Jonathan Gourlay is the author of a fantastic travel book-cum-memoir called ‘Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia’. Here you can read what he thinks not only about the country but also about his book.
Pasifika Tales: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you end up in FSM?
Jonathan Gourlay: There are many places to start – causes distant and proximate – that led to ‘ending up’ on Pohnpei. (Is there such a thing as ‘beginning up’? Feels more like that.) The easiest answer is that I saw an ad for teachers at the College of Micronesia – FSM in a magazine when I was stacking the magazine rack at the now defunct Borders book store. It was the 1997 equivalent of a random click off a Twitter-feed. Anyway, I was a recent graduate with a Poetry master’s degree and no real plan for the future. I guess most foreigners who wind up living on Pohnpei for a length of time aren’t doing it as part of some greater scheme that leads to a lucrative career (or, if they are, they have made a miscalculation.) Though I suppose I was a little bit different from other ex-pats in that I didn’t have a clear agenda for being there. I mean, I wasn’t there to convert or help anyone. I understand that it is a bit problematic that I am proud of the fact that my reasons for being on Pohnpei are mysterious even to myself.
PT: How would you describe the country? What are its main characteristics?
JG: I have to stick to the island of Pohnpei, where I lived for eleven years. Though I was exposed to the other island cultures in the Federated States of Micronesia, it would be difficult to describe each one. So, how would I describe Pohnpei? I don’t know. I was paradoxically better equipped to answer that question after being there for two weeks. By the time you spend a decade on a place, every description seems a bit superficial. So… Let’s see… It’s an island…with a really cool fringing mangrove swamp…and a great psychotropic, super-kava drink called sakau…and somehow, when I think of it now, the colors seem more vibrant than regular colors and the tragedy and comedy more extreme and everything is both exciting and boring at once and the whole place is saturated with a kind of magic…except that, of course, it isn’t. It’s just another place you can go.
PT: And how would you describe your book?
JG: The book is called ‘Nowhere Slow’ and it consists of 15 essays, some short, some long. I hope that the book is a ‘deep culture’ kind of book. That is, from the perspective someone who lived within the family and clan structure of the island, who spoke the language pretty well, and who grew gigantic yams on the side of a hill overlooking an ocean bay that was sometimes so blue that it was really some other color than blue. So, the book isn’t a travel narrative. There’s death and sex and marriage and sakau and babies and a guy who actually bit his own finger off, but no hotel recommendations.
PT: Do you think you created an actual portrayal of the islands and their inhabitants?
JG: The book is, I hope, as true to my experience as possible and therefore as clear-eyed a picture of Pohnpeian culture as a mildly-intelligent guy can get in eleven years of living there. Considering the question of ‘actual’ brings us awfully close to a kind of ontological quicksand where the nature of truth is suspect (as it should be) and the right of one observer (me) to portray the truth of a culture is equally suspect (as it also should be). The best I can say is that the book portrays my true experience of the culture.
Certain experiences on Pohnpei may be more likely to happen to me than to someone else. For instance, I love swearing and dirty words and sexual puns. It’s the spice of life! So a lot of my experience in sakau markets on Pohnpei consists of swearing, dirty words and sexual puns. Does that mean that it is ‘true’ that Pohnpeians are particularly enamored of dirty jokes? No. (Though, in my opinion, yes.) All we can realistically say is that juvenile minds tend to congregate together and laugh, whatever the culture.
PT: What’s your favourite memory of that place?
JG: The first thing that comes to mind is my friend Maryallen punching me in the shoulder. She did this often, in a friendly yet firm way. Generally as a response to some idiotic life-choice I had made or one of the aforementioned dirty jokes. Maybe I just miss Maryallen. (By the way, I call her Fingerlynn in the book which is another dirty joke that she would hit me for if she were not 5000 miles away.)
So, Maryallen punching me and probably the birth of my daughter are my favorite memories.
PT: Did you learn anything during your stay in Micronesia?
JG: I’m tempted just to say ‘no’ and leave it at that. But that would be disingenuous and you’re so nice to be asking questions of me. Also, I wrote a short article called ‘What I learned on the island of Pohnpei’ when we launched the book, so I guess I should refer you there.
I suppose the reason I have some reticence about this question is that there is a kind of trope out there that island cultures are super mysterious and maybe more ‘in tune’ with nature or something and therefore have something to ‘teach us’. But this idea seems kind of noble-savage-y and maybe paternalistic. That’s not to say that one doesn’t learn something very valuable from trying to understand other cultures – quite the opposite! I guess I advocate approaching these other cultures as humans from earth rather than some mysterious or more ‘primitive’ creature. Not that you meant the question in this way, of course. So I’ll shut up now.
PT: Would you like to come back there one day?
JG: Yes. When Maryallen is too old to punch very hard.
PT: The Western World vs. Pohnpei – what’s the difference?
JG: Well, it’s all just the world, right? And basically people are living their lives and it’s a great experience to be able to share this life with other people and meet new people and sometimes kiss them or slap them or share a joke or have a conversation.
That’s another dodge. Sorry. I have to warm up to try to answer this question. Accept the following with a grain of salt or a whiskey flask of sea cucumber:
– Western societies have families. Pohnpeians have penenei – that’s between 50 – 5000 people with whom you have a familial relation.
– Western societies have funerals. Pohnpeians have 10-day-long parties.
– Westerners explain actions with psychology. On Pohnpei, shit just happens.
– Westerners barely remember Juice Newton’s hit ‘Queen of Hearts.’ On Pohnpei, groups of young men line dance to it for talent shows.
– Westerners make little orange fries out of yams. On Pohnpei, yams are the size of compact cars.
– Westerners show up at an agreed upon time. Pohnpeians show up when they are supposed to show up.
That’s all I can think of! I’d also love to plug a recent article I wrote that goes some way to addressing this question. The article considers what a Western sailor thought about Pohnpei in the 19th century and compares this to my own similar experience there. The article is called ‘One Small Store’.