Friday, August 21, 2020

WITMonth Day 21 | Island of Shattered Dreams by Chantal T. Spitz | Review

I first heard of Chantal T. Spitz at the wonderful, inaugural Translating Women conference last year. Spitz's English-language translator Jean Anderson presented a paper about cross-cultural literature, representing Pacific literature in a way that I had never before heard. I'm not in the literary field, after all, and the Translating Women conference was my first experience attending a literary academic-style conference; I've attended other literary events and plenty of scientific conferences, but nothing like this. For me, Anderson's presentation was one of the most fascinating and memorable of the conference as a whole. In the course of the talk, she discussed Spitz (as well as other, untranslated writers), and I jotted down in my notes "French is 'not her language', but the language she writes in due to school and education". Moreover, I was fascinated by the idea of exploring Tahitian and Pacific literature, since these are regions of the world I know very little about. I ultimately ordered Island of Shattered Dreams a few months later and read it just at the onset of August.

It would be unfair to say that I devoured Island of Shattered Dreams in one rapturous swell, though I did. It would also be unfair to say that I've been thinking about the short novel extensively since finishing reading it, though I have. These both feel unfair because they don't do enough to emphasize just how strongly Island of Shattered Dreams made me feel, nor how strongly I feel that more readers should be seeking this translation out. From a technical standpoint, Island of Shattered Dreams manages to do so much in so few pages (157), and with an extraordinary balance. Poetry, lyricism, history, politics, and romance all intertwine to form a tiny epic that never feels incomplete. Simply saying "oh, this book is wonderful!" or "I couldn't put it down!" seems like underselling.

The novel - which carries with it a unique meta-context that becomes more apparent and important by the story's end, which I won't get into because I quite enjoyed how it unfolded - follows an Indigenous Tahitian family, initially focused on Tematua and his great love Emere (whose mother is Indigenous and father a white Englishman), later shifting focus to their children: Terii, Eritapeta, and Tetiare. The fluid passage of time is beautifully framed by Tematua: "As Tematua foresaw in his heart, time is rushing out of control", precisely at the cusp of the novel's focus change. Island of Shattered Dreams covers a significant portion of the 20th century without it feeling like an overly drawn out narrative, and the tight family saga means that the novel's overall flow is never impeded. 

Yet this very sentence I just quoted also defines a second, critical theme in Island of Shattered Dreams, since the quote does not end where I stopped it. The full quote is actually "As Tematua foresaw in his heart, time is rushing out of control, troubling people's minds and surreptitiously filling their hearts with shame for the Mā’ohi world and admiration for the pale reflections of the foreigners' world." Ultimately, Island of Shattered Dreams must also be read as a novel about Tahiti/French Polynesia at large: its cultural shifts, its status as an island outpost for a massive colonial power, and various racial/cultural complexities that come attached with both. 

Emere's story is particularly central in this, as she is the not only the product of a mixed-race relationship, she is also caught between cultures and the love both of her parents have for her in that context. Her mother Toofa "hadn't prepared her daughter for the difficulties of life on the outlying islands. She had wanted an easy, modern lifestyle for her, hoping that the man who married her would provide her with a housekeeper and every comfort." Toofa remains rooted to joining the white, Western world (which goes on to influence her grandchildren too), yet accepts Emere's choice leave this society behind and marry Tematua. It's a balance that ripples throughout the remainder of the novel, a reminder of the family's complex history and one that shapes the drama in the book's final chapters.

It's impossible for me to ignore how much I learned from Island of Shattered Dreams. Learning from literature is obviously wonderful and part of the point, but I can't help but feel disheartened by how much I end up relying on fiction to teach me things that I probably should have known earlier. I knew absolutely nothing about French Polynesia or Tahiti prior to reading Island of Shattered Dreams; it's just about exactly on the opposite side of the world from my own home and with no shared language, so this isn't particularly surprising. Still, I left Island of Shattered Dreams wanting to learn more about France's colonial history in the region and its power today. Much like the anthology Indigenous Literatures of Micronesia left me hungry to learn and read other books, so too does Island of Shattered Dreams make me wonder about the island today (Island of Shattered Dreams was published in 1991, which makes it as old as I am, aka not exactly young anymore...). What does Tahitian literature look like today? Will any more of it get translated into English? Spitz's other works are themselves still unavailable in English translation - are these also to remain out of grasp for English-language readers?

And I'm left with more questions, hearkening back to Spitz's remark about writing in French. There are several Mā’ohi words and phrases throughout the novel and Spitz even opens her novel in Mā’ohi. Spitz has already made her words "more accessible" to Western readers by writing them in the colonial French, a language that is bountifully translated from across the world. Yet Island of Shattered Dreams does not appear to have been translated between most languages. It is certainly not available in my native Hebrew, nor, to the best of my Googling, does it appear to have been translated into German, Spanish, Portuguese, or Japanese. Why not? The supposed language barrier (had Spitz written her work entirely in Mā’ohi)  has been "helpfully" removed by the author herself. What more is needed?

I've written all these words without getting to the heart of my response to Island of Shattered Dreams which is, quite simply, that I loved it. I loved the writing. I loved the fluidity. I loved the poetry. I loved the warmth with which Spitz describes her world and life, new-to-me yet so far from being new (and it never feels like an introduction, it feels like... life). Most importantly, I loved the love that is central to so very much of the novel. To use what Anderson explains in her translator note as a Mā’ohi cultural touchstone which I was obviously unfamiliar with until reading the book, I felt Island of Shattered Dreams deep within my belly, that place from which emotions truly do rise (even if this is not how it's usually described in either of my languages). I could not set this book aside for a moment, sitting outside to read under a perfect summer sky, drinking in the book from when the morning air was still cool until the hot noonday sun reached my reading nook. Alongside all of the rest that makes it a valuable work, Island of Shattered Dreams is a beautiful story brimming with all sorts of different forms of love and a love of storytelling (once oral, now put to print) at its very core. How could I not fall in love myself?

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is such a great recommendation! My library doesn't have this book but I'm going to see if I can get them to request it. I don't know anything about Tahiti either, but I'd like to!


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