What Wider Absence Left to Know
“This is the way I was taught to introduce myself,” Tracy Assing writes in “Unaccounted For,” after reeling off the full names of her parents, their parents, and their parents, along with assorted uncles and aunts. “It was a way of saying that I never walked alone.” Never, in the sixteen pieces that accompany Assing’s in So Many Islands, a multi-genre anthology of writing from citizens of tiny nations surrounded on all sides by water, could the reader imagine that islanders might consider themselves alone. The people in these stories, poems, and essays collide with each other relentlessly, with their families and friends, with their enemies and their ancestors. Inevitable, on an island, for people to collide. But there’s so much more to this anthology than the ocean that borders these writers’ national identities. Distinct voices emerge on every page, as do the global problems of climate change, the evaporation of indigenous identities, nuclear weapons testing, and the legacy of colonialism.
That’s heavy stuff. It’s fortunate that the work selected for So Many Islands is so graceful, concerning itself with eye-level examples of the changing (or changed) landscape, rarely veering into didacticism. The anthology’s editors, Nicholas Laughlin and Nailah Folami Imoja, chose seventeen works in varying genres from island natives, focusing on no particular region of the world’s oceans; a writer from Cyprus is published alongside a writer from Singapore. Each writer’s home nation is indicated below her or his byline. The collection tips slightly in favor of Caribbean writers, but there is also work from Fiji, Malta, Samoa, and elsewhere. Plenty of these island nations (Kiribati, Niue) may be too obscure to be known to American readers who are not world travelers.
What’s also off the common path about this anthology is the abandonment of genre specificity. There are highly regulated, beginning-middle-end short stories here (Cecil Browne’s “Coming Off the Long Run” tries valiantly to make cricket interesting, while in Angela Barry’s “Beached,” a group of socially divided islanders save a young whale), but there is also prose that could be essay or fiction (Erato Ioannaou’s remarkable “Something Tiny”) and tales so oral in nature that they hardly make sense on paper (Melanie Schwapp’s “Granny Dead”). Five poems, too, found their way in, and one of them, “Avocado,” by Kendel Hippolyte, is an absolutely stunning closer to the volume:
Not all of these writers tackle the changing world or the rising oceans. But modern influences, the curse and the promise therein, hang over much of the work, monsoon-like. As Assing puts it, “In case you’re wondering how we got here, I can affirm that greed played a major role.” Yet even work that deliberately calls out Western exploitation does so with care and craft, as Mere Taito does in “Neo-Walt Village Combing”: “disney wants to celebrate your coconut shell brassieres / disney wants to make your arm tattoos uncurl and talk”. It’s a blistering poem, but its impact would be less measurable without Taito’s skill.
As an anthology, this collection of work is amazingly well-rounded. Not just because of the wide geographical distribution of its authors, but because of the multiple styles on display here, and the many different subjects these writers choose to emphasize. Most of these stories and poems are about family, place, and/or the relationships between people, but not all of them include all of these elements. Some are about ordinary life, while others are about supernatural circumstances. Some focus on history, and some on the present or the future. Something in this anthology is bound to pique the reader’s interest, whether she has inherent interest in island nations and world travel or not. This reviewer, for example, does not, but I’m extremely glad to have read this collection nonetheless.
One of the only missteps is the amount of prevarication accompanying the book: it has a foreword, an introduction (by Booker winner Marlon James), and an afterword, as well as editors’ and contributors’ notes and two separate informational notes on Commonwealth Writers and the Commonwealth Foundation, both of which helped bring the book into being. This is not the writers’ fault, but it does feel like padding, or explanation that is rendered unnecessary both by the strength of the work and by the existence of Google.
Still, this collection is a unique and worthy addition to any library. The mood of the writers, overwhelmingly, is one of sharing without compromise. A healthy number of these stories include idiom and dialect, and most of them elect not to explain why their fellow citizens do what they do, why life is expensive and food is scarce and monotonous, why tourism is not a simple pro or con, why “getting away” is so unworkable. These writers offer a window into genuine, unglazed local life in far-flung, ill-understood parts of the world. It’s a gift beyond price.
header image: “banca fishing boat philippines,” bernard spragg / flickr