Annotation by Lee Stoops
“I knew then that we had both made the mental leap from the continental world to the island world, where anything can happen and usually does.”
~ J. Maarten Troost, The Sex Lives of Cannibals (191)
Maarten Troost makes no claims that his decision to follow his girlfriend to a remote atoll in the middle of the equatorial pacific was anything but silly; life-changing, worldview-changing, perspective-changing, sure, but still silly. And it is in his recognition of his own ridiculous circumstances that he finds travelogue/memoir gold. Some claim he might become the Bill Bryson of my (30-something) generation, and I can get behind that. I laughed the entire way through the book while at the same time coming to a deep understanding of Troost’s (and his cast’s) character(s), a passionate sympathy for the strange and fascinating culture (and enthralling and not widely-known history) of the I-Kirabati (pronounced kee-ree-bas) people, and a not strange desire to visit that part of the world and experience it as he did. The man is a wickedly talented word-smith, but even more, he crafts so compellingly a story of two years of his life – bookending those years cleanly without making it feel contrived but keeping it cinematic. His toolbox is laden, but the three most provocative devices I identified with both as a reader and a writer were humor, self-exposure, and construction (lyricism, pacing, provocation).
Humor is probably one of the most challenging elements to writing creative nonfiction, specifically personal narrative or memoir because it doesn’t work if it’s forced, but it’s hard to write humor without trying to write humor. To be fair, there are a number of times that Troost’s humor is forced, either in word choice/construction, or in the way he presents a scene. However, the times that he is just writing to the ridiculous of the experience are hysterical – the direct, well-crafted lines, the truest lines, the strangest (and, somehow, most relatable) lines. A specific example, in which Troost and his girlfriend, Sylvia, have taken in a few pets, even though, on Tarawa, the I-Kiribati people don’t regard animals as worthy of domestication (and usually just eat them), and decide that to protect them from other animals (specifically during times of “heat”), they need to fix them:
Fortunately, the new vet finally arrived and I made arrangements to spare the other animals from the urges and consequences of their hormonal imperatives. The cat was the first to go. Each morning he returned to the house a little more battle-scarred, and though he survived kittenhood, it seemed unlikely that he would survive as a cat unless he was fixed. I picked Sam up and carried him to the pickup truck. If you have never driven a manual-shifting car alone with an uncaged cat, I recommend that you go to great lengths to avoid the experience. I deluded myself into thinking that the cat would sit quietly in the passenger seat, but in fact moments after I started the car he found his way to the top of my head, which he used as a perched to leap toward the window, which sadly for him, was closed, causing him to experience a not inconsiderable amount of panic, which he manifested by ripping me to shreds, pausing only to relieve himself. By the time we reached the vet’s office, a two-room surgery in Tanaea, I was bleeding from a number of slashes and I smelled like cat urine.
“Hi,” I said, “It’s nice to meet you. Welcome to Tarawa. I have a cat for you. He’s presently locked in the glove compartment” (188).
While I’ll address self-exposure in a minute, I think some of the most powerful humor Troost utilizes is self-effacement. In this example, Troost has overcome his fear of the possibility of sharks in the water and heads past the reef to snorkel:
“I dived in for a closer look, and as I did so I nearly blew out my sphincter. I had dived directly on top of a shark.
In my panic, I filled my lungs with water. Then I began to flail and kid and otherwise behave like weak and injured shark fodder. I was out of sorts. Jittery adrenaline bursts are not helpful when you happen to be in deep water with lungs full of seawater. I had no idea what the shark was doing. I was too busy drowning….Then I heard that little voice that has saved me so often in the past – relax, get a grip, swim up, clear your lungs, breathe, and get the hell out of the water, you twit…
Apprently I had frightened the shark. And it was no wonder. I was twice as big as he was. with my mask back on I could see it swimming rapidly away…
I was breathless by the time I entered the house…Between gasps, I shared my adventure with Tiabo…
“You are scared of te shark?” Tiabo asked with raised eyebrows.
“Yes, of course I am scared of te shark.”
“Ha, ha,” Tiabo laughed. “The I-Matang [white man] is scared of te shark. I-Kiribati people are not scared of te shark.”
“That’s because I-Kiribati people are crazy people.”
She laughed mirthfully. She had another story for the maneabe [center of the village where gossip happens] (104-105).
Self-exposure can make or break memoir or personal narrative. Writing in the form, we commit to opening up, reflecting, presenting honestly, with regard to both the narrative as a whole and to the persona in which we write. Troost has managed a book in which it seems he came to the blank page prepared to leave nothing out. An experience where the potential for cultural misunderstanding, even xenophobia, pressed, Troost shares himself – his thoughts, concerns, confusion, and frustration – openly. At one point, he interrupts himself to say he knows he’ll get hate mail for saying so, but he began to think the smell of dog roasting on a spit was pretty good. He constantly questions their sanity for moving there, only to write to experiences that affirm the decision. One effective way Troost initiates his self-exposure is with the briefs that appear before each new chapter. The mini abstracts give the chapter-focus away and introduce how the author feels and why he feels it is important to devote a whole chapter to the topic.
Chapter 1: In which the author expresses some Dissatisfaction with the State of his Life and ponders briefly prior Adventures and Misfortunes, and with the aid of his Beguiling Girlfriend, decides to Quit the Life that is known to him and make forth with all Due Haste for Parts Unknown (1).
Chapter 2: In which the Author reveals the Fruit of his Research into the Strange Island Nation he has declared his new Home (which leaves much unknown), compensates for his Ignorance with his Lively Imagination (which is inadequate, very much so), and Packs (inappropriately) (15).
And so on, and each chapter not only delivers on Troost’s abstract promises, but he opens freely – exposing himself as both brilliant and ignorant, able and pathetic, honest and scarred, optimistic and fatalistic. It’s beautiful, particularly since it’s generally so funny.
Troost’s construction, he claims at the forefront, is developed with the reader in mind: “DISCLAIMER: This book recounts the experiences of the author while he lived in Kiribati…since we’re disclaiming here, the author wishes to acknowledge that in a few incidents recounted herein, he has played a little fast and loose with the space-time continuum. He has done this for you, the reader.” Following that, the story is primarily chronological, which makes the two years flow well. It also enables Troost to develop his character/persona, and show gradual change and growth. By the end, the reader sees a different, better, more sympathetic person. Between the beginning and the end, Troost engages his enormous vocabulary, occasionally slips into didactic writing, but for the most part, sets a terrific pace and develops beautiful imagery and scenes.
I suddenly noticed how small our boat was. I remembered that it was made of plywood. Thin plywood. Thin and old plywood. Thin and old and rotting plywood. Thing and old and rotting and easily breached plywood. Imperceptibly, I moved to the middle of the boat. What were we thinking, washing fish blood off the deck in shark-infested waters? A patch of water where sharks can be confused with whales (158).
While I have not traveled as extensively as Troost, I have toyed with the idea of turning my travel journals into personal essays or even travel memoirs. Troost delivered the kind of story that anyone can read and enjoy while also presenting a model for aspiring travel writers. Humor, exposure, structure – the trifecta of entertaining and world-changing travel stories.