HAVE you read a novel/biography recently by a Pacific writer (or about the Pacific) in recent times? And enjoyed it?
(This was posted in Pacific Indigenous Writers, a Facebook page.)
Two books come to mind. Let me discuss the first one. (I should write about the second in my next post.)
As may have been mentioned in Pacific Indigenous Writers (PIW) sometime ago, I read a very good book in 2008 when I was on an island in Micronesia.
The book “The Boy Who Was Afraid” tells the story of a 15-year-old boy living with his people on an atoll called Hikueru, somewhere in Tahiti.
Picture: Cover of the book "The Boy Who Was Afraid" - written by Armstrong Sperry.
Mafatu was the son of the chief of the island but had this fear of the sea due to an experience when his mother and he (when he was three) were washed out to sea in a storm. His mother died while trying to keep him alive. They fed on dried nuts that floated by the small rock they were clinging to.
He was teased by the other boys because when they told stories of the big fish they caught, he had none to tell. You see, he never went out fishing with the boys and men.
While his peers were fishing, he was mending fishing nets, lines and other things – that, by the way, is usually done by old people.
He was fearful of the sea – and also Moana, the god of the sea.
Out of shame of being mocked often about his fear, he took a canoe, and with his skinny companion dog Uri, sailed out to sea. He directed the canoe towards the west. After days of battling the waves, winds and the Sun, he arrived on an island. It had a lagoon.
Mafatu and Uri survived on the island. The boy used the survival skills he learned while mending the nets and lines back at home.
While standing on the highest point on the island and looking out to sea, to the east, he could not see his atoll. From the same vantage point, he realized that there was another island further west. Other things on the island, like a ritual site, somewhat confirmed what he thought - the island could be where what his peers and people feared and talked about, a place in the west where cannibals killed and fed on other human beings.
A bit later Mafatu carved out a canoe from the mighty tamanu (calophyllum) tree.
He lived on the island for quite a while until one day when canoes with men came to the island for a ritual.
While attempting to see what the men were going to do, Mafatu was sighted, and was chased. Fortunately, his canoe was ready, sail and all, and stocked well with supplies – fresh coconuts, bananas, breadfruit and fishing lines.
He and Uri managed to escape from the men on the land. The two got on the canoe and pushed it into the water and paddled out into the lagoon. When the men gave chase with their big canoes in the open seas, Mafatu uttered a prayer to Maui, the god of the fishermen, and set his canoe for the east – towards Hikueru.
Maui answered Mafatu’s prayer and stirred up a wind that filled his sails and shot his canoe out of the reach of the bad men.
Again, after days and nights of battling the sea and the Sun as well his own fears (and now without food), even to the point of almost giving in, one evening Mafatu sighted the “special lights” over the atoll – something that all fishermen out at sea knew would appear in the evenings.
As the canoe made its way into the atoll’s lagoon, the whole village (including the chief) came to the beach to see the “people” in the canoe. They could all see that the canoe was a strong canoe, built by someone who knew how to build canoes.
The book was not written by an islander.
It was written by Armstrong Sperry in 1961. Sperry is an American and being a former navy officer, he spent time in the Pacific.
The book “The Boy Who Was Afraid” is a reader for students in schools in some parts of the Pacific.
I loved the book for a number of reasons.
I grew up near the sea and could identify with certain things. I like talking about canoes and voyages and therefore I found the book very interesting.
Bits of traditional sailing/navigation knowledge are also shared in the book – things I also like.
Along with the sea, survival skills are shared in the book – skills that are applicable in most parts of the Pacific.
It would be nice if more Pacific writers could write books like that – capture the simple village life with the challenges that people there face. (If they want to make it complicated, add a bit about how the villager tries to come to terms with the intrusion of western ideas/life into the rural/village setting.)
The challenge is now with you. Will you also help in recording skills and knowledge of our people - as in the form of writing books?
Over to you PIW members.