Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Land And The Stories

In Potiki, the land and the stories of the people presented are both integral parts of their homeland, and both of these elements of homelands were ones to which I felt connected. I’m from Arnold, MD, near Annapolis, and much of my family is in the surrounding area. My aunt and uncle, as well as one cousin until she gets married this October, live three houses down the street from me. For me, homeland is partially about just what is in the word: land. It’s about a place. I have lived in the same house since I was two, and I’ve have heard the stories of how difficult, even dreadful, I was about moving as a toddler, but the only home I’ve ever really known or can remember is the one I live in now. My relatives have also always lived just down the street or nearby. For me, everything about my home is distinct and is what makes me feel at peace: the smells of the house and even the woods in my backyard. I have an intimate connection to it all. Miranda Lambert has a song called “The House That Built Me” that I think perfectly describes the connection between people and their homes. She describes returning to her home and the details of the house that she remembers, and all of the memories come flooding back to her. She realizes what many people may realize: that there is a relationship between you and your home. Like transculturation, both are affected by one another. Rather than you just building your home, your home also builds you. And your house, as well as the area from which you come, truly affects who you are in many ways. Maybe not everyone enjoys the smell of boat engines revving, or even being by the water, but for me, it can be intoxicating. I remember once being surprised while spending time with some friends from high school. Since I went to a private school, we didn’t all live in the same exact area, and I was on a beach off the Severn River one day with some friends who lived much further west. They refused to swim in the Bay because they thought it was far too dirty, and I remember laughing at them a bit (especially since I was the only girl in this situation and yet the only one who wasn’t afraid of the water). To me, it’s always been my Bay, I’ve always gone out crabbing and cruising in our boat, and I’d never thought twice about jumping into the water. What I mean to say, through this anecdote, is that things become second nature to you because of the land on which you grew up, and those second-nature things, those dispositions and quirks, truly become a part of who you are, so that you are intimately tied to your land and the land is tied to you.

If you’ve lived in one place for your whole life, you know every detail of it, and the details take on a greater significance. Each spot holds a memory; every piece of furniture has a story. Not only is home about the land and the physical space, but it’s about the stories that are tied to it and the people who have lived there. My family is definitely filled with story tellers, and we tell stories about our family all the time. We remember things that were particularly funny or important or memorable in any way. I know stories about great-grandparents I’ve never met, anecdotes that tell me something about who they were as people. I think that that is one of the beautiful things about family stories. An obituary can tell you facts, but stories give you a greater sense of the essence of a person. And they are absolutely shared items. Once a story is told, especially in our family, it is repeated until everyone has heard it, and repeated time and again when an occasion calls it to mind. One person may tell the story one time, and another may tell it the next time. The story does not belong to one person or another, but to all of us. Each story, as well, makes up a part of me and a part of my home. In my house, we have a wall filled with family pictures, and each picture has with it a story, or many stories. Since I know that wall of photos so well and the stories also, both the land and the stories are a part of me, just as I belong to that house and to the people in the stories I know so well.

In Potiki, both the land and the stories are integral parts of homeland. Grace writes that “They knew that they belonged to the land, had known all along that there had to be a foothold otherwise you were dust blowing here there and anywhere – you were lost, gone” (61). This idea of being blown like dust if one isn’t tied to a homeland is repeated time and time again, often almost verbatim, throughout the novel. And the entire story is one of relying upon and fighting to retain the land. The land, truly, is the one stable thing throughout Potiki, even when it is changed and “scarred” by corporations or flooded or set on fire. The land changes, but it remains. The Te Ope people, as well, understand the value of their homeland, but also seem to understand that the land is not always the same. They seem to understand that what is defined as the land, as your home, is not always your ancestral land alone. Reuben says that “Tents are now a part of our history and part of our lives. They are part of the identity of the Te Ope, part of our pride” (142). Reuben’s words, here, seem to have a double meaning. The Te Ope people are proud of the fact that they fought to win back their land, their home. They did so with the tents, and so the tents are a part of their proud history of winning back the land. However, the tents are also a part of the land that they call their homeland, partially because they were so integral in helping the Te Ope people win back their ancestral lands, and partially, and quite simply, because the Te Ope people did live in the tents. They have memories tied into the tents and the homes they created out of them. Those tents contain memories for them and are a part of them and of their home. You, then, help to give significance to the land you occupy and call home, whether that be your ancestral home or a tent. Roimata, Hemi, and their family have memories and a connection to the land on which they live, and this is why it is their true home.

I think that another important part of home in this novel is apparent through even the organization of the book: stories. Roimata speaks, early on, of all “the things I came to realize as we told and retold our own-centre stories” (39). Stories, then, can be our center, which I tend to think of as almost a synonym, in many ways, for our home. Stories are spoken about often in this novel, and sometimes the stories are told by people who have only heard about them and are repeating them. At certain times, like in the case of Toko’s big fish story, the story is strung together through details accumulated from the telling of that event by multiple people. The entire novel, as well, is separated into chapters that are told more or less from the perspective of different people. Yet, in the end, it is all one story. Each person may tell it and add to it, because the stories, and the greater story of home, are shared by everyone who belongs to that home. Each person is entitled to the story of home and each adds to the story of home with his or her own individual stories. The sharing of tales creates home in Potiki. In fact the penultimate chapter of the book is in fact titled “The Stories” and the final chapter focuses on Potiki, the youngest child, Toko, who is a great story-teller. In fact, Toko is extremely valued in this homeland, yet, because of his disfigurement, all he can really contribute in many ways is his story-telling. He is often revered because of his “knowing” in this area, and his ability to tell stories with a knowledge that would seem to be beyond him. It is the stories and the little story-teller, Potiki, who are so vital to the homeland Grace shows us in this novel.

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