- Making Sense of Micronesia: The Logic of Pacific Island Culture by Francis X Hezel, sj
Making Sense of Micronesia sensitively and vividly depicts the cultures of Micronesia for readers unfamiliar with the region and its inhabitants. Drawing on more than four decades of personal experiences as a Jesuit priest and based on insights gleaned from interviews, conversations, and research, Francis X Hezel engagingly presents his own process of slowly stumbling toward cultural knowledge. Shaped by embarrassing moments, awkward encounters, and cultural collisions, the result is an enjoyable glimpse—what he at one point terms a “cultural guidebook” (165)—into the general cultural patterning of the Islanders of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau. As Hezel acknowledges, many features of this synthesis may resonate with other island groups in Micronesia and the broader Pacific.
After the introductory chapter on the history of cultural change and the social context of Micronesia, the book’s twelve main chapters each delve into and seek to illuminate one key aspect of general Micronesian culture that may seem at first glance to be mystifying to foreigners. After opening each chapter with a revealing vignette, Hezel examines each theme from his emergent understanding of the ways in which Micronesians think about each topic while also suggesting how the underlying traditions have been changing even as they endure. Although the chapters build on each other, they can also be read as stand-alone sections focusing on and highlighting particular themes. For instance, in the first two chapters Hezel writes of the persistence of a personalized face to every aspect of Island life, and he connects this to the primacy of a collective identity and the importance of cooperation and solidarity. These three “peaks in the cultural landscape” (166) are carefully interwoven in the remaining chapters, which speak to the following issues: generosity and the redistribution of wealth; circumspection and the guarding of information; the importance and meaning of silences when communicating; the significance of strong forms of respect; the private and familial nature of sex; the strict division of labor and the indirect power of women in society; culturally patterned emotional responses of love, affection, uncertainty, and loss; and culturally mediated mechanisms for coping with conflict. In the summary chapter, Hezel importantly outlines the ways in which the traditional Micronesian worldview clashes with the contemporary aims of foreign-imposed economic development.
In this work, Hezel complements [End Page 569] his more academic treatment of related topics in The New Shape of Old Island Cultures: A Half Century of Social Change in Micronesia (2001). By chronicling his own reallife experiences and those of others in the tradition of the best reflective ethnographic writing, he brings the narrative to life while underscoring a lifetime’s dedication to understanding local people and their beliefs and practices. For instance, we witness the tragedy of a teenager named Tomaso, who committed suicide after his father’s refusal of a request for money; we feel the confusion and embarrassment when a volunteer compliments the beauty of a student’s sister; we notice an apparent and perhaps misleading lack of affection between a husband and wife when one of them departs on an international flight; and we follow Hezel to the woods after a memorable meal where he vomits up his dinner with complete lack of secrecy. Having spent considerable time in the region, I can relate to the poignancy of nearly every vignette with great empathy.
Hezel acknowledges the possibilities and limitations of this approach. Caught in a nearly timeless present, a deliberate blurring of the complexities of the numerous Island societies within this region enables Hezel to generalize about a singular Micronesian culture in comparative counterpoint to a Western worldview. This works. The many vignettes, written for broad appeal, resonate with anyone who has either spent time in Micronesia or has engaged with Micronesians abroad, and this invites the...