The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 299-301
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Islands of the Frigate Bird
Islands of the Frigate Bird, a novel by Daryl Tarte. Suva, Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 1999. ISBN 982-02-0147-0, 206 pages. Paper, US$18.
Islands of the Frigate Bird brings together Banaban, Gilbertese, Bikinian, and white colonial experiences of the twentieth century in a fictional tale of male travel and survival. Tarte sets up the story as a genealogy that links different characters and events, from the beginning of time, two and a half billion years ago, to the future 2234, and ultimately to a group of voyagers who sailed east from Southeast Asia and landed on Banaba "prehistorically." What follows is a fragmented saga of colonization, mining, world war, nuclear testing, and the woes of [End Page 299] patrolling oceanic exclusive economic zones, all viewed briefly through the eyes of Islander and European male protagonists. It starts in the future with one particular descendant named Ion Itabirik, rewriting his ancestral stories. Thanks to global warming, his roots have been swallowed up by the ocean, displacing many atoll-dwelling folk to countries like Australia where Itabirik now lives.
Though the book is fiction, the linking of individuals from five seemingly separate island groups is useful. In terms of current approaches to Pacific Studies it is important to understand that Islanders are both genealogically and historically connected to each other by their own agency as well as through powerful forces like European imperialism and war. This challenges the idea that islands and ethnic communities are discrete and isolated and can be studied in such a way. Tarte connects destructive processes like phosphate mining and nuclear testing in an innovative way via the location, travel, and epistemological orientations of descendants of Pacific voyagers. This technique illustrates the inevitably cross-cultural experiences of many Islanders in terms of their contemporary relationships, and genealogical and colonial roots. Tarte also highlights an ecological link between Islanders, their environments, and some of the animals that inhabit them, like sharks, tuna fish, and frigate birds.
I read this book while visiting two of the main featured islands--South Tarawa and Banaba. The bloody story of the Japanese-American battle off the shores of Betio was particularly vivid for me, as I slept a five-minute walk from old bunkers and battle guns. The story was relevant and interesting for my own thesis work on Banaban and Gilbertese historical experiences. It pays tribute to the lives of many central Pacific Islanders who were involved in some of the most profound environmental upheavals of the twentieth century.
Despite its interest for me, I think many readers will find the style of writing dry and sometimes disturbing. Tarte racializes most of the characters in stereotypic form: "I glanced at my young brother Titika and the other two as they stirred from their uncomfortable sleep. They were thick chunky men like me with narrow slits of eyes and dark wavy hair" (18). I don't think it is an effective narrative strategy to have the Islander storytellers describing each other in the language of Eurocentric anthropology. The Asian visitors go on to view the Banaban indigenes:
A number of short, very dark skinned naked people with crinkled matted hair chattered in a strange tongue & "They smell us," I whispered. One of the men issued a command, and the whole tribe scattered into the nearby scrub, squealing like pigs. After they disappeared, we went into the filthy primitive encampment & If we were to stay on this island, we would need women. I was sure that the men would only cause trouble. We would have to get rid of them & The attack went as planned. Before the men realized what was happening, we had cut their throats, ripped open their stomachs and clubbed them to death & None got away. (21)
These Asian colonizers were then instructed to stroke the women and children like wild animals to reduce their fear. After a while they became dependent on these men, bore them [End Page 300...