So Many Islands: A Review

by David Phillips

Nicholas Laughlin, Nailah Folami Imoja (eds.) (2017). So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Auckland, New Zealand: Little Island Press. 214pp. ISBN: 9781877484421. Paperback, US16$.

So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans is an anthology of poems and short stories by islanders from each of these respective oceans. The editors selected their authors with diversity in mind—each writer brings with them a new island, along with a unique vernacular, identity and tradition to write from. The array of voices makes each piece refreshing, while the length and number of the texts maintains cohesion across the various perspectives and ideas.

These distinctive stories do share a few features that we might call ‘islandness’, some of which Marlon James outlines in his introduction to the text. The common experience represented best in this collection is what James refers to as ‘folk wisdom clashing with facts and knowledge to create a new folk wisdom’ (p. 15). This conflict plays a minor role in many of the stories: a woman is chastised for teaching her granddaughter about animals and plants found in the bush in ‘Granny Dead’—‘Unaccounted For’ argues the importance of indigenous knowledge in the economic development of Trinidad and Tobago—and in ‘Perilous Journey’ the young teach the old about the dangers of pesticides. My favourite moment in the anthology comes from ‘A Child of Four Women’, in which Marita Davies, the author, arrives on the island her grandmother was born on for the first time and must complete a pilgrimage with her long lost cousin. Marita leaves tobacco on a statue as an offering to Nei Reei, one of the island’s spiritual ancestors, but as she drives away children scurry over to take the tobacco back to their elders.

‘Hey! They took my tobacco!’

‘What did you expect nei Marita? Of course someone will take it.’

‘But it’s for the statue!’

Kairo cackled with laughter and teased, ‘The statue can’t smoke your tobacco, nei Marita!’

(p. 78)

She feels somewhat betrayed that her island experience is interrupted by children she initially sees as greedy, and this moment draws out more complexity in the conflict between folk wisdom and modern knowledge. Here, Marita’s experience of folk wisdom and island traditions do not align with her expectations, but while these islanders uphold tradition, they also have common sense. A bag of tobacco cannot just sit on a plinth or it will be wasted. Not every one of these stories is trying to break expectations of islandness or resist the colonial lens, but each of the seventeen texts tries to tease nuances out of these expectations and slowly construct an image of the island identity.

While many of these stories do build upon one another and develop ideas across the collection, several cover similar topics without as much distinction and often one piece is less impactful than another. Those narratives have their differences, but when the crux of multiple stories is, for example, colonial violence, the anthology invites comparison, which is not preferable structurally for a collection of short stories and poems. The aim of an anthology such as this is that each piece contributes to a greater whole. These stories certainly do not clash with one another, and islanders have many shared experiences across their distinct islands, so the repetition of a few topics is inevitable. Some of these echoes are well-balanced: ‘A Child of Four Women’ and ‘Beached’ deal with the issue of repatriation from different perspectives that contrast and compliment each other. However, I genuinely enjoyed some of the stories less than others because they covered similar territory with less creativity. The form of this collection specifically feels as if several pieces are in competition with one another, rather than in conversation.

Several texts overlapped, but others did not convey much of anything. One of the exciting elements of a short story or poem is that they can break the rules, say what they want to say how they want to say it. But that means that some texts feel as if they do not have as much of a purpose, that the reader is being shown something without an apparent meaning. I found myself enraptured by Tammi Browne-Bannister’s prose in ‘Perilous Journey’—she writes powerfully about the African diaspora, sustainable gardening practices and centipedes—but a sudden turn in the penultimate paragraph left me reeling and unsure what I was supposed to take from the overall piece. This problem did not arise frequently, but some texts stayed with me a lot longer than others due to the message they impart.

What I loved most about the collection is that the island itself is rarely the focus of each text. Instead, the island is the context—the authors write from the islands rather than just about them, which makes space for many different narratives. ‘Coming Off the Long Run’ is an enthralling story about a cricket team working toward their league title, ‘Plaine-Verte’ explores religious prejudice and orthodoxy through a bildungsroman, ‘1980s Pacific Testing’ discusses nuclear experimentation and the mistreatment of islanders in Oceania, and each writer is informed by their island without being constrained to their island. Even when a text is literally about the island, the author does more than simply depict the land. Such is the case in the as final poem, ‘Avocado’, in which the Caribbean has gone metaphorically missing and the speaker must find it. Here, the Caribbean is discovered inside a gift from a stranger, the eponymous avocado, as well as in descendants of freemen, roadside flowers, ‘the midday light’, and elsewhere. Each text can only provide a snapshot of its island, but the islands we see are as diverse and vibrant as the islanders representing them.

Overall, So Many Islands is a wonderful selection of poems and stories that is surprising, engaging and enlightening. Each poem is stimulating, each story captivating, providing the collection with a great depth of perspectives, styles and techniques. At times, these perspectives overlap a little too much, to the detriment of one piece or another, but at their best these texts weave together to construct something close to the identity of the islander diaspora. The collection will introduce you to a number of accomplished and talented writers you might not have been lucky enough to discover otherwise, and is well worth the read.