Monthly Archives: April 2014

‘TUTUILA’ BY ZE LIN XIAO

‘Tutuila’ is a collection of eight short stories written by Ze Lin Xiao, a Computer Science graduate from Stanford University. The book was inspired by her life in American Samoa.

TUTUILA

Summary

The reality of the Samoan Archipelago can be harsh and brutal. People – both young and old – are chasing their dreams, trying to satisfy their deepest desires and needs. But there are tribulations, and troubles, and everyday struggles they have to deal with. There is a young girl who tells the story of her family, an eight-year-old boy listening to the old Samoan legend, a pair of relatives attending a funeral, a teenager who discovers the importance of family, a palagi woman who gets into an argument with another female, and a Chinese boy who moves to a prettier place across the ocean.

Review

I’ll be honest here, ‘Tutuila’ is definitely not a masterpiece. The book is extremely short. Two of the stories are about three or four paragraphs long. They end before they even start, and you, as a reader, are left wanting to know more. But bear in mind that this narratives were created by a very young woman with no writing experience. Taking this into account,
I think she did a really good job.

The compilation revolves around American Samoa, and the country is ‘somewhat’ described. Not very vividly and rather cursorily. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you do not learn anything about the islands. You do. Through the eyes of the characters, through their personal stories, you get a sense what it feels to live in the corner of the globe most people consider a slice of heaven. But do you get acquainted with the country’s culture? Not really. Can you imagine the settings? Only scarcely. So if this is what you’re hoping to find in a book about the South Pacific, you should look for it somewhere else.

When it comes to the language, it is quite simple and rather plain. There is absolutely no poetry here; there are no beautiful phrases. Everything is very ‘raw’ and realistic, which is actually a big plus as it makes each story highly believable. I must say that authenticity is unquestionably the main strength of the book. Readers get to know the real place (at a very superficial level), not a tropical paradise from a glossy travel brochure. And, let me tell you, that place can be scary. Poverty, violence, diseases – in ‘Tutuila’, it’s all part of the package. But don’t get depressed. There are a few rays of light that dispel this gloominess. There is hope. And faith for a better tomorrow. There is also some humor that may bring a smile to your face. If you search carefully, I’m sure you’ll discover all these ‘treats’.

Is ‘Tutuila’ worth reading? Personally, I think it is. Ze Lin Xiao appears to be a very insightful observer; some of her depictions are quite interesting, especially for people fascinated with Pasifika. Maybe you won’t be struck by this book, but you might like a story or two. So, give it a try.

BEST CHILDREN’S BOOKS

‘Call it Courage’ by Armstrong Sperry

This beautiful novel tells the story of Mafatu, a teenage boy who sets out on a journey in order to overcome his great fear of the sea. As he confronts different obstacles, he realizes that he has enough strength to cope with the challenges of life.

Fantastically written, the book is an inspiring read for boys and girls alike. Its immensely interesting plot takes children on a wonderful voyage to the South Seas, giving them a chance to discover their own potential.

‘Sirena: A Mermaid Legend from Guam’ by Tanya Taimanglo

Sirena is a young Chamorro girl who has a deep love for nature. She spends her time in the sparkling waters of a nearby river, often neglecting the household chores. Her harmonious life changes when she is cursed by her own mother.

This is the most amazing tale, especially for girls. Not only does it teach young readers a valuable lesson, but also gives them an opportunity to get to know the traditional legend from the island of Guam. The book itself is a real beauty – with all the marvelous illustrations, it’s something anyone will cherish for life.

Niuhi Shark Saga by Lehua Parker

The books are focused on a boy named Zader, who was found abandoned on a reef and adopted by the Westin family. His life in Lauele Town, Hawaii, is not a peaceful one and there are secrets just waiting to be discovered.

The saga is a five-volume series. ‘One Boy, No Water’ and ‘One Shark, No Swim’ have already been published; the third one is due out this year. The story is so engaging and compelling, that it’s really hard to put the books down. Zader’s adventures will easily capture any child’s interest and imagination, transporting them into a new world, where magic is mixed with reality. Perfect especially for boys, but girls may love it too.

AND THE WHITE MAN CAME…

Pacific Islanders used to lead a pretty peaceful life. Their daily existence was untroubled by the outside world. They were happy. They were content. They lived inside their very own bubble. But then the white man came… And the perfect bubble burst.

This is probably how you could start the story of haole / palagi exploration of the South Seas. It all started in the 1520s. The first westerners to stumble across the islands were European navigators; Spaniards and Portuguese to be exact. The former were keenly interested in new lands, the latter just wanted to find their way to the Moluccas – the famous ‘Spice Islands of the East’.

The inaugural landfall on the Pacific territory was made by Ferdinand Magellan. His ships entered the ocean – which he named Mar Pacifico for its apparent calmness – at the southern tip of the Americas. He sailed northwest until he reached Guam. What happened there? Well, we all know the pattern. The Chamorro people helped themselves to one of the expedition’s boats, Magellan didn’t approve and as a result seven islanders were killed. Foreign relations, ladies and gentleman. Foreign relations.

From the 1520s to 1760s quite a few explorers visited the Blue Continent. But the greatest of them all was James Cook, a British captain who rose to fame after his three voyages to the region. He’s the one who discovered the Hawaiian Archipelago, New Caledonia, Niue and – of course – the Cook Islands. He managed to set foot on most of the Pacific isles, and – thanks to that – he unwittingly started a new era: an era of colonialism.

After Cook’s explorations, white people decided to go one step further. The newly found territories were full of hidden treasures which could be sold to foreign countries. Sandalwood, pearls, sea cucumbers were traded for cheap whiskey, tobacco or guns and then exported to China. For westerners, this proved to be immensely profitable business. There was only one problem: the goods were not unlimited.

When white traders were left without recourses, they turned the finest lands into copra, cotton and sugar cane plantations. Labour force was much needed. And this is how ‘blackbirding’ came into existence.

Blackbirders were contracted to obtain workers, so they travelled from bay to bay and searched for people willing to ‘get a job’. They used both trickery and force to meet the enormous demands. On the friendlier islands, everything went quite smoothly: the villagers were welcomed on board, given some booze and when they finally passed out, the ship simply sailed off. But sometimes the natives didn’t want to cooperate and then the things would get pretty nasty. Westerners raided a particular place, kidnapping not only men but also women and children. From the 1860s till the beginning of the 20th century, thousands of Pacific Islanders were sold into servitude. Few of them returned home.

Somewhere along the way, the Blue Continent was also visited by European and American missionaries, who tried to implement new customs into the ancient traditions. Local inhabitants were quickly converted to Christianity and later – to Mormonism. People were taught hard work, generosity and modesty. Blood and death were replaced by love for Christ and care for others. Cannibalism, polygamy and idolatry – once so typical for the region – faded into oblivion.

When the white man came, he left a clear footprint on the Pacific sand. He took the small nations on a long journey towards modernity, western philosophy and a whole new way of life. He turned cruel savages into kind and gentle human beings. He gave them a wonderful opportunity to discover a better world. But… Is this western world really better? Does it offer more? Does it guarantee endless happiness? Think about it. The answer isn’t so obvious.

‘SOUTH SEA TALES’ BY JACK LONDON

‘South Sea Tales’ is a collection of eight short stories set in different countries of the Pacific region in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were inspired by London’s travels and many of them describe actual events witnessed by the author.

SOUTH SEA TALES - LONDON

Summary

In the days of tall ships and distant voyages, life in the South Seas is not a pleasant one. Hard-working natives need to deal with those who invade their lands: abusive blackbirders and born-to-swindle traders. It’s easy to think that the locals are victims and foreigners – oppressors. This is indeed the case. But when brutalized Islanders try to kill their masters and steal their goods, it’s the other way round. Suddenly they become perpetrators and white people – victims. Such is the reality of the South Pacific; nothing and no one is plainly black or white.

Review

Whatever you have heard about ‘South Sea Tales’, let me tell you one thing: this book provides an interesting, invaluable insight into the life and culture in the Pacific Islands during the colonial period. The collection, which is focused mainly on relations between natives and Westerners, lets you learn quite a bit about the often barbarous history of the Blue Continent. It is also one of not so many books that broaches the subject of cannibalism – a mystery people prefer not to talk about anymore.

The stories are compelling and greatly entertaining, however they could probably be more diverse – yes, they are rather monothematic. They contain a lot of really long descriptions, which absolutely shouldn’t put you off as they are truly captivating and will give you an opportunity to literally ‘see’ all those beautiful and sometimes scary places through the eyes of your imagination.

Now, although cannibalism, brutality, and slavery are the most recurring themes in this book, there are three stories that break that pattern. ‘The House of Mapuhi’ and ‘The Seed of McCoy’ represent the ‘man against the nature’ theme. ‘The Heathen’, on the other hand, is a beautiful tale of devotion and a lifelong friendship between two men.

Of course, some of the narratives will probably suit your taste better than the others, nevertheless all of them are worth reading and I can guarantee that every single one will leave a lasting impression in your mind. Let’s be honest here, how often do you have a chance to travel back in time to the dark days of enslavement, savagery, and lawless trading? Such opportunity is given to you by Jack London. And by no means should it be missed.

That being said, I am not sure the book is suitable for very young readers due to its racist content and the somewhat archaic language that may be quite hard to understand. Plus, it deals with rather serious issues so younger teenagers will probably have trouble discovering the true meaning of each story.

All in all, if you like nautical and sea adventures, if you are interested in the history of the Pacific Islands, or if you want to read gripping tales set in the exotic lands, this book will be perfect for you. But remember – it is definitely not a piece of light-hearted literature!