The Pacific: Literature

Pacific Literature

Over the years a succession of European writers has traveled to the South Pacific in search of Bougainville's Nouvelle Cythère or Rousseau's noble savage. Brought to the stage and silver screen, their stories entered the popular imagination alongside Gauguin's rich images, creating the romantic myth of the South Seas paradise presently marketed by the travel industry. Only since independence have indigenous writers such as Epeli Hau'ofa, Julian Maka'a, Fata Sano Malifa, Raymond Pillai, John Saunana, Subramani, and Albert Wendt come to the fore.


Herman Melville, author of the whaling classic Moby Dick (1851), deserted his New Bedford whaler at Nuku Hiva in 1842 and Typee (1846) describes his experiences there. An Australian whaling ship carried Melville on to Tahiti, but he joined a mutiny on board, which landed him in the Papeete calabooza (prison). His second Polynesian book, Omoo (1847), was a result. In both, Melville decries the ruin of Polynesian culture by Western influence.

Pierre Loti's The Marriage of Loti (1880) is a sentimental tale of the love of a young French midshipman for a Polynesian girl named Rarahu. Loti's naiveté is rather absurd, but his friendship with Queen Pomare IV and his fine imagery make the book worth reading. Loti's writings influenced Paul Gauguin to come to Tahiti.

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In 1888-1890 Robert Louis Stevenson, famous author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped, cruised the Pacific in his schooner, the Casco. His book In the South Seas describes his visits to the Marquesas and Tuamotus. In 1890 Stevenson and his family bought a large tract of land just outside Apia, Samoa, and built a large, framed house he called Vailima. In 1894 he was buried on Mt. Vaea, just above his home.


Jack London and his wife Charmian cruised the Pacific aboard their yacht, the Snark, in 1907-1909. A longtime admirer of Melville, London found only a wretched swamp at Taipivai in the Marquesas. His South Sea Tales (1911) was the first of the 10 books that he wrote on the Pacific. London's story "The House of Mapuhi," about a Jewish pearl buyer, earned him a costly lawsuit. London was a product of his time, and the modern reader is often shocked by his insensitive portrayal of the islanders.

In 1913-1914 the youthful poet Rupert Brooke visited Tahiti, where he fell in love with Mamua, a girl from Mataiea whom he immortalized in his poem "Tiare Tahiti." Later Brooke fought in WW I and wrote five famous war sonnets. He died of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship in the Mediterranean in 1915.

W. Somerset Maugham toured Polynesia in 1916-1917 to research his novel, The Moon and Sixpence (1919), a fictional life of Paul Gauguin. Of the six short stories in The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), "Rain" casts strumpet Sadie Thompson against the Rev. Mr. Davidson during an enforced stay at Pago Pago, "marooned in a dilapidated lodging house, upon whose corrugated roof the heavy tropical rain beat incessantly." Three film versions of the story have appeared. Maugham's A Writer's Notebook, published in 1984, 19 years after his death, describes his travels in the Pacific.


American writers Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall came to Tahiti after WW I, married Tahitian women, and collaborated on 11 books. Their most famous was the Bounty Trilogy (1934), which tells of Fletcher Christian's Mutiny on the Bounty, the escape to Dutch Timor of Captain Bligh and his crew in Men Against the Sea, and the mutineer's fate in Pitcairn's Island. Three generations of filmmakers have selected this saga as their way of presenting paradise.

Hall remained on Tahiti until his death in 1951 and he was buried on the hill behind his home at Arue. His last book, The Forgotten One, is a collection of true stories about expatriate intellectuals and writers lost in the South Seas. Hall's account of the 28-year correspondence with his American friend Robert Dean Frisbie, who settled on Pukapuka in the Cook Islands, is touching.

James A. Michener joined the U.S. Navy in 1942 and ended up visiting around 50 South Sea islands, among them Bora Bora. His Tales of the South Pacific (1947) tells of the impact of WW II on the South Pacific and the Pacific's impact on those who served. It was later made into the long-running Broadway musical, South Pacific. Michener's Return to Paradise (1951) is a readable collection of essays and short stories.


Island Writers

The literary traditions of the Pacific islanders themselves were largely oral until 1967 when the University of the South Pacific was established at Suva, Fiji. The student newspaper Unispac began carrying fiction by Pacific writers in 1968, but it was the formation of the South Pacific Creative Arts Society and its magazine Mana in 1973 that really stimulated the creation of a Pacific literature distinct from the expatriate writings that had prevailed up until that time. The first Festival of Pacific Arts held at Suva in 1972 greatly encouraged the development of a unique South Pacific culture.

Whereas the main characters in the expatriate writings are invariably Europeans with the islands and islanders treated only as exotic background, indigenous post-colonial writers deal with the real problems and concerns of the island people. The writings of outsiders such as Maugham and Michener often tell us more about the writers themselves than about the islands where their stories are set. In contrast to the Pacific paradise approach, island authors decry the impact of European colonialism and materialism on their traditional cultures and declare their own identity.

The Pacific's most famous contemporary writer is Samoan novelist Albert Wendt. His novels, such as Sons for the Return Home (1973), Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree (1974), Pouliuli (1977), and Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1979) portray the manipulative nature and complex social organization of Samoan society. Wendt studied in New Zealand for 12 years before returning to teach in Samoa in 1965, and he is now a professor of English literature at Auckland University.


Tongan poet and short-story writer Epeli Hau'ofa satirizes the foreign aid business and other aspects of island life in his humorous book Tales of the Tikongs. His 1977 essay "Our Crowded Islands" deals with overpopulation in Tonga and the Westernization of Tongan life. Kisses in the Nederends and Corned Beef and Tapioca are among his other books. Other Pacific writers of note include Samoa's Fata Sano Malifa (Alms for Oblivion) and Sia Figiel (Where We Once Belonged), Fiji's Sudesh Mishra (Tandava) and Raymond Pillai (The Celebration), and Solomon Island's John Saunana (The Alternative).