From Exotica to Erotica: Historical Fiction or Fictional History in Mariana Islands Novels, 2012-2017

From Exotica to Erotica: Historical Fiction or Fictional History in Mariana Islands Novels, 2012-2017

By Anne Perez Hattori

Excerpted from A Marianas Mosaic: Signs and Shifts in Contemporary Island Life, published by University of Guam Press

For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the “Pacific novel” referred to works by Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Michener, and other Western writers. More recent decades have seen the emergence of Indigenous novelists, led by writers such as the late Epeli Hau’ofa of Tonga, Albert Wendt (Samoa), Sia Figiel (Samoa), and Patricia Grace (Aotearoa New Zealand Māori). Indeed, fictional works about islands in the South Pacific—that is, Oceanic islands below the equator—have proliferated over the past 40 years.[1] The same, however, could not be said of our region, as is attested by the near absence of Micronesian novels in Pacific Literature classes across the region.[2] Since 2012, however, more than 10 novels have been published that feature the Mariana Islands, the CHamoru people, and our Indigenous culture, including four written by Natives and five others by authors who at one time resided here. These novels make heavy use of island landscapes, CHamoru legends, and Marianas history, sometimes as mere backdrops for their storylines but other times as key ingredients in their plots’ unfolding. This chapter, firstly, summarizes some of these novels in the hopes that local readers might be inspired to seek them out and read what others are writing about our islands and culture. Secondly, this work analyzes some of the ways in which these novels represent CHamoru culture and history—at times exotically and erotically. Thirdly, this project evaluates the historical accuracy of the novels, assessing the degree to which the stories fairly and ethically represent the actual historical events that inform their plots.

The Exotic Environment

The Greeks defined exotikosas “foreign,” this notion extending into modern times to include characteristics or qualities “from another country” and thereby deemed to be “mysteriously different or unusual” (Oxford, n.d.b). The central idea behind the exotic emphasizes the non-Native and strange origins of a person, place, or thing in order to foreground its difference or “otherness.” Descriptions of Pacific Islands as exotic locales have become commonplace in literature, art, film, and other forms of popular culture, so much so that we ourselves exploit this discourse in multiple ways, most notably to bill our islands as alluring and attractive places for prospective tourists.

Rather than as ordinary spaces for the unfolding of extraordinary historical events, the Mariana Islands are often described in touristic, otherworldly ways, as places foreign, different, and marvelous—indeed, as exotic. In each of the novels, written by both CHamoru and non-Native authors, the otherness of both the CHamoru people and culture, as well as the island landscape, is central to the story. On perhaps the most basic level, exoticism is expressed in terms of the tropical environment, ranging from its oppressive heat to its gentle breezes, from its sandy beaches to its dense jungles. The novel Spirits of the Island, for example, demonstrates this practice, describing Guam as a tropical island with “warm sun and endless beaches”(Latham, 2014, Chapter 1, para. 1), a “gentle breeze” (Chapter 1, para. 82; Chapter 1,para. 89; Chapter 10, para. 13), “magnificent” views (Chapter 5, para. 123), “wonderful beauty” (Chapter 1, para. 5), and pinkish-orange sunsets that make “photo[s] look surreal” (Chapter 1, para. 5).[3] Not only the sunsets, however, evoke surrealism in this novel written by East Texas author K. Latham (2014) and dedicated to Daniel Aflleje for “the many wonderful memories of Guam” (Dedication). The plot revolves around a small group of teenaged CHamoru said to have been appointed by the taotaomo’na (spirits of the ancestors) to be “Guardians,” individuals with the ability to shapeshift into the forms of a dog, a puma, a reef shark, a large bird, and a snake in order to “protect the people from the jungle, and the jungle from the people. … like a go between for the living and the dead” (Chapter 15, para. 5). Perhaps attempting to capitalize on the success of the popular Twilight book and film series that also feature shapeshifting teens, in Latham’s Spirits of the Island the jungle becomes a vibrant, living, and ominous space in which the ultimate exoticisms play out.

The island landscape similarly becomes an exotic backdrop in Conquered: A World War II Erotic Historical Romance, written by CHamoru author Paula Lujan Quinene (2016). This novel opens with the invitation to enter “the exotic world of the Pacific, complete with coconut trees, banana doughnuts, dolphins swimming in the ocean, and moonlight on Pago Bay” (p. 12). Quinene tells the love story of Mangilao teenager Jesi (Jessica) Taimanglo and American GI Johan Landers, a member of the USMC invasion force. The plot begins with Jesi hiding in a Pago Bay cave in the hours before Guam’s “liberation” from wartime occupation. She then is discovered by Japanese soldiers and on the verge of being raped when rescued by Johan, who kills her attackers in the process. The remainder of the novel recounts her undying love and lust for Johan, manifested initially by copious servings of delectable CHamoru dishes (some recipes of which are included at the back of the book), interspersed with equally large doses of explicit sexual activity. Detailed and re-peated descriptions of the coconut husking, splitting, and grating process, as well as mouth-watering descriptions of specific food items such as breadfruit, coconut crab, and kelaguen, effectively serve to paint an image of Guam as a place that would be unfamiliar, indeed exotic, to its presumably non-Native readers.

Foods-as-exotic receive similar treatment in Joan Awa’s 2017 Shadows in the Water, a novel set in Guam during the whaling era of the 1800s. Authored ostensibly as an homage to CHamoru culture with considerable parts of the novel written in the native language, Awa (2017) writes of “exotic dishes the ship’s crewmen have eaten—an array of sea turtles, an endless supply of coconut, and a variety of savory fish that only swim in the ocean of the Pacific” (Chapter 3, para. 8.). As in Conquered, everyday CHamoru foods become exoticized as marvelous wonders. But tropical food-as-exotic turns fictitious in some of the novels, particularly when describing animals that are not found in the island jungles. In Some Boy, for example, author Susie Sample (2014) erroneously states that the CHamorus survived World War II by eating most of the monkeys on the island (Chapter 2, para. 8). In another novel, The Ghost of Guam, Japanese straggler Shoichi Yokoi survives his 28 years in the jungles near Talofofo by trapping wild squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits (Flannery, 2016, p.107). Despite the factual errors in these two novels, the images of people in “Survivor: Guam” mode play into notions of the island environment as exotic.

Native fauna as exotic recur in the novels more than simply as food sources, with predictable references to hilitai (iguana) roaming the land, fanihi (fruit bat) on the dinner tables, wild boars on the attack, and snakes slithering through the jungles. Going even further, one novel resorts to creating a fictional beast. In Kent Johnson Olsen’s (2014) Chamorro, a community of CHamorus living in an underground “cavern city” find themselves at the mercy of vicious “guegpo” birds—flesh-eating specimens with 18′ long bodies, 30′ wing spans, and jaws longer than an alligator’s body (Chapter 6, para. 68). Killing them and then finding a way back to the “sun world” forms the primary storyline of this self-labeled historical fiction.

In novels such as Spirits of the Island, Shadows in the Water, Some Boy, Ghost of Guam, and Chamorro, whether in realistic or imaginary form, the Mariana Islands’ tropical environment, foods, and animals are depicted in different ways as exotic—remarkable, different, and unusual. The particular convergence of heat, humidity, wildlife, spirit-filled jungles, sunsets, and sunrises that occurs in the Marianas animates the action within each novel. Consequently, as a result of being exoticized rather than treated simply as the geographical backdrop for the various plotlines, the Mariana Islands’ tropical environment becomes a principal actor in these stories—indeed, a determiner of history. Amidst the storied struggles with giant birds (Chamorro), shapeshifting creatures (Spirits of the Island), and jungles filled with a wide variety of both natural and supernatural threats (Some Boy, Ghost of Guam, Shadows, Spirits), readers get the sense that the described events could not happen in just any other place.

Such exploitation of this notion of the exotic problematically positions our foods, fauna, flora, and weather as central features in determining our uniqueness, rather than crediting CHamorus throughout past centuries for making intelligent and thoughtful decisions concerning their families, villages, and islands. The result is an environmental determinism in which the Mariana Islands’ tropical landscape becomes a principal actor, thereby reducing the active agency of the CHamoru people. The islanders become mere pawns of nature, rather than the agents or makers of their history and culture. Yet history demonstrates that the CHamorus are a people who have successfully negotiated the changing demands of four colonial eras over the course of more than three centuries, as well as navigated complex histories of births and deaths, marriages and fiestas, typhoons and earthquakes, and more. It is thus belittling to suggest that anything other than human ingenuity and perseverance, familial dedication and sacrifice, and personal decision-making deserves credit for explaining the course of our cultural development. We are who we are today because of specific people’s actions and inactions in the face of whatever challenges were present at specific moments in time, not because of our region’s heat, sunsets, animals, and plants.

[1] Micronesian poets, on the other hand, have made significant contributions to Pacific literature, led by writers such as Craig Santos Perez and Cecilia Taitano Perez of Guam, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner of the Marshall Islands, and Emelihter Kihleng of Pohnpei.

[2] See, for example,, a site sponsored by the Pacific Studies Initiative, a joint project of the University of Hawaiʻi Center for Pacific Islands Studies and the East-West Center Pacific Islands Development Program(PIDP) that provides online instructional support, including sample syllabi, for Pacific-related courses.

[3] The 11 novels were read as e-books on a Kindle reader, thus the references included in this paper all refer to the “location number” of the text, rather than the page number.

A Marianas Mosaic: Signs and Shifts in Contemporary Island Life features authors in and of the Mariana Islands writing in voices that range from scholarly to poetic about the social, political, and cultural dynamics unfolding across the archipelago. This mosaic of perspectives touches on topics pertinent to contemporary island life including traditional healing, family trauma, sovereignty movements, local clothing brands, multimedia advocacy, spirituality, and more. This collection illuminates the complexity and beauty of the region and provides a deeper understanding of Marianas history and experiences.

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