Oceania: Wrap-up!

The final month of my Own Voices Global Reading Challenge proved to be the most difficult yet, which is why this post is so late in reaching the blog. I have tried to be extremely diligent about getting my monthly TBR for this challenge prepared well in advance so that I have time find the novels I want to read — as the pandemic has made getting access to borrowed books much harder — but all my preparation was for naught! This month really put me through the wringer.

The first obstacle was finding authors. Since Oceania is dominated by Australia in the Western mind, it was difficult to find lists that weren’t prioritizing white voices. Then, there was the added obstacle of finding anything published from a lot of these smaller island nations in the Pacific — I would say that arguably indigenous Pacific voices are the most silenced in the book world. Name one indigenous Oceanic writer. I’ll wait.

So, from the get go, my pool of pickings for novels was microscopic. Luckily for me, I found this incredible resource in my hunting. I stumbled across Anita Heiss’s list of indigenous Australian and New Zealand writers. I really felt like I struck gold. Not only did this list prioritize indigenous voices, but it was so big! I just knew I was bound to find something that I liked.

Reader, of the 100 titles on this list, not one. single. title. was available in ebook format from my library (nor were there other titles from any of the authors), and only about 15 or so of them were available in ebook format on Amazon (paid only), with most being completely unavailable at all in any format. My herculean task leveled up.

I had to start from the beginning again. I was so angry and devastated. An entire region of the world was closed off to me. I hadn’t encountered anything like this in my challenge so far.

I ended up pivoting back to a list of New Zealand writers. Indigenous narratives from New Zealand seem to be the most available in the entire region, and probably this has something to do with how great (not perfect) New Zealand is at recognizing, uplifting, and funding indigenous people in that country. New Zealand has a pretty good track record with a lot of issues in the world — looking at how wonderfully they handled the coronavirus is of course quite relevant to mention — but more on New Zealand below.

I also ended up with a list of novels from indigenous Hawaiians, which helped me to find a really great novel about Hawaiian culture and history. I didn’t think much about including Hawaii in my initial search, but when I actually read a novel about Hawaii and its history, I realized how much of an oversight it was for me to exclude them from the region simply because they are an American state. As I read the novel, I realized how much of a blindspot I have when it comes to Hawaii, how we aren’t educated at all about the history of those islands we call a state, and how I just dumbly assumed that Hawaii was American and thus couldn’t teach me anything about the Pacific world. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating — I’ve learned so much about the world, my biases, and the United States by doing this reading challenge. I’ve found blindspots, identified biases, and come to terms with a lot of things I never stopped to think about before.

So, long story short, I ended up buying two books off Thriftbooks — Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport, and The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera. I placed my order in the first week of December. They didn’t arrive until the final days of the month. Like so many other packages, the combination of a defunded, threatened, and under-appreciated postal service, a global pandemic, and the holiday season saw my books lost in the void of wherever packages go after they ship and before they arrive in my mailbox. As if I wasn’t stressed enough with the end of the month approaching without any way to work on my challenge!

But the books did arrive, and I was able to read them within the first week of the new year, which wasn’t ideal, but got the job done.

So, without further ado (haven’t we waited long enough?!), here is what I read for Oceania in December (kinda).

What I Read

Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport (Hawaii): This is one hell of a book. I was a little thrown by its heft when it arrived, stressed as I was about finishing the two books in the two days remaining of the year, and though I struggled to keep into it at a few points in the middle, by the end, I wanted another 500 pages. This novel tells the story of several generations of Hawaiian women, framed around the story of four cousins growing up over summers at their forbidding grandmother’s home in Hawaii. It covers almost every aspect of Hawaiian history, from the age before white colonists, to the recent decades where Hawaiian sovereignty has been a question again, a mere sixty years after it was annexed by the United States. I learned so much about Hawaiian history and culture from this novel. Before, I knew about Hawaiian volcanoes from years of science education about geology, a little from Lilo and Stitch, and passing comments from my grandparents who visited once in the early 2000s (birds in the airport is about as far as it goes). My idea about Hawaii was really put into an embarrassing perspective by this novel. I caught myself thinking about this novel as a mature Hawaiian Little Women, but by the end of the novel, I had to put it in a class of its own. It should be essential reading for all Americans. (Lots of trigger warnings in this novel, so please proceed with caution if you are sensitive!)

The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (New Zealand): In the introduction to the American edition of this novel, Ihimaera says that he wrote this story after his daughter asked him why only boys got to have great adventures and be the chosen ones. After reading the novel, I can say that I definitely see how Ihimaera crafted a story where the main character had to prove herself worthy of her birthright, a task complicated by the fact of her gender. Still, this is such a hugely masculine novel. Kahu, our protagonist, is lovable and plucky, but the story is less about her than it is about how the men in her life perceive her, how they uplift or cast her down, how they ultimately are the ones in control of her fate. The novel is less about Kahu realizing her own power and earning her rightful place in the tribe than it is about her yearning for the attention of her sexist great-grandfather and trying to make herself worthy of his affection and attention. The story is told from a male point of view, the mythology and tribal culture portrayed is entirely masculine, and the conclusion for me felt less like “women are equal to men” than it was “Kahu is not like other girls and thus is exempt from the way we treat other girls.” There were two women in the entire story, and we mostly just heard about how they looked and how they felt about the men around them. Definitely not passing the Bechdel test here. Still, I really liked learning about Maori mythology and customs, and felt that Ihimaera wrote very beautifully.

Further Reading

  • Pacific Islanders on TikTok: Say what you want about TikTok, but this year in particular, I’ve found it an immense window into the world. Across the globe, teens are creating content that not only shows off some dance moves or shares a funny joke, but more and more teens are using the platform to share their cultures, histories, and worlds with others. In particular, I remember Pacific Islander TikTok really taking off as users like @salinaborja, @alohaitschelie, and @kkymonn show other teens aspects of their cultures from Guam, Hawaii, and Tonga (along with Dine/Navajo culture) respectively. I think Pacific Islander culture, specifically Polynesian culture, has been little more in our worldview as Americans with the popularity of Disney’s Moana and the rise of stars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Samoa), Jason Momoa (Hawaii), and Taika Watiti (Maori), but it’s really great to see regular teenagers sharing their lives and experiences, promoting activism, and connecting with others from across the globe. There has been some issue with the rise in popularity of Pacific Islander culture — in one notable instance, pop star Jason Derulo stole a sample made by TikToker Joshua Styla, a New Zealand teen who made the beat as a reflection of the music culture of Polynesia. Styla eventually got the recognition he deserved, but the instance shows how easily American greed can still harm indigenous people in the region.
  • New Zealand and Representation: As we end another election year, probably one of the most insane of all time, I can’t help but think about how well our elected officials actually represent us as a nation. In 2019, we saw the most diverse group of freshman lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and in 2020, we elected the first ever woman, and first ever woman of color to the highest position a woman has ever held in American government when we saw Kamala Harris take the stage alongside president-elect Joe Biden. Still, I think for a lot of Americans, this year has really put into perspective how little our government officials really care about us — from their bickering over a pittance of a stimulus check nearly a year into a pandemic, to their lying about voter fraud and refusal to accept the will of the American voting public with their baseless claims about the outcome of the presidential election. All the while we’ve been dealing with rampant idiocy from DC, we’ve watched New Zealand not only handle the pandemic with skill and grace, but we’ve also seen what nations could look like if they were helmed by women. I was interested in their success and did a little digging, and surprise! surprise! they not only elected a woman to lead them, but they regularly elect people who look (and live) like they do. Half of their legislative body is female, they have the most LGBT+ representation in the world, and their minority communities are so well represented, that they can once again decide the fate of their ancestral land. The US, in contrast, is not only vastly white (4 out of 5 members are white), but doesn’t even come close to actually representing the diversity in the nation. Despite being over 50% of the American population, only 30% of legislators were women. Hispanic Americans make up nearly 20% of the population and were represented in 2017 at a measly 7%. Hopefully, things will start to turn around with our next administration, as Biden is already making historic moves in appointing his cabinet. I’m by no means saying that New Zealand is perfect — only pointing out that before saying that American is the best country in the world, we either reconsider, or clarify by pointing out who it’s the best in the world for.

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