03 Feb Count Down

Ron Tanner, chair of the Writing Department at Loyola College-Maryland, won a grant from the National Parks Service to help Marshallese college students preserve the oral culture of the Marshall Islands. He’s spending the 2008 spring semester (five months) on Majuro to direct this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story, be sure to check the archives to your left.

Last night I had dinner with Joyce Carol Oates. I don’t imagine I’ll ever have occasion to write that sentence again, so you might read it over once more. Before dinner, Ms. Oates gave a presentation at the national conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in NYC, where I’ve been all week. (I’m an officer of AWP’s board.) She wasn’t at all what I had imagined—not the ethereal, aloof, queen bee of American letters. On the contrary, she was mischievous, peppery, wry. She had a good time with the audience. After the presentation, a few of us escorted Ms. Oates to a restaurant a couple blocks from the conference hotel.

island Ms. Oates walks very fast, we learned. In fact, she was walking so fast that, suddenly, she and her immediate escort were half a block ahead of us. I looked in surprise at my walking mate and then we both looked in surprise behind us at two other lagging companions. Then we saw Ms. Oates walk even faster. Was she eager to get out of the cold? Was she upset? We picked up our pace in pursuit. A few of us didn’t know where the restaurant was and we began to worry aloud as the distance between us and our honored guest grew.

Then Ms. Oates broke into a run. She’s a small woman, very thin. She was wearing a fuzzy, pinkish overcoat and a knit cap the same color. This made her a stand-out on the sidewalk. Though she ran with small (some might saying “mincing”) steps, she gave the appearance of one who could go a great distance.

Fortunately, the restaurant was nearby. Otherwise she might have left us all behind. As we caught up with her in the restaurant, some of us panting, she revealed—not at all breathless–that she likes running. She said she’d been sitting all day and felt the need for exercise. I imagined that this revealed a lot about her life, that she can’t stand still for much, always running after a new idea and yet something more to write.

This is what I’ve been doing all week, listening to great writers and sometimes having dinner with them and only a couple of times running after them. It’s been a pleasant distraction from worrying about the Marshall Islands Story Project. I leave for Majuro in a two days. As I’ve been in New York all week, people look at me in wonder when I mention my imminent departure. No doubt they think I should be at home filling steamer trunks with provisions.

My grant funds are still MIA and my contacts at the College of the Marshall Islands haven’t exactly been helpful. Well meaning, sure, but not helpful. One day my contact says she’s located the grant check; then a few days later she tells me no, she was mistaken. This has happened more than once. Also there is a bit of contention between the College of the Marshall Islands (CMI) and me about how these funds should be managed. CMI wants to control the funds and disburse them as I hand in receipts. Okay, but what if I need funds, say, to pay for a boat trip to another island for me and my students? Am I supposed to pay for that out of my own pocket and hope to be reimbursed later? I never agreed to that. And now, given recent difficulties tracking down the money, I’m especially wary. So the administrators at CMI and I have been going back and forth, a communication made edgier by intermittent email service. As a result, a few of my emails to them have been less than chummy. What should I think of the fact that the only person who has offered to meet me at the Majuro airport is my Marshallese friend/translator/guide, Henry?

So here’s where I am: I’ve been on leave from my university for a month, my mortgage is due in two days, my checking account is empty, and Jill and I are living on credit cards. But it’s not like I’m surprised. In fact, I wish the situation weren’t so predictable. It will all change once I’m on island, as they put it. I’m sure people will be falling all over themselves to help me. The good thing is that, before I ran out of money, I got the gutter fixed. And the computers and cameras arrived safely on Majuro and all the equipment works. At least, no one has told me otherwise.

CMI students are paired with Loyola students as correspondents (pen pals). Both are excited about this. Their first exercise was to write a letter explaining the origins of their names. (Cindy Gannett, my Loyola counterpart, suggested this.) The idea is to get them thinking about stories that involve them and their families. This brings them one step closer to appreciating the larger (and sometimes stranger) stories of their communities and their nation. One CMI student explained, for instance, that his family changed its Chinese name to an English one when the Japanese took over the Marshall Islands during World War II. The Japanese were deporting anyone who did not have a Marshallese name, never mind that the Marshallese by that time had intermingled with Germans, Spaniards, Dutch, Chinese and others. If you had a Chinese family name, you were sent to China.

island For this and many other reasons, the Marshallese don’t have much nice to say about the Japanese occupation. But a number of Japanese now live in the Marshalls and many families have Japanese names, the Marshallese having absorbed yet another conqueror. My favorite restaurant on Majuro is run by a Japanese family. Japanese nationals still visit the Marshalls to pay tribute to the war dead, whose mass graves are identified by modest brass plaques. You can find the mark of Imperial Japan on every island of a certain size—the twisted ruins of tanks and bunkers and cannon. In nearly every lagoon there lies the coral-encrusted wreckage of a war plane.

In just five days, I’ll meet my Marshallese students for the first time. I’ve just returned home to Baltimore for two days of hectic packing and pre-departure business (doing taxes, for example, which I never do in February). Jill and I are mopey about our long separation. She’ll come out and visit me in a couple of months. This morning, when I called her “precious,” she said, “Don’t be nice to me, you’ll make me cry.”