Fiji’s Times: A History of Fiji in Three Parts (Fiji)

Fijis Timesby Kim Gravelle

What I thought I was getting: A collection of well-researched, fact-based newspaper articles from The Fiji Times about the history of the islands.

What I got: A collection of badly-typed stories without sources or annotations; full of assumptions and unexplained references. Lots of exclamation points!!!

What really got me: The plethora of references to Fijian culture as incorporating cannibalism, human sacrifice and other atrocious savageries like burying people alive if they got sick or displeased others – as if they were undisputed fact. When in fact we know now that many white explorers would make up lurid stories like these to denigrate “primitive” cultures or to satisfy some sort of sick, lustful fantasies of their own.

I felt like an unsuspecting American of the 1940s suddenly confronted with newsreel footage of Hitler’s death camps: It seems impossible that humans really have done this to other humans. I know humans are cruel, but for an entire culture to practice such casual and horrific evil, and on its own people rather than its enemies alone…well, something seems off. Misinterpretation? Slander by another culture? Stories told by the Fijians themselves to make them seem fierce and scary…?

FijiI mean, look at how suspect those whaler’s tales turned out to be: the ones about the “promiscuous” and “lusty” native women…

I am of the Buddhist school of thought when it comes to holy sutras: I don’t trust one man’s version of history, even a king such as James. I want multiple sources to compare and contrast in order to get closer to the truth.

After the Disclaimers, The…

Book was actually quite good. I enjoyed reading lots of Fijian names, learning more about the relationship between Tonga and Fiji, and the history of inter-island rivalry and conquest. There was a rather hilarious bit where the rivalry between the Methodist missionaries and their Catholic counterparts led to better conditions for the islanders as the two religions fought to build more and better schools, hospitals, etc. for the natives. Samoa should have been so lucky.

The role of Pacific Islanders in the world wars has been on my mind lately, thanks to a PBS documentary on Guam and how much its people do for the US and how little we do for it in return. So it was interesting to read about the Fijians who received the Medal of Honor. And reportedly, the last cannibal in Fiji, who charged a Japanese battalion and cut off a piece of one of the soldiers to eat in battle.

Origins

Fiji IslandsPeople arrived on Fiji more than 3,000 years ago. Some Fijians think that they originated in African, in Tanganyika, and there are language similarities to bear this out. Others say there is no scientific evidence for this and that the early Fijians came from southeast Asia. Anthropologists believe that the peoples of Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji were all one at some point early on.

The Last Word

I think this book would be a great start to any exploration of Fiji; I would not recommend it as the only book. It needs a forward and some footnotes.

Three hand-hewn canoes.

Arabian Jazz (Jordan)

Arabian Jazz book coverby Diana Abu-Jaber (please excuse typos, I have a fever and have to get off the computer. I will edit when I return. Thanks, hcd)

When you learn that this novel won prizes,  you won’t be surprised. It’s a cracking good read. Excellent writing style, sweeps you along like a desert wind. Cool and refreshing, too.

The quirky, lusty characters remind me of Tom Robbins at his best. But the philosophical musings are unique to the immigrant story. Who are we? Where is home? Was it better or worse “back there”? How can we belong?

Two sisters: Melvina, a determined nurse, and her sister, Jemorah, a tormented hospital jack-of-all-trades, must find their way in a confusing landscape where no place is home.

Originally from Jordan via Palestine, the sisters were removed from the Middle East when they were small. Their extended family “back home” is loud, crazy, marriage-obsessed, and just plain strange. Their Americanized musician father no less. There is a dead mother and family tension to the max.

JordanIn the billing department of the hospital, Jemorah has the awful job of answering phones and telling weeping patients that she cannot help them. An aura of despair and anxiety hangs over her workplace. She needs to quit, but she feels stuck. Is the answer to marry a man, like her aunts keep urging her?

Being an impatient American of my generation, I wished the story were told in a straight line in chronological order. Instead, the author had chosen to present events in the present day with numerous flashbacks to the past. It’s a sign of just how good a writer she is that I was willing to go with the flow of her story anyway.

The Dearly Departed

Jordan Camels

The book gave me a lovely moment out on the deck: I suddenly had a sharp, visceral memory of what it felt like to hug my maternal grandmother. In the book, a retarded janitor calls everyone at the hospital Honey Bunnies. She’s cheerful and indiscriminate and suddenly it came back to me, my Grammie Beth.

“Hello, Hunnie Bunny!” she would say cheerfully. Aw. That was lovely.

Peetra in JordanRecently, local authors Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter had a podcast on the topic of whether or not minority writers can write from the perspective of white people, and visa-versa. In this book, Diana Abu-Jaber has characters that are New York white trailer trash, part Onadaga Indian, and Jordanian-American. Somehow she images them with aplomb. I think part of her success is that you the reader never assume that all Jordanian-Americans are like Jemorah, or like Melvina, or like Uncle Faoud (a pure Jordania) or his half-assed sons. Each character contains multitudes, like Walt Whitman said, each is unique. There are no “isms” here, especially not the evil and false absolutism.

Oh No, She Didn’t!

Jordan islandThe book is extremely comic – despite years in the US, the father is half-fluent in English and massacres the proverbs he tries to tell his daughters; the aunt is obsessed with the marriage of her nieces who are not at all interested, and the owner of the small town garage will not give one of his employees coveralls to wear to work because he’s afraid if anyone found out that the notorious Ricky Ellis was working for him, they’d think he employed criminals.

The father tries desperately to become as American as he can by buying a crapload of tacky lawn ornaments. The younger daughter is embarrassed by this and takes to removing and rehoming them in the middle of the night, but he just buys more. This cycle is somehow symbolic of their relationship. And it’s funny as hell.

The Ties That Bind

Jordan BuildingsThe characters are heavily tinted with Arabism: The women are obsessed with marriage and men and what the are “allowed” to do while the men are obsessed with strippers and American TV and treat women like objects.

Jemorah has internalized rules about being “a good girl”: A good girl does not leave her home. Does not go out in public, does not speak to a man, does not show her ankles, does not talk back to her parents, does not go to school, does not live alone. (There are no rules about what “a good boy” does.) Nonetheless, the Rahmood clan also struggle with the same inter-family issues as Westerners:

“[Rich uncle] Faoud’s mere presence was as oppressive to him as the jinni-heavy lamp had become to Aladdin. Faoud’s personal hobby was cultivating guilt and penance. Ever since Nora’s death, Faoud had made sidelong comments and asked personal, needling questions. How was her typhus caused? How might it have been prevented? Nora must have had a sickly constitution after all.

Jordan Man“The message that Matussem tried to ignore was that he’d been wrong to marry and American. That it was time to marry again, an Arab this time. Still, the mystery and waster of Nora’s early death took root in his heart. From seed so doubt sprouted a garden of shame and regret, leading Matussem to question almost everything: his choice of a job, a home, a school for the girls, and finally a place to raise them. Uncle Fouad, hoe in hand, dug at Matussem, nurturing fear wherever the ground looked fertile. Every hear he began anew. He had as many stories as Shahrazad, regaling his audience with the charms of the Old Country, while pointing out t he vulgarity and all-around inferiority of the New…”

Matussem Rahmood, like many of us, has chosen to leave the spiderweb of his family of origin and strike out on his own, to recreate family in the way he feels it should be, without the clinging death-grip of the past. But, like most of us, he soon discovers the past doesn’t let go without leaving claw marks.

The Last Word

The whole thing was a most enjoyable read and a great study of the inner workings of human beings: Jordinian and American and everything in-between. Five helpings of Mansaf!

PS – I think we have to remember that the ones who leave their country of origin to come to America are always the ones who didn’t like it there – the ones who didn’t fit in. So you can’t look at any country and judge what immigrants from that country to America are like. If they liked it, they’d still be there.

The Frangipani Hotel (Vietnam)

Frangipaniby Violet Kupersmith

I don’t know which season is best for telling ghost stories in Vietnam: Monsoon Season? Here in Spokane, it’s just Autumn. And the short stories in this collection will give you a delicious autumn chill!

I liked some stories better than others, but there were a few that stood out:

1) A granddaughter of a pair of boat people tries to coax a refugee story from her grandmother so she can get an A on her paper in school. Alas, the two do not speak each other’s language. The story the grandmother wishes to tell is not the story the granddaughter wishes to hear.

2) In the title story, a deadly and beautiful Vietnamese spirit takes an obnoxious American businessman for a midnight swim…even knowing how fatal she is, the Vietnamese desk clerk at the hotel can’t help but wonder why he was not chosen…

3) Vietnamese-American sisters are sent to live with their grandmother in the Old Country so that the pudgy sister can lose weight. After three weeks of sneaking out to gobble Banh Mi buns from an English-speaking and curious street vendor, the still-pudgy sister discovers her grandmother’s decomposing body in the back garden. She has been there the whole time…but she has also been questioning Thuy about her life…

Bahn MiWhile many short stories (in general) are nothing more than a clever idea played to its conclusion, these seem to offer a way in to the immigrant / emigrant experience. Like a ghost you can only see from the corner of your eye. What you’re left with is an impression of lingering doubt, confusion, fear, resentment, curiosity, sadness, shame and many other feelings on the part of those who left – and those who stayed.

The Eternal Question

Who has it better – those who left, or those who stayed? Old QuarterObviously America is more wealthy than Vietnam, and less crowded even in its largest cities.

But in the Frangipani Hotel an entire family lives together: Uncle Hung, his two sons and his wife, his dead brother’s wife and son, and his old mother.

Meanwhile in Burbank, the grandmother who was a boat person complains that her grandchildren seldom come to visit, and even her daughter is too busy to make time for her.

Vietnam MapA Korean friend who fled to this country after the war  once confided in me that she thought she had made a mistake. She lives in a large house with her American husband and is wealthy by US standards. But when she visits in Seoul, she is struck by how many family members are constantly in and out of each other’s small apartments – and she feels like a stranger. She misses that closeness with all those people. (Of course, South Korea is not a poor country anymore.)

My own people have been perpetual immigrants to “The New World.” I am the direct descendent (12 times removed) of a pair of Puritans  called John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. More recently, my great-grandfather emigrated to this country from Denmark. He started a sawmill in southern Idaho. My other great-grandfather left England to start a ranch in Arizona. Ancestors on both my mother’s and father’s side came to the US from Ireland before that.

Vietnam IslandI think many Americans share my story; and hold a unique fascination with the drama of immigration. Even the Native Americans are now thought to have come from Asia long ago, via the Arctic Circle.

Violet Kupersmith’s ability to tell a gripping story just adds to the drama. The only story I did not like was the one in which the sorority girl was so mean to the cat. I liked how it informed the story, I just wanted somebody to rescue the poor animal!

Maybe I also didn’t like what it said about female ex-pats who choose to live in a chauvinistic culture and then be offended by it – as I did in Japan.

White Tiger – Dark Heavens Trilogy (Hong Kong)

by Kylie Chan

I really, really love this series!

Disclaimers & Stuff You Need to Know

White Tiger1) The first three books belong to the Dark Heavens trilogy and the second three books are called the Journey to Wudang trilogy. You HAVE TO read them in order so make sure you buy White Tiger first.

2) I’ve resisted selecting these books for months because the author is Australian. However, they’re so good and so soaked with Hong Kong life that I finally gave in.

3) Kylie Chan was married to a man from Hong Kong and lived there for over a decade, so she’s got as much credibility as you can have without being a native. Chan has studied Kung Fu and Tai Chi and blends Tao, Buddhism and Chinese mythology in her fantasy.

White Tiger / Blue Phoenix
Red Dragon

Oh boy, are these books fun! When Australian Emma Donahoe leaves her job at the creepy Kitty Kwok’s kindergarten, she has no idea what she’s getting into. Her new employer John Chen Wu is actually Xian Tien Wu, the Chinese god of martial arts. (Xian means “immortal”.) Emma’s charge Simone, John’s 5-year-old daughter, is constantly under threat from demons. As Emma struggles with her growing attraction to John, she starts developing powers of her own. Look out, Hong Kong!

White Tiger

White Tiger

But John and Emma have a big problem (of course) – John’s human wife was murdered by demons. So he is unable to leave Earth to go refresh his energy in the Celestial Realm. And he’s getting weaker all the time. He needs to stick around for Simone (Si Mun) who needs him. And also, his weakness means Emma can’t touch him – if she does it could kill her. If John is forced to take True Form when his energy is at its lowest, he’ll be stuck in it until he can refresh his energy, which could take from 10 to 100 years.

From yum cha to the competition between Emma and Louise for the most outrageous Hong Kong names to learning some Chinese dialect (they call it Putonghua, we call it Mandarin), I haven’t had so much fun on The Peak since the Anthony Horowitz’s Gatekeeper series. But the Horowitz books are very dark. This series is not. Despite ferocious battles with the Demon King (“Call me George”), Prince Simon Wong (a.k.a. Son Number 122) and various lesser monsters, the main characters remain witty and light-hearted, just the way I like them.

Yum Cha

Yum Cha

Something else that’s unique: Both John and Emma are “cold-blooded”, meaning they are able to lead their people no matter who dies or is kidnapped. They don’t have the same emotional reactions that ordinary humans do. It’s interesting how the author can still portray them as sympathetic characters, despite their seeming lack of compassion or empathy. Hm! Very skillful.

Unique Species

In a refreshing change from the usual werewolves and vampires, these books feature shapeshifters from Chinese mythology:

  • The Four Winds – a Tiger, a Phoenix, a Dragon and John Chen Wu, who is actually a Turtle/Serpent
  • Sentient Shen gemstones who can take human or rock form – headed by the Grandmommy of them all: Uluru (a.k.a. Ayers Rock)
  • The boddisatva Kwan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, a frequent visitor to the Chen household
  • The Jade Emperor, and his court in heaven (full of bureaucracy)
Kwan Yin

Kwan Yin

Unlike Tolkien, not all Chan’s monsters are evil – Some leave Hell and come to the Chen household for sanctuary. If they swear loyalty, they can be “tamed” –  working as servants until they achieve humanity. Meaning the ability to think independently and choose for themselves.

Of Publishers and Authors

If I had one tiny criticism of the first 3 books it would be that the titles don’t match the insides. Yes, the god Bai Hu, the lusty white tiger, is IN the first book, but that story isn’t about him or any problem he has, even remotely. It’s about John and Emma. All the books are. In the second and third books, the Phoenix and the Dragon don’t even enter into the stories until about 3/4ths of the way through.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

It also seems unsatisfactory to me that you have Four Winds and only three books.

But I know what has happened here. The publisher has overruled the author and chosen the titles to be searchable online and have good SEO; or they have done it for some business reason which has nothing to do with the story; which they probably haven’t read.

It’s like when the publishers choose a random cover model for the book. Then you, the reader, become infuriated because Heathcliff sure isn’t blonde, nor is he Fabio! Anyway, this is most likely not the author’s fault…nor her choice. Stupid publishers.

The Last Word

five shumai

Rating: Five shumai!!!

I LOVE this series.

All of you fantasy readers, this is a great one.

Run, do not walk, to your nearest independent bookstore!

Five shumai!

Death of a Monk (Syria)

Death of a Monk

by Alon Hilu

In 1840 in the city of Damascus, Christians falsely accuse the Jews of that city of murdering a monk (and his Muslim servant) to use the blood in baking matzoh. Mobs, riots and torture ensue. It’s called “The Damascus Blood Libel” and it really happened. Around this central seed of history, Israeli author Alon Hilu has sprouted a novel filled with juicy and tormented people who seem so alive.

I guess Christians at the time didn’t know or didn’t care that kosher dietary laws forbid the use of blood in cooking. Wiki says in areas where Jews could fall victim to “blood libels,” their religious authorities forbid them from drinking red wine – for their own safety.

Growing Up

Until now, my blog has avoided coming-of-age stories. Their teen dramas bore me – and I remain spectacularly uninterested in the coming-of-age of boys. Since this novel, like its hairy young narrator, is pre-occupied  with the male organ, I was prepared to dislike it intensely. Except for one thing. He’s gay. In 1840. In the Middle East. All right, I admitted cautiously, now I am interested.

Sucks to be you, Aslan Farhi, for those who dare to act on their homosexuality will be stoned to death.

Consulted after the fact, Wikipedia says the author’s choice to paint Aslan as homosexual “has caused astonishment among historians” – it seems historically likely to me. A priest by the name of Pieritz reported in writing that the real Aslan was “so timid he was afraid to be alone with his wife,” adding that servants were required to sleep in the same bedroom with the couple so as to protect him from her. Hello…

Eventually the fictional Aslan’s longings lead him to a dalliance with the gay, married and Muslim Suleiman Negrin, a poor barber, and also with the pedophilic Father Tomaso – a Capuchin monk.

Courtyard of a Jewish house in Damascus

Courtyard of Jewish house in Damascus

Of Inflatable Dragons

At first I was annoyed that everything in Aslan’s life seems to revolve around his…ejderha. But then I began to view his sexual obsession as the natural consequence of having to repress your entire self.

For Aslan is certainly is not accepted or loved by his family: They reject and judge every aspect of him. He’s too timid to be a man. He prances too much. He’s too spindly / too naughty / too disrespectful:

  • Aslan’s father wants him to be a shrewd businessman who cares for nothing more than adding to the wealth of the family – a strong and clever merchant who can fend off the incursions of rival merchant houses;
  • Aslan’s young wife wants him to be as pious (and as straight) a man as her chief rabbi father and desires that he will immediately impregnate her with a son and;
  • Aslan’s mother wants to treat him like a beloved daughter, playing dress-up with her in her bedroom all day, slathering him with makeup and letting him wear her shoes – but condemns him at night when his father comes home:
A Syrian opposition leader claims the Jews are keeping Assad in power - does this statement sound familiar?

2012 – Syrian opposition leader claims Jews in Damascus really did make those damn blood matzohs out of old Father Toma. Does this guy also believe in the Tooth Fairy?

“Not a soul knew of the garments I would don from time to time, not even the servants toiling in our home. Once, only once, while we were under the mistaken impression that he was off somewhere tending to one of his numerous business concerns, Father returned home early. His shoes hammered the marble floor as he rounded the fish pond while Maman rushed frantically to strip me of my gown and remove the spots of make-up, almost ripping the expensive fabrics from my body so that Father would not catch us in our misconduct…

“And when Father heard all this, his eyebrows became enraged once again, and he said I was worse even than the Harari brothers, may their name and memory be blotted from the earth, and he pushed me outside the room, towards the marble fountain standing in the shade of the apricot tree, and shoved my head into the small fish pond, the permanent residence of the goldfish, and pressed upon my  neck until I choked and retched and did not know what was to become of me, and she called to him from behind, her breasts ample, protruding: “Harder, deeper, teach him a good and bitter lesson.”

It’s no wonder this poor kid is confused. Others in the community resent his wealth and privilege, although he doesn’t much enjoy it. At school, when he is caught holding hands with another boy, the kids revile and stone him. A foretaste of what he will endure if he dares to take his longing any further.

I didn’t quite believe Aslan’s attraction to the singer Umm-Jihan, despite the description of “her manly, muscled chest”. But that’s ok. He thinks for awhile it will rescue him from his longing for men and his inability to be aroused by his wife. Of course, it doesn’t.

Jews / Christians / Muslims

Syria EthnicThe Farhi family are Jews, but they seem to have more in common with the Suleimans of Damascus than the Rothschilds of New York. Of course, the wealthy Farhis aren’t particularly religious, while the Chief Rabbi’s family is extremely poor. (I have observed before that wealth and education tend to lessen religious adherence.)

A little over a year ago, I read The Map of Love for this blog (Egypt). That novel described the shifting alliances of “them” versus “us” and how those tribal lines were re-drawn by the colonial powers using the markers of religion. To me, people who have lived for thousands of years in the same area of the world have more in common with each other than they do with people from over the seas – no matter if those people worship the same gods you do. But here once again we see religion used to split like from like, making it “them” versus “us”. Brrr!

And now, it seems, there are almost no Jewish people left in Syria. Things got so bad for them in the 1970s that a Canadian lady worked to bring almost 3,000 to Canada and Israel. Knowing this lent the novel a little more poignancy.

The Last Word

I would give this novel three apricot trees. While it was too sex-obsessed for my G-rated liking, I think the author did a good job of making history come alive and creating flawed characters that pulled me into the story. I also thought he did a great job of portraying the disgust and dismay felt by many kids as their bodies propel them through puberty, ready or not. And I thought he did a skillful job of describing Damascus and its environs using beautiful, vivid language. As a writer, that was what I enjoyed about this story the most.