Sea People by Christina Thompson

In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific

Growing up in rural/coastal New Zealand and being immersed in Maori culture from the age of 5-12, the myths, legends, stories, cultural practices have always resonated with me.

Perhaps because I was so young, or because there was a clear connection to the landscape and environment that rang true, the geography of New Zealand was part of the mythology, that curious blend of enchantment and reality; it made sense to a child.

Sea People In Search of Ancient Navigators of the PacificA Polynesian Connection and Resonance

I read Sea People not so much out of that European curiosity to discover where people originated from, but for the familiarity of that “way of seeing” through the oral tradition of storytelling, of describing things from where I see and what I see around me, not from the lofty heights of above looking down.

My curiosity in all honesty, lay too in wondering if a woman’s perspective and approach might be different.

As the number of oral cultures in the world has diminished, interest in them has grown, and one of the most intriguing questions is whether there might be such a thing as an ‘oral way of seeing’, a  worldview common to oral peoples that might be different in some generalizable way from the worldview of people in cultures with writing.

I loved it.

Like her own mixed family, the author Christina Thompson straddles the masculine/feminine, Polynesian/European aspects and shares something that goes back over all the approaches to Polynesia from the earliest eyewitnesses of 1521 to the brilliant modern day reconstructions of Polynesian canoes, that set sail with a crew of experimental voyagers, trained in the old non-instrument methods of navigation, to re-enact the voyages of the ancient Polynesians.

map-polynesia-frontThe Polynesian Triangle is an area of ten million square miles, defined by the three points of Hawai‘i, New Zealand and Easter Island. All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and set of customs, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a collection of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went.

Sea People tells the story of these remarkable voyagers and of the many people—explorers, linguists, anthropologists, folklorists and navigators—who have puzzled over their astonishing history for more than three hundred years.

There is a reason the remote Pacific was the last place on Earth to be settled by humans: it was the most difficult, more daunting even than the deserts or the ice.

cottages in the middle of beach

Photo by Julius Silver on Pexels.com

Written in six parts, chronologically, we follow the thinking of the different eras, immersing in the exploration and research studies of the time, travelling through all the speculation, attitudes, reverence and mystery of a very Eurocentric enquiry, until recent times when those of Polynesian heritage themselves, as decolonization and indigenous rights movements were gaining strength worldwide, demanded representation and respect in these constant intellectual probings.

The first parts look at the various European explorations, their intentions, their reception, discoveries and the kind of records they kept about they witnessed. It also shows the difference in their encounter(s) when they befriend and take a Polynesian navigator with them, bridging a cultural divide, that had often resulted in violence previously.

Much has been made in histories of the Pacific about the problem of observer bias. Early European explorers saw the world through lenses that affected how they interpreted what they found. The Catholic Spanish and Portuguese of the sixteenth century were deeply concerned with the islanders’ heathenism; the mercantile Dutch, in the seventeenth century were preoccupied with what they had to trade; the French, coming alone in the eighteenth century, were most interested in their social relations and the idea of what constituted  a “state of nature”.

Part Three looks at some of the stories the Polynesians told about themselves and the difficulty their European visitors had in understanding and interpreting them.

Europeans and Polynesians, it would seem, had very different ideas about the purpose of narratives and the relative meanings of “falsehood” and “truth”.

The Polynesian Art of Non-Instrument Navigation

For me that was the highlight of the literary journey, when Nainoa Thompson, a young Hawaiian, did all he could to learn the old ways, studying the stars, the winds, reading the waves and ocean swells, the imagined island, all the techniques known that had been passed down, to navigate like the ancient mariners, great ocean distances with nothing but what nature offered to guide them.

And in the face of disbelief by all the European sceptics who’d come before, unable to embrace the paradigm of this ancient skill, they succeeded, using practical sea voyaging, no computer simulation or dusty pottery references or annals of research; a brilliant touch of reality and reaching back through the generations of ancestry.

It was a stunning achievement. Without maps or charts or instruments or recording devices, without even paper and pen, an apprentice navigator – the first from Hawai’i in at least half a century – had piloted a canoe more than 2,500 miles, spanning more than thirty-five degrees of latitude.

A wonderful history and a beautifully accessible read. While it is inevitably limited due to being addressed from within those same structures that European exploration came from, and written by an outsider (albeit married to someone from the region), it provides a valuable insight into that outsider view and representation of centuries of exploration.

It will lead very nicely on to my next read, appropriately, the inside view from Dr Hinemoa Elder in her book of Maori wisdom, Aroha.

Sea People Christina Thompson

Christina Thompson

A dual citizen of the United States and Australia, she was born in Switzerland and grew up outside Boston and spent a decade living in Australia. Since 2000 she has been the editor of Harvard Review and teaches writing at Harvard University Extension. She lives outside Boston with her husband and three sons.

Sea People won the 2020 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the 2019 NSW Premier’s General History Award. Her first book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, was a finalist for the 2009 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.

Further Reading/Listening

NPR Interview: ‘Sea People’ Examines The Origins And History Of Polynesia by Ilana Masad

Read More Co: Author Interview: Christina Thompson

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

Read Caribbean Book of CinzJune is Caribbean Heritage Month in the US, held to recognise the many contributions they have made, so not surprisingly, it has been picked up by Book of Cinz to create awareness for Caribbean Literature, Caribbean Authors and Authors from Caribbean Heritage for readers, encouraging us all to discover and read more of their works.

The Contemporary Caribbean Woman Writer, Keeping Ancestral Connections Alive

I have a fondness of Caribbean women writers and in years past I have reviewed a number of books by the Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. Crossing the Mangrove  was one of my favourite reads in 2020.

Jamaica Kincaid is another author I admire and her novel The Autobiography of My Mother was an Outstanding Read of 2015. There is something special in the way they writer inter-generational stories, even when some have immigrated, there remains a connection between women in families, even those who have passed, that they have a particular way of expressing that I find magical, as they address themes of identity, belonging and familial connection.

Mythology and Colonisation

It seems that they have developed their own history, mythology, use of language and tradition and not only are they connected to the African diaspora, there is the effect and influence of colonisation, something that both takes away from their essence and has woven itself into their thinking, they can neither rid themselves of it or embrace its legacy.

mermaid of the black conch Monique RoffeyThe Mermaid of Black Conch is an excellent example of the intersection of those effects and her well drawn characters each possess something of that heritage and complication.

Monique Roffey uses a Neo-Taino (people who inhabited the Caribbean 2000 years before the Christian era) legend of a woman transformed into a mermaid, having been cursed by jealous women due to her beauty and effect on men as the foundation of a contemporary story, when this ancient mermaid is captured by an opportunistic and exploitative American man and his son in a fishing competition.

A local fisherman David sings to himself awaiting his catch and the ancient mermaid Aycayia first appears to him. The story is told in part through his journals and in part through the poetic songs of the mermaid and a third person narrative.

She looking like a woman from long ago, like old time Taino people I saw in a history book at school. She face was young and not pretty at all and I recognise something ancient there too. I saw the face of a human woman who lived centuries past, shining at me.

David feels guilty when he hears of the mermaids capture knowing that she has become familiar with his presence. He blames himself for her capture and decides to intervene knowing nothing good will come of her being taken by men not from the island.

Trophy Hunting

photo of man fishing

Photo by William McAllister on Pexels.com

The man who captured her insists she is a fish and has destructive, misogynistic intentions, while his son, whom he had brought with him in the hope of father-son bonding, is appalled but ineffective in stopping him, as are the other men on the boat.

They are a reminder of the many who came before them exploiting the islands natural resources, wishing to claim her bounty as their own.

Uncomfortable yet uncaring, violence and violation has become normalised and the suggestion that she may be worth millions renders them all complicit.

David’s original plan to release her is thwarted as she transforms into a woman, but with few of the skills necessary to survive and he is afraid of people finding out he had sheltered her. He tries to gain her trust, but she is wary of men.

She’d changed his comprehension of what it was to be human. An intuition pestered him that they had met before, that he’d even been searching for her, out there, by those jagged rocks off Murder Bay.

Settler Colonialism and Land Ownership

Miss Arcadia Rain, another island inhabitant lives in the biggest house on the island with her deaf son Reggie. She is local, white and a landowner; she keeps herself distant from the population, though she is as much a part of it as them all. The bay area was her inheritance, it is both her joy and a burden something she struggles to reconcile.

The Rain family had owned almost the whole of St Constance, since 1865, a generation after slavery time. The estate was mostly rainforest high up in the hills, but it came down to St Constance and the bay.

The mermaid becomes friends with Reggie and the two use sign language, to communicate; the friendship brings David and Miss Rain together as they try to figure out what to do.

humpback whale in ocean water on sunny day

Photo: Stefanie Klenner @ Pexels.com

Inevitably there is another jealous woman, and the ill-meaning cackle of those who long ago cursed Aycayia can be heard, as strange things happen on the island making it clear that she is unlikely to be able to stay.

The story explores love, loss, separation, the destructiveness of female jealousy, the ease and allure of male corruption and the repercussions of one family possessing ownership of most of the land in a community.

Although the mermaid is the oldest inhabitant, she is seen as an outsider and her presence brings out the good and the bad in the community, exposing its cracks.

It’s a thought -provoking read and an interesting portrayal of a community living under the influence of its historical past and that influences the behaviour of contemporary inhabitants.

The Mermaid of Black Conch was the 2020 winner of the Costa Book Award, with another Caribbean author Ingrid Persaud winning the Debut Fiction Prize for Love After Love.

Further Reading

The Observer: The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey review – a fishy tale of doomed womanhood by Anthony Cummins

Do you have a favourite Caribbean novel?

Breath by James Nestor

The New Science of a Lost Art

I stumbled across this book almost by accident, in a conversation with a client about the importance of the breath to regulate health. I’d been practicing a version of the Lion’s Breath to balance a throat chakra (energy centre) issue and I had become aware of the power of the breath and mantra combined.

Another client had shared after being able to resume swimming training, “Do you know what the best thing about getting back in the pool and training is? The deep breath.” Upon hearing this anecdote, the first client returned with this book.

science of breathing nasal breathing pranayamaThe book is written by the American journalist and author James Nestor, who also wrote the nonfiction science and adventure book, DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves (2014) exploring the abilities of those who have trained themselves to be able to stay underwater for 4 or 5 minutes without oxygen.

Breath takes that research even further and is a book he researched and wrote over a period of ten years, as he explored the hypotheses that the human species had lost the ability to breath properly, causing not only changes in the structure of the face and respiratory apparatus, but hastening health problems.

Over the millenia, these cultures developed hundreds – thousands – of methods to maintain a steady  flow of prana. They created acupuncture to open up prana channels and yoga postures to awaken and distribute the energy.

But the most powerful technique was to inhale prana: to breathe.

sportive woman with bicycle resting on countryside road in sunlight

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

His obsession with the breath took him from the Himalayas to Brazil, into the homes and offices of people equally dedicated to pursuing the art of the breath for improving health and discovered miraculous findings that western science seemed to have ignored until very recently.

Pranayama. Buteyko. Coherent Breathing. Hypoventilation. Breathing Coordination. Holotropic Breathwork. Adhama. Madhyama. Uttama. Kevala. Embryonic Breath. Harmonising Breath. The Breath by the Master Great Nothing. Tummo. Sudarshan Kriya.

I’ve been reading it over the past two weeks and I certainly agree that upon reading this, you’ll never breathe the same again, to have one’s awareness raised in this way about the health promoting effects of certain types of breathing and the detriment to the health of the other.

As a result of some of the experiments James Nestor and Anders Olsson put themselves through, another two-year study was being put together with 500 subjects to research the effects of sleep tape on snoring and sleep apnea.

man doing hand stand on mountain

Photo by Sam Kolder on Pexels.com

The overall summary of helpful breathing techniques and resources at the end of the book is excellent and the journey to get there is interesting and entertaining, if occasionally somewhat tiresome, as the level of eccentricity of the author in pursuing so many of these guru-types begins to make what should be a simple technique, into something akin to scaling a mountain.

Thankfully, the reader doesn’t need to go to any of the lengths the author did, from the summary of techniques (see the NY Times link below), it’s enough to find the one that resonates and try it out, or if it’s snoring that ails you, try out the mouth tape!

Breathing is a missing pillar of health.

Further Reading

James Nestor Responds: How is it possible for humans to have evolved this way? 

New York Times: Breathe Better With These Nine Exercises by James Nestor

The Observer: How One Hour of Breathing Changed My Life, 26 July 2020, by James Nestor

“You can’t be truly healthy unless you’re breathing correctly.”

Silence is a Sense by Layla AlAmmar

A lone young woman watches the world outside her window from the relative safety and refuge of her apartment, in a British town. She refers to those she observes in the East, West, South tower blocks by pseudonyms, Juicer, No-Lights-Man, Anime Girl. She too is unnamed, a refugee from Syria.

Self-Imposed Safety

literary fiction, trauma, survival, communityShe rarely leaves and when she does, it’s within her self-imposed ‘safe zone’ including the nearby shop, the mosque, and part of the park.

When I first arrived, I couldn’t reconcile myself to the notion that I was free to go anywhere. So I set invisible borders that I abided by for a good, long while.

She has email contact with a magazine editor she sends her writing to, using her own pseudonym Voiceless. She writes a kind of truth, as something of her experience, perspective and trauma passes through her into the page.

The editor is after a more nuanced narrative, truth but not quite that truth, tempering the Voiceless, pandering to the expectations of a home-based audience.

Silence Protects

I  don’t know how to explain to her that I am cornered by memories, caged in by recollections. I feel persecuted by the things I remember and by what my mind chooses to hide from me.

Flashbacks from her last days in Aleppo, her friends, protests, declarations, family decisions, a world disrupted.

Journeying alone through a continent that equates refugee with terrorist, and that violence exists even in refuge.

It’s not so difficult to know what people want. At the root of it we all want the same things: freedom, happiness, safety. I want to write what I want to write without the fear of a knock at the door and an interrogation room. I want to love who I want to love without the fear of death or corrective rape. I want to wear what I want to wear without the worry that men will see my skirt or the buttons on my shirt as an invitation. That’s it. The freedom to live how we want to live.

In her silence she is overwhelmed by the other senses, unable to speak, yet filled with so much looking for outward expression.

Trauma Endures

silence is a sense Layla alammarAn intense, visceral insight and demonstration of the effect of trauma, the ongoing sensitivities, reactions, the struggle to adapt, to accept safety, to even perceive safety, when threats are observed everywhere, violence seen through windows, threatened against communities.

And yet, something within the human spirit needs to reach out, to have contact, to be a part of what little community is offered, tentative gestures, towards healing.

Sensitively depicted, rather than witnessing the events themselves, the author draws the reader into the fragmented mind of the victim of trauma, making us feel what it can be like, to be in that post traumatic period, trying to live again in an unwelcoming, welcome British town.

A Real Life Story, A Young Syrian Woman Refugee

While Lalya AlAmmar’s story is fiction and is focused more on the aftermath of of a young woman experiencing her hometown turn into a warzone, on her trying to overcome the feeling of not being safe in another country, and the effect of trauma, I found it helpful having already read a true account of another young woman’s true life experience in Syria, her life before the war, during it and the inevitable escape she and her sister would make alone.

It makes an excellent companion read to AlAmmar’s novel and I highly recommend Butterfly by Yusra Mardini.

Further Reading

NPR: ‘Silence Is A Sense’ Works To Dispel The Terrible Abstractions Of Syria’s Civil War

Interview: Scan, University of Lancaster, An Interview with Layla AlAmmar, Author of Silence is a Sense by Harriet Fletcher