The Kanak Apple Season: Selected Short Fiction of Déwé Gorodé, Déwé Gorodé, translated and edited by Peter Brown, 2004
- New Caledonia, #3
- Borrowed from SF public library
- Read: February 2016
- Rating: 3.5/5
- Recommended for: studious rabble-rousers
This collection of short stories by writer and activist Déwé Gorodé is the first translation of the author’s work into English, part of an effort by the Australian National University’s now-defunct Pandanus Books to bring francophone literature from the South Pacific to a wider audience. The writing is lovely–and I’ll get to that in a paragraph or so, after I finish complaining about the footnotes. Because this book had perhaps the least helpful footnotes of anything I’ve ever read, which I think are the result of a scholar with very in-depth knowledge of New Caledonian culture attempting unsuccessfully to create a bridge between his scholarship and an uniformed audience. Some of the footnotes are unnecessary and hardly informative (for instance, multiple footnotes defining the same Paicî word), some, completely unnecessarily, give away crucial future plot points, and some are just plain confusing (such as this “explanation” of the concept of customary kinship in Kanak society: “This makes Utê Mûrûnû the daughter of Téâ and Dui on account of the Melanesian identification of great-grandfather/great-grandmother and great-grandson/great-granddaughter…Hence grandparents (and the siblings thereof), being the sons and daughters of the great-grandparents with whom the great-grandchildren are identified are, in classificatory terms, the grandchildren’s children”). On the other hand, some very mystifying things are left completely unexplained. Customary kinship relationships are very important in these stories, and quite difficult to grasp for a reader who is new to the concept, but neither in the footnotes nor in the rather lengthy introduction is any sort of overview or explanation of these relationships given. The best we get are footnotes like the one quoted above.
Annotation aside, Gorodé’s writing is beautiful. I began reading with great enthusiasm, which paled somewhat over the course of the collection; the writing can be a little over-precise at times, and in a collection this size there is something about the language that becomes monotonous. There is little in the way of dramatic tension, the pace is languid, and the reader is held at a distance from the events of the stories. However, the stories taken individually are lovely.
Some of my favorites included Utê Mûrûnû, Little Coconut Flower, about a girl who chooses not to accept the traditional marriage arranged for her by her relatives. She is supported and assisted by her great-grandmother, also called Utê Mûrûnû, who also ran away from an unwanted marriage (as the child-bride and youngest wife of an old man) and was sheltered by her paternal aunts and was able to form a new relationship with a male cousin. The great-grandmother’s grandmother was another Utê Mûrûnû, a healer who could tell the future and taught her ward to “hear the voices of the earth”; the earth in this story is seen as another woman, “our mother and our grave, our life and death,” who speaks “first and foremost to us women who, better than anyone, could understand.” What I found pleasantly surprising in this story (and some of the others in this collection), is the way these women do not suffer permanent or total ostracism as a result of their independence (a low bar to set, I know). When the youngest U.M.’s customary brother receives her answer—that she will not accept the marriage he has arranged for her—he is disappointed but he does not attempt to overrule her decision. Similarly, when the great-grandmother ran away from her ancient husband, her paternal aunts did not return her to him, but kept her, raised her in their own family, and smiled on her union with their son.
A few of my other favorites: Where Are You Going, Mûû?, about a Kanak girl who falls in love with a white boy. Because of her race, he doesn’t consider her a romantic partner, but just uses her for sex. When she gets pregnant and he abandons her, the grandmother takes revenge. It is Already Tomorrow is an understated and melancholy story that takes us through 24 hours in the life of a Kanak woman. Case Closed is a deeply creepy exploration of generations of colonialism through the exploits of a vengeful ghost.
The collection as a whole presents a very interesting exploration into changing Kanak culture in the 20th century. Most of these stories take place in rural areas, in the forest and the mountains, where life is tribal and traditional, though no lives are untouched by the disruptive force of colonialism. Gorodé is especially concerned with the aftereffects of colonialism and the régime de l’Indigénat–the forcible resettlement of indigenous Melanesians onto reserves (often far from their homes, the impact of which cannot be felt without an understanding of the importance of the connection between Kanak people and the land they inhabit), where they were made to work in indentured servitude–and with the ways in which women are emerging from the constricting roles imposed both by traditional Kanak society and the colonial regime.