Martin Edmond reviews Writing The Pacific
Writing The Pacific
Jen Webb and Kavita Nandan (eds)
Reviewed by MARTIN EDMOND
The title of this anthology, Writing the Pacific, immediately called to mind an extraordinary story James Hamilton-Paterson tells in his long essay Sea Burial. It is about the mid 19th century shipwreck of Italian writer/philosopher Giusto Forbici, also called Justus Forfex. He was the sole survivor of the wreck and found himself stranded on a waterless islet somewhere in the western Pacific. Hamilton-Paterson is careful not to divulge where exactly this islet is – probably in the Sulu Sea. Forbici salvaged from the wreck a number of large sealed glass jars which he at first assumed held water but in fact contained ink. It was an ink made out of organic materials, including that substance extruded by squid when alarmed. This ink was all he had to slake his thirst during the many weeks he subsisted on the islet. When he was rescued by a party of Bajau – sea gypsies – who had come to the islet to inter one of their leaders, Forbici was in a state of delirium in which the real and the imagined were inextricably entwined together; and for the rest of his life would try to understand this unique and paradoxical experience
It is a story any writer would feel compelled to interrogate and also one that most of us would fail to realise in all of its implications. The ink was to some degree toxic but on the other hand it kept Forbici alive long enough to survive until rescue came. Ink would also be the medium through which he would attempt to communicate both the fact of this survival and the possible meanings it might have: as if you could write the sea with an ink that was itself a distillation from that sea. The reason Writing the Pacific brought Forbici’s ordeal to mind is because of the history ink has as a medium for tattoo in most indigenous cultures of the Pacific in the period up to and beyond the first European incursions into the region. Early observers, for example in the Marquesas, sometimes called tattoo writing, and those who tattooed themselves made an explicit analogy between the marks on their bodies and the marks inscribed in European books – usually, though not always, the Bible. Hermann Melville in Moby Dick continues this line of thought when he states that Queequeg, the Pequod’s Polynesian harpoonist,
had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth…(Melville 491-2)
Strangely, Queequeg cannot read this writing even though, as Melville says, his heart beat against it. He is thus in and to himself a riddle which will, along with his body, in time decay without ever being solved. Each and every one of us is such an insoluble riddle; but that does not prevent us trying to understand heaven, earth and the way of truth; and one of the means of attempting this is writing.
Missionaries in the Pacific tried to expunge traditional tattooing as an example of a heathen practice that they would supplant with their own writing derived, via Constantinople and Rome, from heathenish Hebrew and ancient Greek sources; while at the same time sailors picked up the habit of tattooing and communicated it to their own home cultures. Today there is a fluorescence of tattoo both among fashionable Europeans and in the revenant indigenous cultures from which it ultimately derives; while the European tradition of writing on paper has been adopted wholesale across the region, often on a basis provided by the Bible and the Christian faith it promulgates. All of these contradictions are alive in writing that originates today in the Pacific and this fine anthology is one of the witnesses to those contradictions.
Edited by Jen Webb and Kavita Nandan, Writing the Pacific is a compact and elegantly made book published in Fiji by the Pacific Writing Forum at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, and funded by the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. ACLAL was initiated at a conference in 1964 at the University of Leeds and has an executive that is based in Europe, with branches all over the world in places that were once a part of the British Empire and are now affiliated with the British Commonwealth. I’m reminded of Amitav Ghosh’s decision to withdraw his novel The Glass Palace from consideration for a Commonwealth writer’s prize because he didn’t think it appropriate for a quasi-imperial body to judge a novel that is about the ravages of empire. Even so, a proportion of the work in the anthology is not from writers who live in the Commonwealth: one of the pleasures and innovations of the collection is that it includes quite a lot of writing from French Polynesia and some also from the French colony of New Caledonia, or Kanaky: the French have not yet relinquished their Pacific colonies, preferring to regard them as a part of Greater France the way Hawai’i is now one of the United States and American Samoa remains an equivocal unincorporated territory of the US.
Albert Wendt, in the introduction to his pioneering anthology of Pacific writing, Lali, points out that there are 1200 indigenous languages spoken in Oceania, plus English, French, Spanish, Hindi and various forms of Pidgin: a huge variety of tongues. He constructed Lali geographically, by territory, and did not include any work from the French or American colonies in the Pacific. There is a particular emphasis in Lali on writing from Papua New Guinea, reflecting the innovative teaching there of German scholar Uli Beier in the 1970s; but Wendt’s anthology also emanated from the University of the South Pacific in Suva and it is interesting to note that the two writers –Satendra Nanden and Raymond Pillai – whose work appears both in Lali and in Writing the Pacific are Fijian Indians who have, on occasion, been university teachers in Suva. Their voices take their place among an abundance of others which, as the editors say,
suggest the complexity of a Pacific identity and multiplicity of spaces this identity can inhabit.
(Writing the Pacific, editorial, pVII)
Some of these voices are naïve: Sanjaleen Prasad’s brief, intense memoir of her father, “A Painful Memory”, has the rawness of a tale of heartbreak told by one person to another in the immediate aftermath of a death. Others are of some sophistication: the extract “Sepia” from Mary Daya’s novel Aristotle’s Lantern could stand comparison with the work of Gabriel García Márquez. Or perhaps I mean that some of the pieces are more writerly than others – there is often a sense of oral tradition bursting through literary structures. This can take the form of a consciously vernacular voice:
The floozies here, people say they’re more sluts than whores…(Writing the Pacific, 109)
is how Titaua Peu’s “Breaking the Silence” begins. This has been translated from the French and, as always in translation, you wonder how it sounded in the original. What’s notable about that first sentence is how, along with the rest of the piece (an extract from an autobiographical essay), is the way in which it retains through its metamorphoses the rhythm of Polynesian speech.
About two thirds of the anthology is prose, one third poetry. It’s perhaps an example of my own prejudices that I mostly preferred the prose. Or it may be that poetry as a form is more resistant to reproduction in print, since it arises out of that part of oral tradition we call song rather than from the more discursive habit of story telling that is the basis of prose. I was intrigued, though not always convinced, by the habit of many of the poets published here of presenting their work centred on the page: again I wondered what it would sound like if spoken, chanted or sung? Nicolas Kurtovitch, who has here a longer poem “Within The Mask” and an extract from a novel, “Goodnight Friend,” seems at home in both forms. He is Noumea born, and writes in French; so once again we have the beguiling sense of two other languages, or forms of thought, behind the English texts. In the poetry in this anthology, as in the prose, there is a wide range of strategies, from the simplicity of Marama Warren’s haiku to Matariki, “The Pleiades,” to Michelle Cahill’s “Castaway” with its complex perceptions:
My mind, so often black
is calm as a slip of heroin.
(Writing the Pacific 19)
All of these writers represent in themselves at least two worlds and in some cases many worlds. That is the condition of most of us these days, but for the still colonised, the recently decolonised, or the newly migrated, such ambiguity is far more insistent. I was fascinated by the extract from her novel Arioi by Viraumati No Ra’iatea because it gives a brief glimpse into the strange world of that much discussed institution from a contemporary Tahitian perspective, albeit filtered through the twin veils of French and English language. This sense of a perhaps mythical, certainly veiled, past coming equivocally into the present is also strongly present in Jione Havea’s “The Vanua Is Fo’ohake” which, as the editors point out, concerns “a Tongan eavesdropping on Fijians in a traditional talanoa about the vanua – that is, a talk about the land.” (editorial pVII) This piece is both a story and a story about stories and discusses, as much of the work here does and must, exactly how the past is to be accommodated in the present in such a way that it can become part of the future we are engaged in making. The most devastating piece of writing on this theme is Pauline Riman’s brief tale “The Boy In The Man,” about a young kid in Papua New Guinea, who, while hunting birds, finds a rape victim dying at the foot of the tree into the branches of which he has been firing his slingshot.
Another innovation of this eclectic and wide-ranging anthology is the inclusion of writers who have lived and worked in the Pacific but are not native to it. These include African American Sybil Johnson, whose meditation upon racial identity, “White lines on black asphalt: discovering home”, finds that belonging is not in the end about colour at all, but about culture. These inclusions broaden the scope of the anthology but also raise questions that are probably unanswerable – which is not a reason for not asking them. Zadie Smith concluded a recent essay on Franz Kafka by saying: “We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer, now.” The word “Ungeziefer”, from Kafka’s famous novella The Metamorphosis, is usually translated “cockroach” but, as Smith points out, actually means “vermin.” It’s a startling insight and one that many of us would at first sight reject: but after all, who could claim purity nowadays and on what basis would it be claimed? Writing the Pacific, in its complexity, its ecumenical approach, its heterogeneity and its generosity, suggests a different approach to any assumed or nostalgic purity of identity: that we can use our own mixed blood as the ink with which to write the various and fascinating tales of who we are, where we have come from and where we are going.