Tag Archives: Will Lutwick

A CHAT WITH… WILL LUTWICK

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.

WILL LUTWICK

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.

Advertisements

‘DODGING MACHETES: HOW I SURVIVED FORBIDDEN LOVE, BAD BEHAVIOR, AND THE PEACE CORPS IN FIJI’ BY WILL LUTWICK

‘Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji’ is Will Lutwick’s memoir that recounts his life-changing adventure in Melanesia.

DODGING MACHETES

Summary

At the tender age of 22, Will decides to join the Peace Corps and soon after that is sent to the quintessential tropical paradise called Fiji.

Will’s volunteer life in bustling Suva is nothing but ordinary until he meets his beautiful co-worker, Rani. The Indian woman turns out to be quite a rebellious young lady who isn’t afraid to take risks. Mesmerized by her allure, Will finds himself incapable of leaving her alone. After a few ‘friend dates’, they both agree to take their relationship to the next level. The only problem is that dating is taboo in Fiji’s Hindu community, much less dating someone of a different race.

Review

It is absolutely impossible to read this book and not cry tears of laughter. Will Lutwick’s story – however cheesy it initially appears – is the most incredible, the most bizarre, and the most hilarious tale you’ll probably ever hold in your hands. And, just to assure you, it describes real people and events, not imaginary ones.

At first glance, the memoir seems to be your conventional romance set in the lush landscapes of the Fiji islands: a boy arrives in a foreign country, meets the girl of his dreams, they fall head over heels in love with each other and then – against all odds – live happily ever after till death do them part (or an alternative version: they decide they can’t be together because of the vast distance that separates their homelands). Well, that would be too simple. In Will Lutwick’s book, the story goes more like this: a boy arrives in a foreign country, is struck by the exotic beauty of his lovely colleague, gets warned not to even attempt to hit on her, ignores the warnings, begins a relationship with the aforementioned colleague, learns what ‘cultural differences’ really mean, tries not to get killed by the girl’s highly traditional Hindu family and the whole Indo-Fijian community, comes up with a clever plan to save their love (and lives, for that matter), proudly succeeds. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Although the author’s experiences are indeed very intriguing, it’s what he learnt from them that makes the book so amazingly engaging.

There aren’t many non-academic publications that cover multiculturalism in Fiji. This title is a rare breed. Will Lutwick had an unparalleled opportunity to get to know the folkways of both native Fijians and emigrant Indians, which he subtly contrasts with each other, pointing out the similarities and differences between the two cultures. Of course, his main focus leans heavily towards the Hindu community – their conservative mindsets and ways of being. With disarming honesty, he writes about his (forbidden) love affair with Rani and the serious consequences it brought. He sheds light on deep-seated taboos, the concept of arranged marriages, caste system, and women’s rights (or rather, the lack thereof). He outlines dos and don’ts; he explains the strict ‘rules of engagement’. And he does it in the most compelling way possible. As a reader, you are not bored even for a split second.

Yes, the book is a real page-turner, which is largely the result of the author’s pleasant writing style – clear, concise, very straightforward, surprisingly dialogue-centred. Despite being considered a travel memoir, the title is not filled with a plethora of vivid, picture-like descriptions. You may not be able to imagine every corner of the Fijian archipelago, but you will most certainly learn quite a bit about its inhabitants and their fascinating cultures.

I could not recommend ‘Dodging Machetes’ more. This masterful blend of real-life account and novel-like storytelling is light-hearted, amusing, and wonderfully unravelling. Travel literature… It just doesn’t get any better than this.

BEST BOOKS ABOUT FIJI

‘Bula Pops!: A Memoir of a Son’s Peace Corps Service in the Fiji Islands’ by Michael J. Blahut, Michael J. Blahut III

This is unquestionably one of the best books about Fiji you’ll ever hold in your hands. Written by a father/son duo, the memoir is particularly recommended for those who would like to get to know the peculiarities of Fijian culture.

The extremely interesting narrative is filled with descriptions of local customs, traditions, practices, habits, and beliefs, which are not only informative but also very entertaining and enjoyable to read. Especially worthy of note are the younger Blahut’s observations – you can’t help but marvel at his intercultural competence.

‘Our Wealth Is Loving Each Other: Self and Society in Fiji’ by Karen J. Brison

Karen J. Brison’s book is a wonderful anthropological study that examines the challenges indigenous Fijians face as they try to reconcile their traditional values with modernity. The author shares stories of various individuals who prove that it is indeed possible to live according to the way of the chiefs without giving up personal autonomy.

The book may not be light-hearted in nature, but it is an immensely engaging read that sheds some light on cultural contradictions between the old and the new.

‘Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji’ by Will Lutwick

If you are interested in multiculturalism in Fiji, Will Lutwick’s memoir is something you should read. This quite incredible story of a Peace Corps volunteer who falls in love with a rebellious girl from a traditional Hindu family provides fascinating insights into the world of Indo-Fijian community.

The author’s wit, charm, and delightful sense of humour that can be found on every single page make the book a real treat for everyone who appreciates good literature that entertains, enlightens, and educates.

‘Kava in the Blood: A Personal & Political Memoir from the Heart of Fiji’ by Peter Thomson

As the title says, this book is a memoir – personal, because it’s basically the author’s autobiography; and political, because it describes the coups d’etat that took place in Fiji in 1987. And if you think it’s impossible to weave together such distinct strands, this title will prove you wrong.

Peter Thomson delivers a fascinating tale that is an eye-opener. With unconditional love for the Melanesian country, he paints a painful picture of its past, letting readers understand how certain events shaped the Fijian nation.

‘Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu’ by J. Maarten Troost

Fiji with a dose of humour? You know that you can count on J. Maarten Troost. His tongue-in-cheek memoir is a terrific piece of travel literature that captivates from the very first to the very last sentence.

Even though the author doesn’t write much about the Fijian culture, he unravels the secrets of daily life in the tropics – he shows the good, the bad, and the ugly. As always, he is honest and amusing. As always, he is absolutely brilliant. Immerse in his book and you’ll discover the real Fiji.

BEST LAUGH-OUT-LOUD BOOKS (PART 1)

‘The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific’ by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux never fails to deliver a compelling story. His travelogue – which is a truly wonderful journey across the Pacific Ocean – provides fascinating insights into the islands of the Blue Continent, giving readers a chance to absorb its undeniable charm. This informative, enthralling, witty, and – most of all – genuinely funny account captures attention right from the beginning. It simply could not be written any better. Ultimate reading enjoyment is guaranteed.

‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific’, ‘Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu’, ‘Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story’ by J. Maarten Troost

J. Maarten Troost’s ‘South Pacific trilogy’ is everything you’d ever want from travel literature. Not only do the books let you ‘experience’ different cultures, but they also give you the opportunity to see them through the eyes of another human being. The author’s adventures keep you absolutely riveted, and his astonishing sense of humour makes each story a pleasure to read. Phenomenal work!

‘Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji’ by Will Lutwick

Finding love in a tropical paradise… How cheesy is that? Well, Will Lutwick proves that even such ‘ordinary’ story can be turned into a thrilling and highly amusing narrative. This thought-provoking memoir is a real page-turner. Finely created with a good dose of jocularity and intelligence, it not only entertains but most of all enlightens and educates.

‘Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia’ by Jonathan Gourlay

This is a truly wonderful, brilliantly written collection of essays. Even though some of the stories deal with quite serious subjects, Jonathan Gourlay’s wit and delightful wry humour lighten the overall tone of the book, making it almost hilariously funny. One thing you should bear in mind: this is not a title for very young readers!

‘Bula: Sailing Across the Pacific’ by Bryan Carson

Bryan Carson’s travelogue is pure entertainment, nothing more and nothing less. It’s a fantastic adventure story written in a light-hearted manner that makes you smile from the very first to the very last page. If you have ever dreamt about cruising the Pacific, hopping from island to island, and meeting new people – this is a book for you.