“Do women still wear grass skirts with no tops on, or do you still live in thatched roof houses?“
Short Stories from Small Islands: Tales Shared in Palau.
Edited by Alan Dean Foster
When I embarked on this book tour and looked at the list of all the countries in the world I knew Palau would be difficult, mainly because it is so seldom mentioned in the media that my knowledge of the country was next to nothing.
These suspicions appeared to be confirmed after reading its wikipedia page, after my experience in finding books for other smaller countries I suspected that it would be a struggle to source a book (or any fiction) from this island nation of 250 islands with a population of just some 20,000.
Ann Morgan, the inspiration of this blog who I have referenced so frequently, crossed Palau off her list by reading the unpublished work of a Canadian writer residing in Palau and married to a Palauan, not sure if this option would be possible for me (Ann Morgan contacted the author directly) I decided that I would do my best to find some other (any) fiction from someone born and bred in the country.
A wikipedia page led to an article which led to a blog and eventually I stumbled across this collection of short stories, assembled as part of 2004’s Festival of Pacific Arts hosted in Palau and I counted my lucky stars to see that it included original fiction from at least three native Palauans (the other writers being from elsewhere who came to live and work in Palau). A request to my local library was put in and a few days later I had a copy in my hands!
In the introduction to the book, editor Alan Dean Foster explains that these stories are the product of a creative writing seminar held during the festival and that for most of the authors it is their first publication. The day-to-day life encountered in these short stories is perhaps best summed up by Foster himself when he says” “not every incident need be world shaking, or the stuff of legends…people are people wherever they are“.
The first story, written by a writer named Faith Swords from Angaur is a retelling of the creation myth of Palau called Uab: the Giant who made the Palau Islands.
This legend, reminiscent of some of the Marshall Island tales, recounts the tale of Uab. Born of a giant clam and raised by fishermen, who are soon shocked by this”magical and unique” infant who grows “as tall as a soaring bamboo tree with a waist as wide as ten trunks of coconut trees put together“. The giant Uab subsequently eats the fishermen out of house and home and soon there is not enough food for him to eat or cloth to cover him.
As Uab sickens and realises he is not long for this world, he decides to give the islanders a present of “many beautiful islands to make your homes” before he dies as a thank you for their efforts in raising him.
Wilfully disintegrating his body in front of their eyes and turning himself to dust, the islanders soon notice that wherever the dust lands in the sea islands spring up, thus creating Palau as we know it.
Local legend also has it that the inhabitants that live on the islands derived from Uab’s head are the smartest, the inhabitants that live on the islands made from his legs are the fastest runners and those from his stomach islands eat the most food!
Not limited to myths and legends, the following story by a Palauan, Revealing Experience by Carla Polloi, a poet and English teacher of the 6th and 8th grade from Angaur, is a bit more realistic.
Set on Hawaii, the story follows Audra Rence, who is informed by her brother Jason that his friend Ongos is coming to stay with her.
The main plotpoint being that they have been secretly in love with each other for 5 years, the emotion of their first meeting captured with sublime similes by Polloi, who describes Audra’s “heart racing like a seagull hard against a strong breeze” and Ongos feeling that he “learned the lesson to a lifelong question” when he sees her.
A rom-com-esque scenario ensues when Audra lustfully watches Ongos emerge from the sea after a swim and Ongos surprises Audra coming out of the shower so that she drops her towel.
Polloi also does a good job of presenting the Palauan experience of explaining where one’s country is is (to those of us who have very little idea) through Ongos’ memories of teaching in the States. Palau, he says is “somewhere around the vicinity of the Philippines and Japan or it is in the vicinity of Guam or Hawaii“, hoping they don’t ask for distances.
An unexpected denouement made this sweet story feel like it was wrenched away from the reader, so if you ever get your hands on a copy – be prepared for a shock on the final page.
The final story, The Darkness of Light by Philip N Haruo, a journalist, educator and employee of the Minister of Education in Palau, portrays the outcome of pursuing education while neglecting one’s roots.
The story opens with a man crying by the ruin of a house , we are told that “schooling kidnapped him from his home” until such a point 18 years later when he endeavours to return to “bring his parents into the light” i.e. educate them to the modern world.
Emotional and surprised at finding his boyhood home a ruin, he is challenged by an old man who claims not to know him, “the number of people I have buried on this land far surpasses the years you have lived” and it is revealed the man has been away so long that his parents have passed on. Haruo states that “education and a different life had made him shine. His brightness shaded his past and he forgot who he was“.
So don’t forget your roots, or you can’t go home again – or something like that.
Apart from presenting some interesting writing from a little-known place, the book Short Stories From Small Islands is a beautiful object in itself. The cover image depicts a Palauan storyboard, and each story is wonderfully illustrated with woodcut prints (see above), with endpapers that seem to be handmade paper with whole leaves and stems pressed into them, which made reading this book an aesthetic joy to read as well as a cerebral one.