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  • The Other Side: Ways of Being and Place in Vanuatu
  • Lisa Humphrey
The Other Side: Ways of Being and Place in Vanuatu, by John Patrick Taylor. Pacific Islands Monograph Series 22. Honolulu: Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai'i, and University of Hawai'i Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8248-3302-2, xiv + 238 pages, maps, table, figures (photographs, diagrams, drawings), notes, glossary, references, index. Cloth, US$52.00.

John Patrick Taylor's The Other Side: Ways of Being and Place in Vanuatu is a welcome contribution to the anthropological literature of the Pacific. In the six chapters (plus prologue and epilogue) that make up the book, Taylor sets out to explore "ways of being and place" among the Sia Raga people of north Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, a hitherto relatively little-studied region of the archipelago. The book is well written, well researched, and ambitious in theoretical scope. For example, Taylor incorporates his insights about the ways in which the Sia Raga perceive their world and their place in it into broader anthropological discussions about the relationship between history and structure, and between cultural categories and practice. Taylor's work should thus also appeal to a wider readership interested in anthropological (and historical) concerns and debates not limited to the Pacific region.

Taylor draws heavily on his 1999-2000 doctoral research in north Pentecost to develop the book's central thesis. He argues that there is a recurring structural similarity perceptible across the Sia Raga cultural landscape, a "basic analogical pattern" through which the Sia Raga "locate their sociological and cosmological understandings in space and time" (4). Taylor identifies in particular two guiding principles that he sees repeatedly giving shape to Sia Raga thought, expression, practice, and material design: the processes of trajectory (movement) and division (splitting), and the division of the world into multiple dualities or "sides," each engaged in creative tension with its partnered other. Taylor sees these principles expressed in the shared shapes and tropes of historical and cosmological narratives and diagrams, sand drawings, textile designs, kinship relationships and practices, the organization of space and living habitats, and the architecture of "men's houses" and ordinary dwellings.

Taylor is careful to acknowledge early and often the seductive yet misleading power of such conceptual structures—how they seem "to say at once everything and nothing" (108). The elegant outlines in diagrams will inevitably blur in practice. Taylor claims to only understand the recurring patterns he sees as elusive, partial forms, "being at parts overdrawn and at others incomplete" (5). Yet he also convincingly sustains a book-long argument that these perceptible but always-elusive conceptual structures are made importantly manifest in Sia Raga thoughts, expressions, and actions, often self-consciously so. [End Page 221]

For example, Taylor sees trajectory and division in the narrative shape of the often-told "Story of Jimmy" (the analytical centerpiece of chapter 2), a story detailing the arrival, wanderings, and eventual departure of the person said to be the first white man to come to north Pentecost. Taylor also sees in this story a profoundly tension-filled duality being negotiated and reconciled by the Sia Raga storytellers between the Sia Raga ways and the ways of foreigners. Thus Jimmy converts at least in part to Sia Raga kastom before he leaves Pentecost, and in turn he promises a future of Western goods flowing into the island. Taylor perceives this uneasy articulation and opposition between Sia Raga and foreign ways to be so important to the Sia Raga cultural environment that he returns to it in various ways throughout the book, framing most of his discussions with an apprehension of these sides.

In chapter 4, Taylor pursues trajectory and division in Sia Raga marriages and exchanges with other groups. He encounters sides in the dual (and sometimes dueling) exogamous moieties that make up Sia Raga society and identity. In chapter 5, Taylor sees trajectory, division, and sides in Sia Raga settlement patterns, and in the dynamic uses of living space according to shifting notions of gender and the sacred. In chapter 6, Taylor sees trajectory, division, and opposed yet mutually supportive sides embedded both literally and symbolically in the design...


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