Having lived in Vanuatu, I still retain a lot of affection for the place – I miss speaking Bislama, and keep in touch with several people in and of Vanuatu.
Vanuatu has also fed much of my recent fiction. My novella Cloud Permutations is a planetary romance set on a world, Heven, populated by Ni-Vanuatu settlers, and I explore Vanuatu in several short stories, from “The Solnet Ascendancy” in the Shine anthology to “How To Make Paper Airplanes” (Hao nao blong mekem old pepa eroplen) in the special Mundane SF issue of Interzone.
So when I saw Nalo Hopkinson tweet about a new initiative to take place in Vanuatu, I was intrigued… and then, as I began reading, also concerned.
The Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation and Tanna Center for The Arts is the brainchild of Paul D. Miller, AKA DJ Spooky, an American artist who has decided to establish, well, something, on the island of Tanna.
Now, normally I wouldn’t pay that much attention to something like this. But this project’s Board of Advisors includes, in no particular order, Cory Doctorow, Yoko Ono, Bruce Sterling and Jimmy Wales. (ETA: despite what this post originally says, Nalo Hopkinson is not a member of the BOA. My apologies.)
And suddenly, I became a lot more concerned.
To understand this, one needs to understand a little of Vanuatu itself: of its colonial history and its current politics and concerns. One needs to understand – or at least be familiar with – the concept of kastom, the old culture and the old way, and the tension that exists between it and outside influences.
One must also understand the very sensitive issue of land ownership in Vanuatu.
So just what is the Pacifica Foundation? And why are all these eminent Westerners on its board of advisors? And just what raises numerous red flags in my mind?
For one thing, there are no Man Tanna (people of Tanna) on the BOA, with the sole exception of the land owner, Isso Kapum. Most worryingly, there is no mention of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (kaljeral senta blong Vanuatu), the incredible people who work tirelessly to protect, preserve and invigorate kastom. Can DJ Spooky work without the Cultural Centre? Has he made contact with them? Do they approve this resort?
DJ Spooky sets to build an “artist retreat” on Tanna. “artists, writers, composers, theoreticians, and creatives from all disciplines will be invited to explore sustainable art practice … in a spirit that celebrates the unique qualities of being located in the South Pacific.” I’m not quite sure what those are, exactly, but “The Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation is building this artist retreat as a way to keep the cultural legacy of Tanna vibrant and alive.”
How? How would foreign artists on a retreat possible help preserve or even understand the culture of Tanna?
Many of the Tannese have resisted change for centuries, but now feel the call to engage with the outside world. The younger generation has begun to leave the island, and “they get into trouble,” says Esso Kapum who gave the use of his land on Tanna for the venture. “We want to give them a reason to stay.”
There are so many problems with these contradictory statements I find it hard to know where to begin. Let’s begin with land ownership, possibly the most important thing in Vanuatu. Land cannot be sold so much as leased on a 99 year basis. Land disputes are the number one cause of strife, prolonged trials and topics of conversation. Today’s situation sees much traditionally-owned land being “sold” to foreigners, mostly Australian land speculators, to develop as housing for the rich or as resorts. The situation is desperate on the island of Efate (Vanuatu’s main island) and is spreading rapidly, to Tanna and even the remote Banks islands, where I lived.
At its most basic, DJ Spooky and his board of directors, wittingly or not, are contributing to the parceling of traditional land away from its traditional owners.
Worse than that, there is no sign of how, or why, this project will assist kastom kalja. No kastom jif is on the board of directors. Tanna kastom is strong (for a fascinating exploration of kastom on Tanna check out The Tree and the Canoe) but such a retreat will not serve it.
Construction on the island is typically done with imported labor and imported materials, but we’d like to use local talent and the abundant resources as much as we can. … With proper funds we can fly in bamboo construction experts and purchase equipment, but are also open to volunteers who can fly themselves to the island and help with construction and cultivation. Our goal is for the retreats and residencies to be free of charge, thus we will need to find ways to be self-sufficient. Individuals able to help us cultivate the land to grow our own food and possibly export are a high priority. We also wish to empower the local population and decrease gasoline usage so experts in diesel to vegetable oil conversion are needed.
I don’t know how to characterise that paragraph apart from saying it is complete and utter nonsense. Importing bamboo? Most construction is done with imported labour? Imported from where? kastom buildings on Vanuatu are fantastic, sharing their construction with their South East Asian progenitors (see the Lapita), built from local trees, bamboo and material. See my hut for an example – technically, it is what’s called a semipermanen, or semi-permanent structure, due to its concrete base, which is not usually present. The electricity wires leading to the roof, needless to say, did not lead any electricity – there had been a generator on Vanua Lava a few years ago but it had not lasted long. A resort of Tanna for foreign artists would require electricity, running water, refrigeration – none of which we had on Vanua Lava, nor did we need them. Everything was locally built, from local material – notice the natangura roof and the bamboo weave walls.
Of course, according to DJ Spooky, the conditions are “very primitive”. Not a word I would particularly like to use, or that inspires much confidence in me.
Even the simple things like going online, or getting cash or getting eggs is a big production and often ends with the need tom try again another day! Often i have no idea what is going on – Bislama, the pidgeon English, is still hard to understand and folks are not very good at explaining things!
Again, where do you stat? Perhaps one should learn Bislama? “I have started to teach Isso’s daughter English.” So far, then, the cultural exchange is going exactly one way, isn’t it?
As for getting cash – a large part of the point about Vanuatu, and the tireless efforts of the guys of the Kastom Ekonomi team at the Cultural Centre, is that cash is a foreign concept, and Vanuatu does not need to engage with the cash economy but rather use its – very successful – traditional, or kastom, economy, based entirely on self-reliance and growing and catching your own food. The cash economy is forced on Vanuatu to a large extent by well-meaning foreign aid agencies, and to a large extent is redundant. (Try and visit Hu, the last island in Vanuatu, in the Torres Islands, which is a perfect embodiment of the kastom ekonomi).
So what is DJ Spooky doing? I am not sure. And normally, I would not care a great deal – many dreamers come to Vanuatu, and many dreams hatch and fade with the sitsit blong solwota. What does concern me is the large number of influential, well-meaning people on the Board of Directors – including Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow, writers in my field who I respect a great deal – who seem to sign their name, with all good will, to something they should not, perhaps, be supporting.
I think, worse of all about this, is that a small but dedicated group of people, in and outside of Vanuatu, really are doing great work, with an understanding of the unique culture of the islands – people working to fight off the cash economy, to record and preserve vanishing languages and customs, and those are the people who should be supported. And sometimes, to do just that, one should do nothing at all.
Lavie Tidhar is the author of The Bookman (Angry Robot Books) and follow-ups Camera Obscura and Night Music, both forthcoming from the same publisher. His latest book, novella Cloud Permutations, is just out from PS Publishing in the UK. His story In Pacmandu is this month’s featured fiction on Futurismic.