Tag Archives: Pacific Islands Literature

‘LAND OF THE UNEXPECTED’ BY BRIAN D. SMITH

‘Land of the Unexpected’ is a memoir penned by Brian D. Smith. It recounts the author’s experiences in Papua New Guinea as an expatriate in the early 1980s.

LAND OF THE UNEXPECTED

Summary

After seeing a recruitment advertisement in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, Brian decides to apply for a post as a supervising architect with the government of Papua New Guinea. When he is offered a contract, he takes his wife, daughter, and son and begins a new South Pacific adventure.

In the land of the unexpected Brian travels from province to province helping upgrade the local healthcare facilities. During his three-year-long stay he not only learns what it means to work in the biggest Melanesian country, but also gets a chance to familiarize himself with the local culture.

Review

If I were to sum this book up in just two words, I would say it is interesting and unusual. And because of that, it won’t be to everyone’s liking.

Let me ask you something. Are you interested in the hotels of Papua New Guinea? Do you want to know what your accommodation options are? Do you need information on the views from a particular room? Or the reception hall measurements? Or the door handle colour? Yes? Then this is a perfect read for you.

Few pages in and you can already sense that the book was written by an architect. Brian D. Smith describes all the buildings he visited – hotels, houses, hospitals – in meticulous detail. Everything – from layout to size to the surroundings – is expounded on. Which, on the one hand, is great, because you can really picture all the places in your head. But on the other hand, it makes the account slightly boring and lacking in substance. After all, this is a memoir, not a travel guide. Sure, we want to know what a certain hotel looks like, but we don’t necessarily need all the particulars, do we?

On a brighter note, Brian D. Smith’s book also provides some insights on Papua New Guinea’s history and culture. Although the author doesn’t focus on the local ways of being, he mentions a few custom and practices that you will surely find intriguing. He writes quite a bit about Papuan traditional clothing, and I must say that those parts are indeed very captivating. Just as are those that treat on the country’s past or language. Yes, Brian D. Smith introduces readers to Tok Pisin – he shares different phrases and words, occasionally explaining their origin. It’s a pity – a real pity – that such gems are so sparse throughout the book.

The memoir reads very well. It’s written in simple yet elegant language, with an occasional dose of subtle humour. The descriptions are vivid, and despite being rather lengthy, you don’t feel overwhelmed by the author’s words.

“Land of the Unexpected” is a book you should read if you are going to travel to Papua New Guinea and are in search of a good guide. However, if you simply want to enjoy a good piece of travel literature, this title may not be for you.

Advertisements

BEST BOOKS ABOUT PAPUA NEW GUINEA

‘Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals’ by Trish Nicholson

This is one of the best books you can buy if you want to get to know Papua New Guinea. Written by a woman who comes to the islands to work on a development project, it provides readers with revealing insights regarding the local culture and ways of being.

Trish Nicholson’s background in anthropology makes the account a fascinating and multi-dimensional read. As an astute observer, she will tell you more about the Land of the Unexpected than you would like to know.

‘Land of the Unexpected’ by Brian Smith

Brian Smith’s book is a very unusual one. Those who are curious about Papua New Guinea as a tourist destination will find this read tremendously interesting. Brian Smith will tell you exactly where to stay, where to eat, how to travel, and what to see.

This memoir can double as a tourist guide that will help you explore the biggest Melanesian country. It may not be the most compelling account, nevertheless it will certainly be of great value to people who plan to set out on a journey of their own.

‘Two Years in Paradise: Diary of a Missionary’ by Christopher Kontek

Not every day you get to read a memoir written by a missionary. Especially such an absorbing memoir with a plethora of little-known facts about Papuan culture. The book is not a literary masterpiece, but you won’t regret buying it.

Christopher Kontek writes a lot – and I mean a lot – about the country, its people and their customs and traditions. What is more, he makes interesting comparisons between Papua New Guinea and Europe, where he comes from. Read the book, and I promise you that you won’t be disappointed.

‘Brokenville’ by Leonard Fong Roka

Leonard Fong Roka’s account of the ten-year-long civil war that broke out on the island of Bougainville in 1988 is a heart-wrenching story that will stay in your head long after you’ve finished reading it.

The book throws much light on the Bougainville conflict, presenting the point of view of a person who experienced the tragic events. The author writes with such passion and honesty that you feel his fear, his pain, his struggle to survive. An exceptional history lesson you will never forget.

‘Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea’ by Kira Salak

Have you ever dreamt of travelling to the far-flung, remote regions of Papua New Guinea? Of seeing what other people will never see? Of experiencing what other people will never experience? Yes? Then Kira Salak’s memoir is a must-read for you.

When you read this book you cannot help but marvel at the author’s courage. She describes her journey in meticulous detail, and at times – believe me – you are happy that you’re sitting comfortably in your own home. But then Kira starts her vivid descriptions of Papuan flora and fauna, and you’re wishing you were there with her.

A BIT OF HISTORY (PART 1)

‘”Does anyone still call this Savage Island?”

Hafe’s face reddened. “Cook called Tonga the Friendly Isles, probably because he had so many girls there. Tahiti he called the Society Islands, same reason. The Cook Islands were named after him. Nice names. But because we throw a few stones and spears, we’re savages.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “No one likes Cook much in Niue.”’

Tony Horwitz, ‘Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before’


‘”Here is where your Herman Melville stayed. They were very kind to him, but he writes about them like they were all cannibals.”

Um, weren’t they?

She smiled. “Well, okay, a little bit. But you’d think all we did was kill people and eat them every day. We eat fruit and fish too, you know. Eating people was for special occasions, like your holiday. What do you call it? Thanksgiving.”’

J. Maarten Troost, ‘Headhunters on my Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story’


‘Queen Salote (Tongan for Charlotte) had more or less upstaged Queen Elizabeth at her own coronation in 1953. It rained hard that day. Tongan custom insists that in order to show respect you must demonstrate humility, and you cannot imitate the actions of the person you are honoring. At the first sign of rain, Queen Elizabeth’s footmen put up the hood on her carriage as it rolled toward Westminster Abbey. Hoods were raised on the rest of the carriages in the procession — all but one, that of the Queen of Tonga. She sat, vast and saturated and majestic, her hair streaming with rain, in a carriage that was awash; and from that moment she earned the love and affection of every person in Britain.’

Paul Theroux, ‘The Happy Isles of Oceania’


‘The island of Buka had been named by the explorer Louis de Bougainville after he had come across the natives in their canoes and who no doubt at the astonishment of seeing his superior sailing ship, had greeted him with the cries of “Buka, Buka” which actually meant “Who” or “What?” The island had been occupied by the Japanese from 1942 during World War Two and had been a strategic base for their fighter aircraft. Fortunately for the allied forces “Coastwatchers” had monitored and warned them of impending  air strikes which had saved Guadacanal and turned the tide of the war in the South Pacific.’

Brian D. Smith, ‘Land of the Unexpected’


‘Was he not aware that nearly every colony in the world achieved independence, I don’t know, sixty years ago, and yet Tahiti remained as French as Bordeaux?’

J. Maarten Troost, ‘Headhunters on my Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story’

‘PACIFIC TSUNAMI GALU AFI’ BY LANI WENDT YOUNG

‘Pacific Tsunami Galu Afi’ is an account of the 2009 Pacific Tsunami that hit the countries of Samoa, American Samoa, and Tonga on September, 29th. It was penned by a Samoan writer, Lani Wendt Young.

GALU AFI

Summary

The morning of September 29th is like any other day in Samoa. Some people are getting ready for work, others are still asleep. They don’t know yet that their lives are soon going to change forever.

At 6.48 a.m. the earth begins to tremble; violently. Things are falling off the shelves; coconuts are falling off the trees; rocks are falling off the cliffs. A short while later, the sirens can be heard blaring out.

Most people, busy with their morning routines, don’t even notice the ocean receding. But the birds know. They know something is coming, so they take off. They take off before the first black wave starts rushing to the shore.

Review

Imagine you’re watching one of those Hollywood-made disaster drama films. You know, the films with an all-star cast, great special effects, and a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat biting your nails in fear, excitement, or both. The films you’re watching thanking God it’s only a film. Well, ‘Galu Afi’ is such a film; only on paper.

You may think that this is just a book that recounts the tragic events of September 29th, 2009, but I can already tell you that it is not. This book is so much more. It shows us what’s really important in life. It proves that people can act like brothers, not enemies; that we can count on one another when the bad times come. It is, contrary to appearances, an unbelievably uplifting read; one that will stay in your head long after the book is closed.

Lani Wendt Young was given a tough job of putting together dozens of heartbreaking stories to document the disaster for Samoa and its people. It would be all too easy to create a volume full of sorrowful narratives, but she managed to avoid excessive sentimentality. Yes, the presented accounts are moving, poignant, at times even disturbing – and you might shed a tear or two. But you will also smile, because they are often laced with subtle, appropriate humour only Lani Wendt Young can deliver.

The emotions ‘Galu Afi’ evokes give you a true roller-coaster ride, largely due to the fact that you don’t stay in one story for a very long time. It seems as if the author had wanted all the voices to be heard. You meet one family, then you meet another, and another. There are so many characters, yet somehow you remember them all. You feel for them, admire them, wonder at their strength and resilience. And when you see their faces in the photographs, their tales become even more real. Suddenly you realize that this is not some Hollywood story, and that not everyone has a happy ending.

The book is written in a simple yet elegant style. Lani Wendt Young doesn’t show off her writing skills – she remains in the shadow, but she still gets to shine. The people’s voices are neatly stitched together with her own words, creating an absorbing read full of heart and soul.

Before I started reading ‘Galu Afi’, I had already known that Lani Wendt Young is an extraordinarily talented writer. But now I will say that she is a true literary artisan. This book isn’t good; it’s not even great. It can be described in one word only – a masterpiece. ‘Pacific Tsunami Galu Afi’ is a pure masterpiece.

‘THE FISH AND RICE CHRONICLES: MY EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES IN PALAU AND MICRONESIA’ BY PG BRYAN

‘The Fish and Rice Chronicles: My Extraordinary Adventures in Palau and Micronesia’ is a memoir penned by PG Bryan. It recounts his experiences in the western Pacific country, where he spent three years (1967-1970) as a Peace Corps volunteer.

THE FISH AND RICE CHRONICLES

Summary

After devastating breakup with his girlfriend, Patrick decides to join the Peace Corps; to get away, forget about Gail, and perhaps do something good for others.

Working in a foreign country takes some getting used to, especially when one is thrown into a completely different culture. Patrick needs to familiarize himself not only with the place, but also with a distinct lifestyle of the local people. Fortunately, he does that very quickly and soon starts to enjoy his adventure. In between his Peace Corps duties, he spends time with newly-met friends; splashes around in the ocean in the company of sharks, crocodiles, and sea snakes; or goes on fishing expeditions with none other than Lee Marvin.

Review

This classic travelogue-cum-memoir is a very… peculiar (for lack of a better word) read. I can tell you right off the bat that it surely won’t be to everyone’s liking. Why? Let me explain.

PG Bryan wrote a truly fascinating account of his Peace Corps years in Palau. Fascinating and extremely – with a capital E – detailed. This is not one of those fast-paced narratives that are hard to put down once you start reading. This book drags on and on and on. After a few pages you start noticing that the author is a meticulous type of a guy – he records everything and leaves out nothing. Because, why not?

So every step he took is documented and commented on. You know where and when he was fishing. Of course, you also know what equipment he used. And how he got from point A to point B. And if he caught anything or not.

But you don’t really know what Palauan culture is like. PG Bryan doesn’t write a lot about that. There are a few interesting facts and anecdotes that you will probably be delighted to read, but only a few – and that’s a real shame.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Palau is not present in the book at all. It is. In the author’s vivid descriptions. The details of scenery he shares with the reader are – without any exaggeration – quite mind-blowing. He paints with the words so skillfully you feel as if you were right there standing next to him in blazing heat, looking at the lagoon, and dreaming of the forest shade. Or in a boat wiping salt water from your eyes. Or on a tiny, uninhabited, picture-perfect island wandering aimlessly along the white sand beach. Palau comes to life on every single page and it’s beautiful, enchanting, thoroughly irresistible.

In between those wonderful descriptions are PG Bryan’s musings on his Peace Corps service. They are often too long and loaded with unnecessary parts, but nevertheless you read them with a dose of curiosity. Especially when the author writes about all the trials and tribulations he encountered along the way. From not speaking the language, to having to adjust to a foreign culture, to experiencing a massive culture shock in his native California – he recounts everything with disarming honesty, emotion, and not infrequently self-deprecating humour, which makes you want to listen to what he has to say.

‘The Fish and Rice Chronicles’ is a good book. It’s not phenomenal, but it’s definitely worth your attention. If you like Peace Corps memoirs, or if you are interested in Palau, Micronesia, Oceania, you will surely enjoy it. Just bear in mind that… Oh, never mind. Read it and judge for yourself.

‘THE STORY OF LAULII: A DAUGHTER OF SAMOA’ BY ALEXANDER A. WILLIS, LAULII WILLIS

‘The story of Laulii: A daughter of Samoa’ is the memoir of Laulii Willis, the first native born Samoan woman to become educated in and a permanent resident of the United States of America. The book was edited by William H. Barnes.

THE STORY OF LAULII

Summary

Laulii, a young woman of noble birth, has always been a rebellious soul. Eager to learn and help others, she aspires to lead a fruitful life.

When Alexander Willis – a Canadian carpenter – arrives in Samoa, Laulii gets intrigued by this bald-headed white man, who seems to be equally bewitched by her.

As time passes by and Alexander and Laulii get to know each other better, the feeling between them grows stronger. They take vows to spend the rest of their lives together, and soon after that Laulii leaves her beloved country and travels to America with her newlywed husband.

Review

Calling this book interesting would be an understatement. This is a marvelous piece of literature, in which the authors focus their attention on Samoa rather than on their own experiences. Laulii Willis writes: ‘I have been requested to give to the world a sketch of my life, including a description of my tropical native land, together with the domestic customs, habits, amusements and legends of the far-away country of Samoa. In doing so I have a two-fold object: One is to make other lands better acquainted with my people (…).’ Well, she definitely managed to accomplish what she had intended.

To be honest with you, I am not sure if I should say that Samoa serves as a backdrop for Laulii’s and Alexander’s stories, or if it is the other way round. I think I am leaning towards the latter.

The descriptions of the Samoan archipelago are omnipresent – they fill almost every chapter. Even the most personal narratives contain little snippets that show what the South Pacific country was like in the 19th century. Laulii Willis provides invaluable and utterly engrossing insights into the ways of being of the native Samoans. She carefully explains their culture, beliefs, traditions, practices, social mores, likes and dislikes, sparing no details whatsoever. Everything she writes about is so revealing, so thoroughly fascinating that you can’t help but read one more page, one more chapter until you reach the very end.

Even the part written by Laulii’s husband isn’t bereft of the commentary on Samoa and its inhabitants. Obviously, as a foreigner he couldn’t possess the same knowledge of the country as his wife, nevertheless his observations are just as interesting.

One can’t forget though that this volume is a memoir. Laulii’s life story is a riveting account, full of serious reflections mixed with amusing anecdotes. The journeys she undertook as well as the experiences she encountered make the book read like a novel. Laulii Willis certainly was an extraordinary woman – kind-hearted, passionate, bright, talented on many fronts. She didn’t want to ‘just be’; she wanted to make a change, to open doors for other women in her motherland.

As the memoir is written in a rather informal style, it reads very well. Actually, you may feel as if you were chatting to a best friend, who’s done things in her life you really want to hear about. In retelling her story, Laulii Willis is candid, straightforward, and very charming. Her husband is much more matter-of-fact, but his recollections take up only a small part of the book.

All in all, ‘The story of Laulii’ is something you should – must – read if you have any interest in Samoa or Pacific Islands in general. It’s a great – terrific – volume that scores high on all fronts. Buy it! You won’t regret doing so.

FA’A SAMOA (PART 2)

‘If a man thinks he likes such a girl for his wife, he goes to his best friend, perhaps his brother of father, whom he thinks he can trust, and says: “Now, my friend, I will do anything for you, no matter what it is, if you only do me a great favor. I love, and I will make her happy if she will only be my wife.” If his friend agrees, which he generally does, he goes to the girl and tells her he has a friend for her. She asks “Who?” He says, “I will not tell you his name now, as you might not like him; you might like some other man better.”’

‘When visitors are at the house, children never speak to them until they are spoken to first or requested to speak. They would be punished if, of their own accord, they should attempt to take part in any conversation or express their opinions. When told by their parents, to do anything, they immediately do as they are bidden without for a moment thinking of asking why or questioning authority.’

‘It is not generally understood why mats are so valuable to the natives, but when it is remembered that they represent events and traditions, wars and families, one may realize what they mean to the Samoan.’

‘The turtle is what may be termed national property, and should a man catch a turtle and carry it to his own house and eat it with his own family, without letting the town know and inviting them to partake of it, the finger of scorn would be pointed at him as one destitute of liberality or the true spirit of a Samoan.’

‘It is a tradition and a belief to this day among the Samoans that when they “die” as we call it, they only “go to sleep”, and that as soon as they do so the spirit leaves the body and goes to the farthermost end of the island (some imaginary point) where there is always a large number of canoes that the spirits take. These canoes in the twinkling of an eye transport them to eternity, and come immediately back.’

Alexander A. Willis, ‘The Story of Laulii’

FA’A SAMOA (PART 1)

‘The children’s heads are kept shaved. This process was performed with a sharp stone or piece of bamboo before the white people came and brought razors. The hair was all taken off with the exception of what would be termed here a “beauty lock”, which was left, sometimes in front, sometimes at the side, or at the back of the head; we called this lock “sope”.’

‘Soon after a baby is born the mother presses its head by putting one hand at the back of its head and the other on its forehead, as they do not like projecting foreheads; then the mother pinches its nose between its eyes and flattens the end of its nose by pressing. When the baby sleeps it must always lie on its back, as they think it will tend to heighten the forehead to lie on the side of the head.’

‘The Samoans are a religious people; while they make no pretensions their every act is characterized by a fervent belief in, and dependence upon a heavenly father; here again they differ somewhat from the majority of the inhabitants of more civilized countries. After rising in the morning their first act is prayer, which is always accompanied with the singing of the hymn; no meal, or even the slightest refreshment at any time, is partaken of until preceded by a prayer or blessing.’

‘Our houses are oval. When a man has made up his mind to build a house he notifies all his relatives for miles around, and they all come together and help.’

‘The Samoans tattoo the whole of the body from the hips to the knees, covering the skin so completely with the pattern that it looks at a little distance exactly as if the men were wearing a tight pair of ornamental drawers.’

Alexander A. Willis, ‘The Story of Laulii’

‘SOUTH SEA IDYLS’ BY CHARLES WARREN STODDARD

‘South Sea Idyls’ is a collection of tales written by Charles Warren Stoddard, which recounts his journeys to Hawaii and French Polynesia. The book was first published in 1873. Its English edition is called ‘Summer Cruising in the South Seas’.

SOUTH SEA IDYLS

Summary

The Blue Continent is the place where Charles Warren Stoddard feels at home. In love with the islands and most of all in their inhabitants, he often returns to Oceania to appreciate the nature and simple life people lead there.

As he spends time with the native islanders, he discovers their beguiling cultures and takes delights in whatever is being offered to him. He quickly notices that in the Pacific, life is just sweeter, easier, and more beautiful than anywhere else.

Review

When this book was first published, it stirred up some controversy. Even today some people may consider it… slightly off-putting, if you will. Because, contrary to what you may expect, this account is not just about travels to foreign and exotic lands.

Before we delve into Charles Warren Stoddard’s personal experiences in the South Seas, let’s focus on the region itself. It is remarkably well described. The author made sure readers could ‘see’ the places he went to. Every single page is full of word-pictures, which show the extraordinary beauty of Polynesia. No detail is spared. Everything is so vivid you feel as if you were standing right next to the writer. Smells, tastes, views, sounds, sensations are almost real. This book is like a watercolour painting – mesmerizing to such a degree you can’t take your eyes off of it.

Now, if the book is the painting, Charles Warren Stoddard is the painter. I am not sure if he had ever held a brush in his hand, but what he managed to achieve with this travelogue-cum-memoir suggests he might have. All the stories presented in this collection are limned  with painterly skill. The author’s poetic and flowery language is in full blossom here and you can’t help but marvel at his tremendous talent. However, for some readers this distinctive writing style may be a little overwhelming. The account is not very ‘action-packed’; it thrives on detailed depictions of places, people, customs, traditions, and cultures. If this is not the type of literature you find enjoyable to read, this book will not be a good fit for you.

I know what you must be thinking right now: what exactly is controversial about this work? Well, apart from being a nice travelogue, it is also a homoerotic memoir. Now, let me be clear here, sexual references do not dominate the stories. In some tales (‘The Last of the Great Navigator’, for example), they do not appear at all. Nevertheless, a perceptive reader will easily notice a great number of young, handsome, and usually naked men who show up in most of the chapters. Interesting is the fact that even in these intimate descriptions, Charles Warren Stoddard is very subtle and completely devoid of vulgarity. But again, if this is something you don’t feel comfortable reading about, this book is not for you.

‘South Sea Idyls’ is a classic of travel literature. And as such it is without a doubt worthy of anyone’s time and attention. Yes, some of the author’s words may shock a little, but the islands… The islands are as stunning, as real as in no other book.

BEST SAILING BOOKS

‘Reach For Paradise’ by Andrew Rayner

This beautiful and immensely interesting book is a well-researched guide, which will certainly come in handy for those who plan to sail the South Seas. With lots of photographs, illustrations, and detailed maps, this memoir is a must-have on board. No, not because it is a sailing manual, but because it is an unparalleled source of inspiration.

‘Sailing To Jessica’ by Kelly Watts

Kelly Watts’s memoir is a perfect ‘sailing book’ for all the female sailors. Not only does it tell the story of Kelly and Paul’s emotional journey, but also presents readers with comprehensive and accurate descriptions of a nautical life. The author’s tips and advices, as well as her honesty in showing the good, the bad, and the ugly of cruising, makes this book an engaging and worthwhile read.

‘Sailing With Impunity’ by Mary E. Trimble

If you need a book that will encourage you to set sail for the Pacific Islands, this memoir should be your choice. Written in a lovely manner, it shows the breathtaking beauty of Polynesia, which will surely wake up your wanderlust. Do you also want to know what life on board is really like? Mary will tell you all about it.

‘Beer in the Bilges: Sailing Adventures in the South Pacific’ by Alan Boreham, Peter Jinks, Bob Rossiter

This book is about sailing, so anyone interested in reading about high seas, fierce winds, waves washing onto the deck will simply love it. ‘The Professionals’ write almost exclusively about their ocean adventures – and they do it so well that you will feel like a member of the crew every time you’ll have this title in your hands.

‘Pacific Odyssey’ by Gwenda Cornell

Gwenda Cornell’s memoir is not so much about sailing as it is about the islands of the Blue Continent, but it’s still a book you want to read if you are interested in cruising in the Pacific region. The author shares her first-hand knowledge of the island countries, giving you a chance to ‘visit’ them even before you set off on a journey of your own.