Burn My Head in Heaven

John Pule. Burn My Head in Heaven. Penguin, 1998. ISBN 13579108643

If for Alistair Campbell the spirit world is potentially a delusion, for John Pule it is real and active and alive. In The Frigatebird we are never quite sure if the gods are real or just part of our narrator’s increasing mental instability. In Burn My Head in Heaven there is no doubt whatsoever that the ancient gods and spirits are about the villagers of Liku, continuing to both shape and respond to the world.

There was so much of this book I didn’t understand. Early on, with so many unfamiliar Niuean people’s names, place names, spirit names intertwined, I found the story very hard to follow. Even as the names of characters and places started to become clear and distinguishable to me, I think it took me quite a bit longer to understand that for Potau and his family and community, in and around their land at Pia, the past is not a long-distant memory, but part of the here and now, being played out and echoed in the land around them:

Laufoli came down, married a king’s daughter and lived there until old age. Three moons disturbed her manava. Then Laufoli discarded his wife, and was banished back to Niue. Still powerfully built to topple over trees with his shoulders, he collected them for the umu. When the stones were red with heat, he taunted the young warriors to push him in.

Potau shifted his body around. Where he stood he could see Laufoli clearly jump into the umu pit. The earth felt the pain and screamed. The fuata ran back to Liku.

Potau picked up two filled sacks and took them to the side of the track where, under the shade of the forest, Lamahina was weaving baskets for the loku and talo. Toa, their first-born, was crying nearby, mimicking the calls of the kulukulu.

Ironically (or perhaps not) the first passage of Burn My Head in Heaven I really understood was this one. Potau’s father witnesses the ceremony annexing Niue as a British protectorate:

King Togia sat in the shade of a house built especially for the occasion. He asked Thompson if the Queen knew that he existed, that he was King of Niue, all of Niue. He did not understand a thing that was being said, even though an interpreter was trying hard to translate Thompson’s speech. It all came out wrong but Togia, like many of the Niueans on that day, thought only of the honour and the greatness the white man was heaping onto Niue. The King shook away his sovereignty. Easy….

Potauhata rode the nine miles back to Liku. What was rushing through his head like lightning was the way the Annexation was conducted. Not one Niuean knew what was being said.

Burn My Head in Heaven is very much about Niuean attachment to land, and the people’s dispossession of it under white settlement. It speaks of the importance of the culture’s creation stories to the present day. The first half or more of the book is a work of magic realism that conjures this oneness of past and present, people and land.

New Zealand is referred to a number of times by Niueans as ‘the land of milk and honey’. The phrase is also used often in the musical The Factory, written by another Niuean, Vela Manusaute, which I had the joy of seeing in Canberra in the last month or so. The economic attraction of the new country is obvious, where working in an abattoir seems easier than toiling over a taro garden, although it seems hard to reconcile with the clearly evident, strong attachment to home, to which few seem to plan to return.

Eventually most of Potau’s relatives end up in New Zealand, where the story, with the gods left behind in Niue, takes on a more familiar realism form. A Niuean community gathers in the suburbs of Auckland and elsewhere, keeping up the traditions of dancing and ceremony as though they were at home. While Nogi survives and thrives and builds a life and gathers her family around her, her brother Potau and others (mostly men) seem to sink further and further into anger, alcohol and depression.

Why does Nogi so seamlessly make the transition while Potau seems unable to do so? Neither of the siblings is any less connected with or committed to their Niuean culture and family, and yet they take very different trajectories in their new home. Burn My Head in Heaven seems to me to be very distinctly saying that identity, land and culture are the keys to a life lived well and contentedly. So why is Nogi able to live her culture in both countries, and Potau in neither?

At the base of it, I just didn’t understand Burn My Head in Heaven. I haven’t been able to work out what the title means. I wasn’t able to get inside the minds of its characters enough to understand their motivations, and as a result the story seemed to me to be a series of somewhat directionless accounts of the comings and goings of an immigrant community in New Zealand. What was the significance of Mr Loeb’s discussions with Atalagi? Why did Potau hide the identity of Aifai’s father from him? Why did he turn to drink? And then why did he stop? The story was interesting and revealing, particularly of the hard work that immigrant Pacific Islanders faced in New Zealand in the 1960s and later, and also of the routine racism they endured, but it was not something I could get inside and feel for myself. Burn My Head in Heaven offers the opportunity of a first-hand account of Niuean thought and culture, but it was one that I’m not sure I had the skills to fully grasp.

Posted in New Zealand, Niue, Contemporary Fiction, Magic realism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Frigate Bird

Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, The Frigate Bird, Heinemann Reed, 1989. ISBN: 0790000466

Reality, delusion, religion, belief. All are intertwined in Cook Islands poet Alistair Campbell’s first novel, The Frigate Bird. If we are given the name of The Frigate Bird’s narrator I’ve forgotten it already, and in fact it hardly seems to matter. Would it be real, and what would it signify? In this first person voice we have only our narrator’s view of reality, and if ever reality was subjective, it is in The Frigate Bird.

Our narrator knows that he is mentally ill and not coping with the world:

I was now in a state of panic—the rats were in the house. I had the heebie-jeebies. I was going nuts again. I was certainly not in the right frame of mind to fly to Rarotonga and from there take a boat to Penrhyn, my mother’s homeland. Only yesterday my sister asked me why I was going. Good question, I thought, but aloud I told her I had promised my editor a story about our childhood in the Islands.

And clearly he’s not in the right frame of mind. The boat journey to Penrhyn is a series of delusions, persecutions and paranoias, as our narrator’s mental state seems to continue to deteriorate. Despite his early clarity about his own condition, he seems no longer able to judge the motivations of those around him or to make sense of his own thoughts and feelings.

On Penrhyn he feels persecuted, with people following him, throwing rocks at him. His anti-depressant medication is running out, mosquitos plague, and there are rats in the rafters. He heads straight back home, spending time in the Banana Court bar in Rarotonga while he waits for a flight back to New Zealand, where he promptly finds himself in a mental asylum.

But what is real here and what is imagined? What can be attributed to the spirits, to God, and or to the unbalanced mind? For me this is Campbell’s achievement in The Frigate Bird, keeping the reader always just off-balance, always unsure of what to believe. He juxtaposes Polynesian and Christian beliefs beautifully, leaving us, perhaps, with the feeling that neither can be entirely relied on to explain our own minds to us, or the outside world.

On the boat to Penrhyn the narrator is overwhelmed by terrors:

God help me! There was a roaring in my ears, and I gabbled the Lord’s Prayer over and over, made mistakes and panicked.

Then I thought that the spooks were Polynesian and couldn’t understand English, so I babbled the Cook Islands benediction, Te Atua, te Aroha.

It seems obvious early on that these terrors are of his mind’s own making. While the narrator is sure that bad spirits are to blame, his cousin, who is hosting him in their grandfather’s house on Penrhyn, is puzzled:

There was a long silence, and then my cousin said, “No bad places here. No evil spirits. Nobody here throws rocks. Why would they throw rocks at you?”

Later, though, once we are in the habit of accepting our narrator’s madness, Campbell causes us to doubt ourselves, just as the narrator has doubts about his own mind. Back in Rarotonga, the crash of a frigate bird into the narrator’s motel window seems certain to be hallucination, except that his American neighbour has also seen it. In the asylum in New Zealand the spirit visit of his sister to his room at night can’t be real, except that a guard hears her voice: “You’ve got a sheila in here… I heard her speaking”. And, while the narrator’s stories of persecution seem confused and unlikely, some of the people around him understand them and their causes, while others harbour fears of their own, equally unlikely and unreal.

On the plane back to New Zealand a fellow passenger diagnoses his problems:

“I know your trouble,” she went on. “It is Tia’s also. Your soul is unhappy. That’s no good. Come and sit beside me. You change places with Ina.”

“You should listen more to your grandfather,” said Mere gently, as I settled into the seat beside her.

“Listen to Grandfather,” I mumbled, obtusely. “How can I when he’s dead?”

Mere sighed at looked at me. “I can’t believe you’re saying that. You are blood of the land. He isn’t dead. He’s reaching out to you, but you push him away, and that makes him sad.”

Just in case we are tempted to put such ideas down to outmoded ancient mythology, Campbell gives us other examples of similar, perhaps misplaced and confused, faith. Such as the child Cathy Linton and the farmhand Inchcliffe, who our narrator meets in the remote New Zealand high country, and their belief in the White Maiden. Such as Cook Islanders’ missionary faith in the power of prayer to prevent hurricanes.

Alistair Campbell’s mother was a Cook Islander, his father a papa’a. Both died when Campbell was young, and he grew up in New Zealand. Scholars have written about the autobiographical nature of The Frigate Bird, and there is much of the contest between one mode of belief and upbringing and another in Campbell’s book, and of finding a neglected identity. Straddling competing ways of life and faiths as Campbell does, The Frigate Bird suggests to me that finding a middle road between two lives is essential. Choosing one part of heritage and culture at the expense of another is not an option, because down that path madness lies.

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Cook Islands, New Zealand | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Poinciana

Jane Turner Goldsmith, Poinciana, Wakefield Press, 2006. ISBN: 1862546991

Poinciana was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the best first novel from the South East Asia and South Pacific region, so I was quite troubled to find myself reminded, as I read it’s opening chapters, of a Mills and Boon I read last year called Always the Boss. In both books a slightly lonely young woman finds herself in a foreign country, not really certain of herself and making social and cultural gaffes along the way. To get where she needs to be she finds herself relying on an older, somewhat jaded and hardbitten journalist. He may be making advances but she has trouble reading him correctly. And of course she starts to fall for him.

To be fair, the potential romance between Catherine and Henri in Poinciana is very definitely a subtext, and there is none of the tortured language or swooning of a Mills and Boon. I think, though that the romantic sideline was an unnecessary distraction from the main game, which is an exploration of identity and belonging in New Caledonia.

Noumea, New Caledonia

Noumea, New Caledonia

Catherine has come to Noumea to find her father, who she had long believed was dead. Now her mother has told her that he may still be alive and living somewhere in the islands of New Caledonia. After years of being almost without family – she is largely estranged from her very French mother and sister – Catherine of course wants answers. Why did this mysterious father leave her, never come to find her?

Interleaved with Catherine’s story is that of Robert. Found as a newborn on a riverbank beside his dead Kanak mother, Robert has been fostered by a Caldoche family, Gaetan, Dominique and their other sons. His first nurse calls him ‘café au lait’, and it is clear his father is white. Robert lives something of an idyllic childhood with his family in rural Grand Terre and falls in love with his childhood friend, Tahitian beauty Rosina. In his teenage years he becomes increasingly interested in connecting with his Kanak heritage and his tribu. This interest coincides with the rise of Kanak independence movement, which was to lead to such bloodshed.

Poinciana’s narrative moves back and forth between these two separate stories, and skips about also in time. It gives the novel something of a mysterious feeling – is this foretelling or memory, history or imagining? It doesn’t take long for it to become clear, though, that Robert and Catherine are almost certainly linked by more than just geography.

Both Robert and Catherine are on individual journeys of exploration, trying to understand where they fit. While Poinciana is primarily Catherine’s story, it is Robert’s that is more compelling. Having spent his childhood being loved and nurtured by a white family, raised as one of them, he begins to wonder about the darker faces around him, and what their lives might be, like Tante Lucie, wife of Gaetan’s station hand Oukanou:

Half asleep in the early morning, Robert hears Tante Lucie moving about before anyone else rises. She will be busying herself with the kettle and the wood fire. When the sun comes up he hears the creak of the back door and the chickens complaining. He imagines her out on her hard bare feet, wide and grained like old wood paddles, off to her tarodiere, her own small taro terrace, where she will break the earth and watch the water flow down the levels. Or cleaving the taro leaves, those needed to wrap the fish for lunch.

She stands in the earth. She belongs to it.

Robert has a place in each world, in each part of the community, and is able to straddle the divide for some time, to play peacemaker or to at least see the issue from both sides. But, as the chasm grows between the traditional owners of the land, now in the minority, and the white settlers, it seems that Robert will have to choose, or have a side chosen for him.

Author Jane Turner Goldsmith sketches for us the outline of the rising conflict in New Caledonia in the 1980s, and shades in some of the corners within that outline. Those portions of the picture she is able to draw for us are largely from the white perspective. Robert’s story gives us glimpses of the Kanak cause, but he has been brought up away from it, in a family unwillingly but increasingly opposed to it. Turner Goldsmith gives us a sensitive, sympathetic depiction of the divide, but it is of necessity a depiction from one side only of that divide.

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, New Caledonia, Uncategorized, Women Writers | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Friendly Islanders: A Story of Queen Salote and Her People

Kenneth Bain, The Friendly Islanders: A Story of Queen Salote and Her People, Hodder and Staunton, 1967.

Do you know how hard it is to get hold of fiction set in the Pacific that is written by Pacific Islanders? Of the first ten books I’ve read for Raintree, three have been written by indigenous people, and this is with me trying to introduce a bias for indigenous authors. Admittedly, I could have read more Pacific Islander authors if I’d restricted my geographic range. Albert Wendt in Samoa and Alan Duff in New Zealand are both fairly prolific authors (and two of the best I’ve read so far in this project, the other being Drusilla Modjeska). But I want to metaphorically journey around as many Pacific Islands nations and territories as I can this year, so until I get time to join the ANU libraries and get access to their Pacific collections, I find myself scratching around a bit.

Which is how I found myself reading The Friendly Islanders, downloaded on my Kindle after finding that Woden Library’s copy of Port Vila Blues is out of circulation because it is damaged. There is much about The Friendly Islanders that predisposed me to dislike it. Written in the sixties by a white New Zealander Oxford graduate (male of course) sent to run the Tongan government administration because clearly the Tongans couldn’t be trusted to run it for themselves.

I did, though, find myself quite liking The Friendly Islanders. It is written with much affection for Tonga and its people. It also evidences the author’s deep (I would say fawning) admiration for Queen Salote. I guess you don’t get your foreword written by His Majesty King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV without a certain amount of flattery towards his mother.

This isn’t fiction, but a memoir of Kenneth Bain’s time as Secretary to the Government of Tonga between 1953 and 1956 and in other roles around the Pacific. It’s a keenly observed depiction of a Tonga on the brink of modernity. As Bain observes:

Contemporary Tonga is a study of custom in transition. It has the trappings of a modern constitutional government in a Christian state… Side by side with this is a semi-feudal social structure, with traditional obligations and inhibitions, the origins of which are lost in the shadows of the past. The structure is complete and self-contained. The non-Tongan fits in as best he can.

The blog Pasifika Truthfully says that “no other book describes Tonga so well…. [Bain’s] account is extremely informative, very accurate and written with strong attention to details”. The sum total of my experience of Tonga is a few hours in the transit lounge at Fua’amotu International Airport, so I’m in no position to judge. I remember listening with delight as a brass band (I think it was a police band) practised in the dark outside some building or other on the outskirts of the airport, the sound drifting across the evening and in through the lounge’s louvred windows. It was strange and lovely, then, to have my fleeting glimpse of Tongan life reflected in Bain’s observations:

The village bands come into their own as Christmas approaches. From the beginning of December the bands parade the villages and the streets of the towns, blowing their hearts out and having wonderful fun… You can expect these minstrels at any time after dark and they are remarkably good at creeping silently and barefooted on to your front verandah before launching into melody.

There’s a lot to like in The Friendly Islanders, from the helpful overviews of the Tongan parliament and Royal Family, through introduction to traditional tales, legends and cultural characteristics, to the entertaining anecdotes of Tongan life. The long transcripts of allegedly amusing parliamentary debate could have used a severe pruning in my opinion, but I did feel I learned a lot about Tongan life and culture, and had some of what I thought I knew confirmed or corrected.

Readers of my previous Raintree post will enjoy the similarities between Tongan and Marshallese culture:

Whoever said “Truth is absolute” can’t have spent any time in the Friendly Islands. The Tongan is a skilled exponent of the art of evasive responses…. He is also a manipulator of words – words the unequivocal meaning of which was not previously in issue. The man of rank may find it hard to get at the whole truth. The reason is that the commoner tells his chief what he thinks the chief wishes to know or would like to hear. Unpalatable tidings are guarded from his ears.

Tongan society flourishes on a condoned freedom to mix near-truth with mild inaccuracy.

Through Bain and a meandering steamer trip to Suva we also get a brief glimpse of Nuie “in the middle of a Pacific nowhere”, and his broad experience of the Pacific Islands also allows him to draw out the close ties Tonga has with other Polynesian cultures. There are differences in ceremony and dance between Tonga and Samoa, but Samoan fine-woven mats have an important place in Tongan custom. Tongan legends of navigation tell stories of journeys over the 700-odd kilometres to Fiji.

I did feel at the end of The Friendly Islanders that I had read something of an encyclopaedia of Tongan life, written from expert, external observation rather than from within. It sometimes takes a dispassionate, third-party view to bring out the unique characteristics of a culture, a lifestyle or a life, and Bain’s writing does that admirably. I was conscious throughout that this was an outsider’s view of Tonga, but it is a charming, whimsical and ultimately affectionate view nonetheless.

Posted in Fiji, Marshall Islands, Memoir, Niue, Samoa, Tonga | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Trickster

Jane Downing, The Trickster, Pandanus Books, 2003. ISBN: 1740760298.

I’m afraid that life got away from me a little bit there. I’m embarrassed to say that it has been six weeks or so since I wrote a review for Raintree, when under normal circumstances I manage one about every ten days. I actually had to renew my loan of The Trickster from Libraries ACT twice, which never happens. And right when they’ve introduced their 25 cents a day late fines. It was touch and go for a bit there.

But back to business. Readers who previously joined me for Dinner at Caphs will be entertained to learn that I’ve found a book that belongs on both blogs. Before the central character of The Trickster, Joy, begins her travels to the centre of the world – the Marshall Islands capital Majuro – she must give up her job at the Dickson Library and “a profession steeped in words and letters and knowledge and the dusty indescribably satisfying smell of books”.

Joy’s husband Geoff has landed a development job in the Marshall Islands, and there is little question that she’ll go with him, even after she learns that she is pregnant and that her son will be born in Majuro. In part The Trickster is a story of culture shock and cultural clashes, as Joy struggles to find a life and an identity for herself as a new mother without connections and networks in a new country.

There was much in the expat experience in the Pacific that was familiar to me. The welcome party, six months after their arrival, on Marshallese Time (I still maintain Solomon Time is the most elastic of them all). Geoff’s triumph in his breakthrough model for revitalising the Marshallese economy, which turns out to be exactly the same as the model developed by his predecessor, found forgotten in a drawer. The different and seemingly incompatible approaches to work, to responsibility, to, it seems everything:

He’d come from the hustle-bustle, dog-eat-dog city life to the laid back Pacific and was suffering from stress. He had so far, and for the foreseeable future, failed to adapt to the demands of the new job. The key to the problem was somewhere in there with the absence of recognisable demands.

Reality was slipping…

The frustrations aren’t confined to Geoff’s office, and Joy’s interactions with the Marshallese around her are equally perplexing:

Joy asked, sweetly, if Mine would like to come and do some babysitting for her.

“Oh, yes. Daniel is a very beautiful baby.”

Joy left convinced that the date was set…

Though, it must be remembered, in this context ‘yes’ is open to interpretation. From birth Mine, as any child in a Marshallese family, was taught of the discourtesy of disappointing the one you are with; was warned of the insult of the word ‘no’. She was not an ill-bred person. No matter her intention she would meekly, willingly, sincerely return the much-wanted affirmative to her given companion lest she disappoint them. That this same companion would suffer no amount of frustration in the long run was not the issue under consideration.

There is more to it for Joy, though, than just dealing with misunderstandings with the locals and Geoff’s professional setbacks. Her baby son, Daniel, is fighting to keep hold of his body against the local god Letao, who is trying to move in.

Author Jane Downing has wound together a wry and amusing tale of expatriate culture shock with accounts of Marshallese folklore and legend. Letao has decided to take over Daniel’s body as a means of reminding his people of their own gods, by rivalling the hold on them that the new god Jesus has achieved. Along the way we learn something of Letao’s past adventures and exploits – the creation and other stories of the Marshall Islands that explain the world and nature’s order.

We learn of the creation of the Marshall Islands, when Letao steals a basket of earth from his father Wulleb, which leaks:

First a drop, then a dash, a sprinkle, a scatter, a globule plonking splat alone, a last dribble… The earth for his new home was wasted on these two chicken-feed chains of islands. He threw the basket down in disgust, to a spot where it became known as Kili.

Downing has found a novel way of passing on Marshallese legend to a foreign audience, without either appropriating or belittling the legends. These are living stories, fighting to be retained and remembered and valued. And for Joy and Daniel they are not merely stories but reality. Forces to be reckoned with, still shaping the world and shaping lives. While Pacific legends and Pacific ways of life might seem incompatible with western custom and outlooks, they are powerful forces still, and won’t be dislodged easily.

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Marshall Islands, Women Writers | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Once Were Warriors

Alan Duff, Once Were Warriors, Vintage Books, 2012, ISBN: 978177553285. First published 1990.

Heartbreaking. I don’t have a better word for Once Were Warriors. As the individual members of the Heke family slowly drift to their various fates I cried for them, and I hoped that they each would make that one small change, take that one extra step that might alter the future for them.

Beth Heke almost manages to break away from her life when her son Boogie (nicknamed for the Boogie Ghost that scared him as a child) is sent to a Boys Home after his parents forgot to turn up to his court appearance for theft. Too drunk, too hungover. The shock is enough to keep Beth sober for three months – long enough to save the money to rent a car and buy some treats to go and visit Boog. But as she and her husband Jake and their other children drive past McClutchy’s bar Jake’s friends say “Ya comin in or not?” and Jake says “Just one? Dear?”, and the day is gone.

Beth blames her Maori culture:

The going-nowhere nobodies who populate this state-owned, half of us state-fed, slum. The Maoris. Or most ofem are.

Feeling like a traitor in her own midst because her thoughts so often turned to disgust, disapproval, shame and sometimes to anger, even hate. Of them, her own people. And how they carried on. At the restrictions they put on themselves (and so their choiceless children) of assuming life to be this daily struggle, this acceptance they were a lesser people; and boozing away their lives and the booze making things all distorted and warped and violent.

It would be tempting to read Once Were Warriors as a black and white morality tale that concludes that traditional Maori culture is good, and the loss of it is bad. Beth and Jake are disconnected from their culture, as are many of their neighbours in the Pine Block public housing estate. When Beth returns to her childhood pa, her village, and sees what a re-connection with culture is doing for Boogie, and how her estranged extended family can still honour Grace, she seeks redemption for herself and for many of her people in a return to traditional understandings of the Maori way.

But it’s not as simple as that. Many of the Hekes’ Pine Block neighbours have some degree of connection with their Maori heritage, and yet continue to live the lives that Beth despises but cannot yet herself leave behind. Others are as disconnected as the Hekes but manage to register disapproval of Jake’s self-absorption and violence. Grace Heke, like her parents, has little understanding of traditional Maori life. Yet she is able to see beyond her daily life, at least until an act of fundamental betrayal convinces her that there is no potential left in her. And it was the Maori cultural practice of slavery that drove Jake Heke to reject a more traditional life and to jealously guard his manhood and pride, usually with his fists.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWhat each of the Hekes are looking for is identity and belonging. It’s not so much about being Maori as about being part of a community that values itself and its members. Beth and Jake’s oldest son, Nig, is searching for that belonging in the criminal gang the Brown Fists, but even at the moment of being accepted there he finds he has to leave other more valuable links behind. Grace’s loss of trust in what little community she has is too much for her. And while Beth and Boogie are finding a new way of being in an old culture, Jake’s possible redemption seems to come with a second chance to be a different kind of man, one who can perhaps, just for a moment, put aside his reputation and take responsibility for himself and for someone else.

It’s a cliché to call a book powerful, but it is a word that recurred to me as I read Once Were Warriors. I found it deeply affecting, troubling and yet beautiful. Heartbreakingly so.

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, New Zealand | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Food of Ghosts

Marianne Wheelaghan. Food of Ghosts. Pilrig Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780956614445

I confess to struggling to come up with a review for Food of Ghosts. I’m not a crime thriller/murder mystery/police procedural fan at the best of times, and I seem to have had a bit of an overdose of them in recent times (what is it with crime writers and Pacific islands anyway? I can see a post devoted to that question before the year is out). And I found the main character in Food of Ghosts, Detective Sergeant Louise Townsend, with her debilitating anxieties and her ambivalence about her identity, largely unlikeable. The pace was too slow for me, and there were too many side stories that seemingly went nowhere and contributed nothing.

So I went for inspiration to the interwebs and back to the blog that had first alerted me to the book. Blogger Marita is, by her own description half i-Kiribati and half Australian, and her review gave me such a different perspective on Food of Ghosts that I’m tempted to go back and read it over with Marita’s words in mind.

In one of my recent posts I pondered identity and writing, but my very different experience to Marita’s of Food of Ghosts has got me thinking about identity and reading. Although I’m afraid I’m not coming up with anything particularly deep or meaningful.

Why am I doing this project? Because I’m interested. Because I know a little about some Pacific island countries and want to know more. Because I feel these places are under-represented in fiction, particularly in indigenous writing in non-indigenous languages, and I’m interested in doing my tiny bit to draw some attention to what there is that’s available. But, having apparently so profoundly missed the point of much of Food of Ghosts, I wonder what I’m getting from this process, and what I’m giving.

The author of Food of Ghosts, Marianne Wheelaghan, is a Scot who has spent time as a teacher in Kiribati and Papua New Guinea. And without having read a local’s perspective on the book, I’d have written a review that said a bit about how this was an adequate crime mystery with some pacing problems that shed some presumably fairly accurate light on Kiribati geography and culture but didn’t give me any real insights beyond an outsider’s view of the superficial and common-to-the-Pacific cultural traits that I feel I already know a bit about. It took a local translator in the form of the review on The Little Island That Could to give me a different perspective on the story and the significance of some of its details.

Is this good enough? Should the author have done more to let me in on the connotations of the journey she was taking me on? I suspect not. To explain more of the context and meaning of every interaction would have ended up treating the reader like an idiot. Authors, I guess, just have to do their best with the culture they are working in and hope that the readers who join them have enough of a cultural map to be able to follow along, or at least learn something on the way.

To be fair to myself too, it’s not as though Food of Ghosts is a masterful piece of cultural interpretation that I’ve just been too dense to properly understand. I do think that Louisa’s reluctance to reveal her i-Kiribati identity is never really explained, and I think the side-story of her apparent obsessive-compulsive disorder is either underdone or just a distraction. But the book also brings to life the wry practicalities of island life, from the police catching a bus to a crime scene to the details of Louise’s extended family:

It seemed giving Reteta a few hours’ work a week also meant agreeing to let Reteta and her family camp in her back garden. Her scowling husband, their four giggling daughters, a twenty-something nephew, all smiles and muscles and the owner of the motorbike, and an elderly, anxious, skinny mother-in-law were usually there.

Family and community are very different in the Pacific to the culture I was brought up in. No one dies alone, and you certainly don’t live alone either. As Marita’s review reflects, it is the interactions of people and communities that form the complexity and joy and frustration of the islands. Insiders, outsiders, and inbetweeners, they’re all living big lives and making big decisions in very small places, and they can’t help but impact on someone nearby. Particularly when they are family and they are camping in your back yard.

Posted in Crime and Suspense, Kiribati, Women Writers | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments