On Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia, there is no such crime as Grand Theft Auto. A car thief cannot form the intent to permanently deprive his or her victim of his or her vehicle, so Joy Riding is all that can be charged. The “borrowed” vehicle is usually driven around until it runs out of gas and then abandoned, and eventually recovered by the owner. On an island that size one can only drive in circles. On a island that size one can only drive slowly.
Except on the causeway to/from the airport — pictured above — a half-mile straightaway, and full of traffic on days when a plane arrived. But on non-plane days, when there was no traffic I could floor my Isuzu sedan, reaching almost 50/60 before stomping the brakes and down-shifting to make the sharp right hand turn up the hill to the town proper.
I’m reminded of all this by a recently published book: Nowhere Slow: Eleven years in Micronesia. The author, Jonathan Gourlay, taught at the local college. My mama taught there, too. A couple of times I subbed for her when she was off-island. One of Gourlay’s pieces celebrates the illustrious typewriter of a deceased fellow teacher. He calls him Pete — but I know who he means — and I remember using one of my two allotted suitcases on the airline to bring in my own typewriter, a sturdy IBM Selectric snuggly wrapped in a thick comforter.
Gourlay went native and I did not. He had insights into the culture I had no access to — he married there and had a child. He had in-laws; he was a participant in local feasts. I was merely a guest — my nose pressed to the glass of the aquarium. There were things I could “see” but could not understand.
I rank Gourlay’s book with my other favorite “gone native” book: James Hamilton-Patterson’s Playing with Water (about the Philippines). It seems harder for women to go native and come out the other side and write about it. I love Geisha by Liza Dalby, Marjoire Kinnan Rawling’s Cross Creek, and Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. But these women did not go native. Dalby spent only a short while as a Tokyo geisha; Rawlings kept one foot in literary NYC while running her backwoods-Florida orange grove, and Blixen lived in European luxury as she managed her Kenyan coffee plantation.
Nearly a decade separated my being in Micronesia and Gourlay’s being there, but some things didn’t change much. Gourlay bounced around in a pickup listening to Juice Newton at full blast — me and my sister bounced around in her pickup on the same rutted roads listening to Juice Newton at full blast: Playing with the queen of hearts / Knowing it ain’t really smart / The joker ain’t the only fool / Who will do anything for you.
I loved the place and left. Gourlay loved the place and left.