Not every Peace Corps volunteer is lucky enough to be sent to the quintessential tropical paradise. Will Lutwick, the author of ‘Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji’, was given exactly such an opportunity. In 1968 he arrived in the South Pacific not knowing at the time that his service would impact his whole life. In what way? And what was Fiji really like in the 1970s? To find out, just read the interview.
Pasifika Truthfully: If you were to name one thing that reminds you of Fiji, what would it be?
Will Lutwick: Palm-tree lined tropical paradise on the surface. Intrigue beneath it.
PT: Quite honestly… Would you say that Fiji changed your life?
WL: Yes. It did. I had to do a lot of growing up fast there. I was 22 when I arrived. Regarding the work, I had the degrees, but not enough business experience to initially be of much help working at a wholesale food cooperative and later marketing passion fruit. The challenge was less about traditional business issues and more about working with multiple cultures – native Fijian and emigrant Indian. Also there were hidden agendas amongst the players about what to do with me. It was the stuff they don’t teach you in business school that were the obstacles, but confronting them was where I learned the most.
On the social front, I found myself challenging an old-world culture with new age openness. The result was a disruption within that culture and particularly within Rani’s family. My Indian girlfriend and eventual wife had to leave Fiji with me. So coming home to the US, with a new wife who had just gone through hell was the biggest life change of all.
PT: Your book sheds some light on Fiji’s society. Actually, it is a real eye-opener. How difficult was it for you – a young man from the Western world – to understand the culture of Indo-Fijians?
WL: Although that period (1969-70) was a time of great openness in western society, those changes were only beginning to happen. My generation (early baby boomer) actually grew up in mostly secluded and clannish environments. I was raised in a totally racially segregated society in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. I write in ‘Dodging Machetes’ how I joined the burgeoning civil rights movement when it confronted my local Jim Crow culture which had been the remnant of slavery for a century. So we all had roots in more closed ethnic societies and were not unfamiliar with a culture where there were only certain people you were supposed to get romantically involved with.
I tried not to take the Indo-Fijian social reaction to me personally. I was dealing with an ethos of thousands of years of arranged marriages, religious, ethnic, and caste restrictions, and an understandable resentment towards how the British Colonial system had treated its subjects. Even though I was not British, I was considered European. Most of the Indians (or their ancestors) in Fiji had arrived there over the prior century via involuntary servitude, brought to Fiji as virtual slaves for five years to work the sugar plantations. At that point they were free to go home, so many chose to stay in the islands as life back in India was no picnic at the beach either.
PT: What did you learn during your stay?
WL: I learnt that what you value may be worth fighting for, but the road will be long, hard, and winding. Stay the course. And be nice to others on your way. Everyone has their own agenda and yours is not the only one that matters.
PT: ‘Dodging Machetes’ is a very personal and honest memoir. Did you have any doubts about writing it?
WL: I didn’t decide to write it until a few years before publication date, so by then some of the people it might offend had passed on. I was particularly concerned about how it would affect Rani (not her real name) who is still alive. Most of the violence happened to her and within her family and I wanted to be respectful of their privacy. She was cooperative with me when I wrote the book. She was very generous in her support of the book even though she would have preferred not to have our story out there for certain family members to perhaps find.
So yes, I did have strong doubts about pursuing publication throughout the writing and editing processes, because of the potential impact on many individuals besides myself. But I eventually felt the benefits outweighed the risks and went through with publication. I did try to protect people’s identities and so changed most character names and some identifying characteristics.
PT: What was Rani’s (let’s stick to that name) – your Fijian love and ex-wife – reaction when she first learnt about your plans to pen a memoir?
WL: She did not like the idea at first. But later she saw the value that her story might mean to others.
PT: The book ends with you and Rani moving to the US. Do you mind sharing what happened afterwards?
WL: In the Epilogue we have moved to the United States and decided to start our new life together in San Francisco. I thought this was a good cut-off point for a memoir: figuratively riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after.
Of course life is not that complete or simple. Rani had difficulties adjusting not only to living in the United States, but even more in healing from the severe emotional wounds suffered during our courtship. I think she went through a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. On the surface she adapted fine. She got a job as a secretary at a local university. She enjoyed our social life with others, and we had good times together. But we split apart after five years and legally divorced in another five years.
Each of us remarried within another five years and thirty years after that point, both of those marriages are still flourishing.
Even at the darkest moments, I never regretted carrying my relationship with Rani forward to the next level, even when it ended. We did what was right for us and made it a little easier for those who came later. I learned after writing the book that Indian-European marriages in Fiji became somewhat ordinary within a couple of decades after we paved the way. That’s not why I married her, but I’m proud to hear of that side effect.
PT: You’ve mentioned that Rani had difficulties adjusting to living in the US. How did she cope with cross-cultural transition?
WL: On the surface it went well. People in the States were generally open and curious about her – Asian Indians were surprisingly rare in the US then. When she would say she was Indian, the typical response was, ‘Which tribe?’. San Francisco in the 1970s was a very open society and we thrived in such an environment where we did not feel we were under the microscope any more. Rani was fluent in English. She got a steady job way more quickly than I did.
But she had never been off her island previously. So being amongst many people, freeways, gigantic buildings – it was all somewhat overpowering at first, but she adapted over time. The real difficulty was in the wounds left by the family trauma. And she was living in a society, totally cut off from other Indians, a strong reversal of what she had lived in all her life.
PT: Let’s get back to Fiji. What is one thing people don’t know about the country?
WL: Both native Fijians and Indo-Fijians practice firewalking. They have both inherited it from their different cultures. The tourists see only the Fijian version done by the natives in colorful ceremonies.
PT: Have you had a chance to come back there? If not, would you like to?
WL: I never went back to Fiji. Although I would have liked to do so earlier, a trip to Fiji never quite rose to the top of my list. I am aware of what changes have happened there in recent decades and the world is so much smaller now. Isolated tropical islands are not so isolated any more. For now, I am happy to remember Fiji frozen in 1970, when I said goodbye.
PT: Do you have any recommendations on what to see in Fiji?
WL: I’ve been away for 45 years and it was never a tourist destination for me, so I don’t think any response I might give you can do that question justice. So many others who have visited there later can do a much better job than I can. I do hope tourists can visit a native village to get a sense of what that communal life was like. Like everywhere, you’ll find more of the authentic nature of the country the farther you get off the beaten path. As small as Fiji is, that shouldn’t be too difficult.