23 May Scrambling

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 (5 months) on Majuro to direct this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story of his personal experiences, be sure to check the archives to your left.

This week, Newton found Eddie, an old man who was going to tell us the story of the two ladies and the octopus. Like many tales, this one features a chant or singing portion. Eddie has translated the singing portion into “sailor’s English.” This is a find. The value of our project is that we are recording the last of the culture’s oral tradition, showing how it has changed. Or how it looks and sounds in its last permutation.

Eddie’s a tiny man with protruding cheek bones and a dark complexion. We bought him lunch, stopping for take-out at one of the shacks that grill chicken or beef or octopus. It’s the cheapest food on the island and comes with a handful of steamed rice. Newton parked the van just off the road, near the island’s only bridge. The wind is always brisk on oceanside, so I was worried about the sound quality. We capture what we can as best we can, regardless of the conditions. Sometimes we simply don’t have time to be picky. We were sitting on coral boulders in the shade of some coconut palms, just ten feet from the incoming tide. At my feet, and interlaced with the rocks and boulders, were plastic cups and plates and bags and bottles and take-out containers. It’d take hours to clean up the mess, all of which will find its way into the ocean, where much of it will kill turtles and birds that mistake, say, a plastic bag for jellyfish. But litter is hardly better in the States, I reminded myself. The small size of this island only makes the problems–global problems–more glaring.

Finished with our fast lunch, we sat Eddie in the shade, then Newton explained the project. Eddie nodded politely. He looked uncomfortable. The video camera intimidates many of the people we find. Eddie had a small microphone clipped to his shirt-sleeve. Usually I don’t start taking still photos until ten minutes into an interview. You’ve got to let the story-tellers warm up. Eddie had problems from the start. I don’t know the language but I can catch the nuances. Newton gently encouraged him. Eddie’s expression was almost a wince as he talked. Then he stopped and glanced at me apologetically. Newton explained that Eddie needed to recollect the story. He left out the entire first section and wasn’t comfortable enough to offer the “sailor’s English.” So it was a bust. We drove Eddie back to the Bikini Atoll town hall, where he works. It’s right next to the Rongelap town hall–representing the nuclear survivors who have been removed from their home atolls. Eddie promised to see us tomorrow.

But the next day we couldn’t find Eddie. He’d drifted away, maybe in hiding. For every story teller we find, we lose one or two. Newton arranged to talk with an old sea captain, for instance. When we got to the man’s house, he’d already gone to sea again, having left a day early because a delivery was needed on an outer island. I’ve been pushing Newton hard and he’s been scrambling to make things happen. We’re running out of time. Two weeks ago we were sent to an old woman who would tell us about life during World War II. But when we arrived, the woman’s daughter told us that her mother was too senile to talk coherently. That same week, we learned that the oldest story-teller on Arno–the man who was too ill to speak with us when we visited the island–died of diabetic complications. One of every four adults in the Marshall Islands suffers from diabetes. Many people have told us we should have been here two years ago or four or twenty. A few tells us we’re simply too late. But our aim isn’t to capture what’s already been lost but, rather, to capture what’s still here. And we’re seeing some interesting things. For example, the last in a series of stories about Latao, the trickster, traditionally recounts how he left the Marshalls to live in the Gilbert Islands, where he could play his tricks anew. But the version we’ve recorded adds this: Latao then went from the Gilberts to the States. In tricking the ripalle, he made them smarter. That’s why the ripalle have done so well. It’s a joke that reflects both the good humor of the Marshallese and their view on the state of affairs today.

Weeks ago, Newton asked his family if one of its elders would tell us a story that recounts the legend of Lajuan, the renown advisor of kings (Newton’s last name is Lajuan). The elders conferred and decided that they’d let one of Newton’s cousins do the telling. Well trained in recounting this tale, the cousin met with us this week. But he was obliged to leave out some story details that only family members can hear. That’s the custom. Stories are knowledge and power and some parts simply cannot be given away except to a chosen group. In other instances, story tellers have avoided telling us things that are impolite or taboo. So, no matter what we do, the collection will always be incomplete.

Yesterday, in a dwindling rain, Newton and I and two students waded across the reef to a neighboring island. He’d arranged for one of the students and me to interview an elderly couple who survived the notorious Bravo nuclear blast in 1954. The student would conduct the interview. The old couple don’t trust ripalle. Newton himself would stay outside. I told Newton to make sure the couple understood that I’m just here to run the camera. What no one seems to understand is that, once I’m gone in a few months, Newton takes over. Unfortunately, my presence shadows every interaction. I’ve learned to look small. Sometimes I feel I’ve nearly willed myself into invisibility. As I sat on the floor of the elderly couple’s house–it’s a cinderblock house with a linoleum floor, immaculate and stark, built with nuclear claims money–I smiled reassuringly as the student explained what we’re doing. Sweat dripped from my nose. The old woman was beautiful in her day, you can see. She and her husband sat at a picnic table in their dining room. She wore a sack dress of brightly flowered fabric. He wore a t-shirt and long trousers. Both were barefoot, as we were too: shoes aren’t allowed indoors. The woman looked at me with narrowed eyes. Her husband didn’t look at me at all. The student was ever so polite. I could tell he was trying hard. At one point the woman recounted how the fallout burned those who played in it. I could tell by the gestures she made. I’ve seen these before. She was near tears. Then she quit talking and turned away. For the next twenty minutes she didn’t say a word. The old man talked but seemed to ask a lot of questions.

Afterwards, when we were outside, I asked the student how it went. “Not good,” he admitted. “The old man said these were ripalle questions.” “Did they tell us anything?” I pressed. He said: “They said it’s frustrating to be asked how they feel. They will never see their home again. They will be buried in strange soil. Isn’t it obvious how they feel?” Soil is so sacred to the Marshallese that “to plant” and “to bury”–kellip– are the same word: the graves of Marshallese ancestors nourish the crops of their descendants. To be buried outside one’s native soil is tantamount to sending your soul on a journey with no end.

Eddie lives on this same island, among the Rongelap survivors, and so Newton had arranged to meet him. Newton has become adept at tracking people down. Eddie was agreeable, but Newton insisted we walk to yet another island, which is uninhabited. Otherwise, Eddie might have frozen again if he had to perform in front of his neighbors. These islands are so small, there is always an audience for any activity. The next island happens to belong to Newton’s wife’s family. Her ancestors are buried here. But so are many Japanese from World War II. As the Imperial Army’s burial island, it earned the name “Island of Demons.” We found an old log for Eddie to sit on. Nearby, we could see the weathered white tombstones of the family burial ground. Farther out, in the shallows, near the rusted hulk of a half-sunken ship, men were casting nets for reef fish. As we were crossing over, I came upon one fisherman who had just pulled an octopus from a tide pool. He held it up for me while I took snapshots. Every few seconds he had to liberate his hand from its suckers.

After seating ourselves at the edge of Demon Island’s dense jungle, Newton talked gently to Eddie to warm him up. I had the camera and voice recorder ready. The sky was clearing finally, the too-blue sky breaking through mountainous billowing clouds. It was going to be a beautiful day. Eddie told the story of the two ladies and the octopus. Newton and the students laughed as he chanted the octopus’s part. The octopus was telling the two women all the wrong ways to cook him. There are many tricksters in Marshallese stories. When Eddie finished, he attempted to re-tell the story in sailor’s English. But he didn’t get far before he lost heart. He said he was too nervous. Newton laughed and patted him on the back and told him not to worry. “Komool,” he said. “Thank you.” Then one of the students presented Eddie with a gift certificate to a discount store on Majuro. Eddie was very appreciative.

The other student presented us with coconut meat he’d culled from some coconuts he’d managed to husk. Called iou, it’s the dried core of the coconut and has the consistency of angel-food cake and is nearly as sweet. I’m always surprised how the Marshallese partake so easily of the food around them when we’re in the jungle. As we ate, Newton told me he’d arranged for us to talk to yet another old man later in the day. Newton’s getting little rest these days and I feel bad about that, but I’m getting little rest myself.