I’m living at present on the island of Espiritu Santo in the South Pacific, a place with no television, no radio (apart from one local AM community station and Radio China) and no newspapers (apart from the one which sports front page headlines like ‘Santa Claus not in Bible, claims pastor’ and ‘Prime Minister injured by fireworks’). So my focus on the printed word has taken on a freshly appreciative and undistracted concentration. With no other media tugging at my attention, I’m oscillating between the immediate sensory world of my island environment and the conjured sensory worlds of the authors I’m immersed in. It’s all story, and book leads to book the way friends lead to other friends. Even the verb for having a chat here in Vanuatu is ‘storian’. ‘Come and story with me’ is the literal translation for a Bislama invitation to sit down and shoot the breeze. So, just for a thousand words, let’s story.
I should also say it’s extremely hot here, something a good friend no doubt had in mind when she sent me Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, a book set in remote, snowy, wind-chilled Alaska. As it happened the book arrived when I had a couple of Alaskans staying at my place, all of us hunkered down as tropical cyclone Lusi howled overhead, and their enthusiasm for Alaskan literature led me to a swag of other books featuring people toughing it out in that vast, icy landscape. Among them was Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia, a fascinating account of a charismatic born-again homesteader with a huge family who, in 2002, set out determined to live as self-sufficient religious pioneers in the remote town of McCarthy in the Alaskan wilderness. The book’s subtitle, ‘A true story of faith and madness on the Alaskan frontier’ gives a glimpse of the dark, creepy side of the experiment’s fallout, as the self-styled biblical prophet who called himself ‘Papa Pilgrim’ and his long-suffering wife and fourteen children start running afoul of authorities, curious locals and finally, inevitably, the law—which suits Papa Pilgrim’s persecution complex perfectly. A fascinating book.
The Snow Child also led me to Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, based on an Athabascan Indian legend about elders abandoned by their tribe in a time of famine, and Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner, which comes highly praised by not only my Alaskan friends but favourite authors like Louise Erdrich and Barbara Kingsolver. All these books remain patiently beside my bed (their pages, ironically, beginning to curl with the humidity) ready to transport me to the refreshing sub-zero Arctic tundra when I can tear my gaze away from the empty, coral-fringed reefs of steamy, jungly Vanuatu.
I have just read and enjoyed two books which have a stab at describing the unique complexity of life in this part of the world, one clever, polished and mordantly funny, the other sincere and open-hearted. Getting Stoned with Savages: a trip through the islands of Fiji and Vanuatu by J. Maarten Troost, is crammed with acutely-observed detail and contains gorgeously-polished passages of wry humour—many with such a ring of truth you find yourself wanting to read them aloud to someone just to share their impact. His chapter on discovering the effects of kava should be required reading for everyone keen on trying a shellful of the world’s most powerful legal narcotic, but really the whole account is full of similarly disorienting, hilarious, puzzling and rewarding encounters with Pacific Islander culture. Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island by Peter Rudiak-Gould, gives the author’s account of spending a year, at age twenty-two, teaching in a school on a tiny speck of archipelago in the Marshall Islands – a ‘tropical paradox’, in the author’s words, ‘like a rocky first romance, complete with infatuation and disillusionment’. The book is both thoughtful and thought-provoking, perfect for anyone experiencing the juxtaposition of tropical realities which clash with idealised First World assumptions. ‘My fantasy was of gentle, prosaic islanders drifting through life in quiet isolation,’ reflects Rudiak-Gould. ‘They would give me an all-access pass to a cultural amusement park. They would entertain me with colorful festivals and noble traditions, and I would emerge wiser, calmer, kinder.” Needless to say, what he discovers is a whole other world, one staring the effects of climate change fair in the face, and the book ends as something of a paean to ‘life before the waters rise’ for so many inhabitants of Pacific Island atolls and islands.
Both books can be downloaded within minutes on your Kindle, so go to it.
I have to mention the pleasure of being in the hands of a master storyteller, George Saunders, as I gorged my way recently through his acclaimed collection Tenth of December like it was a box of Lindt chocolates. And the sensation upon finishing was almost the same; a bolt of shamefaced horror that I’d bolted the lot, a light-headed endorphin-rush now surging through my system, instant regret that there was no more to be had. Saunders is an astonishing writer; endlessly inventive, totally in control of his material, brimming with futuristic yet totally credible visions. What I love most about his writing, though, is that he achieves all this with a kind of effortless empathy and compassion for his characters, and through them for wrong-headed, self-sabotaging, fallible humanity in general. What an eye for detail the man has, and what crystalline understanding of powerlessness and transformation—the title story in this collection is about as good as a short story can possibly be, in my opinion, and on finishing it I felt shaken to the core, speechless with the little universe Saunders has opened and closed so marvellously. Like David Sedaris writes, in his preface to the anthology Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, great fiction creates a reaction of something like exhilarated wonder. ‘I’m heartened by the very possibility of writing,’ he says. ‘Look what’s possible, I think. Look at what people have managed to do!’
I wish you the same joy in your reading.
Cate Kennedy is a multi-award-winning short-story writer, novelist and poet. She recently moved from country Victoria to Vanuatu.
31 Oct 14 at 10:02
You probably don’t remember me… You included my story ‘The Notorious Mrs.K’ in Best Oz Stories 2010. I’m aware that this is an imposition on your island reading space…I imagine you looking out at light on water… but you rashly once said I might contact you. So feel free to ignore this; however, if you can spare a few minutes, I’d be most grateful. The novel for which the story was a starter, ‘Living like a Kelly’ ,tells the Kelly story from Ellen’s point of view; it is the creative part of the phd in Creative Writing which I’ve just completed at Melbourne Uni. It was one of seven listed for Scribe’s fiction award in 2010, but subsequent pursuits of publishers have been unsuccessful. I have revised the novel and persist in believing that it has something different to say and that readers, particularly women readers, would enjoy it. Some very complimentary comments from a phd examiner endorse that; so I’m trying again. I’d thought of Spinifex, but they’re not accepting unsolicited ms. Do you have any suggestions/advice as to where I might send it?
Congratulations also on Oz Love stories; such an impressive collection! And while I’m at it, I’ve just read ‘Former Glory’ and loved it. The world is a mine of metaphors…or maybe an archipelago…
dorothy simmons (dotti)
01 Nov 14 at 9:54
please ignore misdirected letter above.
01 Nov 14 at 9:55
please ignore misdirected letter above.
10 Mar 15 at 22:01
Cate, I heard a recording of an interview with you at the Adelaide writer’s festival. I am wondering if you gave written anything about your experiences living in Vanuatu? I would love to read them if so. Thank yoy