Tales of the Tikongs, Epeli Hau’ofa, 1988
- Tonga, #4
- Borrowed from SF library
- Read November 2015
- Rating: 3/5
- Recommended for: Mack and the boys
I can’t remember much about this book of short stories by Tongan/Fijian/New Guinean author Epeli Hau’ofa. I borrowed a copy from the San Francisco library, who borrowed it from another institution, and I wasn’t able to renew it, so I found myself scrambling to finish it the day it was due and didn’t take any notes. But two of the stories are also printed in Lali: A Pacific Anthology, which I have been slowly reading as I work my way through the South Pacific. So I read those two stories again a couple of days ago and…I still can’t remember much. There’s some very cute and hilarious bit about government corruption and laziness, and some cute and hilarious bit about people in Tiko (a fictionalized version of Tonga) not liking new things (be they vehicles or people) so they break them in quickly and then care for them lovingly for decades. The rest of the book, to my memory, went along much the same way, lots of little winsome anecdotes that are probably very insightful about island life, and perhaps if I hadn’t read it sandwiched in among a bunch of other works that are also very insightful about island life, it might have left more of an impression on me. As it is I mostly remember the tone, which is one of fond condescension–along the lines of Tortilla Flat, or The Number One Ladies Detective Agency–and entirely too cute for my taste.
I think I rather failed in my Tonga mission. I read this eminently forgettable book of short stories about a fictionalized South Pacific Island, and one third of an autobiographical account of pre-colonial Tonga by a British sailor, plus a couple of short stories and poems in Lali (the other selection on my list, a collection of poetry by Konai Helu Thaman, I chose not to read since there were a few of her poems included in Lali and the book, Kakala, was hard to source). I don’t really remember anything specific about Tongan culture, and I’m not sure how much I could have gleaned from this rather sparse selection anyway. I find all the Polynesian cultures blending together in my mind, so that I can’t remember what impressions I formed about which country. So what, I wonder, have I learned from this project so far?
I’ve picked up an inkling of the interconnected cultures and languages of Polynesia, even if I can’t now separate them into their countries of origin; I’ve learned the word for “white person” in a handful of foreign tongues–pakeha in New Zealand Maori, papa’a in Cook Islands Maori, popa’a in Tahitian, papalagi and papalangi in Samoa and Tonga respectively. I’ve read descriptions of the construction and use of earth ovens from Tuvalu to New Caledonia, and learned about the making and drinking of Kava in Tahiti, Samoa (where it’s called ‘ava), and Fiji. I’ve read the same story of colonization and conversion written over and over in different places, and responses ranging from revolution to assimilation, from anger and heartbreak to enthusiastic embrace. But I’m not sure that any of that was the point of undertaking this project in the first place. If it were, I could have just read an introductory textbook on Polynesian culture and history, and gleaned the same information. Heck, I could have just spent a day browsing wikipedia and probably gotten the same information, and I might have retained it better.
But originally I had some idea that reading a country’s literature would give me a cultural insight, not because of the facts related, but because of something inherent in the nature of story telling; in the stories that were chosen and the way they were told. And perhaps I have acquired some such insights, though they are nebulous and difficult to communicate. I shrink from setting down what I’ve gleaned about Polynesian culture because my assessments would be presumptuous, at best obvious and and worst completely wrong and potentially offensive. What could I hope to understand about a place from reading a few novels or a handful of poems? And if the answer is, as I suspect it to be, very little, then what is the point of this project?
Well, for one thing, very little is better than nothing. The story of colonialism in the South Pacific is one I haven’t considered much before, and to read it again and again has certainly made me aware of issues that were not previously on the forefront of my consciousness. The nuclear tests in French Polynesia; the importation of Indian labor into Fiji and the series of coups arising nearly a century later from racial tensions between white, Indian, and iTaukei; the crushing grip of the London Missionary Society on Samoa and its detrimental effect on women and girls; these are details that were brought home to me through literature in a way they wouldn’t have been through a mere factual recitation. I do have some impressions of both pre- and post-colonial society, as well as the sense of both loss and gain from European contact and the way it has played out differently in different countries.
Then, too, there is the incidental learning, in which I take great joy. An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands introduced me to privateering; Doctor to the Islands made me consider the intersection of colonialism, bureaucracy, and tropical medicine. I like these winding paths and unexpected conclusions, and I think the most fun way to set out on a journey is without preconceived ideas about where you’re going to end up. There is the curious synergy of events or places or people popping up in multiple selections; the criss-crossing of characters in my Cook Island selections, for instance, or the arrival of the first European ship to Tahiti, told and retold in Les Immémoriaux, L’Île des rêves écrasés, and Varua Tupu.
But mostly, perhaps, it is a way to engage with new authors, from different backgrounds, that I might never have found otherwise. And even though so far the caliber of literature has been occasionally dubious, it is worth reading my way through all the Johnnie Frisbies and Noel Hilliards to find the Alistair Campbells and Witi Ihimaeras and Sia Figiels. If the main goal is to read interesting books, it makes it a fairly personal mission, I’m afraid. But I will do my best, going forward, to glean some salient facts and perhaps even to tease out some cultural themes if I can do it without making a fool of myself, and most importantly, I will try to let you know about the books I love, the authors worth seeking out and reading not because they’re different, or because they’re representative of some exotic and foreign country, but just because they’re good.