Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book Review By Patrick Kaiku: "Tales of the Tikongs", Epeli Hau'ofa

(Thanks to Patrick Kaiku for this book review. It's much appreciated. Ganjiki)
Hau'ofa, E. (1983) Tales of the Tikongs, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press. 

Reviewed by Patrick Kaiku



For those of us who have been bombarded to absolute boredom with the textbook definitions of "development" and all the political rhetoric we have come to know about "development" in the Pacific Islands broadly, Tales of the Tikongs offers a slight variation for our amusement. The book, through a touch of hilarious and provocative penmanship presents a holistic understanding of development from the grassroots perspective with ordinary people contending with changes at the individual, household and community level.


The author, Epeli Hau'ofa would have understood the monotonous air of classroom curriculum and political imaginations that the term "development" conjures and its widespread use (or misuse) throughout the Pacific Islands. With the characters he developed in the fictitious Pacific Island country of Tiko, he sought to express the concept of development in the typical manner Pacific Islanders see it in their day-to-day lives. In the process, he sets out in this book, not with the intent of creating heroes or losers. Rather, all the protagonists are portrayed as free people and survivors in a brave new world where development is the phenomenon that "threatens to demolish ancestral ways and the human spirit" (p.vii).


To illustrate the resilient spirit of the Tikongs (citizens of Tiko), Epeli Hau'ofa in the story "Blessed are the Meek" introduce us to one Puku, a landless man and an unfortunate victim of the primogeniture norms of Tiko. Puku being short in stature and employed as a cleaner for a government department embodies the true survival temperament of the Tikongs. Although the elder brother unjustly wrong Puku by selling the only piece of land he subsists on and his only source of economic security in his increasingly monetized society, this does not sway Puku who remains "patient, long-suffering, and devoid of personal ambition" (p.74), knowing his obligations to the community, his social relations and Christian faith.


In the Tales of the Tikongs, Epeli Hau'ofa depicts the people's responses to the complex and multifaceted influences of the West. Epeli Hau'ofa creates richly humorous sequence of events to show how the protagonists, "[W[hen caught in a predicament, their solutions are idiosyncratic, often anarchic" (p. viii). The reader is led into the world of the Tikongs to "cheer them from the sidelines" (p. viii) in a plot so befitting their fatalistic course into the unknown.


For any Pacific Islander or persons who have come into contact with Pacific Island societies, one cannot help but relate the dramatic realities and typical scenes in Tales of the Tikongs to present-day Pacific Island societies. And to situate this story in Hau'ofa's life-long distaste for neo-colonialism, this imaginary nation-state of Tiko is given a status as a newly independent country somewhere in the great Pacific Ocean. For a book written by a passionate Pacific Islander, it is an excellent resource for high school and tertiary level students in the Pacific Islands. Educators should also make this a part of their collection and classroom resource material.


One cannot review this book without referring to the life of the author himself. In this brief summation, I do him great injustice by only referring to less than what he accomplished in his passionate endeavor in promoting Oceanic scholarship.


The late Epeli Hau'ofa is a prolific Pacific Island author and scholar, knowledgeable of the ebbs and flows of Pacific Islands' issues and a staunch critic of some of the elitist-proclaimed pan-Pacific ideals. He was a former Deputy Private Secretary to the late King of Tonga. Aside from his previous roles as Head of the School of Sociology at the University of the South Pacific, he was the founding Director of the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture at the University of the South Pacific.


His educational achievements include earning a PhD degree from the Australian National University (ANU) in social anthropology. But this did not limit his interests and contributions to advancing the scholarship in Pacific visual arts and crafts, language and literature and politics and public administration in the region and beyond. One would have had the well-rounded learning and insightful mind of Epeli Hau'ofa to describe at length the most detailed activities that Tikongs carried out in their lives. It is truly amazing how he utilizes the inter-disciplinary scope of his learning in his holistic representation of the world of the Tikongs


As an educated Pacific Islander, Hua'ofa has legitimately meshed his conceptualization of the world with his own lived experiences in Tales of the Tikongs. He demonstrates his dislike of the growing class delineation and the hypocrisy of the privileged that espouse the preservation of Pacific culture and yet live lives that are far from "those they urge others to observe" (Hau'ofa, 2008:14).


Such contradictions are evident in the world of the Tikongs. Epeli Hau'ofa who has a long-standing ambivalence towards the ever-distinct Pacific Island bourgeoisie, who "have access to a wide range of superficial cultural experiences and expertise; it is the privileged who can afford to tell the poor to preserve their traditions…[but]…their perceptions of which traits of traditional culture to preserve are increasingly divergent from those of the poor" (Hau'ofa, 2008:14).


For instance in Tales of the Tikongs, the reader reads about Sailosi Atiu, the Director of the Bureau for Preservation of Traditional Culture and Essential Indigenous Personality. Sailosi strongly pushes for the people of Tikong to maintain their indigenous cultures but on the other end; he still maintains his membership in "the expatriate-dominated Tiko club", or annual subscription to Playboy and has his "regular visits to the International Nightlight Hotel to dine on grilled steaks and imported potato washed down with French wines" (p.50). It is almost sarcastic where in this fictional work Epeli Hau'ofa pinpoints the reality with the contemporary Pacific Island bourgeoisie.


The organization of the Tales of the Tikongs book is progressive, allowing the reader to grasp the diverse and competing influences in Tiko – tale by tale. For example, the first story draws the attention of the reader to two contrasting protagonists whose stations in life see them come into contact with the various agents of development and change. First there is Manu – the argumentative and inquisitive talker, who finds debating traditional and contemporary Tiko values and custom a task worthy of shedding every ounce of mental energy.


Secondly, there is Sioni Falesi – a traditional Polynesian chief, who is also a devout Christian and public official. Sioni, among other issues has to contend with the rigid expectations of the 'expert', Mr. Dolittle an advisor from Australia. Epeli Hau'ofa makes it a point to include foreign experts and development assistance personnel throughout the course of the book, overtly, giving the reader an insight into the lingering issues of neo-colonialism and the state of dependency that Tiko finds itself in.


In contrasting the forces at work in Tiko, Epeli Hau'ofa portrays the work ethic of the Tikongs in relation to the capitalist values of efficiency and discipline. In the dialogue, Mr. Dolittle implores His Excellency's Government to "first import the Protestant Ethic, two little words hitherto unheard of in the realm" (p.5). The Tiko are noted in this instant as demonstrating a relaxed attitude towards work and were less materialistic in their pursuits.


Tales of the Tikongs is a collection of 12 short stories. It offers a variety of plots and different characters or protagonists. The central protagonists in the 12 stories range from fishermen, to farmers, office workers, chiefs, pastors, academics and so forth. The book is inclusive of all there is to know about an island community. Occasionally, the philosophical Manu features in the chapters as the lead character. 


As briefly alluded above, one of the consistent themes that Epeli Hau'ofa highlights in the book is the role of the overseas development experts who make annual pilgrimages to Tiko for the purpose of helping out with a whole range of development projects – from fisheries, cattle-farming, poultry-farming projects and so forth.


Also consistent in Tales of the Tikongs is Epeli Hau'ofa's reference to Christianity and the blatant emergence of un-Christian values that individualism induces. It is the immediate second story, 'The Winding Road to Heaven' which portrays the Christian dogma that appropriate punishment is meted out to those who have willfully lived a deceitful existence. The reader is also introduced to a young man raised in the Christian faith until his interests in the opposite sex become the main motivating factor in his zealous Christian outreach work. Personal gain and the use of the introduced institutions in the pursuit of personal interests in Tiko cannot be more pronounced.


Likewise the educated elite of Tiko who has nothing to show for this multiple educational qualifications is given a good retort. There is also a tale of the scheming and corruptible His Holiness Bopeep Dr. Toki Tumu of the Church of the Golden Bell. Indeed, Epeli Hau'ofa mixes fun reading with critical self-examination of long-held assumptions that are part of the Oceanic milieu.


The orderliness of the book is obvious in the catchy chapter headings, conforming to standard fictional and creative writing. Anybody who picks up a copy of the Tales of the Tikongs will not part with it until the ninety-three pages are read through. The book is not lengthy and coupled with the comical content; the reader is guaranteed a hilarious encounter with the inhabitants of Tiko.


The book is also considerate of the diversity that is known of Pacific Island societies (and readership). Though the book purportedly cites social structures of the Polynesian cultural variety, the overall theme is universal for all Pacific Island societies. As one who is familiar with the so-called Melanesian sub-region of the Pacific Islands, I appreciate the universal themes that Epeli Hau'afo captures in the Tales of the Tikongs.


In fact I relate well with the hilarious occurrences and dialogues of the book. I would not be wrong if I say here that there is some level of homogeneity in the manner in which the processes of modernization is being confronted at all levels of  Pacific Island societies.


Tales of the Tikongs is a collection of stories that reflect the Pacific Islanders' life in this rapidly modernizing world. One can be sure that the concept of "development" is not a dull subject matter when read in the format presented by Epeli Hau'ofa. The book's vitality, originality and satirical dialogues demonstrate the sarcastic responses by the Tikongs to the forces of neo-colonialism. In this irreversible process, the author conveys the impression that the purported "underdogs" can deal with modernization at their own pace and in line with what is best to be taken from both worlds.


Additional reference


Hau'ofa, Epeli (2008) We are the Ocean: Selected Works, University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu.

Patrick Kaiku