Black Marks on the White Page
Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti (eds)
Penguin Random House, $40.00,
Billed as a guidebook to the contemporary literature of Oceania, Black Marks on the White Page is not quite that; it’s too eclectic, too much of a hotchpotch for a start, sweeping erratically back and forth across the Pacific to locate, we are told, “the best new and uncollected fiction” generated out of the rolling identity revolution of Pasifika peoples in the 21st century. You could make a very long list of “the best” that is not included. What this anthology is is a sampling: it contains 29 examples of “story-telling” by 25 writers, complemented or contextualised by images of nine artworks by nine artists.
One way to understand the variegated assemblage, the editors suggest in their introduction, is as a “talanoa” and, in his essay-story “The Vanua is Fo’ohake”, Tongan writer Jione Havea expands on the rich implications of the term. A talanoa is a conversation, a story, a telling: “A talanoa must be shared, so that it tells … A talanoa is difficult to complete or contain … It lives on beyond each of its tellings … each telling gives it new life.” So this talanoa offers a literary genealogy – older writers juxtaposed with younger – is carnivalesque in its intertextuality – stories breed other stories – and it celebrates the Pacific Ocean as a medium of connection between kindred tribes: the currents join a scatter of islands, including the world’s largest island, Australia.
The ocean billows like a woven mat in the cover illustration – a pen and ink drawing by artist James Ormsby – its weave suggestive of endings, beginnings, entanglements and frayings. Ormsby’s fold-out sea and sky panorama is full of portents: a taniwha whirling a flaming poi reaches up towards Matariki (the Seven Sisters) from Captain Cook’s Endeavour. The frontispiece artwork inside the book is “Uncanny Tui/Takahu”, a 2008 photograph by Fiona Pardington. Pardington’s canny rendering of uncanny bird plumage brings to mind ancient proverbs, maxims, riddles, fairy tales, and some sense of the spirit world. Her iconography is echoed by the last artwork image in the book, by Yuki Kihara: a 2013 photograph leached of colour showing the roofless ruins of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Apia following a cyclone. Kihara gives the image historical resonance by positioning herself inside the now-demolished church as a kind of revenant in a Victorian mourning dress with her back to us. Shrouded in black, she, like Pardington’s tui, is an emblem of melancholic reverie.
Also exploring inventories of Pasifika, Lisa Reihana’s artwork image – a still from her video “In Pursuit of Venus [infected]” (2015 – 2017) – represents first encounters between the European and the Polynesian as an ambivalent or vexed cultural exchange. Writing about Reihana’s work in his “Whakapapa of a Wallpaper”, Witi Ihimaera confirms that “[our purpose] was to engage with legacies of European romance and representation in the Pacific … [and] also to interrogate our own sense of self.” This piece of writing is less a “story”, though, than a globe-girdling litany or karakia, compounded of anecdote, mythology and art history – part speech, part invocation to whatever gods may be.
Ihimaera’s second contribution to the anthology, “my father dream new zealand”, is a short story exercise in ventriloquism, speaking for the marginalised Other; it is told as a child refugee’s eyewitness account of fleeing civil war in Syria to arrive eventually in New Zealand. If this vision is benign, full of promise, Gina Cole’s vision of New Zealand in her story “Black Ice” is malign, pessimistic. The tranquility of mountain scenery is deceptive, dogged by the jabbering racism of belligerent Pākehā. Her narrow-eyed antagonists are impelled by ignorance, jealousy, dread of the Other. Prejudice has become an insidious malaise, with fatal consequences for Passang, a Sherpa working as a guide at Fox Glacier.
For Nic Low of Ngāi Tahu descent, depicting contemporary power relations in Australia becomes a satirical tale of dispossession turned into repossession, when a self-appointed Aboriginal Land Council of Minerals goes “digging for pay dirt” under a WWI memorial in Melbourne: “the city explodes … Rio Tinto and Fortescue come out in support of the dig and the internet is soon awash with rumours of a joint venture to open-cast mine the MCG.”
For Kanaky writer Dewé Gorodé, lyrical recollections of growing up in New Caledonia are bound up with political resistance and protest: a struggle to assert the hidden, repressed, neglected narratives about the colonial and the neo-colonial, shared by the archipelagoes of the Pacific. This is also a concern in Mary Rokonadravu’s two short stories, set in post-coup Fiji, where “vaka-Viti”, the Fijian way, is based on a complex heritage: the British legacy of hierarchical, paternalistic rule, and the indentured-labourer system which brought a huge population of economic migrants from India in the 19th century. Rokonadravu’s writing is extraordinarily lush – an intricate sensorium of colours, smells and textures, yet a style too much aware of the current global context, as the beginning of “Famished Eels” suggests:
She meets me at the airport and drives me down to Suva. It is past midnight. We pass eleven trucks overloaded with mahogany logs between Nadi and Sigatoka … She smokes at the wheel, flicking ash into the cold highway wind.
Rokonadravu’s rendering of locale in acutely-felt poetic images makes what is specific to the Pacific take on universal resonance: today, animism has not been replaced by rational explanation and science, instead they co-exist, affirming netherworld gods of a mythic past as shapeshifters, vaulting into a multicultural present. Other writers maintain this momentum: for example, Tusiata Avia’s “I Dream of Mike Tyson”, set in Samoa, has the visceral immediacy of an adolescent psychodrama metamorphosed into a horror story. The young New Zealand narrator’s female relative, serving as a parental guardian, is a fantastically demonic figure, becoming a kind of omnipotent force as she talks about the punishments and humiliations she will administer because of the narrator’s minor misdemeanours.
Patricia Grace also invokes myth in her allegorical “Matariki All-Stars”, which is about a solo Dad raising seven daughters. Here, though, the context is both poignant and pragmatic and the crafting a kind of technical exercise: the big story is made up of little stories. What matters is a sense of belonging, networks of connectivity and communality: turangawaewae.
For other writers, direct connection to the past is front and centre. In “The Stone”, Hawai’i-based Michael Puletoa provides an account of a boulder imbued with magical powers. This big rock that resists being moved from its island location to the American mainland is sacred: it’s a totemic, petrified spirit, representative of the Hawai’ian people. And Albert Wendt, in “Nafanua Unleashes”, an excerpt from his verse novel The Adventures of Vela, makes use of myth as an act of restoration, celebrating the triumphal lineage of oral tradition with a sprawling epic reach to match the “sea of islands”, over which he ranges, incorporating all sorts of literary strategies to assert the primal, the elemental, the metamorphic.
Alexis Wright from the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia mourns the death of “Aboriginal Sovereignty … who walked off into the sea”, yet also asserts hopes of resurrection, just as “the wild morning wind” will bring “loose corrugated sheets of iron carrying some clinging ants on a magic ride through space”. Her “Whale Bone City” – “an old skeletal city of bones … that had originated from a pod of whales” – is a fantastical monument, signifying timeless continuities and affirming geopolitical identity: the future hope of “Aboriginal Sovereignty”.
If Wright’s magical realism offers one way out of disaffection and estrangement, other writers settle for status quo realism, the banality of the everyday recorded with deadpan accuracy, offering, say, careful, ironic, depictions of gender expectations in tightly-circumscribed conservative societies, as in Sia Figiel’s “Extract from Freelove”, set in Samoa in 1985, where a teenage girl pupil, academically bright, is disconcerted by the attentions of her school-teacher: “the language Mr Viliamu was speaking with his eyes and his hands was an ancient sacred language”.
Kelly Joseph’s New Zealand story “White Elephant”, charged with an acute sense of dispossession, injustice and powerlessness, is made transcendent by its rich characterisation: “Her papa becomes more and more like the animal skins he tans … His breath is acerbic and so are his moods. Inside him is a desert with furies, hot winds.” Anya Ngawhare’s story captures the homoerotic relationship between two young Māori men, contrasting adolescent ennui and rebellion with the tensions of their small-town community: “sitting in a tattoo shop after hours watching some over-inked twig attack my boyfriend’s ribs with a buzzing needle”. Victor Rodger offers a slow-burning farce in “Like Shinderalla”, an account of a gay tryst in which a Samoan man picks up a handsome Tongan stranger, but finds he is more aroused by the gift of a pair of too-tight shoes belonging to the stranger.
In summary, every example of “story-telling” included in this anthology is more or less distinctive and fresh, from Paula Morris’s “Great Long Story”, which – part murder ballad, part travelogue – is an artfully-juggled hotchpotch of fragments about visiting the Mississippi grave of the blues singer Robert Johnson, to Kelly Ana Morey’s elegiac rite of passage “Poor Man’s Orange”, featuring a group of itinerant orchard workers.
However, it is a set of stories pushing against the boundaries of the dominant language, as if against the boundaries of the dominant culture, that makes this collection exceptional. Cryptic or staccato or lilting incantations and prose poems bearing witness, demand your attention on their terms, as in the collectively-voiced visceral narrative of Anahera Gildea, telling of birth and death, where mourners echo the wails and whispers of ancestors, and the land itself embodies voices. Or, as in the poetic alchemies of both Cassandra Barnett and Courtney Sina Meredith; their patterned language tugs and prods and pushes at prosaic conventions.
This striving towards the subversion of, or radical re-casting of, the dominant lexical drive of canonical English is most marked in Selina Tusitala Marsh’s “Pouliuli: A Story of Darkness in 13 Lines”. Here, black marks on the white page take the form of a black Vivid felt-tip marker striking out or stamping out several printed pages of Wendt’s 1977 novel Pouliuli, leaving a kind of hypnotic dance of phrase snippets highlighted against the black page. Marsh’s erasure strategy is perhaps drawn from the arguments of various post-colonial thinkers, such as the Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida: she slices and dices in an effort to quarry out that which is subliminal. Her subversive defacing implies that the text has been made to reveal the hidden, the marginal, the silenced, the excluded, the buried; it’s a memorably quixotic quest to acknowledge the power of the ancestral, or as Wendt himself has termed it: “inside us the dead”.
David Eggleton is a poet, writer and editor who lives in Dunedin.