Marshall Islands Legends and Stories–review
November 27, 2009
From ‘Marvels & Tales,’ April 01, 2004, Julie Walsh Kroeker
This collection of legends and stories from the Marshall Islands begins with acknowledgments and an introduction by the collector and editor that convey his enthusiasm and gratitude for the privilege of being “given” the stories that follow. In general terms Kelin describes the settings of the storytelling sessions, the assistance of translators, and the power of his story collecting experiences. As he states, this was a labor of love, as he trekked to eight of the Marshals’ 28 atolls, recorder in hand and often translator in tow. He sought chiefs’ permission and respected storytellers’ silences.
The text is divided into sections based on the geographic location of the tellers. Distinguishing between the eastern and western atoll chains, Kelin begins with the Ratak (eastern chain) and includes stories and legends from the five atolls he visited, as told by the 13 tellers among those atolls. He introduces each storyteller, offering a photo and a brief biological sketch for many. He follows the Ratak stories with Ralik (western chain) tales, representing three atolls and five dri-bwebwenato (storytellers). The biological sketches and comments about the personality and narrative styles of the tellers are thoughtful inclusions, and add much to the immediacy of the collection. Further, the editor opted to include many of the framing devices of the storytellers, and the comments addressed to his or her audience. These also engage readers, drawing them in and increasing awareness of the original setting of the stories.
Another successful addition is the use of pronunciation guides and translations of key terms in the margins of the text. Other collections of Marshallese legends and stories assume prior knowledge or linguistic familiarity Kelin’s collection contributes to the accessibility of these stories to non-Marshallese speakers, and encourages the reader to share his respect for Marshallese lives by using their vocabulary
Beyond the above noted characteristics, this collection benefits from the editor’s skills in storytelling and writing. His abilities contribute to the stories’ entertainment value, particularly for a non-Marshallese audience that may be unaccustomed to the style and form of Marshallese legends. They are well-written and maintain a more natural narrative pace than most of the nearly literal transcriptions/translations of earlier collections. My favorite stories involve Letao, the Marshallese trickster figure and the ways Marshall Islanders have engaged this character to make sense of and fun of the serious challenges of social change. I also have a deep appreciation for the editor’s decisions to include the storytellers’ repetition of chants and songs. This decision highlights the persistence of ancient knowledge, genres, and common motifs. Many of the chants are conveyed in an older poetic dialect of Marshallese that requires difficult interpretation. Their inclusion is an excellent means of preserving ancient knowledge.