South Pacific Fantasies

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.

9 thoughts on “South Pacific Fantasies”

  1. So if the residents don’t want to sell the land and don’t really need a cash/monetary based economy, why are they? Is it being sold out from under them by the government? There’s a piece to this that I’m missing.

  2. That does sound pretty lame and pretentious. “Let’s all us spoiled, rich, non-primitive ‘civilized folk’ blow a few more million tons of CO2 by flying in us and all our experts, makeup departments, camera men, and illegal Mexican laborers (shhhh) to show them how to be ‘sustainable’. We’ll have ourselves a nice tropical vacation, a PR event, and feel good about ourselves at the same time by appeasing our misplaced hippy sense of White Man’s Guilt!”

  3. Greetings from Vanuatu.

    @King Rat: Land sales like this happen frequently when an individual (who might or might not have the legal right to do so) preys on an outsider’s naive assumption that there is such a thing as a single owner of land in Vanuatu and, for that matter, that the concept of ownership is consistent between Vanuatu and European-based cultures. It’s not at all unusual for someone to promise vast tracts of land and to accept a down-payment, knowing all the while that the ‘sale’ will self-destruct as legal and kastom-based squabbling breaks out. He doesn’t care because he’s already got (and usually spent) the money.

    It’s amusing, really, to see clever expatriate entrepreneurs get played by ‘primitive’ ni-Vanuatu.

    @Wintermute: More than lame and pretentious, it’s actually amusing. People often mistakenly assume that lack of technological sophistication denotes a lack of intellectual sophistication. Politics in Tanna – in all of Vanuatu, for that matter – is as byzantine as is practiced in the halls of the US Congress. Although Man Tanna won’t necessarily phrase it the same way as you, they might well be thinking the same thing about the Vanuatu Pacifica project.

    DJ Spooky’s comments about Tannese people not being able to explain well is a great example of naivete: Bislama is every bit as expressive as the English of Shakespeare or Cicero’s Latin. It’s equally capable of great oratory and hilarious ribaldry.

    The unspoken assumption that DJ Spooky and the gang will necessarily be enlightened benefactors is also remarkably naive. Notwithstanding his sincere protestations of a desire to learn about the simple life and the culture of Vanuatu, the text of the site is replete with the reflexive assumption that the Tannese are expected simply to keep their grass skirts on while joining the iPod generation.

    Admittedly, development in Vanuatu necessarily represents both a threat and an opportunity. Nonetheless, one would do well to cast away the scales from one’s eyes before proceeding. As someone who fled North American geekdom for a simpler life, I speak from experience. This country sees a lot of dreamers cross its shores. Most leave soon after, disillusioned.

    Tanna is home to some of the most famous cargo cults in the Pacific. People are prone to laugh at the childish simplicity of such beliefs. They shouldn’t.

    I’d rather not end this on a negative note. While I think the Pacifica project as described on the website is remarkably naive and simplistic, I should underline one thing I found commendable: The desire to embrace, rather than to extinguish, Tanna culture. There are ways to achieve significant development along these lines. Mostly, one simply needs to accept one’s own ignorance and get out of the way.

  4. I wonder how many on the board of advisors are playing any active role in advising this project, and how many heard a 20 second pitch and said ‘yeah, put me on the list if you want’.

    The cynical part of me sneers deeply at any mention of an artists’ retreat, especially when that retreat seems more like an expensive spa resort for the cool media clique to experience all the trappings and bandwidth of urban life on a ‘primitive’ tropical island, all dressed up as a shallow eco/cultural mission they can semi-care about. On the other hand, if that’s their scene and they acquired the land fair & square, I say go for it.

  5. Whoa there. I am not and have never been on the Advisory Board for this project. You’ll notice that the link you yourself gave to the names and photos of the Advisory Board members does not include mine. I would be thrilled if you would correct that piece of disinformation in your blog post. Best, -nalo

  6. I have to wonder how effective it’ll be as a retreat too. It sounds like it’s based on a romanticised view of ‘primitive’ living, not the reality of spending most of your daylight hours doing practical tasks… unless the artists aren’t going to provide the bulk of the day-to-day labour (but I can’t see how it’d be sustainable if they don’t).

  7. Isn’t the “evil westerners” cliche yet? As you stated the islands politics are just as stupidly complex as ours, so making them the default good guys seems rather simplistic. They also have their own criminals, “It’s not at all unusual for someone to promise vast tracts of land and to accept a down-payment, knowing all the while that the ‘sale’ will self-destruct as legal and kastom-based squabbling breaks out. He doesn’t care because he’s already got (and usually spent) the money.

    It’s amusing, really, to see clever expatriate entrepreneurs get played by ‘primitive’ ni-Vanuatu.”(So, it’s ok for them to take advantage of us because we are inherently evil westerners and they are inherently good loin clothed natives?)

    Also, if the native people/entities selling/leasing the land are ok with foreigners coming in and potentially changing their culture, why should you, a foreigner, have any right to stop them?

    Every culture rolls with the changes. Some of them are good and some bad, but The idea that cultures should be kept in stasis, or that this is even possible, is ludicrious. Many cultures thrive on change. The U.S. being a prime example (we are fighting it too much now, which is one of our current problems).

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