I was encoding a batch of classic ebooks when the ulu-aliki walked in to the library, the outdoors scent of gardenias and overripe mangoes following him. “Afternoon, chief,” I said, pushing my chair back a bit. Joseph Seru spoke Tuvaluan with his family and the other council members, but his English was so much better than my Tuvaluan would ever be. Besides, even though less than ten percent of us were Aussies or Kiwis, the official language on the SPIT was English.
“Hey ya, Sally,” he answered, lacking his usually jovial demeanour.
“You looking for something in particular?” I asked. The island’s chief was a voracious reader and a bit of a film buff. I usually gave him first crack at the new titles I managed to snag off the satellite internet connection.
“Sort of,” he said, the last remains of his smile disappearing. “You, I guess.”
I frowned. “What’s up, chief?” I asked.
“I’ve got something for the blog.”
I watched as he pulled a chair from one of the tables and sat it down across from my desk. He knew me well enough to leave a decent space between the chair and the desk.
As the island’s librarian, I had also become the de facto editor of the closest thing to a news source we had—the Spitball, the island’s blog. There were about a dozen regular contributors, most of the posts being the weekly scores for the football, kilikiti, and ano matches. But things did occasionally happen on the SPIT, and we reported on them all. According to the stats, there were even a handful of people off island who regularly read the thing.
“What’s going on?” I asked again, opening up a text editor on the laptop so I could take notes.
“The bastards finally figured out how to make a buck from us, that’s what’s going on.” Seru usually looked for the positive, but he sounded more like the bitter old fisherman who posted screeds about how overseas politicians screwed us all. I raised an eyebrow and the chief continued.
“They’re bringing in developers.” He spat the last word out like it was a wormy piece of fish.
“What on earth for?” I asked.
“Luxury condos on the coast,” he said, “What else?” His voice was hard and I could see a fire smouldering in his eyes that wasn’t really a good look for him. Even though it was clear that he was dead serious, I couldn’t help myself. I laughed.
“Luxury condos?” I repeated. “You’ve got to be kidding. Who wants to vacation on a pile of rubbish?”
He said nothing for a moment, just looked at me. “People don’t see New Tuvalu that way anymore. They’re calling it one of the few unspoiled islands left in the South Pacific, but without all that pesky dirt, poverty, and backwardness.” He snorted, and I saw that his hands were clenched. “Greedy rats.”
The South Pacific Island of Trash had existed for years, floating around wherever the South Pacific high happened to be. Tankers or unlucky sailors sometimes saw it, but it was more like a legend than a real problem. Hundreds of thousands of plastic bags, bottles, and wrappers, all stuck together in a loose conglomeration of rubbish, stewing in a soup of microscopic particles. It was embarrassing, but it was an embarrassment that belonged to no one in particular, so no one in particular wanted to deal with it. Until Tuvalu sank.
The island nation of Tuvalu had been slowly disappearing for years and inevitably the evacuation came. Twelve thousand refugees in New Zealand could hardly be ignored, and all of a sudden that rubbish started looking good. One of the many docos made about conditions in the refugee camps was screened in Cannes to an international uproar, so the government finally tendered bids to create a new Tuvalu on the SPIT. The marketing campaign was slick—out of disaster and waste would come an oasis of beauty in the Pacific, a new island paradise. Of course, it ended up being nothing like the artist’s drawing in the ads.
But they had nowhere else to go, so off they went, to New Tuvalu. The powers that be sent a bunch of New Zealand and Australia’s homeless along for variety. Why let an opportunity to get rid of more unwelcome trash go to waste, right? Which was how I ended up on the SPIT.
“Can’t we just build a hotel or something? You know—make it nice, real posh, but ours?”
The chief snorted, his big nostrils flaring so wide I thought I could maybe see his brain fuming up there. “They don’t want a goddamn hotel,” he said. “They want timeshares. They want homes. They want to weekend here, like it’s some kind of resort or something. They’re referring to themselves as our new neighbours for heaven’s sake! It’s ridiculous.”
“Well, who owns the land?” I asked. We all knew we lived on a floating platform of plastic—still, we clung to those archaic words as tightly as a drowning sailor would cling to our own coast.
I hadn’t been homeless, but I was living in a broken-down flat with a half dozen other unemployed just-graduated bums, with no immediate prospects beyond slinging coffee. Given my particular issues, the service industry wasn’t exactly a feasible option for me. I was living off savings and I didn’t have a lot of savings.
I’d have gone to the moon before I’d ask my family for anything and I didn’t really like any of my friends. There was nothing keeping me where I was and with a free plot of “land” and five grand to anyone with a degree who volunteered to go, the SPIT looked pretty attractive. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Of course, there wasn’t much work for a Film Studies major on New Tuvalu, either, but that didn’t really matter. Everyone was figuring out how to get by, how to live on our precarious flotsam home. With my English rose complexion and solitary nature, I wasn’t really suited to fishing or landscaping. That’s how I ended up running the library, which turned out to be more film and television than books anyway. I spent my time cataloguing, reviewing, and downloading when the bandwidth was available. Sometimes I’d go days without seeing another soul. It was just fine. For me.
Most of the old Tuvaluans kept on fishing and praying and living their lives, but it wasn’t the same. No one was used to trees in pots and a shoreline made from old chip bags and rope. In the first year there were over a hundred drownings. This from an island nation of seafarers. No one said it aloud but everyone knew they couldn’t all be accidents.
Slowly, though, the drownings stopped and people adapted—there were plenty of fish, the desalinator worked reliably, the solar cells finally started automatically tracking the sun, and all was right with the world. The piglets chased each other over patchy grass when there wasn’t a football or kilikiti match. Drink bottles and carrier bags, once lost at sea, disappeared under layers of compost, the tiny gardens tended by new mums and dads.
The trees even grew tall enough that we sometimes forgot that the soil was all imported. We forgot that everything was imported, including us. New Tuvalu wasn’t our country, after all—it was just a protectorate of New Zealand. They let us run things day to day, but as Joseph Seru found out, even though we’d made life out of garbage, it wasn’t our garbage.
“That’s the problem,” he said. “No one owns the land. Or more precisely and accurately, the bloody New Zealand government does. They want to build on the north beach.”
“They can’t,” I said, even though I figured they could.
Joseph Seru’s angry expression confirmed my fears.
The north beach was the island’s biggest park, our communal space. It was large, maybe a tenth of the whole area of the SPIT. There was imported sand there where the kids played and a sports field for everyone. About half the space was left “wild,” or at least the best approximation of wild we could do. By now, there were trees and a little sod here and there. I couldn’t believe that they were going to sell it out from under us to a bunch of rich Americans and Europeans who wanted an unspoiled getaway for a couple of weeks each year.
When the ulu-aliki left, I fired up the satellite and did some digging online. There was no doubt that the charter for New Tuvalu left any unowned spaces as property of the New Zealand government. Legally, the north beach was a Kiwi landfill. I searched the internet for any mention of this scheme in the rest of the world, and found a few tiny stories buried deep in the business sections of the Herald and the Dominion Post. According to those sources, it was a development cartel from Abu Dhabi bankrolling the deal. Who else but desert dwellers would see the potential, I thought.
The SPIT always reminded me of something my dad used to say: “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” I was comfortable there, I liked the work and the community. I’d never felt as safe as I did on the SPIT. But it was still just a veneer of paradise on top of a pile of trash. We’d been given the least they could get away with, and now they were going to try and take it back? It was so unfair.
I wrote up a quick article for the blog and hit the “publish” button. I knew that there would be a lot of angry comments on the site by morning, and probably an equal number of angry people banging on the doors of the council members by the end of the day tomorrow. But what good would that do? The people making all the decisions were thousands of miles and a whole world away.
“No, Mum, I don’t have the bandwidth for video.”
“I cannot for the life of me understand why you would choose to live out in the back of beyond like that, Sally.” My mum’s strident voice wasn’t softened a bit by the tinny speakers of the library’s laptop. “You can’t even have a video call with your mother? I mean, what is the draw of living on a glorified rubbish tip?”
“Mum,” I said, my heart pounding. “Don’t start. Can you please just tell me what people are saying about the development? Is there something we can do to stop it? Get people back home mobilized against it, maybe?”
“I highly doubt it,” she said and I could hear her derisive sniff. “I only noticed the piece on the news because it’s where you live, and even then it was just fluff about how great an investment this resort will be. Not a single soul cares about a handful of people out there floating around on a pile of old tyres. Though, whoever would want to holiday out there I cannot imagine. The smell alone!”
“It doesn’t smell, Mum.” It did smell, of course, of flowers and fruit and salt air, but that was not what she meant.
“Really,” she went on, as if I hadn’t said anything, “if you must live there, you should be pleased that there’s some money coming in. Those developers will make things more civilized for all of you—people with money for resort condos aren’t going to put up with not being able to make video calls, for one. This is a good thing, Sally. I don’t know why you’d want to try and stop it, except that you always were contrary. If it’s something that’s making someone a living, it’s got to be bad. You never did have your feet properly on the ground, no wonder you’re living somewhere that’s as flimsy as your ideas.”
I could feel pinpricks of tears starting up behind my eyes and knew that if this kept on I was going to lose my temper. “Okay, well, I have to go now, Mum. Other people need the laptop. I’ll call again soon, okay.”
“Maybe you can get a job at the resort, be able to afford your own computer.”
“Give my love to Dad,” I said and hit the big red disconnect button.
I managed to get to the toilet without having to run, but wasted the nice piece of dorado I’d had for lunch. I’d managed to calm down before the library door banged open.
“Anything?” Joseph Seru asked.
I shook my head. “I should have known better than to ask my mother. She’s half the reason I left.”
“Thank you for trying,” Joseph said and I felt terrible. “None of us have any connections to anyone over there; you did what you could with what you have.” I could see that he wanted to put his hand on my shoulder, do something to show me that he truly was grateful, but he knew me well enough to know not to. “We will endure, as we always do. Who knows, maybe it won’t be so bad.”
“Maybe,” I said, but I knew we both were lying.
“You’re a filmmaker, aren’t you?” The woman standing in the doorway of the library looked the worse for wear—an unhealthy rosiness in her cheeks which foretold a nasty sunburn, expensively dyed hair exposing mousy brown roots and hanging limply in the humidity. Typical palagi. She probably looked a lot like me, and I can’t imagine she liked that much more than I did.
“Yes,” I said, suspicious. Since they’d arrived, I’d tried to stay away from the developers as much as possible. I preferred the mediation of a screen if I was going to be confrontational.
“That’s great,” she gushed in the phoney tones of an MBA holder. “We’re making some promotional materials for the new community and would love to get locals involved, people like you. It’s a terrific opportunity for all of us.”
Her greasy smile was making my stomach turn and my heart pound. I didn’t want to be there, but there was only one door to the library, which was itself only the one room. I couldn’t escape her grinning face. “Have you talked to te sina o fenua? If you want local involvement they’d be the ones to work with.”
She shook her head and looked at me like I was a naïve teenager. “The council members are old-fashioned, they just want everything the same as it’s always been. They don’t understand the importance of keeping current, of modernizing this community. That’s why we’re here, to make sure that New Tuvalu has all the advantages technology can bring.” She looked around the library, her eyes resting on the bulky computers and the blinking satellite modem. “You must appreciate that.”
“I’m not going to make an advert for you,” I said, wishing I were anywhere but in this conversation.
“Don’t think of it as an ad,” she said, taking a step toward me. I felt myself push back into my chair, and I could see in her face that she noticed it, too.
“I’m not interested,” I said. My mouth felt like it was full of sand.
“Fine,” she said, stepping back, and the tightness in my chest loosened slightly. “But you have to realize that without people like us this place is never going to move beyond being an overgrown fishing raft. Is that really what you want, to live like someone in a National Geographic documentary?”
“Get out,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper. Thankfully, she turned and walked back out into the heat of midday and I let my head drop into my hands. It was bad enough that they’d taken the beach, and were building a resort no one who lived here would enter from anything other than the staff door. But, did they have to act as though just because I looked like them that I would think like them?
They ended up hiring some overseas firm to make their film. They earned their money—it was very well done. It made the developers look like a cross between Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières. I cried throughout the whole six minutes.
“It could be worse,” Joseph Seru said. We watched it together in the library—the developers had provided an advance screening copy to the council.
“How?” I asked. “I can’t see anyone wanting to help us now. How do you say you don’t want better communications, more jobs, a thriving economy? How do you say you just want to be left alone?” I was trembling, and tried the old breathing exercises to calm down.
Joseph was quiet for a moment, and I couldn’t read the look on his face. Finally he said, “We can’t stop it, Sal. This is my home, but it isn’t mine. I wish things were different but wishing doesn’t make the fish bite or the rain fall. At least they are letting us stay.”
“Damn it, Joseph,” I said, my voice breaking. I didn’t bother trying to fight the tears. “We are human beings. We’re entitled to a place of our own. It’s their fault that you had to leave Tuvalu in the first place, with their pollution and greed. And now … now they’re taking this away, too?”
He looked at me and I thought I saw a trace of anger cross his face, then it was gone.
“I know you mean well, Sal,” he said. “But there’s nothing to be done. We have to make the best of what we’ve got. We’ve been doing that all along. New Tuvalu used to be rubbish. Now it’s so beautiful that people want to come here from all over the world. Maybe we were too good at building something out of nothing, because, now, everyone wants what we’ve got.”
He walked out of the library. The next day I learned that his daughter Mary had gone to work for the development as a sales manager. I tried not be angry, tried to remind myself that she had the right to her own decisions, that we all have the right to decide for ourselves how to live our lives. It was hard, though.
“Sally, it’s rude and hurtful and you have no right to say those things.” Mary Seru was a small woman, but she wasn’t timid. She had planted her hands on my desk and her angry face was far too close to mine.
“I have a right to my opinion,” I said, my voice about a third as loud as hers. If she hadn’t been so horribly close to me, she probably would never have been able to hear me.
She shook her head. “Of course, but you don’t have a right to plaster your opinion all over the blog like it’s the gospel truth. Ugh.” She let out a breath and stood up straight. I felt my chest expand a little as space opened up between us. “Some of us have to live here, you know.”
I felt like she’d hit me. “I—I live here.”
Her face softened slightly. “I know,” she said. “But it’s different for you. You can go home. The rest of us …” She looked out the window of the prefabricated building. It was another beautiful day in the South Pacific, the sky a clear blue, the warm breeze stirring the leaves of the potted trees. “The rest of us don’t have a choice.”
“This is my home,” I said. “We all worked so hard to make this place livable. That’s why I don’t want to see it turned into just another generic resort. Your father understands. I don’t see why it’s so hard for you.”
“My father feels sorry for you,” she said, and I was fairly certain she didn’t intend for it to be insulting. “Because you have no proper family connection, no people. But I can see that you’re just like them.” She jerked her head in the direction of the construction. “You don’t even really like it here. All you can see is what this island came from. At least the developers see it for what it is now. At least they’re honest enough to say out loud that they want a taste of a forbidden exotic life, to visit the world of us noble savages. And they’re willing to trade those things we don’t have in order to get what they want.”
I guess she’d given up trying to be nice and I could see anger in her face. “You have no right to tell us what we should do with our lives and our island, Sally. You aren’t the voice of this community. You never can be.” She took a step towards me and I could see dark spots in my vision. I paid attention to my breathing and hoped I would be able to forestall a panic attack. “Just leave it alone.”
Mary didn’t come by to see me again. I didn’t post anything on the Spitball again, either. I gave the login and password to Kevan Tulley and when Joseph asked me why I’d stopped running the blog I made up some excuse about it taking up too much of my time. He didn’t press it.
The construction took eighteen months and for a little while I thought there might still be hope. But soon there were fewer boats going out to fish each day, fewer pickup games of soccer, fewer weaving circles. Then there were people wearing business suits and housekeeping uniforms. A fleet of rickshaw taxis sprung up. Two restaurants.
By the time the last condo was sold, I barely recognized the place. There was broadband all over the island now, so I borrowed the laptop and called my mother from my small hut. Her wide face filled the screen and she forced a smile with tight lips.
“Sally,” she said, “I told you things would improve once that resort got going, didn’t I? Aren’t you glad your impotent little protest didn’t accomplish anything, hmm?”
“I’m coming back,” I said, unwilling to let this conversation go on any longer than absolutely necessary. “I’ve got a job lined up at the Film Archive in the capital; I won’t have time to come down to Nelson before I have to start. Sorry.”
I expected an “I told you so” or an “I knew you’d come crawling back,” but Mum just frowned.
“What on earth for?” she asked eventually. “That island of yours is finally a decent place to be. Why would you want to leave now?”
I shrugged. I didn’t know how to explain that everything that had once made living on the island appealing was gone. It was no longer unique, no longer special. Even its remoteness was now just an illusion, shattered by ubiquitous wifi and twice-weekly scheduled flights.
But that wasn’t the real reason I couldn’t stay. I’d thought that a people whose home sank into the sea was the perfect community for me. I shared a spiritual connection with them, we had a fundamental similarity. They were lost, I was lost—I’d thought we could be lost together. But Mary was right—I wasn’t really like them at all. They had no choice, they could never be anything but a people displaced from their home by forces beyond their control.
I wasn’t a tourist, but I wasn’t a New Tuvaluan either. I had options they would never have, and I always would. Nothing I could do would change that, not for me and not for them. And now that I knew it, every time I looked at one of my neighbours, that gulf between us was all I could see. For the first time since I stepped on to the SPIT, I felt trapped.
“Well?” Mum said, impatience written all over her face. “Why come back now?”
I looked past the screen out the window, to the potted palm trees rustling in the warm breeze, and the core of pressed plastic peeking out through breaks in the grass and sand. Once it had been a symbol of how things that no one wanted could become central to an entire community. For the New Tuvaluans, it was a base on which to build a future. But to me it was now just another place I didn’t belong.
I brought my focus back to the screen. “Home sick, I guess.”
Copyright © 2014 M. Darusha Wehm. Originally published in the anthology Use Only As Directed. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Image credit: Marine Debris is a Global Problem, by NOAA’s National Ocean Service, Creative Commons BY 2.0.
Darusha writes speculative fiction and poetry as M. Darusha Wehm and mainstream work as Darusha Wehm, and is the author of nine published novels, several poems and many short stories. Originally from Canada, Darusha currently lives in Wellington, New Zealand after spending the past several years sailing around the Pacific.