Decolonization in Tahiti

Decolonization in Tahiti

Eye on the Indies:
A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Review Editor

Pina by Titaua Peu, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, introduction by Rajiv Mohabir (Brooklyn, NY: Restless Books, August 16, 2022; 320 pp.; ISBN 978163206155; $18.00 paper; also available as ebook). First published as Pina by Au vent des îles, Pape’ete, Tahiti, 2016.

“Yours, you say? How so? Because you have set foot here? If one day a Tahitian were to arrive on your shores and carve into one of your stones or the bark of one of your trees: ‘This land belongs to the people of Tahiti’, what would you say then?”

—Denis Diderot, Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage, 1772
(Caroline Warman, editor/translator, et al.)

Cover design by Jamie Keenan

As autumn portends colder weather ahead, tropical islands on the other side of the globe can beckon. Travel brochures entice with relaxing descriptions such as the following:

“Spend 10 luxurious days and nights among the tranquil lagoons and ethereal waterfalls of the South Pacific. Board in Papeete (Tahiti) and set out for an island-hopping adventure. French Polynesia strings together a trove of tropical sights and sounds. Climb aboard a catamaran in Moorea or take an off-road safari to look for plump pineapples ripening in the fields. Watch dolphins dip and dive in Rangiroa and bob in the blue waters of Bora Bora. From beaches to boats to bottlenose dolphins—this cruise is a welcome respite from the winter blues.”

Such an idyllic description, however, is a far cry from how Tahitian author Titaua Peu depicts those same coral reefs in her novel Pina, newly translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman. She offers instead a disturbing portrait of colonialism’s lasting footprint there. It contrasts sharply with the serene Polynesian paintings of Paul Gauguin. Pina garnered the 2019 French Voices Award Grand Prize in Fiction from the French Embassy, which noted how Peu presented “the other side of glossy postcard photos.” The book also contains a prologue, as well as a note on pronunciation of Tahitian words.

Pina is not a tale of the noble savage in need of saving. Peu constructs her story around a people struggling with domestic violence, alcoholism, destitution, incest, and murder amid the loss of their cultural identity and the lasting effects of French nuclear testing there. She employs a potent lens to examine these descendants of the Mā’ohi warriors who tried to fend off European settlers in the Kingdom of Tahiti and succeeded—until 1880 that is, when France annexed it as a colony. The official Tahiti website today reads: “Now officially known as French Polynesia, Tahiti is an autonomous overseas country of the French Republic.” It’s the most populous of France’s six territories abroad in 2022, according to World Population Review.

Peu builds her coming-of-age family saga around the nine-year-old protagonist of the book’s title. Pina lives in poverty with her parents, Ma and Auguste, and some of her siblings in the village of Tenaho, east of Papeete “[w]edged into a valley.” Everybody there knows the family “with too many kids.”

Auguste rages when he’s on one of his alcoholic binges, often attacking Pina but not really sparing anyone in his family, particularly his wife. Ma’s been angry with Pina since she was pregnant with her, and the fact that Pina was born a daughter rather than a son didn’t help matters any. When Auguste hits his wife, you can be sure Ma will pass it on.

Pina does her best to protect her younger sister, Moïra. Sixteen-year-old Pauro remains close to his sisters as he becomes romantically involved with François, a French archaeologist doing his research in Tahiti. Rosa, fifteen and Ma’s favorite, sells herself, pimped by Georges. There’s also brother Auguste Jr., twenty-five and a pyromaniac who “wants to expel the Other.” Two other siblings, Xavier and Gilles, live with their grandparents on the island of Huahine. Catherine, adopted by a French couple, lives in Paris. Another sister, Hannah, also lives in Paris employed by her lover, Bertrand, at his art gallery. She ponders her childhood and what booze did to her father. Michel, Hannah’s Paris ami, accompanies her back to Tahiti after a letter from Ma arrives.

Roméo, an older gang leader held back a few grades, shares a desk with Pina in school, which Pina describes: “…the classroom looks like this: in front are the students with blond hair. In the middle are the ones with black hair, but they’re little Chinese kids. And at the back, there’s us, the kids from here. Well, everyone’s from this neighborhood. It’s just that we’re not Chinese, and we don’t have light hair. Our hair is very, very dark brown. The class is a bit mixed, it’s colorful, some at the top, some at the bottom. Maybe that’s mean but that’s honest.”

Funny how life can change in an instant though, isn’t it? After a tragic car accident involving Auguste as a drunk driver, the family dynamic is never the same again. Auguste lands in the hospital in a coma. Maui, a police inspector, enters the storyline as a crucial character investigating the crash that killed a woman named Nora. She was married to John, a former antinuclear/anticolonialism activist to whom Ma now turns for company. Ma’s sister, Aunt Poe, is the family rock. She’s married to Teanuanua, a Protestant pastor. They have twenty children.

That’s a lot of folks for any author to juggle in a manuscript. A Cast of Characters would have been a helpful reading aid to include. Still, Titaua Peu retains absolute control of her composition as she weaves in each person to represent a different aspect of the issues confronting the island, such as prostitution or  homophobia. The evolving literary handbook of troubles maintains a steady background drumbeat. Before missionaries replaced Tahitian music with hymns, ancient rhythms and dances actually served as a way for islanders to share their folklore, such as the legend of the breadfruit tree. Peu imitates this age-old jungle tempo on paper to emphasize her island’s former identity “whitewashed” by Europeans.

Her genius, though, is that she doesn’t stop there. Against that earlier way of life, she juxtaposes the alterations wrought by colonizers on her society as only a Tahitian author could do. Rajiv Mohabir’s strong introduction to Pina, “On Oceania, Translation, and Representation,” makes that point powerfully clear when he writes: “Pina is a Polynesian writer’s wresting back the control of narrative….”

On the other side of the globe, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, winner of the 2007 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction, performed a similar feat in his 1959 novel Things Fall Apart. Playing on a phrase from Yeats in the poem “The Second Coming,” Achebe wrote (speaking of “the white man”): “He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Just as jazz music sprang from New Orleans in reaction to the identity struggles of African Americans in a white social order, Titaua Peu composes what one might call jazz literature in her novel as she spreads the creative freedom of protest to the Pacific. Many of Peu’s observations of Tahiti are sadly true of other islands flung across the largest ocean in the world. The Pacific sprouts close to thirty thousand of them throughout Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia combined. Why, this entire marine basin is larger than all the continents smashed together—as well as the deepest body of water on the planet.

Due to the remoteness of reefs from one another, as well as the variety of foreign powers occupying them over the centuries, these land masses cannot really unify. When you consider as well their language differences and distinct cultural heritages, it’s no wonder. And keep in mind, a few of these islands will be some of the first to disappear as global warming melts polar ice.

Peu’s portrait of Polynesia demonstrates the corrosive trickle-down effects of colonialism from generation to generation as they eventually erode into a polyglot culture unrecognizable to either colonizers or those colonized. Consider, for example,  the ironic consequences of Western gastronomic enchantments (say, canned Spam or powdered Tang) introduced to islands already abundantly overflowing with Nature’s bounty of seafood and jungle fruits. The results of diet modifications brought from afar have over time generated the high rates of obesity and diabetes present among all Pacific islanders today.

The novel points up the influence of patriarchy on masculinity and how that ties in to prejudice against gays and encourages misogyny. Pina shows the influence of individualism on a collectivist society. Peu effectively parses domestic violence, offering each perspective by incorporating the polyphonic voices of husband, wife, family members, neighbors, and community.

Staring down both the causes and repercussions of drinking, Peu hands one character a match, and watches him light a flame rather literally in her novel. Perhaps she intended the subsequent explosion as a symbol standing for the almost two hundred nuclear tests France conducted in Polynesia between 1966 and 1996 (according to a 2021 BBC report). These blasts showered (without warning) around 110,000 residents of Tahiti with radioactive fallout—adding cancer to the ills already unleashed from Pandora’s Box in the Pacific by Others from elsewhere. Earlier, of course, in Micronesia, the nuclear testing program of the United States “drenched the Marshall Islands with firepower equaling the energy yield of 7,000 Hiroshima bombs” (quoting a 2022 Scientific American article by Hart Rapaport and Ivana Nikolić Hughes).

Titaua Peu
Author photo © Martin Coeroli

Pau’s earlier novel, Mutismes: E ’Ore te Vāvā (“Silences: It’s Not Too Late”), delved into the elective mutism due to shame around radiation-induced illnesses in Tahiti. Here in her second novel, however, the author’s focus shifts as she advances the story arc around forces building up to the 2016 independence referendum in Tahiti, the year Pina was first published in French there. The outcome of that vote five years ago illustrated a burgeoning decolonization movement and a quest for greater autonomy by islands trivialized for too long.

When Titaua Peu ignites that match in Pina, she illuminates Tahiti as a broad metaphor epitomizing tropical struggles all across the Pacific. Exotic glamorous islands? That image is convenient for the travel industry. Peu’s literary offering begs dispensation for these sultry atolls that have been baked by far more than the equatorial sun. As dissatisfaction mushrooms into a cloud, the fallout could have long-lasting ramifications. Several months ago, the independence party Tavini Huira’atira netted all three French Polynesia seats in the French National Assembly in Paris, as reported by Nic Maclellan for the Pacific Islands News Association known by the acronym PINA.

The United Nations has celebrated International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on the second Tuesday in August since 1982. The 2022 theme was “The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge.” Titaua Peu certainly exemplifies that responsibility.

“Long years of legal wrangling lay ahead of this archipelago at the end of the world,” writes Peu through a fictional newspaper interview with Pina at the end of her book, where she homes in on part of Tahiti’s lure for larger world powers: the “five million square meters of ocean contained within the limits of Polynesia brimmed with rare earth minerals and gems.”

Why does a novel like Pina matter? At the very least, it should prompt tourists to understand their destinations more fully. More importantly though, the reality behind the fiction contributes to greater understanding of decolonization. The work articulates the right to be heard, giving wider voice to those affected by the repercussions of settlement from afar: A flight from Tahiti to France is over 20 hours.

The keen manner in which Peu braids the strands of colonization, alcoholism, and domestic violence is nothing short of amazing. On the slender shoulders of one brave nine-year-old girl, Titaua Peu rests the onus of injustice, trusting her to bear witness as a messenger and carry that story off the reef and across the vast Pacific. No wonder Peu dedicates her novel to “all the Pinas of the world.”

Titaua Peu is general manager of the municipality of Paea in Tahiti. Born in New Caledonia, Peu studied philosophy in Paris before returning to Tahiti in 2001. She worked as a journalist for Tahiti News prior to becoming the youngest published author of Tahitian literature in 2003 after her debut novel, Mutismes: E ’Ore te Vāvā, came out. The title can be translated as “Silences: It’s Not Too Late” and gives voice to the speechless victims of nuclear colonialism.

 Pina, Peu’s novel under review here, won the 2017 Eugène Dabit Prize as well as the 2019 French Voices Award Grand Prize in Fiction from the French Embassy mentioned earlier. 

Translator Jeffrey Zuckerman renders French and African francophone to English. He was named a Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 2020. His translation of Titaua Peu’s Pina won the 2019 Grand Prize in Fiction in the French Voices Awards. He has received a PEN/Heim Translation grant for his work on the complete stories of Hervé Guibert. Zuckerman earned a BA cum laude in English with a concentration in creative writing and literary translation from Yale University. He is digital editor of Music & Literature Magazine and lives in New York City.

Rajiv Mohabir, who wrote the introduction, is an assistant professor of poetry in the MFA program at Emerson College, with a PhD from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. His published work includes a memoir and two books of poetry, as well as a translation of a 1916 book of poetry by an indentured servant in British Guyana.

Publisher: Restless Books

Ilan Stavans, Annette Hochstein, and Joshua Ellison started Brooklyn-based Restless Books in 2013. This independent nonprofit publisher is “devoted to championing essential voices from around the world whose stories speak to us across linguistic and cultural borders. We seek extraordinary international literature for adults and young readers that feeds our restlessness: our hunger for new perspectives, passion for other cultures and languages, and eagerness to explore beyond the confines of the familiar.”

Publisher Stavans, a PhD of Columbia University, is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, Chile’s Presidential Medal, and the Jewish Book Award. His numerous books include a novel (The Disappearance), a book of short stories (The One-Handed Pianist and Other Stories), a memoir (On Borrowed Words), essay collections, edited anthologies, cartoon collaborations, a children’s tale about bullying (Golemito), translations, and multi-volume editions. Conversations with Ilan Stavans is a collection of interviews from his long-running PBS television series La Plaza. He cofounded the Great Books Summer Program at Amherst, Stanford, and Oxford.

Editor-at-Large Hochstein is past president of the Mandel Foundation-Israel, Musrara neighborhood director of Project Renewal in Jerusalem, and cofounder of Nativ Policy and Planning Consultants. She holds an MA from the New School for Social Research in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis, and was a Humphrey Fellow at MIT. Hochstein is a board member of the National Library of Israel.

Ellison, coauthor with Stavans of Reclaiming Travel, was executive editor at Restless Books and the founding editor of Habitus (a journal of international Jewish literature). His work has appeared in The New York Times and on National Public Radio.

Nathan Rostron is current editor and marketing director at Restless, and a freelance book editor. A former editor at Little, Brown and Company, he helped launch Bookish, an online book discovery startup. Rostron earned a BA in English and Creative Writing from Pomona College and an MA in English and Fiction Writing from the University of Texas at Austin, where he received a James A. Michener Scholarship and was editor of Bat City Review. He serves on the advisory committee of Literary Hub and the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, which strives to raise the visibility of world literature.

Restless established a $10,000 Prize for New Immigrant Writing, alternating between fiction and nonfiction. Setting out as a digital-only publisher, Restless has since shifted to print. Assuming nonprofit status at the beginning of 2017, Restless puts out about eighteen books annually, distributed internationally by Simon & Schuster. The publications include classic great books linked to online teaching videos, facial memoirs of personal nonfiction by diverse writers, and Cuban science fiction. Restless is launching a new imprint called Yonder: Restless Books for Young Readers. As Stavans explained: “We believe it is essential to teach our children to place themselves in the shoes of others who don’t look or speak like them, to instill in them a lifelong curiosity about the world and their place in it.”

Restless Books is not currently accepting unsolicited manuscript submissions.

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