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So Many Islands: The Ebb and Flow of a World of Stories and Diverse Histories

So Many Islands

In a world divided by the cause and consequences of climate change, So Many Islands is a collection of fiction and non-fiction writing that subverts geopolitical barriers to remind us that we are all connected. The seventeen pieces, carefully chosen by editors Nicholas Laughlin with Nailah Folami Imoja, represent the breadth and diversity of Commonwealth writers have to offer and they explore to varying degrees ideas of connection and disconnect. In his introduction to the anthology Jamaican novelist Marlon James plays with these ideas, commenting that the ‘focus on both isolation and community creates a refreshing effect.’

Bridging the Caribbean and the Pacific, and the oceans in between, there is so much that is different across cultures, customs and mythology. Yet so much still remains the same. Nicholas Laughlin in the foreword talks about the ‘urge to contend with the limits and the possibilities of a small place’, and it is this tension that swells to carry these stories beyond their island shores.

The anthology includes eleven short stories, five poems and an essay. The subjects range from observations on the atrocities of slavery and nuclear testing, to commentary on contemporary issues like sexuality and women’s rights. The backdrop of each piece is a shared colonial history. Woven into each story is an ardent love of one’s native country combined with a yearning to stretch beyond the horizon that borders all island nations, whether Pacific or Caribbean.

The collection is bookended by two poems: the first, Oceania, a brief and lyrical homage to the Pacific Ocean by Tongan poet Karlo Mila, the second, Avocado, a long and winding journey home by St. Lucian poet Kendel Hippolyte.

Between the two, So Many Islands moves us steadily through a lifetime of considerations. From childhood narrators we receive tales of escaping literal and metaphorical booby traps, through a societal tradition with lofty aspirations and gruesome consequences, to the adolescent tensions of autonomy and obedience in a Muslim household.

And when the collection advances in age and the subjects become more mature they chronicle the death of a loved one, the tangled web of identity and ancestry, the unpredictable nature of budding sexuality. The authors in So Many Islands also tackle the slow transition into mid-life crisis and confronting depression, the unbearable weight of a history tied to slavery, and a stern reproach of environmental exploitation couched in the careful unpacking of indigenous history and customs. The collection winds down with older narrators and more amorphous subject matter: a cricket match is the stage for adult humour, roses transcend politics and power, and fragments of reality chip away at long held memories to reveal the feelings buried underneath.

Interspersed among the short stories are poems that speak volumes. Mere Taito’s 'Neo-Walt Village Coming' is a castigation of the international entertainment conglomerate that invades her native Fiji. She writes, ‘disney expects respect and gratitude from you / for gracing your village with its presence’. In the poem '1980s Pacific Testing' by Fetuolemoana Elisara, the narrator reminisces on nuclear events in Auckland, Mururoa and Tahiti with naive nostalgia that fades into a grim grown-up realization.

As with any body of water, So Many Islands ebbs and flows with strengths and weaknesses, pearls and mere oysters. While every story has earned a spot on these pages, some pieces enjoy a remarkable blend of insight supported by deft and delicate narration. 'Beached' by Angela Barry and 'The Plundering' by Heather Barker stand out as favourites. So too the non-fiction essay Unaccounted For by Tracy Assing which is narrated with an enticing blend of stoic academician and impassioned advocate.

Yet there are pieces such as 'A Child of Four' Women by Marita Davies where exciting subject matter suffers from some rather bland story-telling. Other pieces like The Maala (Mikoyan Vekula) and Something Tiny (Erato Ioannou) reference historical and cultural points that may be unfamiliar to readers outside of those territories. Yet this unfamiliarity piques the reader’s curiosity, calling them to explore the histories of Cyprus and Niue. The short story 'Coming off the Long Run' is entirely delivered in cricket metaphor, which will excite fans of the game but certainly sails over the heads of anyone who can’t tell a no-ball from a leg before wicket.

The charming thing about So Many Islands is how well these stories resonate with each other, despite the writers being insulated by geography. Inside the anthology the stories beckon to each other in a call and response, breaching their respective horizons to forge connections all across the world.

In her afterword, Samoan novelist Sia Figiel remarks that, ‘The writers in this anthology have each offered us . . . an atoau, a basket of tools that allow us to ask ourselves where do we come from, who are we and where are we going.’

Indeed the stories are diverse in their violent histories, thoughtful presents and the possibility of brilliant, blinding futures. In today’s globalist, migratory world, this anthology of island writing offers us the gift of returning home again and again, a gift that any island-born reader is sure to treasure.

So Many Islands edited by Nicholas Laughlin with Nailah Folami Imojah. 214 pp. Peekash Press.