Booktrotting Log: Oceania

Another continent, another stage of my Booktrotting journey completed. Compared with the previous leg in Latin America, this literary trip across the island nations of Oceania has felt all too brief, having only three stops along the way—and yet those stops could hardly have been more diverse, beginning in self-imposed exile on Kiribati, moving through to New Zealand’s 19th century gold rush, and ending with a twisted coming-of-age story on the Australian coast.

Carte de L’Océanie, J.G. Barbie du Bocage, 1852

I always knew I would struggle to find a wide spread of literature from this part of the world, and so all things considered I’m glad I managed to read what I did. But of course, it’s not all about quantity: what’s more important is how well the few books I did choose fit with my Booktrotting goal of filling in some of those blank edges on my world map.

I mentioned before how J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals was an especially good find in this regard, given how comprehensive his account was of Kiribati’s history, geography and social minutiae, and how Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries likewise introduced me to an entire period of New Zealand’s past about which I previously knew nothing.

Even Tim Winton’s Breath, which I didn’t much enjoy as a novel, was immense fun to explore as a window onto Australian adolescence and its relationship with masculinity.

Maris Pacifici, Abraham Ortelius, 1589

Fortunately, even with a smaller set of books to work from, it was still easy to notice several common themes emerging as I read my way across Oceania, just as it was in Latin America.

One of the first themes I noticed (largely because of its striking contrast to the violence encountered from Jamaica through to Argentina) was openness. Whether it was Troost in Kiribati, Walter Moody in New Zealand or Pikelet’s Kent-born family in Australia, the narrators of each of these novels were by strange coincidence connected by their origins overseas, and by the way that seemingly didn’t matter beyond providing a little backstory. Perhaps I’m just looking at this with a little too much zeitgeist, but I couldn’t help wondering that if these books were written by British authors, how many pages would be dedicated to the simple fact that the characters came from Somewhere Else?

It’s interesting to consider the role Oceania’s geography might play in this. In the British Isles, spurning the company of strangers is something of a luxury, packed in as tight as we are to our neighbours both domestic and across the Channel.

But in the countries of Oceania—especially in the vast, open spaces of Australia—that same luxury doesn’t really exist. I’d always heard friends and family in Australia and New Zealand say that it’s a much friendlier world down in the South Pacific, but I’d never thought until now how that might stem from a sense of international loneliness, cut off from the rest of the world as these countries are by the bounds of the Indian and Pacific Oceans—alone, if you will, at what once really was the edge of the world.

Australasia, John Pinkerton, 1818

From Australia my Booktrotting journey now heads across the South China Sea to continue on through Asia, working from Malaysia in the east around to Turkey in the west. But although I’m moving on from Oceania, I am determined to discover more authors and books from this region, starting with Australia’s Kate Grenville and Miles Franklin, as well as Eleanor Catton’s much-lauded first novel The Rehearsal.

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3 thoughts on “Booktrotting Log: Oceania

  1. Ive not had a great success in finding authors from Oceania either (once you take out NZ and Australia). The Luminaries was so/so for me. Who are you going to read from Malaysia?

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    1. It’s a tricky place to read, isn’t it? I hate to generalise things, but in all the prep I did before starting this project almost everything I turned up for Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia was travelogues, which I was keen to avoid wherever possible; I did come eventually across The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara, a historical novel set on a fictional Micronesian island, but that wasn’t until a few weeks ago, so I’ll have to go back and read that another time. I’ll keep a keen eye on your blog though, hopefully between us we’ll find a gem or two floating out there in the Pacific.

      I must admit, my interest in The Luminaries did dwindle as it drew on, but even so I loved the detail of its setting and Catton’s playfully self-indulgent style—and of course, being raised on fantasy I’m a bit of a sucker for a sturdy brick of a novel! My Malaysian read is Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists.

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      1. I’ve struggled with these regions too. No doubt I’ll show my geographic ignorance here James but at the risk of being told these geographies don’t fit your descriptions, here goes. For Sri Lanka and the Philippines take a look at two guest posts on my blog by bloggers from those countries. They might give you some ideas. https://bookertalk.com/world-literature/the-view-from-here/

        For Indonesia I have on my list Twilight in Jakarta by Mochtar Lubis. I’ve not read it but chose it because the author had to smuggle the text out of Indonesia where he was under house arrest. I thought if he’d risked his life that much his novel had something important to say about the country.

        Just a thought – have you had a look at the The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer to see what he lists for these regions. If you don’t have a copy, let me know and I’ll take a look at mine

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