edited by Larry Thomas
When this collection arrived in the mail from London, I could hardly contain my excitement. The packaging was magic! Niue (KNEE-way)? My friend from New Zealand says “NEW-eh.” Anyway Niue Island is close to New Zealand, and not much has been written about it.
In 1998, a man called Larry Thomas hosted a writing workshop on the island. This tiny collection of stories, creative non-fiction, and poetry from islanders is the result. They’re not James Patterson or Anne Lamott, they’re just regular people taking a writing class.
Despite this, their work is very good. Sure, being a crack editor myself, I could edit the volume into an even better place (I was bothered by the redundant phrase “I rushed hastily…”) but I know these are amateurs doing their best. Perfection isn’t the point. Learning about Niue is.
Some of the writers are obviously locals:
- Fanaga Elisoni
- Fakahula Mitinieli Funaki
- Hema Ashoka
- Ligi Siosua Sisikefu
And some are not:
- Pat Douglas
- Susan Elliot
One of my superpowers is to be able to tell someone’s ethnicity from their last name. Including names most Americans are not familiar with, like Turkish and Basque. But these defeated me. They seem vaguely Japanese-Polynesian and yet that isn’t quite right.
Wiki says that Niuean is a member of the Malayo-Polynesian subgroup of Austronesian languages. It is most closely related to Tongan. It is also related to Hawaiian, Maori, and Samoan. Hmm. I used to know how to count to 5 in Tongan, courtesy of a sweet man I taught English with in Japan. His name was Ralph, he had giant red glasses, and he had lived on Tonga for something like 20 years, where he taught English to the King of Tonga’s children while their father’s pigs rooted around under the house on stilts (Ralph’s, not the King’s.) He had left Tonga to meet English-speaking women, but spoke of it fondly.
What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Nothing, as it turns out. The stories in this collection are people’s memories of their grandparents or themselves (one woman was born in 1946 and grew up on the island. Her grandpa had to ride a horse to school. It was difficult to get an education. Some of the kids had to go away to New Zealand to boarding schools.) There are a couple stories by 7th Day Adventists. There are poems about leaving the island and the sense of loss, and about island life changing. There is a funny story about someone’s dog who is obsessed with chewing up their underwear (pretty much like dogs everywhere) and one about a vegetarian couple trying to get enough to eat at the Friday market.
My favorite story was by J. Vatorata Rex: “The Beehive Kid”.
The Beehive Kid
Beehive is a New Zealand brand of matches with a pretty red and black striped cover, and Mr. Rex as a small child was a firebug. He used to get into trouble with his cousin and you can guess what happened next. For years after the two set the garage on fire, thanks to a Yamaha motorcycle leaking fuel, Mr. Rex’s uncle had a special word for them. When they “got too big for their britches”, the uncle would tease them by calling them “the flaming Yamaha kids”.
Another woman’s grandpa would sooth her to sleep when she talked too much by telling her she had “tractors” in her head, making a lot of noise and running around. He would calm the tractors down and she would drift right off as the two sat under the mango tree.
It is clear that whatever else went on in Niue, there was a lot of love and family connection. A lot of time spent together, with not so many worldly possessions. And, as one poem makes clear, it is hard to live your life when everybody is all up in your business, all the time.
One story has to do with the tradition of pia making. Pia seems to be some kind of tapioca, which is made from arrowroot. The by-products are poisonous so you have to be really careful. Traditionally, women and girls who are menstruating are not allowed near the process. (I was offended…First of all, it’s none of your damn business…I remember visiting a mosque in Malaysia and having the guide make this same announcement. Excuse me, and just how are you going to know? Angry face. I always feel like saying “And what about men with erections?”)
Anyway back to the pia making, my only criticism of this book is that there are many terms in Niuean that they just don’t tell you what they mean. I figured out through context that the uga is a coconut crab, but what is luku? What is naane?
Lavakula the Warrior
The story I thought needed the most help but didn’t get it was the first one in the collection: Lavakula the Warrior. It is a tale of long-ago Niue, which is very interesting. However, the main character, a warrior who goes to another village and is insulted by the people, then gets his people to make war on them, has some plot shifts which don’t make sense. At first, Lavakula’s people support him and can’t wait to kill the others. Once this is done and they return home, the other village resolves to kill Lavakula.
Now, the warrior has been described until now as fearless, but suddenly he cowers and cringes and is afraid. His friends and family turn on a dime, from being supportive to ignoring and mocking him. Why? Even his wife suddenly despises him. Maybe this story makes sense to the islanders, but it sure didn’t to me. Also, what’s up with the hand-drawn illustration of “Lavakula Defecating”…???
Altogether though, this was a fascinating peek at an isolated culture.
Rating: Four ugas eating coconuts!