No writers are more susceptible to the topographical, climatological, psychological, and spiritual influence of the terrain than are those who live (or have lived) on an island.
After hearing Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner read “Dear Matafele Peinem” before the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014, I began compulsively buying, borrowing, and hoarding books by other “small island” (/big ocean) island authors. In her address to world politicians, Jetnil-Kijiner worries for the next generation, wondering “how they will know themselves or their culture should we lose our islands.” Even as the sea walls of these nations are crushed by king tides, there is a lethal reticence among carbon emitters to discuss amendments to the definition of “refugee.” It seems this reticence is mostly due to a fear that the United States (or China or India or Europe) might be forced to point the finger at itself.
As I’ve waded through the pages of island literature (the books keep piling throughout the house in variable heaps like an atoll chain), I’ve noticed a trend: island authors write more obsessively about their terrain than any other place-based authors. Authors from mountains, deserts, forests, and cities are deeply shaped by their environments, sure, but no bunch of writers is more susceptible to the topographical, climatological, psychological, and spiritual influence of the terrain than are those who live (or have lived) on an island. Just as islanders must adapt to the transformational effects of the ocean on their shores, the island author anticipates dynamic change in their literary landscapes. There’s also a fierce tendency to write about political history (from slavery to revolution to colonialism) in these books. International waters are a bona fide terra nullius that have for centuries been mistaken for an “everybody’s land.” This has led to the gross oppression of islanders, from colonialism to neocolonialism to nuclear colonialism to carbon colonialism.
In the past eight months, I’ve accumulated this hearty list of island books. I’ve read through 39 titles (and more), one for each of the members of the ad hoc UN lobby AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States). Below I highlight a number of the ones I found to be idiosyncratic in their depiction of island histories. It should be noted that many island authors emigrate from their home shores to become full-time academics in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, or beyond. These authors tend to find a fairer share of the limelight than those who remain on the island. The latter authors’ readership is limited by modest distribution and under-translation.
My hope is that this list, along with the anthology I am assembling based on my reading/research, will help island texts grow in a time when the lands they signify are quickly vanishing. Finally, excerpts from many of these texts will find their way onto the syllabus of the Climate Fiction Workshop I will be teaching this spring at Northern Arizona University.
In this Antiguan bildungsroman, it’s as if Jamaica Kincaid is surgically removing her protagonist, Annie John, from her mother’s hip. With debilitating dolor, Annie John grows up and away from the naïve days of her childhood. Individually, the chapters are buoyant, but joy is often thwarted in Annie John’s Antigua. For example, she is an impressive student. As in other island texts, Annie John writes an autobiographical essay; it is a coming-of-age trope that illuminates a young protagonist’s increasing autonomy (to tell their own story, and in their own words). Kincaid takes it a step further, though, by contrasting Annie John’s personal essay about her mother with other students whose essays about British and American economic opportunity read like a neocolonial strain of Stockholm Syndrome. Annie John’s accomplishments in the classroom, however, become destabilizing as she must skip a grade, leaving behind classroom allies. As each section commences, we detect there’s been some slippage. Annie John slowly loses whatever grounding she’s gained, and her contentment with her mother, home, and island is gradually lost. Annie John’s social and metaphysical curiosity—an impulse that should serve to connect her to the larger world she is emerging into—often results in steep isolation. In many ways, Kincaid’s acclaimed Lucy(published five years after Annie John) picks up where Annie John leaves off, with a young protagonist preparing to emigrate.
Unlike many slave narratives that are structurally beholden to the pace and course of history, Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe is an unhurried, often discursive, depiction of predation, identity, and romance on a Barbudan plantation. This is informed by protagonist Mary-Mathilda’s awareness that oral storytelling is “the only [inheritance] that poor people can hand down to their offsprings.” Too, the discursive nature of this novel can be attributed to the fact that, flashbacks notwithstanding, the events transpire over the course of one night as Mary-Mathilda confesses to the murder of the plantation owner, Mr. Bellfeel. Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2003, Austin Clarke’s novel is set in 1950s Barbados.
Mary-Mathilda has the unique privilege of living among Bellfeel and his family in the house at the fore of the plantation. Unrestricted (or less restricted) by the social and physical barriers dictating the lives in the plantation quarters, Mary-Mathilda has spent her life with the unique permission to venture to the town and have a trace of independence. This privilege, however, is accompanied by the earthshattering realization that she is both Bellfeel’s mistress and his daughter. This legacy of incest upends her perception of her own mother, and her descent. While Mary-Mathilda’s malapropos might make the reader chuckle during intervals of levity, the English patois is devastating as she articulates her individualized trauma. Her intelligence, always on display like a badge, indicates her talent for learning. Throughout the novel, Clarke’s prose is wonderfully lucid; the fibers of his language are as revelatory as the startling backstories.
The Lambs are a Honduran creole family living in Belize. Beka, the young girl at the center of this novel, becomes an unlikely national historian when she wins an essay contest at her school (see Annie John). Not white, nor Spanish, not even an expatriate, Beka’s creole background makes her essay on Belizean history a minor one, or at least this is what her family would have her believe. But with the validation of her teacher upon winning the contest, Beka is transformed from a “flat-rate Belize creole to a person with high mind.” When Beka’s mother buys her a journal, Beka commits to the page an eyes-wide-open account of life in the nascent days of Belizean independence. Beka tells the story of a friend who has died during childbirth; in the midst of this stunning portrait memorializing her friend, Beka’s attention turns occasionally, obliquely to the national stage. Once an infamous liar, Beka’s penchant for stolid storytelling stands in contrast to the racism and political deception surrounding her during Belize’s movement toward independence. Like Saleem Sinai’s narrative in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Beka Lamb is a bildungsroman of the highest order set against the backdrop of national independence.
When Napumoceno de Silva Araújo dies, loved ones gather around for a recitation of his last will and testament. To their surprise, though, the 387-page(!) document reads more like a memoir. It should be noted that Almeida’s novel is lean. While its sentences may stretch with virtuosic syntax, they always snap back on themselves, keeping the plot forward-moving. Like Steinbeck’s Ethan Allen Hawley in The Winter of Our Discontent, Silva Araújo has lived a life entrapped by unscrupulous business dealings. Admired by all (but himself), Araújo is a tragicomic figure whose retrospection is overwrought with miscalculations about the scale of his effect on others. Despite the will-cum-megamemoir, Araújo’s neuroses are not to be mistaken for egotism. Almeida’s irony allows us to see a respectable man with limited self-respect. This equilibrium is most aptly dramatized by the image of the Ford he has imported to São Vicente; while Araújo may have been the first to own a vehicle on this African isle, he wasn’t much of a driver, so he unceremoniously abandons this signifier of his status. Sometimes, though, fortune looks the other way as when Araújo orders more umbrellas than he had planned (by a factor of ten), and an unprecedented volume of rain falls accordingly. By beginning at the end of Araújo’s enigmatic life—we see him sipping lizard’s tail tea, anointed with slick goat fat, with “little branches of sweet marjoram under his pillow”—it seems that Almeida is denying his protagonist much of an opportunity to change. Instead, we’re reminded in The Last Will and Testament of Silva Araújo that change is multidirectional, as tethered to memory and perceptions of the past as it is to character’s future words and actions.
Technically, Dominica is only the setting of the middle third of Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Here, we see the island relegated to a honeymoon destination. (For how many of these small island nations has Western tourism become an essential part of the national GDP?) Hailing from Dominica herself, Jean Rhys invents a new genre with this novel. It is a robust form of postcolonial not-a-fan fiction, what some university English courses have dubbed “the empire writes back,” a novel that takes as its intertext one of the most classic works of the English canon, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and reimagines the backstory and interiority of its most enigmatic character, Bertha Mason-Rochester Antoinetta Mason. And not just a dapple of Jane Eyre here and there, but a full-fledged prequel. Long before Rochester ever met Jane, he was married to the woman now locked in the attic. In Rhys’s novel, Bertha is introduced to us as Antoinette Cosway, a respectable creole heiress who’s betrothed (dowry and all) to an unnamed man (who can only be Brontë’s Rochester). Part two opens just after the wedding, the newlyweds ducked beneath a mango tree, keeping dry from the rain on the Windward Islands of Dominica. Written from the husband’s perspective, Rhys adds modifiers (sad, shingly, uneven, whitewashed, stealthily) to imagine her home from a cruel outsider’s eyes. The man takes note of “the sad leaning coconut palms, the fishing boats, drawn up on the shingly beach, the uneven row of whitewashed huts.” Even the weather and ocean are portrayed as an affront to this man, its “huge drops [sounding] like hail on the leaves of the tree, and the sea [creeping] stealthily forwards and backwards.” To Antoinette, though, unfazed by the commonplace island climate, “It’s only a shower.” Wide Sargasso Sea is a postcolonial, feminist, Caribbean text set on (and later: far, far, away from) the islands of Jamaica and Dominica.
Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is set in an ethnic enclave of Paterson, New Jersey and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The novel’s most exhilarating moments come in the form of footnotes-as-flashbacks relaying the De León family history alongside the murderous reign of DR dictator, Rafael Trujillo (aka “El Jefe”). Whereas Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa’s Feast of the Goat is a sobering work of fiction that depicts the political history of the DR (most prominently, the assassination of El Jefe), Díaz is pursuant of the human history of his island. Case in point: Díaz’s portrayal of the interior lives of the subversive Mirabal sisters. As Díaz’s novel assumes the register of experimental literary fiction, his protagonist, Oscar, speaks in the lingua franca of comic books and science fiction, not to mention the code-switching Spanglish his family and friends use in urban New Jersey. Because of this narratorial tension, the novel’s genre-hood becomes muddled. Oscar, who fancies himself the novel’s “hero,” is emotionally trampled by romance and a potent strain of centuries-old fukú americanus (a Caribbean curse). Oscar’s endurance is framed as a parallel process with the survival of DR culture following the tyranny of Trujillo’s thuggish dictatorship.
Also recommend: Junot Díaz’s short story collection, Drown.
Of all 50+ books of “small island literature” I’ve read so far, The Book of Luelen beats all. Published by the University of Hawai’i Press–whose oral histories in translation, particularly from Oceania, are all masterfully compiled, edited, and presented–The Book of Luelen is an unassuming collection of stories, biographies, nomenclature, horticulture, songs, spells, and the like from Ponape, a village in the Federated States of Micronesia. Luelen, known among his people as “Bright Standing Bowl,” is a proud Ponopean who was named chief of his village because of his moral character, and perhaps, because he helped repair the village roads. In the introduction to the book, the editors write:
The Book of Luelen is by far the most comprehensive of all the island oral histories… beginning as it does with the formation of Ponape and its first peopling and ending with events which took place well within the narrator’s lifetime, the last chapters having been dictated to his daughter shortly before his death… Leulen has given us what is unmistakably a history: a chronicle of events located in time; albeit one based on oral tradition and employing a sequential and genealogical progression in place of our standard chronological system. … he has selected and arranged his sources into a coherent and consistent narrative, appropriate in terms of Ponapean culture, which tells us, through his selectivity and interpretation, what an islander, rather than a European, considers of historical significance.
Luelen, who had no reason to believe these words would ever be discovered (let alone published by a university press), has a self-conscious writing style obsessed with chronology, logic, and epistemology. Beginning with “the first voyage arriving in,” Luelen writes of Japkini and his crew who cross the ocean by canoe until they discover the rock surface they call Ponpei, or “On the Stone Structure.” From here, the history of Ponape unfolds. In Chapter 30, Luelen tells the reader “the coral reefs had names and also the deep places in the lagoon and even the little pools” and channels, but due to the oral (and possibly apocryphal) nature of these facts, Luelen is unable to share those names with the reader. From origin story to narratives of first contact with Europeans, Luelen’s is a singular voice telling the collective story of a small island nation (compare with the selections from Palau, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu in “Other Recommendations,” in which various authors collaborate on the national yarn).
The narrative energy in A Brief History of Seven Killings is constantly multiplying with over 75 distinct Jamaican voices (often unsolicited) contributing to the novel’s backstories, gossiping and mourning. It’s reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Robert Altman’s virtuosic The Wedding in which the camera is trained on 78 “main” characters in a feat of dramatic fission. Marlon James’s novel, though, is much more sadistic than either of these polyvocal predecessors. It is, after all, about the culture of violence and drugs in Kingston following the CIA’s not-so-secret arming of a gang that would become the kingpins of the Jamaican cocaine trade through the 1980s. When thugs attempt to assassinate the “reggae superstar of the world” known as the Singer, an obvious roman á clef for Bob Marley, we see Jamaica struggling to define itself; as Zachary Lazar puts it in his New York Times review of the book, “the man who comes to kill the Singer… is a gangster whose export business is not reggae but cocaine.” Winner of a Man Booker Prize in 2014, James’s writing abruptly switches from English to a Jamaican patois that foregoes subject-verb agreement, giving A Brief History of Seven Killings a sonic equity that helps James take on a range of subjects from Jamaican postcoloniality to immigration.
To call Xavier Romero-Frías a scribe might undermine his 13 years of work as a folk compiler in the Maldives. Still, I think he might be flattered by the designation. A Spanish academic, Romero-Frías relocated to the Maldives to record the hitherto oral tales of the atoll nation, learning two Maldivian dialects and interviewing elders whose versions of the tales he faithfully recorded. The folk tales in this book are a cogent collection depicting the environmental, social, and spiritual tropes that undergird Maldivian society. My favorite of the folk tales is about a group of castaways caught somewhere between despair and hope as they try to alert their home atoll of their survival. When migrating frigate birds come to nest on the shipwreck island, the castaways capture the birds and tie notes to their feet. Hoļļavai, the notes read (the castaway’s “house” name). When that season ends, the birds fly in the direction of the castaway’s home island, the notes dangling from their digits, prone to discovery. Elsewhere in the collection, tales about the force of the ocean seem to serve as auguries for contemporary discourse about disappearing islands. In 2009, Mohamed Nasheed, outfitted in scuba equipment, held a meeting with his cabinet underwater to suggest what the future of governance will look like in Maldives if global greenhouse emissions aren’t somehow curbed. Since then, he has been forcibly removed from office and held as a prisoner of conscience due to his impregnable political beliefs; unsurprisingly, Romero-Frías (and the introduction to Folk Tales of the Maldives) has faced similar scrutiny from conservative political actors in the country.
Like the books from Palau, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu, Stories from the Marshall Islands: Bwebwenato Jān Aelōn̄ Kein is spun from a collective of authors whose 80 tales occasionally overlap and revise one another. However, this book—while discussing the usual: weather forecasting, evil spirits and flying women, and historical events (including U.S. nuclear colonialism following WWII)—begins in a unique way: with 140 pages of beginnings, all variations on the origin story of the Marshall Islands. It is an impressive stretch of synergistic riffing that indicates the pervasiveness of Marshallese syntax, symbolism, and tropes.
In an interview with Asia Literary Review, Amanda Lee Koe, in considering the literary tradition of Singapore, refers to the “social realist slant… specific to themes of domestic drudgery, coming-of-age-ness, the returning Singaporean, familial tension, the burden of responsibility as opposed to the pursuit of freedom—often set in a public housing block.” Ironically, Koe’s sexy (almost perverse) approach to storytelling in the Ministry of Moral Panic subverts these themes to initiate contemporary readers of Singaporean literature in the new social reality of those living in the Southeast Asian city-state. More than petty iconoclasm, Ministry of Moral Panic is historical recalibration as when Koe writes the story-as-diary of the controversial figure of Maria Hertogh who was born to Catholic parents but then adopted, converted, and raised by Muslims. When it comes to subjects mired as taboo in Singapore, including homosexuality and transgenderism, Koe doesn’t know how to tread lightly. In this collection, her plucky prose is often softened by the buoyant influence of pop culture.
Infamously unlikeable, Mohun Biswas is an Indo-Trinidadian character whose goal in life is to own a house of his own. There is nothing more pitiable to Mr. Biswas than to “have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth.” Mr. Biswas, who’s a professional sign-maker-cum-journalist, is known to readers for his crude thoughts and behaviors. Above all, Mr. Biswas’s interiority is fraught due to the odious omnipresence of his in-laws. In some respects, A House for Mr. Biswas plays out like a Trinidadian Everybody Loves Raymond. While Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai may be “serendipitously” handcuffed to history upon birth, the birth of Mohun Biswas is a more tragic form of fatalism: a pandit warns his parents that his inauspicious birth foreshadows an onerous future for the boy. Naipaul’s 500-page novel is a chronicle of that unlucky future, but as it is written in the vein of the picaresque, levity abounds. Critic Lydia Kiesling has identified Naipaul’s writing style here as “Biswasroman.” Like Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance), V.S. Naipaul writes in the tradition of a postcolonial Dickens. Despite Edward Said’s indictment of Naipaul as a “third worlder denouncing his own people,” A House for Mr. Biswas is frequently inflected with humor and compassion, and the main reason why Naipaul became a Nobel Prize laureate.
Published just a few months ago, Elizbeth Nunez’s Even in Paradise is a Caribbean adaptation of King Lear. While Shakespeare’s play informs the surface-level plot premise of Even in Paradise, the novel is a wholly original look at racial tensions among Trinis and European interlopers. Shakespeare’s presence in the very fabric of the story also situates protagonist Peter Duckworth’s narrative in a European tradition, despite his shared Trinidadian-British ancestry. As Duckworth parcels out his land to his three daughters, his eldest conspires to develop the land (a la Alexander Payne’s The Descendants), undermining the generosity of his bestowal. See Nunez’s other acclaimed novel, Prospero’s Daughter; also set in Trinidad, and loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, here Nunez writes about racial prejudice during British colonialism in the Caribbean.
Amitav Ghosh has been one of the most vocal actors in climate discourse. In The Hungry Tide, set in the Sundarbans of southern Bangladesh, Ghosh introduces readers to the ecologically and politically volatile mangrove delta that is slated to become the epicenter of climate change. Evoking religious, political, and military history, the country of 18 tides becomes the unlikely setting for an even unlikelier romance.
Now, taking up that same ecological mantle (this time through the guise of nonfiction), Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable was just released. Through his forceful prose, Ghosh makes a case for a more nuanced and rational approach to the political and historical narratives concerning our planet. What’s more, he makes a compelling case for the imaginative capacity of literature—specifically, fiction—to inform our political will in the years ahead.
* Bangladesh and India are not AOSIS members, though the former is slated to be one of the most affected countries by climate change in the coming decades.
Lawrence Lenhart studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh and holds an MFA from The University of Arizona. His essay collection, The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage, was published in 2016 (Outpost19). His prose appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Terrain.org, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He is a professor of fiction and nonfiction at Northern Arizona University and a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.