Lali: Looking Back

Lali: A Pacific Anthology, ed. Albert Wendt, 1980

I don’t have a whole lot to say about Lali. It’s an anthology of poetry and short fiction written in English (with the exception of some poems from Vanuatu, which are written in creole with translations on the facing page). It’s edited by godfather of Oceanic literature Albert Wendt, author of Leaves of the Banyan Tree. I have no complaints about the anthology. It’s a little uneven, but I think that’s to be expected given the huge variation in population sizes and literacy rates among the countries included in it. Fiji and Samoa come off looking pretty good (and but for this anthology I found it almost impossible to get works by any Fijian women); even tiny Niue offers up a handful of decent poems.

The book is organized geographically, and I read each country’s section with my other selections from that country, so that it took me over a year to read the entire book. It was a good choice for the aims of this project: the works included in Lali complemented my other selections and occasionally (as was the case in Vanuatu and Kiribati) provided better reading, by more truly local authors, than I was otherwise able to find. But it makes it difficult for me to judge the book as a whole, since my reading of it was prolonged and much interrupted. All I can say is that it’s a decent survey of and introduction to Pacific literature in English, and if that sort of thing floats your va’a, then I would recommend it.

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San Francisco, 2016

This post concludes my readings from Australia and Oceania. I spent three years reading these books, and two and a half blogging about them, and it seems especially fitting now, on New Year’s Eve, to take a moment and look back on my Oceanic readings and reflect for a moment before plunging on to the next continent.

Colonialism was the massively predominant theme in the literature of almost every country I encountered in this region. It popped up from all angles: histories of early contact, *imagined* histories of early contact, sober reflections on the legacies of colonialism, biting satire about the legacies of colonialism, explorations of the environmental, social, and religious impacts of conquest. But these varying viewpoints added up to an unrelenting litany of wanton destruction, brutal injustice, and irredeemable cultural loss. It was heavy going, and I found myself relishing the few books that *didn’t* deal substantially with issue of colonialism and its aftermath: pure fantasy like Telesa: the Covenant Keeper, stolen folktales in Les Contes de Poindi, the cozy domesticity of Frangipani. Escapism aside, my readings from the South Pacific were important and galvanizing in a way I hadn’t expected; they blew the image of peaceful tropical islands, where life is easy and love is casual, right out of the water.

I enjoyed the insights I gained from reading such a broad literary survey, and from doing it geographically. I was able to see the continuity of culture across Polynesia (the  histories of the ancestral canoes, and the half-legendary home island of Hawaiki, transmitted orally through generations until they blurred into mythology, recurring again and again in slightly different forms as I moved through Polynesia), and the subtle changes in language and culture as my reading hopped from one island nation to the next. I could see how different indigenous cultures blended with the various colonizing forces in unique ways; the relaxed catholicism of Tahiti vs the stranglehold of the London Missionary Society in Samoa; the tensions arising in Fiji from the English importation of indentured laborers from India; the similarities in cultures arising from penal colonies on Australia and New Caledonia. The kava culture of Polynesia slowly merged into the betel and lime ceremonies of Micronesia, and the cohesive culture and mutually intelligible languages of the whole Polynesian region gave way to innumerable distinct tribes, traditions, and tongues that coexist on single islands in New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea.

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San Francisco, 2016

This region introduced me to some incredible books. The Bone People is strange and beautiful and so harrowing that I will never read it again. The Frigate Bird is also strange and oddly enjoyable for a story revolving around depression and psychosis, and I’ve already read it twice now. Where We Once Belonged is a stirring meditation on gender, religion, and Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in SamoaMelal is a unique blend of fantasy, realism, myth, and adventure story that explores the bitter repercussions of American nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. And I could name several works from Australia among my favorites, but Carpentaria and Vossthough it is hard to imagine two more dissimilar novels—are both stand-outs for their incredibly inventive use of language and originality of style.

I also read some truly terrible books: Moving Through the Streets, which read like it was written by a twelve-year-old pulp fiction afficionado;  The Challengewhich I have successfully wiped from my memory; and The Thorn Birds, which definitely wins the prize for most overrated novel I’ve read so far for this project.

So. One continent down, five more to go (I did think of reading Ernest Shackleton’s South for Antarctica, but it seems frankly superfluous). I’m excited about working my way through Asia; I’ve got some very old books from China and Japan (including the world’s first novel) and approximately 30,000 books about Tibetan Buddhism, which will probably need to be pared down a little if I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on it. See you in 2018!

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San Francisco, 2016

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