Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Our Sea of Islands

Hau’ofa’s essay “Our Sea of Islands” is extremely effective in pulling together themes of the course thus far. We see Hau’ofa the scholar here, rather than discerning his opinion through the satirical episodes in Tales of the Tikongs. It is important to notice that he comes to a change in perspective through contact with his students. He chooses to engage the gritty reality of “Our Sea of Islands” constructively rather than dejectedly. Kolvenbach wrote that students “should learn to perceive, think, judge, choose, and act for the rights of others, especially the disadvantaged and the oppressed” (35). Kolvenbach was speaking to a Western audience of US universities, but the message can be even more powerful in the Oceanic setting. Rather than discouraging his students, Hau’ofa empowers them with the direct, powerful concept that “Smallness is a state of mind” (Hau’ofa 31). He focuses on the “neoclassical relationships of dependency” (36) in the current political and economic order.
Relationships of dependency create modern colonization long after the official pomp and circumstance declared independence. As we saw in Tales of the Tikongs, no one escapes satire, but Hau’ofa certainly blames the oppressive social structures of the West for the current situation of Oceania. He discusses the importance of language in the distinctions between “islands in a far sea” versus “a sea of islands” and “Pacific Islands” versus “Oceania.” He notes: “Hardly any Anglophone economist, consultancy expert, government planner, or development banker in the region uses the term Oceania, perhaps because it sounds grand and somewhat romantic and may denote something so vast that it would compel them to a drastic review of their perspectives and policies” (31). Names implicitly identify the subject in question, and denying Oceania the dignity of an appropriate title is a perfect example.
Using demeaning names can be a source tension and belittlement, just as powerful, majestic names can create empowerment or change. In El Salvador many students changed their names as to make it easier for the Salvadorans to identify us. I remained Cristina because I would feel strange being called anything else. My boyfriend preferred to have his name pronounced incorrectly (Austin as OUSteen) rather than change it. Our friend Garrett, however, adopted his confirmation name Phillip. Hearing everyone call him Felipe reflected the importance of his spiritual journey. Garrett, or Felipe as we continue to call him, is applying for the Jesuits after graduation from Marquette this year.
Hau’ofa echoes the necessity of social contracts in political theory yet implies that the ramifications of such boundaries discourage the beauty of human interaction. He writes of ancestral Oceania: “Theirs was a large world in which peoples and cultures moved and mingled, unhindered by boundaries of the kind erected much later by imperial powers” (Hau’ofa 32). For example, think of how humans interact in the DMV. Also remember the ideal is always preferable when discussed next to a negative example, but if we agree with philosophers such as Locke or Hobbes, the state of humanity would be much worse off without the rule of law, without the DMVs. Yet we loathe their presence in our everyday lives. Furthermore I think Hau’ofa is referencing the imaginary boundaries people create, such as divisions between geographic, class, race, ethnic, gender, sexual, and religious groups. He is saying such boundaries only create increased separation which discourages collaborative progress and pits individuals against each other.
In contrast, he offers the value of interdependency, where humans support each other: “Economists do not take account of the social centrality of the ancient process of reciprocity, the core of all Oceanic values…This is not dependency but interdependency, which is purportedly the essence of the global system” (35). Hau’ofa’s discussion of remittances resonated with me because in El Salvador 30% of imports is composed of money sent from family members in the United States. This structure allows Salvadoran families to survive, yet on a macro level creates further dependency on the United States.
Hau’ofa includes the discussion of religion as a colonizing force because although this is so different from how we think of Catholic faith today, it is a part of history that must not be glossed over. He writes: “The wholesale condemnation by Christian missionaries of Oceanic cultures as savage, lascivious, and barbaric has had a lasting and negative effect on people’s views of their histories and traditions.” (Hau’ofa 28). In the Spanish class “Chronicles of Conquest,” this semester, I am reading primary sources from indigenous nations in Central America who were decimated for the cost of “progress” in colonization. Living in Latin America for a whole year in two completely different places, I kept noting how the discussions of colonization and independence were so strongly taught, differently than the American Revolution. This is because people still feel the effects today in the historic battle over land and natural resources.
I wanted to share the article “How to Write About Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina to demonstrate that similar struggles of belittling mentalities of colonization transcend geography. Peoples of Latin American, Asia, and Africa suffer as the people of “Our Sea of Islands” do because of modern boundaries and experience a loss of identity from belittling neoclassical relationships. Binyavanga Wainaina writes, “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country.” This speaks to Westerners’ ignorance of geography and individual identity present in the multiplicity of African cultures. Similarly, in my ignorant position as a Western student who never truly studied Hau’ofa’s native region, I never would have known that the name “The Pacific” is negative compared to “Oceania.”
Authors such as Hau’ofa and Feigel write to combat the stereotypical images of the islands as carefree and erotic. This is evident in both Hau’ofa’s episode “The Seventh and Other Days” in Tales of the Tikongs” and in Fiegel’s They Who Do Not Grieve. Binyavanga Wainaina’s satire also tries to remind the Western reader of false stereotypes: “Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history.” From reading Wendt we know that the implications of a loss of history also impact one’s personal identity. The woman mentioned is completely wonting of dignity. Both Binyavanga Wainaina and Hau’ofa are effective in addressing the resilience of oppressed regions and the importance of writing the truth in literature and the media.

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