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Reviewed by:
  • Our Wealth is Loving Each Other: Self and Society in Fiji
  • Matthew Tomlinson
Our Wealth Is Loving Each Other: Self and Society in Fiji, by Karen J Brison. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7391-1488-9, xix + 150 pages, bibliography, index. US $60.00.

Many scholars would agree that “tradition” and “modernity” are cultural categories through which people evaluate, and sometimes attempt to shape, unfolding social action. Tradition and modernity are invoked as oppositions, each constructed against the other, but in practice they are often not neatly separable. In this regard, one of the delights of Karen J Brison’s Our Wealth Is Loving Each Other is reading the personal accounts of indigenous Fijian women who use both of these categories strategically, and sometimes simultaneously, positioning themselves both as vanguards of the new and defenders of the old. Brison argues that tensions of traditional versus modern are often configured in Fiji as sociocentric versus individualistic orientations: that is, being traditional means working for the social order, whereas being modern means looking out for oneself. The women who tell their life stories in this engaging book have figured out how to be both traditional and modern through “casting communalism as an individual achievement” (10). They insist on their own autonomy, but frame their autonomy as something they exercise for others’ benefit.

The key ethnographic term in the book is vanua, a complex Fijian domain encompassing chiefs and their subjects, land, and traditional practices including ritual exchanges [End Page 495] and kava-drinking ceremonies. The vanua, in indigenous Fijian discourse, invokes passionate senses of belonging to a specific place that has deep roots in the past. One belongs to one’s father’s village, and to the chiefdom of which it is a part; Fiji, as a nation, belongs inalienably to indigenous Fijians (so the reasoning goes) because the Christian God gave it to them. In these senses, the vanua is something of which many Fijians are intensely proud. In vanua terms, one always has a role to play: one is a chief or a commoner, a member of a certain clan, with rights in particular lands and certain ceremonial obligations. These obligations can be rather onerous, especially for women and non-chiefly men. Brison’s interlocutors face the challenge of defining a place for themselves within the vanua that they find satisfying, even as the vanua imposes many constraints and obligations that force people to subvert their individual desires.

After the introductory chapter, in chapter 2 Brison considers the ceremonial speech of isevusevu presentations. In isevusevu, guests and hosts present kava plants, from which a narcotic (and extremely popular) beverage is made. The speeches depict the vanua as sacred and ranked in a precise hierarchy, although Brison observes that many villagers are privately critical of this idealistic view. The heart of the book is chapters 3 through 5, in which women’s life narratives are used to illuminate the broad topics of Christianity, sociocentrism, and modernity. In chapter three, Brison notes how the Methodist Church is often seen as the denomination closest to the vanua, whereas evangelical churches are considered to be globally oriented institutions that challenge (or ignore) the power of local chiefs. In the next chapter, she presents the stories of four women, all of whom give an “account of a properly sociocentric self” (68) by presenting themselves as acting in the best interests of the vanua. The following chapter contains two more life stories, again showing how women depict themselves as both autonomous and community-minded—modern subjects who appreciate tradition. After these core chapters, Brison gives two men’s life stories in chapter 6, and concludes in chapter 7 with an analysis of children’s senses of identity, focusing on their ideologically framed use of different dialects and languages.

Although it is not an explicit topic of the book until the last chapter, Brison makes sharp observations about language ideology in earlier sections, noting how vanua events are often marked by the self-conscious use of local dialects whereas speakers in church tend to use the national standard variety of Fijian, called “Bauan” because it is based on the dialect of Bau...