Nights of Storytelling: Always pay attention to the subheading

Nights of Storytelling: A Cultural History of Kanaky-New Caledonia, Raylene Ramsay, ed., 2011

  • New Caledonia, #4
  • Borrowed from SF library
  • Read: May 2016
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Recommended for: students

So…this is exactly the kind of book I didn’t want to read for this project. Based on the title (and being, apparently, too lazy to read an actual description before requesting the book from Interlibrary Loan and therefore being morally obligated to at least skim it) I expected a sort of collection of New Caledonian traditional tales, along the lines of Australian Legendary Tales or When the Moon Was Big. But I should have realized that academics always jazz up their book titles in an effort to get people to buy and read their work, and thus paid more attention to the “Cultural History of New Caledonia” part, which is by far the more accurate half of the title. Not that there’s anything wrong with this book; it’s a solid work of scholarship, well-written and cohesively organized. But, essentially, it’s a textbook: an edited selection of primary sources arranged in chronological order with anthropological notes by a non-native scholar. The goal of my project was to learn about places without subjecting myself to this sort of textbook. So I ended up skimming through it, reading most of the excerpts and very little of the exegesis.

Los Angeles, 2005

Texts are arranged roughly chronologically. The first section focuses on Kanak oral traditions; the second, “Exploration and First Contact,” includes writings by Captain Cook and other 18th century sources; the third focuses on the early European inhabitants–mostly prisoners transported to the bagne (french penal colony) and their descendants–as well as contemporaneous Kanak voices (the authors have made a heroic effort to find indigenous writings from the period, but they are fairly thin on the ground); and the fourth, on modern writings, including works by Jean Mariotti and Déwé Gorodé.  I wasn’t terribly interested in the writings of the explorers, finding them not particularly germane to my own quest. The contemporary writings echoed many of the themes I encountered in Gorodé’s work, and more broadly in the majority of my readings from Oceania: the legacy of colonial violence and displacement, the difficulty of reconciling Kanak heritage and modern living. The section of the book that was, for me, the most novel territory was the third, which contained a good deal of writing about New Caledonia’s time as a penal colony. It is a perhaps often-overlooked phenomenon–encountered in my readings on Australia, Fiji, and now New Caledonia–that it is not only the colonized who are victimized by colonialism. Forced migration in such cases irrevocably smudges the line between oppressed and oppressor:

According to [Odile] Krakovitch…female prisoners were sent to New Caledonia less to be punished than to be utilised for hard labour and for their ability to procreate. Women were fundamental to colonisation. Marriage would seem a liberation for many of the women serving sentences in the penal institutions.

Forty young women, ‘orphans’ (abandoned by indigent single mothers, for the most part), were sent out on the Fulton in 1863, each with a small trousseau provided by the Empress Eugénie to meet the needs of settlers desiring to establish a family. They were followed closely by thirty prospective brides on the Isis, accompanied by three sisters of the order of Saint-Joseph de Cluny. In 1873 the Virginie transported a further group who were married off almost immediately with a fifteen-franc trousseau offered by the governor. The Fénelon carried thirty women from the Saint-Lazare convent (women taken off the streets), a further sixty-nine wives and children joining their deported husbands, and a number of wives of free settler families fleeing the political miseries of Alsace-Lorraine. Over six hundred marriages were celebrated between 1870 and 1895. Such women were then bound by their husbands’ life sentences of exile.

Los Angeles, 2005

This was how New Caledonia was colonized. Prisoners were transported until the end of the 19th century, and the penal colony remained in use until 1924. Once prisoners served their term they were given land and allowed to settle in New Caledonia, though not to return to Europe. Jean Mariotti, the author of Les Contes de Poindi, was the son of such a former prisoner–who later became a local politician–and the grandson (on his mother’s side) of another.

So I learned something, and got to imagine the lives of yet another category of people made miserable by Western Expansionism, but, you know, if I wanted to read textbooks I could just take a class on colonialism in the South Pacific or something and probably make the lives of the librarians of San Francisco that little bit easier. That is not what I want, so I will be paying closer attention to the subheadings in the future. Perhaps a good rule would be to avoid subheadings entirely, as they are mainly the provenance of academic texts, except then I might miss such enticing offerings as When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge by Chanrithy Him (Cambodia) and Five Women Who Loved Love: Amorous Tales from 17th Century Japan by Saikaku Ihara, so on balance, yes, I will just read the subheadings and possibly even the blurb before I sink my time and that of the San Francisco Library staff into my pursuit of world literature.

San Diego, 2005

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