to tell us, eh? She has remained pure since God created these islands. Line up!’

All the men except Tauilopepe, who remained beside Toasa, formed a line at the foot of the green wall. ‘Remember, no one has touched her before!’ Toasa shouted. The men advanced cautiously. ‘What are you waiting for for, eh? You don’t want to deflower her? You scared of her?’ A few of the men laughed. Tauilopepe advanced to a short tree and chopped it down with one blow of his axe. ‘There, see that?’ called Toasa. ‘It’s easy. She won’t scream and charge you in court with rape! Many of the others followed Tauilopepe’s example. ‘Good! Come on now, raise your baby-sized manhoods and chop, cut burn!’ The line advanced; the axes and bushknives started biting into the flesh of the living wall.

When the first big trees thundered to the ground, tearing and levelling all the small vegetation before them, some of the men cheered. Their axes and bushknives took on greater fury. Soon the snapping chomping sound of iron biting deep shattered the silence and chased the birds like wood chips into teh air and away towards the range. Toasa moved from group to group, encouraging them to hack and chop. ‘Prove your manhood!’ he said.

Leaves of the Banyan Tree is my book from Samoa for the Read The World challenge. If you’re wondering, btw, ‘what kind of Samoan name is Albert Wendt?’, well, I was curious myself; according to Google he had a German great-grandfather. And if you’re wondering about the reference to ‘Western Samoa’ in the blurb above: the Samoan islands are divided between a US dependency called American Samoa and a nation which was called Western Samoa but changed its name to Samoa in 1997. (Western) Samoa was German Samoa until the end of WW1 and then run from New Zealand until independence in 1962.

» the picture, Samoa in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s, was found on Flickr and is © Lorena Haldeman.

Maiba by Russell Soaba

Maiba: A Novel of Papua New Guinea* is, you won’t be surprised to hear, my book from PNG for the Read The World challenge. I ordered it second-hand and was surprised to find when it came that it was a print-on-demand edition (I’m sure it’s a second-hand copy rather than one printed for me, btw). Of course POD services — or indeed e-books — are perfect for this kind of niche literature. Because of the challenge, I’ve been browsing around for second-hand copies of obscure books from around the world, and they don’t normally come cheap.

The print quality, for the moment, is noticeably weaker; my Maiba is perfectly adequate but a bit cheaper-looking and more generic than a normal mass-market paperback. But if POD helps keep books available at reasonable prices, then a slight compromise on print quality seems a good trade-off.

I imagine that most of the people ordering copies of Maiba are teaching or studying post-colonial literature, and it does fit fairly neatly into that niche. If I had to identify a central theme I’d say it was about the conflict between traditional Papuan culture and modernity — or change, anyway. The agents of change aren’t actually particularly strongly present in the book; the action takes place in a somewhat remote coastal village where the lifestyle is still fairly traditional (as far as I can judge from my complete lack of knowledge), but the relevance and authority of that tradition is oozing away.

I imagine that tradition vs. change is going to be a frequently recurring theme in the course of this challenge; but then I suppose rapid societal change has been the experience of most of the world’s population for the past century or so. Perhaps it’s just more obvious to me when I’m reading a novel set in PNG than one set in Surrey.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of it, as a novel. It’s short — only 115 pages — and rather open-ended. But it is well-suited to literary tourism; it has plenty of local detail about landscape, food, local buildings, bits of folklore and custom. And it’s well written. Perhaps my only real problem with it is that I’m not a big fan of short forms of fiction.

* Or at least that’s the title on the cover; inside it’s called Maiba: A Papuan Novel.

Black Stone by Grace Mera Molisa

One for the Read The World challenge. Wikipedia only mentions one writer from Vanuatu: Grace Mera Molisa. There was a copy of Black Stone, her first book of poems, for sale on AbeBooks, so I thought I’d give it a punt.

This is political poetry: Black Stone was published in 1983, just three years after Vanuatu gained independence, and the main dynamics of the book are anti-colonialism and feminism.

If the aim of the challenge is to get some sense of different places around the world, then this book isn’t ideal. It largely deals with politics in the abstract, and aside from a few place-names it would be difficult to guess where it was written. I have no more idea of the landscape or everyday life of Vanuatu than I did before I read it. But then I don’t think I’m the target audience.

I’m not terribly excited by it as poetry either; most of it reads as political prose broken up rather arbitrarily into short  lines. This is from a poem called Newspaper Mania:

The medium
of Newsprint
can make
and break
Governments
and men
in dictating
and shaping
public opinion
by subtle
and invisible
Dictatorship. 

There are occasionally hints of something more interesting, though; from the same poem, I think this has a fine acid touch to it:

Metropolitan
journalists
flock to Port Vila
crawling the bars
sniffing the farts
of other
transient scavengers
and go away
experts
on Vanuatu politics. 

Despite  few good moments, the book mainly reads to me as social activism rather than poetry. Not that I have anything against social activism.

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