When I started this blog I was primarily looking for a reading focus for the year. Something that would stop me from having that decision paralysis I often fall for, when there are too many choices and possibilities and I can’t decide and I end up reading nothing. I have the same trouble with travel destinations. Raintree Café has been a lovely way of combining the two. Remembering some of the places I have been and contemplating others I’ve not made it to.
In my introductory post I said that:
I am interested in the depiction of Pacific Island cultures, both by Pacific Islanders and others. I’m interested in that depiction in fiction, because fiction is the place where people are most likely to depict the world not as they think it is but as they think it should or could be, and as they would like others to perceive it. This is true for both indigenous and foreign writers. Fiction is a construct, and I’m interested in the construction.
I wondered, when I started, if I might find stark differences between the writing of indigenous people and those who came after, and of course I did. But there were shades of grey too.
To begin with a generalisation, much of the non-indigenous writing is, to some extent, the search for paradise. The last book I read in this Raintree project was Next Door to Paradise. There, author Bill Beatty is quite explicit about our yearning for a tropical island paradise, and that search underlies much of the writing that looks at the islands from outside. In The Moon and Sixpence, artist Charles Stickland is looking for “an island lost in a boundless sea, where I could live in some hidden valley, among strange trees.” Jonathan Kellerman’s fictional Knife Island in The Web is not so much a paradise, but it is a place of escape, refuge and hiding. In Gary Disher’s Port Vila Blues, the paradise of Vanuatu is a symbol of the luxury and decadence Judge De Lisle wants to grasp through his corrupt dealings.
Another group of outsiders are more clear eyed about the Pacific and its problems, and are there to help. Missionary wife Jane Thackery, administrators Kenneth Bain in Tonga and Geoff in the Marshalls, educators Rika and Martha in PNG, even the expat police in Graeme Kent’s Devil-devil. They have all come to make a difference to the islands, although some may be more interested in their own advancement. While we may intend to come in a spirit of partnership, there is in all of these stories an inevitable assumption that if we want it for our paradise we can’t leave it to fend of itself – we’ll need to construct some of that paradise for ourselves.
The indigenous writing is palpably and inevitably different. It was also hard to find, so I’ve only a small pool to draw from. The thread I detected running through each was traditional culture and the need to nurture and protect it. There may also be ideas of paradise here, but are they the writers’ or mine? Joseph Veramu writing in Fiji, Daryl Tarte in Kiribati, Alan Duff and Patricia Grace in New Zealand, John Pule in Niue, Albert Wendt in Samoa and Kiana Davenport in Hawaii all describe aspects of a traditional islands life, and most track some of the struggle to retain it.
There is a third group to talk about, the in-betweeners. Writers of mixed descent who have a place in both worlds. Many of them are estranged from their island cultures. Senior Sergeant Thea Dari-Jones has come to Thursday Island curious about her mother’s heritage there. Another cop, Detective Sergeant Louise Townsend is much more ambivalent about her i-Kiribati identity. Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s unnamed narrator is looking for answers in his Cook Islands legacy that he hasn’t found in his life in New Zealand. Then there is the perhaps uncategorisable non-indigenous, but non-colonising Chinese community in Kathleen Tyau’s Makai, one of my favourite books of the year. What do these writers tell us about the islands?
There is something that unites all of these perspectives. All of the writers I’ve encountered this year tell tales that seek out communities and connections. They are all human stories. Some of the characters may be seeking some abstract and unattainable paradise that we have been taught exists on a warm tropical island. But, while Beatty’s depiction of the popular paradise may include “lying on a lonely beach watching the lazy breakers”, none of us, even the curmudgeonly Charles Stickland, wants to be truly alone. We may think we are looking for paradise, but I suspect what we each really want is to find our identity amongst others, and perhaps to be at peace.
There is a saying in aid circles, and probably more broadly, although I’ve not tracked down its origins, about madmen, missionaries and mercenaries. Some variations add or substitute mystics and misfits. I’ve certainly found them all in my Raintree Café journey. I hope to come back from time to time and meet a few more of them. I haven’t in this project managed to ready any fiction from Tonga. I really wanted to get back to PNG to read some indigenous writing from there. I would have loved to have introduced you to one of my favourite books from the islands, Will Randall’s Solomon Time. I kept meaning to get back the library to borrow Déwé Gorodé’s The Wreck but didn’t ever seem to manage it. And I liked Lani Wendt-Young’s Leila and Graeme Kent’s Sergeant Kella enough to want to follow their adventures in later books.
It’s time to move on, though. While I’m sure the islands will call me back from time to time, I feel the need to broaden my reading horizons a little. So, if you enjoyed your pizza at the Raintree Café and you’ve finished your ngali nut pie, maybe you’d like to join me in 2015 for Tea and Penguins?