In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the 2015 winning stories for Africa and the Pacific: ‘Light’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria) and ‘Famished Eels’ by Mary Rokonadravu (Fiji). To listen to podcasts by all the regional winners and read the regional winning stories for Asia, Canada & Europe and the Caribbean, please visit the Commonwealth Writers website.
Podcast from the story-teller
I have read and wish to share the Pacific winner’s short-story. It is one of the most beautifully told short-story I have read. I would recommend you read the whole story from the link I have provided at the end of this passage.
After one hundred years, this is what I have: a daguerreotype of her in bridal finery; a few stories told and retold in plantations, kitchens, hospitals, airport lounges. Scattered recollections argued over expensive telephone conversations across centuries and continents by half-asleep men and women in pyjamas. Arguments over mango pickle recipes on email and private messages on Facebook. A copper cooking pot at the Fiji Museum. Immigration passes at the National Archives of Fiji. It is 2011.
Fiji, with Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, had just registered the ‘Records of the Indian Indentured Labourers’ into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, when my father, the keeper and teller of stories, suffered a stroke. Fate rendered his tongue silent. He cannot read or write – he first set foot in a classroom at fifteen, and was told by a nun he was too old. He ignores my journalist and doctor siblings to select me, the marine biologist, to finish his task. I am off the coast of Lifou in New Caledonia counting sea urchins when the call is relayed.
He hates me for not becoming a journalist, I say to myself.
I will be on the Thursday flight, I tell my older sister.
She meets me at the airport and drives me down to Suva. It is past midnight. We pass eleven trucks overloaded with mahogany logs between Nadi and Sigatoka. A DHL courier truck. A quiet ambulance. She smokes at the wheel, flicking ash into the cold highway wind. We pass a dim lamp-lit wooden shack before Navua. Someone is frying fish. We both know it is fresh cod. We remain silent as we are flung into the kitchen of our childhood at Brown Street in Toorak. We stop to sip sweet black tea from enamel pialas in Navua.
Come on tell me, she blurts. Who you seeing now? Is it a dark-skinned Kanak? Is that what’s keeping you in Lifou? Do you speak French now?
Screw you, I say from the back seat.
He wants you to do this because you won’t lie to him, she says. The rest of us may. Just to make him happy. Just give him what he wants to hear. But you won’t. You will find out and you will tell him.
Screw you, I say again, more to myself than her.
All his life, my father has sought one thing only – to know the woman in the photograph. To know the name of her city or town in India. To know that at some juncture in history, there was a piece of earth he could call his own. All he had had was a lifetime of being told he was boci. Baku. Taga vesu. Uncircumcised.
A hundred years was not enough. Another five hundred would not be either. In a land where its first peoples arrived a couple of thousand years before the first white man, the descendants of indenture would forever remain weeds on a forsaken landscape. A blight.
He had stubbornly remained in Fiji through three military coups and one civilian takeover. Everyone had left. He remained the one who rented out flats until his brothers’ houses were sold. He supervised brush-cutting boys on hot Saturday mornings. He was the one to call the plumber to change faucets in grimy, unscrubbed shower recesses. He was the one who kept receipts for oil-based butternut paint, bolts and drill bits; photocopied them faithfully at the municipal library and mailed them to Australia, Canada or New Zealand. Each envelope had a paper-clipped note: OK. It was the only word he learned to write. I received Christmas cards from him saying the same thing: OK. The handwriting on the envelope changed depending on who the postmaster was at the time.
His younger brothers send out family newsletters on email. There is only one photograph of my father they use, a blurred profile of him holding a beer. They use the same caption – ‘Still refuses to use email.’ I wish to click Reply All and say ‘fuck you’ but there is a distant niece in Saskatchewan on the list – she writes me regularly for shark postcards and she knows the scientific names of eleven types of nudibranch. She recorded herself reciting it like bad poetry and put it on YouTube. I am the only one who knows this. She insists I use real handwriting, real stamps. She hates pancakes, frogs, flatlands. Her handwriting yearns for water. Salt water. Sea. In her milk tooth grin I see the next storyteller – the one to replace the man who has gone silent. She is ten and wants three pet octopi.
I was born to be a bridge. All I see are connections. I bridge between time, people and places. I study migratory species. Tuna fish stocks. Whales. Sea urchins in between. Cephalopods. I was nine when I picked up my first cuttlefish bones on a tidal flat in Pacific Harbour. For years I thought it was a whistle. I wrote out the names of the world’s oceans, seas, currents and fish in longhand, unaware the lead scrawlings were placing miles between my father and me. He watched me from across the kitchen table. My mother had died bringing me into the world. He washed okra with patient fingers. Boiled rice. Warned me he was going to slice red onions.
Make sure you buy land, he whispers. When you grow up, buy a small piece of land. Build a house just for you. Promise me.
Promise. But my eyes were already on the Kuroshio Current. I was already reading the voyage of Captain James Cook and the transit of the planet Venus. Hearing the howl of winds at Tierra del Fuego. No one told me that as recently as one hundred years before, ships had cut through the rough straits with people carrying the makings of my teeth in their genes. They almost never happened. Almost.
Keep writing, he says in our old kitchen. As long as someone remembers, we live.
My sister drops me off at the Colonial War Memorial Hospital.
I won’t come in now, she says. I still smell of cigarettes.
My father is asleep when I reach out to hold his hand.