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I'm having trouble working with pictures in Dreamwidth, so I think I'll be posting my personal posts to my old film blog from now own. I've started with my first post about the Micronesian trip. Feel free to comment here, if you're on Dreamwidth.
randy_byers: (yap)
the day that i dieP.F. Kluge has written two of the best books about Micronesia I've ever read. The Edge of Paradise is a non-fiction account of the current state of all the Micronesian islands and their conflicted relationship with the US circa 1993. The Master Blaster, published in 2012, is a novel set mostly on Saipan, with a few scenes on Guam, and concerns an anonymous blogger who exposes political corruption on the island that's largely driven by the American empire. Kluge served in the Peace Corps on Saipan in the late '60s, around the same time my family was living on Yap, and his knowledge of the islands is personal. He does a great job of capturing the nuances and contradiction of life at the margins of the American empire.

His first novel, The Day That I Die, is also set in Micronesia, but this time mostly on the island that at the time the book was published in 1976 was still called Palau but which is now known as Belau. It's not as successful as the other two books, but it still deftly captures the flavor of the islands. While The Master Blaster revolves around the mystery of the anonymous blogger's identity, The Day That I Die is a more traditional murder mystery. An American marine returns to the Palauan island of Peleliu, which was the site of one of the bitterest fights of the American campaign in the Pacific in WWII. The ex-marine is murdered, and the mystery is who killed him.

Kluge gathers his usual cast of eccentric Americans and Micronesians, and their stories are the cracked history of the islands and the American takeover after WWII. The problem I had with the novel is that it felt too glib. I think it's trying to be a satire of human pretension and self-delusion, but the satire often feels a little mean and affected. In his later books Kluge's depiction of human foibles is informed with more compassion and insight. Here everybody is more or less a self-serving jerk or whore of some kind, and they become caricatures.

Still, Kluge's descriptions of landscapes, character, and the socioeconomics of the islands is already sharp. He feels Micronesia in his bones, and his portraits of American drifters and grifters, Micronesian radicals, and mournful Japanese bonehunters point to the greater accomplishments ahead. On his website Kluge says that the novel was inspired by Lee Marvin, whom he guided around Saipan when Marvin was in Micronesia filming Hell in the Pacific in 1967. (Marvin was wounded in the Marine invasion of Saipan in 1942.) He also says it was optioned by Robert Aldrich to be filmed, and it's possible that the novel would have been a good match for Aldrich's bilious outlook. But nothing came of it, and it probably says something that, from what I can tell, The Day That I Die has never been reprinted.
randy_byers: (yap)
kluge-master-blasterP.F. Kluge served in the Peace Corps on Saipan in the late '60s at the same time that my family was living on Yap elsewhere in Micronesia. Micronesia at that time was a United Nations Trust Territory administered by the United States, and Saipan was the headquarters. When the Micronesian islands were granted "independence" in the '70s, Saipan and its associated islands (including Tinian, which launched the Enola Gay on its mission to drop the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945) became a commonwealth of the United States called the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). This special status makes Saipan and the CNMI the furthest flung piece of America, which fact is the focus of Kluge's most recent novel, The Master Blaster.

Like Kluge's non-fiction book, The Edge of Paradise, which is the best piece of writing about Micronesia from an American perspective that I've ever read, The Master Blaster is about the American empire (and thus the American Dream) as seen from the margins. But while its focus is on America and Americans, it's also an astute portrait of island life and Micronesian culture and how it has been transformed by, and yet still resists, foreign influence. Even though Saipan is quite a bit different from Yap (if only because it has actual strategic value to the US and therefore has had a greater infusion of capital), Kluge's portrayal of how the island is both a beloved home and an eternally strange land to its American inhabitants really speaks to my experience of Yap. No matter how long an American lives in the islands, they aren't really of the islands.

The Master Blaster follows five characters on Saipan. The Master Blaster himself is a figure who like Kluge moved to the island in the late '60s, but unlike Kluge he stayed for the rest of his life. Now an old man dying of cancer, he has started a blog under the eponymous title of the book that criticizes the corruption and criminal misbehavior of various parties claiming to develop and better Saipan's hopeless economy. Three of the other main characters are Americans who at the beginning of the novel wash ashore after their separate failures at life and career in the US -- one a hack travel writer, one a recently-divorced school teacher, and one a shady real estate developer. The fifth viewpoint character is a Bengladeshi worker who has come to Saipan (after a similar gig in Dubai) looking to earn money to remit to his home village and perhaps to find a backdoor into America as well.

Kluge's approach to this material reminds me of Charles Portis' novels about Americans in Mexico and Central American. There's a satirical edge to his treatment of the eccentric characters and their absurd attempts to con their way through life, not to mention the depiction of corruption and exploitation and rampant prostitution, but there's a warmth and sympathy under the deadpan bite of the satire. These refugees from the American Dream are as hopeless as Saipan's economy, but their failures are utterly and lovably human. For all of them, there's no place like home -- meaning there's no such place as home. They are eternally lost in an impossible world, and yet they each find their brief, vanishing moments of belonging and epiphany in the most unexpected places.

It makes me homesick, as I sit here at home. I visited Saipan once as a child and have been through the airport once since then -- on a wee-hours flight from Guam that features prominently in the novel. Saipan has always struck me as completely different from Yap, yet Kluge's descriptions make it sound very similar: the crotons and pandanas, the infusion of Asian food, the tuba (local palm wine), the abandoned half-built buildings, the old Japanese houses built by the previous colonial power in the islands, the islanders with their simultaneous hospitality and secrecy, the ubiquitous Filipinos. Saipan has tried to follow its fellow Mariana Island, Guam, in becoming an intimate, if invisible, part of America, but the assimilation is still incomplete. We hold it in reserve in case we need to retreat from our military bases on Okinawa, yet the CNMI is just another often-forgotten chip in a vast power-poker game. Kluge sees the paradoxes in the situation, and he finds the American spirit -- the idealistic scam artist -- reflected therein. The Edge of Paradise has long been a favorite book about Micronesia, and this novel immediately joins that pantheon.

1968 In a bunker on Saipan
This is me in an old Japanese bunker on Saipan in 1968, when Kluge would still have been serving in the Peace Corps out there
randy_byers: (yap)
AOSIS: Alliance of Small Island States

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) is a coalition of small island and low-lying coastal countries that share similar development challenges and concerns about the environment, especially their vulnerability to the adverse effects of global climate change. It functions primarily as an ad hoc lobby and negotiating voice for small island developing States (SIDS) within the United Nations system.

AOSIS has a membership of 42 States and observers, drawn from all oceans and regions of the world: Africa, Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Pacific and South China Sea. Thirty-seven are members of the United Nations, close to 28 percent of developing countries, and 20 percent of the UN's total membership. Together, SIDS communities constitute some five percent of the global population.



Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) is an intergovernmental organization of low-lying coastal and small Island countries. Established in 1990, the main purpose of the alliance is to consolidate the voices of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to address global climate change. AOSIS has been very active from its inception putting forward the first draft text in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations as early as 1994.

Many of the member states were present at the COP15 United Nations on Climate Change Conference in December of 2009. Democracy Now! reported that members from the island state of Tuvalu interrupted a session on december 10 to demand that global temperature rise be limited to 1.5 degrees instead of the proposed 2 degrees.


And yes, the Federated States of Micronesia (and thus Yap), are a member. Some of the Outer Islands of the State of Yap (many of which are low-lying atolls) will probably be submerged by rising ocean levels. Yap Island itself is not an atoll, but a chunk of continental plate that rises above sea level.
randy_byers: (yap)
So Palau (widely called Belau in Micronesia) has agreed to take the 17 Uighurs from Gitmo in exchange for $200 million. The part of the story that is striking to me is that apparently nobody else has been willing to take the Uighurs, because the PRC wants them back and has been pressuring other countries not to take them. Why was Palau willing to buck the PRC? Because they don't recognize the PRC. Palau recognizes Taiwan instead. Why? Because Taiwan has invested money in Palau (and elsewhere in Micronesia, including Yap to some extent).

This is like the other shoe dropping to me, because my brother and I have often wondered why Taiwan paid so much attention (and so much money) to Micronesia. The answer would seem to be because Taiwan needs allies wherever it can find them, and the Micronesian nations are unimportant enough that the PRC has ignored them up till now. And so Palau is able to solve one of Obama's big Gitmo headaches. Never saw that coming!

Just as a side note, Japan invests in Micronesia too, but they have a historical colonial relationship with the islands that seems to account for it. Well, that and it's a source of high-grade tuna.
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My brother e-mailed me today with the news that John Mangefel died in April at age 75. Mangefel was a powerful figure on Yap and in Micronesia. When my family moved to Yap in 1966, he was Superintendent for Elementary Schools on the island, and thus my father -- a teacher and principal -- got to know him a little. In 1967, he was elected to the Congress of Micronesia, which was trying to figure out what the status of the islands would be after they had ceased to be a Trust Territory of the United Nations administered by the US (which was basically a figleaf status for US control of the islands after taking them from Japan in WWII, who had similarly taken control of them from Germany under a League of Nations Mandate after WWI.) Once the various island groups had cut their separate deals with the US, and Yap along with three other island states formed the Federated States of Micronesia, Mangefel helped write the constitution of the FSM and then was elected the first governor of Yap.

He was renowned for his satiric wit ... )


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