Talking to Saipan

American lit in a Pacific outpost

HUMANITIES, May/June 2010, Volume 31, Number 3

After more than twenty years, I still get nervous about meeting a class for the first time. Whether it’s a fiction writing seminar that meets for three hours or a fifty-minute session of “American Novel Since 1950,” I sense I’m about to confront an audience that is bound to exhilarate and disappoint me. And I may do the same to them. It’s like hosting a dinner party for strangers, a dinner destined to converge on me again and again. That is how I feel at Kenyon College, and that is what comes to me now on the island of Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, where I’ll be lecturing to adults on four classic American novels and offering a workshop on writing to high school kids.

Twenty minutes before class begins, I walk the paths in the American Memorial Park, which commemorates the World War II battle for Saipan. That was when America came here, following Spain, Germany, and Japan. I pass a Japanese pillbox, meander along the north end of the invasion beach. Beyond the fringing reef lies Tinian and the runways from which the Enola Gay departed on its mission to Hiroshima. Now, tourists—likely Chinese or Japanese—go parasailing over the lagoon. Through a grove of lacy, soft-needled ironwood trees, I come upon monuments to the three thousand Americans and the hundreds of Saipanese who died in 1944. The Japanese monuments are at the north end of the island, where the battle ended. Welcome back, I tell myself. I saw the islands as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1967, when Saipan was part of a U.S.-administered U.N. Trusteeship. I’ve returned about a dozen times since then. In 1986, Saipan and the other Northern Mariana Islands became a U.S. commonwealth, America's remotest and newest territorial acquisition and, quite possibly, its last.

Now I head for class, my pace more brisk and confident than I feel. It’s important to me—almost a matter of principle—that the class should be waiting for the teacher, that I should not be waiting for them. I’ve wondered how the books I’ve chosen will play here, how my professing will work. I have no power here. College audiences are captive and paying, attendance is taken, tests administered, grades given. Not here.

About thirty people confront me in the American Memorial Park auditorium. Some of them I’ve known for more than forty years and some are strangers. I introduce myself, talk about my Peace Corps days, go back to the times I wondered about living here, staying behind, making this place my literary territory. That didn’t happen, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering, from walking a few steps down the road not taken. I’ve set parts of three books on Saipan and a forthcoming novel, The Master Blaster, takes place here as well. I discuss how we’ll read the books I’ve chosen, considering what they say and how they say it. I address the nature of fiction, the way memory and imagination come together in a made-up story. I tell them to keep an eye on the author’s use of time, sense of place, choice of voice. Then, I turn to To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s one novel, the retrospective first-person voice she employs, the way it combines childlike spontaneity with adult wisdom and perspective and a tinge of sadness. The book, I warn them, is more shrewdly crafted than its many fans realize. I advise them to keep an eye out for the play of gender, race, and—always the trickiest of the three—class. And I return to my hotel wondering how it went and how it will go.

On Saipan the finest hours come at dawn and dusk. If you want to walk or run or just sit and think, you value the edges of the day. It’s dark when I step out on the balcony of my hotel, one block from the island’s “ginza,” its tourist zone. I look inland, toward the mountain ridge at the center of the island, spotting the first signs of the sunrise that is happening on the other side. In 1967, islanders lived in wooden houses, tin-roofed, that might include a wall, a foundation, a bullet-pocked cistern from Japanese times. They drove American jeeps, purchased for a dollar when the military moved on after the war. Now, I see cement block-and-stucco structures, air-conditioned, typhoon-proof, yet subject to the daily grind of heat and rain that smudges, stains, streaks, molds, and blisters. Local people still live close to the shoreline, but lawyers, doctors, and investors claim the island’s heights for mansions.

Photograph of a cliff, empty highway, with ocean in the background

The fledgling commonwealth boomed in the late eighties and nineties. Property values skyrocketed as land was leased to hotels and garment factories; overnight there were millionaires by the dozen. Along with outside money came outside workers, thousands of them, from China, Bangladesh, Thailand, and the Philippines. Soon they outnumbered the locals: People compared Saipan to Kuwait. Those heady days are gone. Three dozen garment factories have closed, tourism declines, the government—strapped for cash, besieged by lawsuits and scandal—contemplates casino gambling and military garrisons relocated from Okinawa. I have no idea what will become of this last little America. No one else does either.

Class turns buoyant. I had feared some melt, but there are new faces at our second meeting. And voices. There’s lively talk. I question a scene in which Scout Finch disperses a lynch mob with ingenuous chat. It seems contrived, written with an eye on Hollywood. My students disagree: A kid is coming to the defense of a beloved father, they insist. I back off. And, after class, a woman points to a scene I’d stressed, where Scout—six or seven years old—senses the jury in a black-on-white rape case is going to convict an innocent man. Scout feels a sudden chill, a prickly feeling, a moment of quiet . . . menace. The student points out that Lee uses the very same language earlier in the novel, when a rabid dog lurches down the street where Atticus Finch and his children live. I hadn’t noticed that before. Well, the best class is one in which the professor learns something from a student. I like it when that happens. Only, please, not too often.

I don’t like to argue on behalf of a book’s “relevance” to an audience: i.e., what’s in it for me. But I hoped To Kill a Mockingbird would have something to say about Saipan, and I pointed out connections as they occurred: the tight weave of life in a small place or, as one student put it, “everybody knows your business.” In both places, there were divisions along lines of class and race, and jury trials subject to hometown decisions. And, most important, the presence of evil in likeable, pie-baking, churchgoing ladies right next door. It worked, I think, but now it’s Hemingway’s turn.

The Old Man and the Sea is a fish story. Fine. Is it more than a fish story? Too much more, perhaps? A passion play, a Christian allegory, with rituals, stigmata, images of crucifixion and resurrection? If so, does it succeed? To my surprise, my class buys it all, even the most strenuously allegorical elements. Santiago, Hemingway’s fisherman, is near the end of his life, they argue, so why begrudge him a few spiritual gestures? He’s an old man, and that’s what old men do, duh! What’s more, Hemingway’s straightforward style commands their attention, along with his obvious knowledge of fishing.

Around Saipan, fishing isn’t what it used to be. The lagoon is fished out; old timers tell me their secret pots have all been found and decimated. Beyond the reef, the ocean belongs to foreign tuna fleets. But when I ask if fishermen ever dialoged with their prey, as Hemingway’s Santiago does for three days, a local man, an old friend, tells me and the class, “We still do.” Offering a few words of thanks and apology before the kill.

Day by day, Saipan reclaims me. Waiting for sunrise, I eat papaya, tangerines, and watermelon. I follow with tapioca cooked in coconut sauce, peppery empanadas, and sometimes—I would only do this here—I go for a cylinder of cooked rice wrapped in seaweed and topped by a substantial slice of America’s favorite mystery meat. Spam sushi! I drink tuba, a juice that’s collected from the cut blossoms of a coconut palm. It starts out sweet and turns potent and spiky over time. Sometimes, during the day, I find my way to a Thai massage place in the hotel. Back home, at sixty dollars, a massage is a monthly treat. Here, at twenty bucks, I go twice weekly. Get five massages and the sixth is free. I always have something to look forward to. At night, when I’m thinking about how class went, I indulge in liquor marketed by an American lady who ferments coconuts and small bananas, infusing them with papaya, or banana, mango, coffee, or ginger. After all these years, and with all its problems—economic doldrums and depressing political conflicts—Saipan hits most of my buttons.

To meet my student writers, I climb Mount Olympus. That’s what Saipanese nicknamed the place—otherwise known as Mount Tapochau—back when it was the capital of the United Nations Trust Territory of Pacific Islands. What a place! What a history! After World War II, it was headquarters of the Naval Technical Training Unit, a secret CIA base that prepared infiltrators and saboteurs for missions in China and, possibly, Tibet, Indonesia, and Korea. When the CIA left in the fifties, the Trust Territory government inherited dozens of sturdy, airy, comfortable California-style houses, a social club, lawns, playing fields, and offices. When I pictured staying on Saipan back then, it was here that I pictured myself. Now the place belongs to the Commonwealth government and time has not been kind to it. Most of the houses I coveted have been roughly converted into offices and others are empty, doors ajar, screens rusted, trees in gutters and weeds in driveways. I’ve outlived the place I dreamed about.

Some twenty students have enrolled in the introductory story-writing class that will meet for four Saturdays. Twenty, I worry, is too many for a seminar format. But only twelve show up for the first session. Three others—two on the island Tinian, one on Rota—are linked by teleconferencing equipment that I have doubts about from the beginning. To begin, I thank them for their interest in writing, their willingness to test their talent in front of an audience. And, gently, I caution them that writing is a long odds game that requires—there’s no getting around it—work. Then I review the writing samples that some, not all, of them submitted. They were supposed to have read each others’ work in advance, online, but that didn’t happen. So it is left to me to be encouraging and critical. For the next week I require a sense-of-place exercise. And I strongly suggest that the place be Saipan. That is what they know and their readers don’t. They should use it.

Afterwards, three girls—likeable and attentive throughout—tell me that, sorry, they’re busy with lots of other things and don’t believe they’ll be coming back. The kid on screen on Rota, whose head was on the table most of the time, never reappears. But there’s one student who makes up for all of that. His paper would have gotten into my college seminar back home. His material was all too familiar, a twentysomething kid who’s burned out, ticked off, tired of it all. The piece was all attitude, from beginning to end, but he could definitely write. I invite him to the office for special encouragement, give him an inscribed copy of one of my novels, one writer to another. He thanks me as he leaves and, it turns out, never shows up again. It’s a lesson relearned: Talent is the main thing, but not the only one. For now I will settle for a few good kids. I will settle, if it comes to that, for one.

A major night with Huck and Jim. I’d been reminding the class that we should read books cumulatively, with an eye for connections. I compared Twain’s fictional St. Petersburg, Missouri, with Lee’s Maycomb, Alabama, Huck’s father’s rabid racism with Robert E. Lee Ewell’s courtroom rant. And I return to my old standby: the presence of evil in good people and occasional good in evil ones. I ask the class to imagine an updated Huckleberry Finn lighting out to Saipan, America’s remotest territory. “What would he find?” I ask.

What follows is lively: A-bomb strips on Tinian, a Chinese casino, abandoned, and half-finished hotels on Saipan; Japanese pillboxes, boondock caves with war-littered mess kits, and sake bottles; deserted garment factories and barracks. And poker parlors! There are about two hundred poker parlors on Saipan, I’m told, and some anonymous, sinister genius has placed many of them next to laundromats, so you can use a roll of quarters to clean clothes—a sure thing—or take your chance on a jackpot. And the people! Twain’s tattered bush-league con men, the Duke and Dauphin, have dozens of recent counterparts out here: investors, tax avoiders, fugitives, hustlers, cultists, treasure hunters, the list goes on. The class is hard to contain. The outsiders’ dream of islands commingles, here, with the islanders’ vision of America.

After class, I’m usually wired, I can’t sleep, which is just as well, because there’s a party down the street, a loud band and I can’t complain because this is the residence of a local Catholic priest. So I endure what feels like a ten-minute version of “I Saw Her Standing There.” And then, “Proud Mary,” all about rolling, rolling, rolling on the river. Which returns me to Mark Twain. Next up is the novel’s ending, where Tom Sawyer reappears and takes over with pranks and capers that re-enslave Jim and demean Huck. Agony to read, after the noble stuff preceding. Necessary agony, maybe; the voyage can’t go on forever. Theirs or mine. Only one more week of class. As usual with me, I miss a place before I leave it, this not-quite America, this not-quite home.

Nine sense-of-place exercises arrive. Granted, there is awkwardness and cliché, a love of self-serving monologue situated on beaches and in malls. But, definitely, there are things I liked. A student on Tinian comes up with a deadpan opening line: “My name is Maria Stone and my life is anything but normal.” Another kid describes the selection of a walking stick to assist him on a tricky descent to a secret beach and comes up with a nifty throwaway line: “The sticks in the middle of the road have probably been overrun by some lost tourist’s rented four-wheeler or a local’s truck coming back from poaching coconut crabs.” A third describes the “puke green” restrooms at Banzai Cliff. “I never use these,” she writes. “I don’t know anybody who does.” Another student ventures into Saipan’s Duty-Free Shopping Mall, describing “hundred dollar heels that click off marble floors.” Good stuff.

Again and again, whenever I need a break—a change of pace or scene, or mood—I find my way to the north end of Saipan, an area called Marpi. It's the handsomest part of the island, and the most haunted, a realm of cliffs and caves and memories. This is where the battle ended, where the Japanese soldiers and civilians ignored pleas to surrender and leapt to their deaths, some plunging onto land from Suicide Cliff, the rest into water off of Banzai Cliff. The area bristles with peace monuments, many more than the Americans and Saipanese have erected in other places.

Then again, Japanese losses were ten times greater. After the battle, Marpi was where bombs and shells intended for use against Japan were stored. The Enola Gay changed that. About four thousand tons of unexploded ordnance were left on Saipan, much of it in Marpi, which was off-limits. Locals nonetheless trespassed to strip bronze and copper fittings off shells, to dig powder out for use in homemade bombs that would make fishing less of a gamble. Sometimes the bombs exploded: Approximately two thousand Saipanese were injured, sometimes killed, over the years. Today, the place has a sense of beauty, not tropical and balmy, but stark and menacing. When people picture a tropical island, they imagine a paradise, an Eden, out of contact with the rest of the world, untouched by history. Saipan is different. It's had plenty contact and a fair . . . or unfair . . . share of history. With more on the way.

Teach into your sixties and you develop, whether you deserve it or not, a curmudgeonly reputation. You can’t escape it, so you might as well make use of it. But there’s something about last classes that gets me. I know that the people before me will never be sitting together in the same room again. I also know that this means more to me than to them.

I always save Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for the end of the course. It’s about war, which Saipan has ample memory of. It’s about the Vietnam War, which was firing up while I was a Peace Corps volunteer here. It’s about a writer’s struggle to engage turbulent memories and turn them into stories that endure. And it’s also about how writing keeps the dead alive and enlarges the ones who are living, if they read. It’s dodgy, full of fancy footwork about fiction, about how you invent—lie—to get at truths. The class, I’m pleased to see, gets it, sensing what is imperative about writing and reading seriously. I end not by teaching literature so much as professing it. There are people all through these islands, gifted and deep, witnesses to history. But unless they read, there will always be places, people, times that they cannot reach. And unless their stories are told, their death erases them. I tell this to the adults, in our last class, and to the student writers—the seven of them who are still on board—a week later. We had four meetings, eight hours in all, not enough to produce more than a rough draft vignette. Works in progress, one hopes. But they’ve learned what writing takes, planning and work and a sense of audience. I tell them to keep writing and, more important, reading. The writing is breathing out, the reading is breathing in. And I finish by thanking them for coming and staying. And they, some of them, say the same to me.