A Pattern of Islands: Pretty fly for a white guy

A Pattern of Islands, Arthur Grimble, 1952

  • Kiribati, #1
  • Borrowed from SF library
  • Read November 2016
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Recommended for: colonial apologists

California, 2005

It would have been nice, on principle, to have found a different book to represent Kiribati for my list. Arthur Grimble, the author of A Pattern of Islands, was born and raised in England, and came to Kiribati (then the Gilbert and Ellice Islands) as an employee of the British Empire. He lived in the country for nearly twenty years, but still, this book falls squarely into the Memoirs by Europeans of Their Years Abroad genre that I said I wasn’t going to read anymore (at least not for this project). However, given that a British civil servant is obviously not the ideal candidate to be the voice of Kiribati, this turned out to be a pretty good selection. I like Arthur Grimble and his book. He’s humble and self-deprecating in a way that feels true and unforced; he’s appropriately respectful of the culture he’s portraying; and he seems to have made every effort to assimilate into that culture as much as possible. He was adopted by an elder on the island where he lived, taught to recite his new family’s lineage in the oral tradition of their ancestors, and was permitted to be ritually tattooed as part of his initiation into I-Kiribati society. So he gets my seal of approval, I guess, and I certainly feel better about this than I did about my Tuvalu selection.

Los Angeles, 2005

I am continuously bemoaning the fact that I am so behind on blogging, and that I’m so bad at taking notes, which results in me writing about books weeks or months after returning them to the library, and having to base my review on my increasingly faulty memory. But this method does offer a certain sort of clarity: the episodes and themes that stand out in my mind, though they may not be the author’s intended focus, are revealing in themselves. This book, which was essentially a collection of episodes from Grimble’s life in Kiribati, lends itself especially to clear but unconnected memories of particular anecdotes.

Los Angeles, 2005

Some of these are funny, like Grimble’s account of receiving the incredibly painful full-body tattoos that marked his initiation into his adopted village. He was not allowed to cry out or complain, but instead had to say things like, “This doesn’t hurt at all!” and “I can barely feel anything.” Two girls from the village were assigned to wail and scream to give voice to the pain he wasn’t allowed to express, so that the more he said, “Oh, this doesn’t hurt!” the more dramatically they cried and thrashed around.

Other stories are sad, and sadly all too familiar at this point in my exploration of the literature of colonized nations. Grimble writes with great disapproval about the intrusions of missionaries and colonial government bent on destroying traditions they find unacceptable. One such tradition is the keeping of the skulls of ancestors; to the i-Kiribati these skulls represent the people themselves, and can be conversed with and consulted in times of difficulty. I remember an affecting scene wherein one of Grimble’s friends, knowing that in the morning his sacred ground with its family skulls will be destroyed, sits up all night talking to his father’s skull, preparing to say goodbye for the last time.

Grimble has a deft touch when discussing such cultural differences and traditions. He often presents himself as an arrogant skeptic when confronted with traditions that he doesn’t understand, and his skepticism is always proven unfounded, leaving him the butt of the joke and letting the readers draw their own conclusions. Some standout episodes include the time he insists on investigating the path to a remote point of an island, where souls are said to depart for the land of the dead. Grimble, in the best British tradition, scoffs at such superstition, and insists on being taken there, despite his guide’s fear and reluctance. On the way back he sees an old man walking along the road and hails him, but the man doesn’t respond; it becomes clear later that the man was a ghost.

California, 2005

There are many other stories with no rational explanation. The i-Kiribati hunt dolphins, for instance, by calling to them to invite them to a feast, after which dolphins beach themselves in great numbers on the shore and the people simply club them and butcher them. Or there is the time Grimble’s wife is close to death with a fever and a difficult labor, and a convict, released temporarily to help with the birth, saves her via prolonged magical humming.

The same convict is the star of another amazing story: he swims through a ring of circling tiger sharks to get help for a foundering boat. Swimming with tiger sharks is a recurring theme in the book; the i-Kiribati make a game of fighting sharks in the water. The trick, apparently, is to swim straight at them, which frightens them. If you hold still or, god forbid, try to swim away, you’re shark bait. Another fun game played by i-Kiribati teenagers is using themselves as bait to catch octopuses (you may think that should be “octopi” but I can assure you from personal experience that the term preferred by biologists is “octopuses”). One persons swims down in front of the octopus’s lair and when the octopus wraps its arms around him, the other person dives down and brings both the octopus and its intended victim to the surface. It’s a dangerous game because octopuses are perfectly capable of holding a person underwater until they drown, but the boys that Grimble meets in Kiribati see it as a wonderful lark.

London, 2014

The book is full of stories like this. The story does drag occasionally, being less of a narrative than a collection of episodes and observations strung together in roughly chronological order, but it is worth reading for its many memorable moments and the window it provides into a little-known culture, and could also provide a much-needed template for how to write a respectful memoir of time spent in a foreign culture.

Skomer Island, Wales, 2011

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