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.