- Breaking the Shell: Voyaging from Nuclear Refugees to People of the Sea in the Marshall Islands by Joseph H Genz
In Breaking the Shell: Voyaging from Nuclear Refugees to People of the Sea in the Marshall Islands, Joseph Genz gives a firsthand account of the journeys of Captain Korent Joel and, later, Alson Kelen as they ventured to restore wave piloting, the traditional navigation system of Rongelap in the Marshall Islands. A successful voyage would complete Captain Korent's ruprup jokur (breaking the shell) test of expertise, through which he would become a ri-meto—a navigator, but more specifically a person of the sea. Writing from his own perspective, Genz weaves the account by following the framework of bwebwenato (Marshallese storytelling), resulting in a cone- or pyramid-like organization, where the "bottom [or beginning] represents the largely public, accessible, and interconnected forms of knowledge.… A slice in the narrowing of the cone midway represents the increasing restrictions of such elevated fields of knowledge.… The apex—navigation—subsumes everything in the cone, and this is the most carefully guarded realm of knowledge" (12). Each chapter begins with a vignette of the ruprup jokur journey for Captain Korent and, in his own way, Genz. The reader thus receives a progressively more detailed account of the journey and a more [End Page 289] in-depth presentation of Marshallese custom and navigation, as well as general information about Marshallese history, including the plight of the Rongelapese people after US nuclear testing irradiated the island and displaced them. Alongside Genz, the reader is encouraged to reflect on Marshallese concepts and the potential sacrality of some kinds of knowledge. Through this process, the reader begins to value how personal details can enhance the understanding of broader historical, cultural, and political contexts, thereby giving the reader a chance to break the shell with Captain Korent, Kelen, and Genz himself. Through the act of breaking the shell, which invokes the imagery of opening the shell of a turtle to receive the life-giving meat inside, Captain Korent returned this life-giving knowledge back to his Rongelapese people as they sought to navigate their futures and pilot the waves of change that continue to threaten them today.
The opening chapter begins with Genz's own story of sailing across the Ailuk lagoon to Enejelar Island and an exposition of his personal voyage of navigational revival. It also offers the foundational cosmogonies and histories of the Marshallese peoples, which suggest that the Marshallese are truly ri-meto. Chapter two resumes Genz's journey to Enejelar, including a voyage to the ancestral graves of his adoptive Marshallese family. This story skillfully introduces a discussion of the evolution of Marshallese sailing technology and canoe construction alongside the navigational history of the Marshall Islands, integrating oral histories of precolonial and foreign navigator contact. Notably, the canoe becomes a floating classroom, a place to learn how to navigate not just waves but also society.
Chapter three opens with one of the more heart-wrenching vignettes of the book, following Genz as he joins Captain Korent's return to the land and graves of his ancestors, where he mourns the dispossession of both his ancestral lands and ancestral knowledge. Genz uses this story to teach the reader how Indigenous knowledge was safeguarded in the traditional societal structure of the Marshall Islands, reaffirmed through additional bwebwenato, as well as how that structure has been degraded by external forces and further displaced and decimated by nuclear fallout, including both the fallout of radiation sickness and the fallout of lost knowledge. The firsthand accounts of these results of the testing at Bikini are harrowing and humbling; the reader is forced, as far as words are capable, to face the destructive power of a foreign power making war on someone else's soul and soil.