The Pacific Problems of Cloud Atlas


Cloud Atlas theatrical poster, via Wikipedia

This post is a preview of sorts for a talk I will be giving for the Ethnic Studies colloquium at the University of Hawaiʻi on Tues. Jan. 21, at 3 pm. More info here

Since I first saw Cloud Atlas last year, I have been haunted by many of its images. Much has already been said about the 2012 movie, directed by Tom Tykwer (of Run, Lola, Run), Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski (of The Matrix). In sum: the movie was too long and too clever for its own good, and tanked at the box offices. The book on which the movie is based, by Irish writer David Mitchell, is flush with musical metaphors and modeled around a sextet: there are 6 different narratives that make up the whole. The book’s structure is a rising and falling glissando, or as many have noted, a nesting Matryoshka doll, in which 5 of the stories appear twice in this sequence: 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1. The movie departs from and complicates that already complicated sequence, tangling the 6 stories utterly and jumping often between them. A particular source of controversy was the directors’ decision to make actors play multiple roles in the 6 separate stories, resulting in several instances of yellow face, as white actors’ faces were done up to fit into a futuristic, totalitarian “Neo-Seoul.” (See, for example, Racialious coverage here.) While the yellow face (and whitening of black and Asian actresses in certain roles) was certainly disturbing to me, my discomfort with the movie centered on the two stories that were set in the Pacific. It disturbed me too that no one else I talked to, nor any of the critical essays, seemed to recognize the problems in the movie’s portrayal of the Pacific– many of which are also present in the book, which I’ve just finished reading.

The Pacific Ocean, and the people who inhabit or cross its islands and edges, are central to Cloud Atlas in both mediums. Stories #1 (“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” as titled in the book’s chapters) and #6 (“Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”) are solidly set in the Pacific. In the book, Melvillian character Adam Ewing travels from the Chatham Islands (east of New Zealand), where he has a formative experience witnessing Maori-on-Moriori slavery, to Raiatea and then Honolulu (bound for San Francisco). In the “Sloosha’s Crossing” story, the action takes place on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, in a post-apocalyptic future inhabited by noble savages, savage savages, and a mysterious super-people who visit on their space-ships. Perhaps realizing that populating real, colonized places with well-worn stories about savages and slaves could offend (or perhaps more simply betting that their audience would not be able to or care to distinguish between any Pacific Island), the movie, the location of both these narratives is glossed vaguely as “Pacific Islands.”

So too do the Maori slavers and Moriori slaves go un-identified as such in the movie. In their place appear the echoes of a more familiar image of oppression for Hollywood: the historic slavery of Africans in the U.S. South. The movie shows the white protagonist Adam Ewing being transfixed by the stare of a Black slave being beaten by a Black overseer. Except for the torturer’s Blackness, this scene comes straight out of a movie like 12 Years a Slave. The Black slaves have facial and arm tattoos in the imagined style of Polynesian tattoos (perhaps most popularized by Mike Tyson). Later, Ewing discovers this same slave, Autua, as a stowaway on his ship, declares him the “Last Free Moriori” and becomes his advocate. Accordingly, Ewing’s journey home to San Francisco becomes a story of his reinvention of himself from a notary servant of rich colonists to an abolitionist.

I am haunted by so many things here. At first viewing, I marveled at the ease with which the movie uses an image culled from Hollywood depictions of the African slave trade to portray Pacific oppression (and, not incidentally, the use of Black British and African American actors to fill Pacific Islander roles). I initially understood this as a failure of Hollywood to conceive or imagine what the violence of the colonization of the Pacific Islands looked like; they substituted African slavery because it was a clear and familiar evil, and would make immediately and painfully clear that the exploitation of Indigenous Pacific Islanders was evil too. This is troubling not only because settler colonialism in the Pacific did not (and does not) look like African slavery, but also that directors feel confident in turning to African slavery as a convenient metaphor (rather than its own specific structure which continues to have very specific legacies for African Americans today).

But the original story as told in the book deepened my initial misgivings with these scenes in the movie even further. The story in the book is of a Polynesian race (the Maori) who enslave another, naively (and ironically) pacific, Polynesian race (the Moriori). There are some truths to this story, but as with any retelling of intra-ethnic or intra-racial violence, it seems more urgent to question the intent and effects of an outsider telling this story to a distanced audience more than what the story got right or wrong. One major effect is that the story of violence in the Pacific is largely between Polynesians rather than outside colonizers. Though there is a nascent indictment of European and American colonialism in the Pacific in the presence of unscrupulous white doctors and ship captains, neither the book nor the movie really understand the colonization of the Pacific by Europeans and Americans as a major problem. Rather, the story is really about the curious existence of Moriori slavery at the hands of the Maori. Maori are capable of enslaving their fellow man just as much as white Southern plantation owners were capable of enslaving Africans. This analogy is part of Cloud Atlas’ broader lesson which hinges on a universalist sense that all humans have the power to do good or do evil, and that individuals must choose good even in the face of unsurmountable odds. Autua chooses to escape slavery and Adam Ewing chooses to become an abolitionist of all forms of slavery (though it seems unlikely that he will ever again be in a position to intervene in the specific Maori-Moriori slavery that sparked his conversion). 

In telling such a simplistic story, in both book and movie form, all things become relative and the evil impulses of (white or Black) slavers and (white or Black) savages become merely a characteristic of a universal human nature, rather than the historically specific products of settler colonialism and racial capitalism. By grounding the story with Pacific Islanders, who appear at once to be the most primitive people of Cloud Atlas and the stoic, ingenious survivors of a future apocalypse, the book and movie make Pacific Islanders the ancient and future blueprint of all humanity. A passing familiarity with anthropology of any sort should make readers and movie-goers skeptical of such a set-up. And yet, it doesn’t! Though the movie did poorly at box offices, it still engendered positive reviews and the book has enjoyed critical success. Why is this?

While many (maybe even all) Indigenous peoples have been looked at in film and literature as primitive mirrors of modern civilizations, I would argue that the particular use of Indigenous Pacific Islanders here is not incidental. Pacific Islanders have long fascinated, incited, and even charmed typologists (both professional or laymen) in their alleged racial indeterminacy. There was even a name for this fascination: men of letters referred to it as the Polynesian Problem. In the various debates about the Polynesian Problem, from the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, social scientists argued variously for Indigenous Pacific Islanders’ essential whiteness or blackness and their fundamental origins as either Orientals or American Indians. The Polynesian Problem was a favorite game of racial typologists because Polynesians appeared to social scientists to nearly transcend race, to be all races and no race at once, to be in the process of ascending the family tree of Man (and thus ripe for studying).

While Pacific Islanders could be seen as analogous to both Blacks and Indians in the U.S. context (and indeed, the book Cloud Atlas consciously uses Black and Indian interchangeably to refer to Pacific Islander characters), they did not seem to fit either category very well. In part, this was (and is) because settler colonialism and capitalism in the Pacific was different: in the Hawaiian case, for example, labor came from Asian immigrants and conquest of Native lands and peoples was achieved through political diplomacy and a seemingly easy overthrow rather than the spectacular violence of the Indian Wars. Nonetheless, ideologies about savagery, whiteness and blackness embedded themselves in theories about the racial make-up of indigenous Pacific Islanders and were resolved in particular ways. In general, there was a bifurcation: Polynesians became almost white and Melanesians became Black and savage. (Within Polynesians, there were also two types, one blacker and one whiter– see Maori and Moriori in Cloud Atlas. Micronesians, an afterthought, could go either way.)

In Cloud Atlas, this white/black, Polynesian/Melanesian division plays out as well. In the “Sloosha’s Crossing” future-Pacific narrative, the gentle people of the Valley are terrorized by the blood-thirsty Kona. In the movie, Tom Hanks as Zachry and Susan Sarandon as the Abbess play the key roles of the Valley people, mumbling an eccentric version of Hawaiian pidgin. They are made up with facial and body tattoos, but these tattoos are less stark– done in graying lines that seem to be fading rather than crisp black lines of the Polynesians in the earlier Pacific story and the bright war-paint of the Kona. The faded facial tattoos thereby reference Polynesian tattooing (though no Polynesian tattooist living today would author such purposefully ugly creations) but also Polynesian degeneration, which the story sees overall as a good thing. The Valley people are pure, preyed upon by the Kona, but living quietly and simply in contrast to the greed that leads to the downfall of other characters and civilizations in the other narratives. In the book and the movie, the Valley people are white. Neither offer an explanation for how Polynesians swung from as Black as Africans in the Adam Ewing story to white enough to be visually contrasted with Halle Barry, who plays Meronym, a woman from the Prescients, a technologically advanced people who occasionally visit the Big Island on space ships. 

Overall, Polynesians are used in Cloud Atlas to write universal truths about humanity, but only because they have long been understood as a people who are transcending their race. Polynesians as a race are uniquely capable, in the ideologies of Western science and popular culture, of moving so quickly from Black to white, from savage to civilized. Any other race would not have worked for the movie or novel’s plot quite as well. In short, this is the Polynesian Problem re-written for popular and literary entertainment. It is bad enough that the movie in particular, through its casting of the same actors as various characters made into different races, paints a picture of post-racial (and perhaps even pre-racial) universality, in which all people are good and bad but can evolve, through eternal recurrence and reincarnation, and transcend the conditions of their particular histories and societies. To use Polynesians as the grounding to achieve that transcendence, like the social scientists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is even harder for me to shallow.

What I would most like to say to David Mitchell, to the Wachowskis, Tom Tykwer, to Tom Hanks, Halle Barry and Susan Sarandon, to Hollywood and to the literary world that made Cloud Atlas a finalist for the Man Booker Prize is, simply: Polynesians are not a metaphor. We are not you. We are not ancient versions of you, we are not you in the post-apocalyptic future. We are not here to teach you how to be better people. And relax, we are not going to eat you either. Our colonization and our decolonization are not metaphors. (See also: Decolonization is not a metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang.) Our colonization and our decolonization are ongoing projects with long and specific histories. They are connected in structural ways to anti-Black racism and African slavery, but these connections do not make them analogous. We know who we are, we know we live with colonialism, and we know our stories of our pasts and our futures are inextricably connected– just not in such a tortuous, heavy-handed way as your book and movie.

The “discovery” of Polynesian intelligence

Image from "New Light on the Races of Polynesia," by Louis Sullivan, printed in Detach from Asia, 1923.

Image from “New Light on the Races of Polynesia,” by Louis Sullivan, printed in Detach from Asia, 1923.

News that “Polynesians May Have Invented Binary Math 600 Years Ago” (via HuffPost, see also: “Polynesian People Used Binary Numbers 600 Years Ago” at the Scientific American) has been making the internet rounds. The story here is that Norwegian anthropologists Andrea Bender and Sieghard Beller have recently published findings that the people of Mangareva, in French Polynesia, had a binary system of math. Specifically, says reporter Phillip Ball:

They had number words for 1 to 10, and then for 10 multiplied by several powers of 2. The word takau (which Bender and Beller denote as K) means 10; paua (P) means 20; tataua (T) is 40; and varu (V) stands for 80. In this notation, for example, 70 is TPK and 57 is TK7.

This news is reported as “astonishing” because it means Mangarevans “invented” binary centuries before German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz in 1703. Ball reports that this news, the “discovery” of Bender and Beller:

… made by analysing historical records of the now almost wholly assimilated Mangarevan culture and language and reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that some of the advantages of the binary system adduced by Leibniz might create a cognitive motivation for this system to arise spontaneously, even in a society without advanced science and technology.

As a Native Hawaiian woman, I also identify as a Pacific Islander and Polynesian. I am excited to see articles promoting Polynesian intelligence and creativity circulating in mainstream news outlets because that just does not happen. I am proud to know that Polynesian people used binary, and I am proud to see other people marveling at our ancestors’ genius.

However, while reading these articles, I am struck by a familiar uneasiness. More coverage of Indigenous Pacific Islander history does not automatically mean that readers of the Huffington Post or the Scientific American are really learning anything different than what they already know about Polynesia. For most people, Polynesia is a vague label for tourist kitsch like tikis and the plastic hula girls you can mount to your car’s dashboard. Polynesia is not definable as a place or a people within mainstream common knowledge because it is a fantasy world of vacations, a quaint respite isolated from the pressures of the modern world. This is an important source of the astonishment that mathematics expertise could have existed in Polynesia. These recent articles note Mangareva as “a tiny island” of French Polynesia “5000 kilometers south of Hawaii”– wow, so far, far away from civilization. They also note what John Bonnanon in the Huffington Post article calls “the catch”:

Even if the native mathematical system of Mangareva employed binary arithmetic, the current residents of the island no longer use that system. Two centuries of contact with the West has resulted in a complete switch to decimal calculation. Even the Mangarevan language itself is now threatened with extinction. Bender and Beller are relying on their analysis of the language and an account of the traditional counting words written by ethnographers in 1938. They acknowledge that it is impossible to prove exactly when Mangareva developed the system, but the entrenchment of the number terms in the language suggests a far-reaching origin. Unfortunately, the anthropologists may have made their discovery just one generation too late to see Mangarevan math in action.

In the comparison of ancient Mangarevans to contemporary Mangarevans, we also see a familiar narrative playing out. Polynesians once were a great civilization, but now they, along with their languages, cultures and ways of knowing, are nearly extinct. Rather than indicting the history and present of Western colonialism (formal and informal) directly, this narrative demurs into nostalgia about pre-“contact.” If only the anthropologists had come earlier! Then maybe Mangarevans would still be able to use their binary math!

This sentiment is, at best, naive. It plainly erases both the agency of Mangarevans and the participation of Western science (anthropology perhaps most of all) in the colonization of the Pacific. It should bother all readers that these articles cite anthropologists but no Mangarevans! What do Mangarevans think about these findings? Whatever they may have to say, I would guess surprise and astonishment are not the foremost reactions.

Beyond this critique of the tone-deafness (at best) of such “discoveries” of Indigenous intelligence and ingenuity, there is another reason why we must question what narratives this news coverage perpetuate. Though Polynesians recognize cultural and ancestral connections between Polynesians, as grounded in many Indigenous cosmogenies, the label “Polynesia” is itself a creation or “discovery” of Western science. Indeed, Polynesia’s association with whiteness in Western scientific literature has long been used to sediment settler colonialism in the Pacific. The French writer Charles des Brosses has been credited with the first use of the term in 1756 (in French, “Polynésie”), having derived it from the Greek “polloi,” meaning “many”- literally, Polynesia simply denotes “many islands.” However, as studied by ethnologists from early Western “contact” through physical anthropologists and sociologists into the twentieth century, Polynesians were people in whom, as anthropologist Louis Sullivan wrote in 1923, “nature seems just to have missed producing a Caucasian.” Polynesians were, and in many representations still are, in stark contrast to the more savage and more black Melanesians. Melanesian derived from “melas,” meaning “black” in Greek. Polynesia was more white and more civilized; therefore, white settlers felt more at home and indeed more “indigenous” there.

Because Western science has promoted the “almost whiteness” of Polynesians for centuries, anthropologists finding evidence of ancient Polynesian intelligence (sadly lost in contemporary Polynesian populations) actually is not a new story. It is the story of Pacific settler colonialism itself. Settler colonialism masks much of its violence through nostalgia for what it has destroyed; through conferring honorary humanity (almost whiteness) upon Indigenous peoples while at the same time claiming those peoples, histories, and lands as the heritage of whiteness. I write elsewhere about this process as a possession through whiteness. While it is delightful to see stories about Mangarevan mathematics in popular news, we must ask ourselves how might we tell this story without writing it into a universalized narrative of white humanity. How might we use this news to crack away at the settler colonial sedimentation of Polynesia and whiteness, rather than let that sedimentation embed itself further?

This post marks what I hope to be a return to blogging after a long hiatus. I hope to reinvent this space as one where I can contribute to answering that last question, where I can provide some alternative, unsettling narratives to highlight and foster decolonization of the Pacific. One project I hope to develop and share here is a syllabus of recommended reading on Pacific Islander Studies, which has a long history and exciting present with folks like Epeli Hau’ofa and Alice Te Punga Somerville.

Thoughts after Our Sea of Words

I’m not as quick on the blog review uptake as Oscar, Craig or Barbara Jane, but I wanted to write a bit about the reading I helped put together at downtown Berkeley’s Pegasus Books last Monday night.


The event came together through individually meeting and exchanging emails/Facebook messages with both Craig Santos Perez and Fuifuilupe Niumeitolu. Though I didn’t know either Craig or Fui very well, we have a lot of mutual friends through both the UC Ethnic Studies community (they being at Cal and I down at UC San Diego) and the Bay Area Pacific Islander communities. They had both heard that I was a poet through others, and they mentioned they would love to do a reading together if I were ever back in the Bay. I knew I was coming up in July for a visit and so we started talking dates and it all came together pretty easily. Craig invited Professor Caroline Sinavaiana, an acquaintance through them both being published with Tinfish Press, and Fui invited her sister Loa Niumeitolu. My friend Rachel Marcus at Pegasus said she would be happy to host us, and I was excited to read there because I always loved that store, and remember it always having a lot of poetry books and chapbooks.

My impression of the night was that it was a big lovefest- everyone, including me, was happy to be there, excited to meet the other readers and audience members, and enjoyed all the poetry and growing sense of togetherness. Loa said in her introductory remarks that the night was about finding a language where there just hasn’t been one. I think she meant both building languages of cultural/political alliance across Pacific Islander communities in general and perhaps diasporic ones in particular- as well as Pacific Islanders claiming/strengthening their diverse range of voices in poetry and literature. Fui also gave a heartfelt acknowledgment of Craig and Caroline as some of the few Pacific Islanders who have published poetry books, seeing them as folks to look up to and follow. Indeed, it felt great to me to have a mix of poetry experience in the reading, and many mentioned being honored especially by being able to read with and hear Caroline’s work as she was in that space a gracious elder, mentor, kumu.

My feeling about my own reading and work was that I am rusty. Especially compared to some of the solid, lovely work others read and I can’t wait to see again in print. In an ideal world, I would have worked harder to revise and write new work before the reading. I didn’t. I have been out of the poetry world for at least a year, in which school and other commitments have tied me up. Physically, of course, I am also away from the Bay Area and the poetry people and scenes I am familiar with. So, much of the night was simply about being ecstatic that I was reconnecting, that I was still recognizable as a poet to people. I actually think that ecstatic feeling, the lovefest and the related community building, is incredibly important and will push me to keep writing and work harder to be at least a little better next time. I am glad I shared some new work that wasn’t totally polished and now will return to it, maybe put some drafts up in this space even.

Certainly, the night also helped in the possibilities of having a next time: Craig mentioned wanting to get something together later this year in Southern California. I am hoping Our Sea of Words is the beginning of me tapping into a Pacific Islander poetry community that will eventually be not only a lovefest (which, again, was something I was really grateful for Monday night) but also a solid place of challenge and growth, with a presence not only at readings but online and yes, in print with Tinfish and other presses. Barbara Jane has some thoughts up on how community work is not always a lovefest, that it also gets confusing and hateful- and I am thinking I experienced that majorly this year but in the academic Pacific Islander community. Maybe more on that later, but for now: is it just me or does the Pinay writing community really rock at networking, creating an online presence, etc. (and put other writing communities of color, or whatever you’d like to call them, to shame)? I am so often drawn to Barbara Jane Reyes‘ and Kimberly Alidio‘s blogs and their candidness about the process of writing, and of being a writer. This is not to say that these writing communities are always mutually exclusive (my experience has usually been in broad, diverse writing communities of color), but I wonder if Pacific Islanders will come to have anything like the Philippine American Writers and Artists blog, if and how it would work and benefit P.I. folks. I think maybe that is a conversation we could have in the future, as there is a growing online presence of Tongan, Chamoru, Kanaka Maoli, Samoan and other writers and artists. I joked later that the night was brought to you by Facebook, but it wasn’t really a joke: without it, I don’t know that I would have connected so easily with Craig and Fui, and Craig with Caroline, etc.

In the past, my readings at Kearny Street Workshop were photographed by some of the lovely Asian Am. scene photographers, like Jay Jao. I was thinking on my way there that it was too bad Jay wouldn’t be there to take pictures, but it turned out that Oscar Bermeo showed up and did us one better. For the love of community readings, he took pictures and videos, which are all available on YouTube. The rise of Facebook culture also ensured that many more photos than I even expected and a continuing lovefest are happening there too. In all, I feel extremely grateful to everyone (including many friends who are not poets or Pacific Islanders) who came out to support, and I’m looking forward to getting back to work, in terms of poems, community, and even this blog.

Our Sea of Words: Monday, July 13, 7:30 pm at Pegasus Books, Berkeley

I’m incredibly lucky to be reading poetry soon with these other amazing Pacific Islander poets, Caroline Sinavaiana, Craig Santos Perez, Fuifuilupe Niumeitolu, and Loa Niumeitolu. Please stop by if you are in the Bay!


Our Sea of Words: Poetry from Oceania and Beyond

Monday, July 13, 2009
7:30 pm
Pegasus Books Downtown Berkeley
Shattuck Ave. at Durant

Maile Arvin is a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) poet from Kentucky and Hawai’i. Her work is published in two chapbooks by Kearny Street Workshop, Same Place, Same Time (2006) and 12 Ways: an anthology of the Intergenerational Writer’s Lab (2007). She is also a graduate student in the PhD program in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

Fuifuilupe Niumeitolu is a Tongan American scholar, poet and community activist. Her work has been published in Amerasia, The Contemporary Pacific and The Berkeley Poetry Review. Fuifuilupe is a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley and she is on the organizing committee of OLO; One Love Oceania, a Pacific Islander community response to homophobia.

Loa Niumeitolu’s poetry is published in Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poetry in English. Her essay “The Route Back to Tonga,” is published in Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place and Time. Niumeitolu is a community organizer around issues of prisons and incarceration. She is a founding member of One Love Oceania, a Pacific Island women’s queer support and political group in the Bay Area.

Craig Santos Perez, a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guahan (Guam), is the co-founder of Achiote Press and author of the poetry book from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008). He is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Caroline Sinavaiana, Associate Professor of English at UH Manoa, teaches Oceanic and comparative literatures, and creative writing. She has published, lectured, and read her poetry and scholarship in many countries, including the US, China, India, Italy, Barbados, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and New Zealand. Poetry collections include: Alchemies of Distance (Tinfish, AA Arts, & Institute for Pacific Studies), and Mohawk/Samoa: Transmigrations (AA Arts). Her book on traditional comic theater in Samoa – House of the Spirits — is forthcoming from the Institute of Pacific Studies. At present, Sinavaiana is completing a new collection of poetry, and a memoir with the working title, Nuclear Medicine.