Have you already read ‘A Farm in the South Pacific Sea’? This fantastic book was written by Jan Walker – an incredibly talented and very warm person. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about her South Sea tale. Here’s what she had to say…
Pasifika Tales: Jan, why did you decide to write ‘A Farm in the South Pacific Sea’?
Jan Walker: My cousin June, the protagonist in the book, and I made the decision when I visited her on Maui in 1984. She knew I had two nontraditional textbooks for incarcerated adults about to be published by a small publishing company, and she’d read other material I’d written over the years. She wanted her story told and believed I could write it. During that visit, June told me her Tonga journals had been lost. She’d given them to her older sister who was allegedly contracting with a writer in the Chicago area to recreate and publish June’s story as nonfiction.
June was devastated by the loss of the journals, by her sister’s excuses for the writer who allegedly misplaced them, and by the final conclusion that the story really wouldn’t sell anyway; there just wouldn’t be enough interest in the U.S. I understood my cousin’s anger and sorrow. Her health was already in decline so we started developing a timeline for the Tonga years. She dug through files for stories she’d written in an attempt to reconstruct her adventure, and for any correspondence she had from that time. I carried a large stack of papers back to the mainland with a promise to begin background research. It was intense, time consuming work. Still, June wanted me to do the writing no matter how long it took.
PT: Did you have any doubts or second thoughts?
JW: Yes, many doubts. How could I write about the Kingdom of Tonga, a place I’d never been with a government unlike anything I’d experienced? How could I write about scuba diving? How could I portray June as the strong, independent woman I knew her to be so that came through for readers?
As those doubts were dispelled, I still wondered if writing about a living king and several other living people was proper. June understood that. She wanted a completed story that she could read and share with a few people. I achieved that for her well before her death in 1994. After she died, I put the manuscript in a box and wrote other books. When I learned of King Tupou IV’s death in 2006, I started rewriting the book for publication. The kingdom went through a tumultuous time, as characters in my book had predicted. As you might guess, it was June who informed me of those predictions, but I attributed them to a native character in the book.
PT: Where did you draw your inspiration from?
JW: From June and her personal strengths, first, but also from extensive research. I had a sense that she could be a small voice for the people living on remote islands in the vast South Pacific Sea.
I also believe that the abuses and losses she suffered through her life could be shown as part of her life without making her appear to be a pitiful victim, but rather a strong female survivor. I taught adult felons inside medium security prisons and maximum security units. I have studied victimizers and victims, and worked with them to help them make healthy choices as they do their time and work toward release back to their families and communities. Perhaps that work served as part of my inspiration.
PT: It must have been hard to write about someone else’s life. What was the writing process like for you?
JW: Yes, it is difficult to write about someone else’s life. I knew the book would have to be a fictionalized account of June’s adventure to provide me author freedom to create. I wrote an extensive backstory of her life prior to her Tonga adventure. Also, I created lists of everything I would need to know about the South Pacific and set up files and cross reference guides. I read extensively and amassed a large file of photocopied material.
June gave me photo albums that included pictures of her Mango Island fale (house), the church and school, the in-sea farm site, and many pictures of the people. Most of the pictures were taken with a Polaroid camera and have faded. To say the photos helped me write the story and describe settings and scenes would be an understatement.
PT: Did June give you any advice?
JW: She often told me to write more sex scenes, both loving and forced. She often said: ‘Sex sells.’ We argued about that off and on over the years. I wanted to draw on the depths of her character. She talked at times about the problems she’d encountered through life from the onset of puberty. She was very attractive; she often got unwanted attention from men in all facets of her life. In the end, she found the way I handled her sexuality an appropriate balance for the story.
PT: Speaking of your cousin and her incredible story … How much of the novel is true, and how much is pure fiction?
JW: This is all true: estrangement from her father from age 9 to full adulthood due to her mother divorcing him, taking June from their Chicago home but leaving June’s older sister behind; lifelong conflict with her controlling mother; June’s three marriages, the first at 17 and its events that are revealed near the end of the book; the man she loved who died in England; the reason the second and third marriages failed; learning to pilot small planes; ownership of an apartment building in Seattle; working in shipyards in Seattle and then with Morrison-Knudsen, civil engineers, in San Francisco; leaving Seattle to live in Hawaii after her third divorce and the brief look at that life; the Hawaii dive that opens the book; her search for a place to try in-sea spiny lobster farming and her connections to research laboratories in Florida and Australia; her arrival in Nuku’alofa and her stay at Beach House; meeting the man I call Tavita and traveling to the Ha’apai on his boat; all the events that occur on that trip; and the events as they unfold over the years in Tonga. The Fiji story is absolutely true.
I exaggerated parts of the post Tonga romance. The man I call Tavita outlived June. He and I corresponded at length after her death. Her health was seriously impaired shortly after she returned to Hawaii, when she was living on Maui. She heard a small plane’s engine failing and saw the plane plunge into the ocean near Lahaina. She yelled to someone nearby to call for help, then plunged into the water and swam to the plane where she helped the struggling pilot get out of his seat harness. She kept his head above water until help arrived. Remember, she’d had a punctured and collapsed lung for the Fiji ordeal, and damage from smoking since her teen years. That taxed her lungs so severely that she had to start using oxygen. She was treated for the rest of her life for COPD. She developed breast cancer that couldn’t be treated due to her already failing health.
PT: Let me ask you about other characters. Have you met any of the people that are portrayed in the book?
JW: I didn’t meet but did correspond with the woman I call Betty Peace Corps in the book. The man I call Tomasi did move to Los Angeles. He remained in touch with June, so she knew he fathered several children. I corresponded with two of the three ‘little Junies,’ as she called them. Tavita had helped her stay in touch with them. She transmitted money to them through him. He helped them with purchasing cars and paying education fees. I saw the relationship they maintained through the years as a love story of an important sort. They lived out their lives in two different worlds, each with personal struggles.
PT: The ending of the story is extremely emotional and I do believe everyone would love to know what happened afterwards. Could you tell us a bit more not only about June, but also about people she met during her time in the Kingdom of Tonga?
JW: June returned first to Honolulu and continued to work with the seafood company there as they explored in-sea farming ventures. She did bookkeeping for a clinic that assisted abuse victims. She stayed in touch with the families on Mango Island, collected clothing and other items they requested and shipped them out three or four times a year. She grieved deeply when the character I call Rosie Jamieson – Beach House owner, died. As noted above, she stayed in touch with the Tongan Junes, and dispersed funds to them through Tavita. She followed Tongan news, and always had tidbits about the king.
She moved to Oahu shortly after the pilot rescue on Maui. I visited her at least twice a year for the last ten years of her life. June didn’t travel far from her apartment in those years. She hated being seen in public with oxygen tubes in her nostrils.
PT: Let’s focus on Pasifika for a moment. The way you described Tonga is simply amazing. Have you had a chance to visit the islands?
JW: I have not visited Tonga, except through June’s eyes and our conversations, and through extensive reading. June’s photos helped. Visiting remote places on Maui, Oahu and the big island of Hawaii helped me imagine life on Tongatapu and Mango Islands. I would love to visit Tonga one day to see what I might have described differently.
PT: I know you’ve been to Hawaii a couple of times. What are your thoughts on the Blue Continent?
JW: Actually, I’ve been to Hawaii too many times to count. How can I answer that in a few words? I grew up near, and still live near Puget Sound, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. I have view of the Sound, and Mount Rainier in the distance, from my home, and easy access to the beach. I also visit ocean beaches in Washington, Oregon and California quite regularly. I respect and revere the sea—all seas.
I worry about damaged coral reefs, bombed out atolls, depleted vegetation on remote islands, rogue nets entangling sea creatures. I believe the peoples of every land touched by the sea must share their love of their place by caring for it and sharing their stories. I believe the power of stories is as profound as the power of the seas.