Written by Chuahua Lin.
“What does the “world map” mean? One island connected to another in Oceania. The islanders share a common ideal: sailing the ocean of our own and of the other islands. Pacific Islanders are in quest of the inner unspeakable passion for the ocean or maybe in quest of the words passed down from their ancestors”.Syaman Rapongan
How are Trans-Pacific connections remembered and maintained in the literary works of the Tao people, one of the 16 officially recognised Indigenous tribes of Taiwan? In this article, I will read Syaman Rapongan and Yung-chuan Hsieh’s works, and I will discuss how they exemplified the ways in which Tao people endeavour to revitalise the navigation tradition of their people and maintain the connection to the ocean. As I argue in this article, Tao people, as well as other Pacific Islander writers, represent the centuries-old navigating traditions of their people and thus keep these Trans-Pacific connections alive.
In his Black Wings (黑色的翅膀), originally published in 1999, Syaman Rapongan discloses how islands are connected, not separated, by the ocean. One example is the passage quoted above. He discloses the common idea of the Pacific islanders: to sail the ocean. When Syaman Ranpogan mentions how they used to sail the ocean “of the other islands,” he reminds us how his people and other Pacific Islanders strive to transcend the borders of nation-states. In this passage, Syaman Rapongan echoes and reiterates the concept of Oceania popularised by Epeli Hau‘ofa, a Tongan and Fijian writer and scholar. In their way of perceiving the ocean, looking at Pacific Islanders’ navigation and migration, the sea becomes a space of connection and solidarity––a collective “Oceania.”
Their perception of the ocean is a pushback against the settler-colonial divisions of the island. At the same time, Euro- and continent-centric perspective views islands as small, separated, insignificant and thus exploitable. For Pacific Islanders, however, their constant journey and migration are considered “world enlargement”, breaking the boundaries imposed on them by settler colonisers to confine them to littleness. Instead of conceptualising the Pacific as small islands in a far sea, in the passage quoted above, Syaman Rapongan depicts the Pacific as, to borrow Hau‘ofa’s phrase, “a sea of islands”. Moreover, by bringing forth, “the words passed down from the ancestors,” Syaman Rapongan reveals that the navigation routes are ancient and how the navigation skills are passed down orally for generations.
In another passage in Black Wings, Syaman Rapongan explicitly invokes an ancient navigation route and connection between Pongso no Tao (Orchid Island) and Batanes, an archipelago in the north of the Philippines. He writes,
The dense schools of flying fish dye patches of the wide and vast ocean black. Each school consists of three or four hundred fish, swimming about fifty or sixty meters apart. They stretch unbroken for one nautical mile, and they look like a mighty military force going into battle. They follow the ancient course of the Black Current, gradually heading toward the sea north of Batan in the Philippines.
Even until around 500 to 1,000 years ago, there were oral records of Tao people from Iratai village traveling to the Batanes. In addition, there are a lot of similarities between Tao and Ivatan regarding language and fishing technique. The similarities between the two cultures will not be discussed in detail here due to the limited space. My point here is that Syman Rapongan remembers, represents, celebrates, and thus perpetuates ancient connections.
In his song, “Ji Ka Meybezbez (Don’t Rush),” included in his 2020 album, Akokey, Yung-chuan Hsieh also invokes the same linkage. He writes, “ka mangey jivatan an/ ji ka meybezbez,” which translates to “Are you going to Batanes? Don’t rush.” In and through his song, Hsieh remembers the navigations made by his ancestors. Every time Hsieh introduces his song to people, he proudly tells people how his ancestors sailed to the Batanes and how the Tao people revitalised this ancient practice and connection.
It is also worth mentioning that to further embody this relationship, Hsieh travelled to the Batanes to find the root and recorded a duet version of the song; half in Tao and half in Ivatan. Syaman Rapongan and Hsieh’s works use nonsense in depicting settler nation-states and national borders. Their works, I argue, are examples of how Tao people perceive Pongso no Tao in a sea of islands.
Poem by a Cousin across the Pacific
Taiwan’s Trans-Pacific connection is not merely one-sided. For example, Craig Santos Perez, a CHamoru diasporic poet and scholar, has a poem, “The Fifth Map”, to discuss a genealogical link recovered through his trans-Pacific journey to Taiwan. I include his poetry in this article because it further represents Taiwan’s Trans-Pacific connection and because he travelled to Taiwan to recover this connection.
In the poem, Perez writes about his trip to Taiwan in 2015. During that trip, he was taken to the Taiwan Indigenous Peoples Cultural Park, where he saw a map of Austronesia. When looking at the map with the Indigenous tour guide, Perez was reminded of how the ancestors of Pacific Islanders have navigated the vast ocean and how the Pacific Ocean connects them. Perez writes,
The tour guide shows me an aerial view
of Austronesia. “ʻAustro- means ‘south,’” she says.
A highlighted area, the shape of a full sail, stretches
from Madagascar to the Malay peninsula
and Indonesia, north to the Philippines and Taiwan,
then traversing Micronesia and Polynesia.
It’s difficult to imagine that 400 million people
alive today, who speak over 1000 different languages,
all descend from the same mother tongue,
the same genetic family.
In the lines quoted above, Perez not only delineates the scope and vastness of Austronesia but also how these Pacific Islanders are linguistically and genealogically related. After learning this connection, Perez and the tour guide actually called each other cousins to honour this ancient and embedded relationship. Perez goes on to write,
navigating beyond the violent divisions
of national and maritime borders, beyond
the scarred latitudes and longitudes
of empire, to navigate the cartography
of our most expansive legends
and deepest routes.
Perez explicitly pushes back the borders and how the settler nation-states divide people. Yet through the ancient navigation traditions and stories, Pacific Islanders still remember how they are connected. More examples beyond literary texts include 1) Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture (FestPac) and 2) Hōkūleʻa. Not only did Syman Rapongan and Hsieh travel across the ocean for inspiration, but Perez, a Pacific Islander himself, also crossed the Pacific to Taiwan, where he was reminded of the deep and embedded relationships sustained by the Pacific Ocean and the navigation of their ancestors.
Through the above examples, I hope to point out how the navigation traditions traced back thousands of years ago are still alive and continue to inspire the literary creation of Pacific Islanders. Furthermore, Taiwanese Indigenous peoples and other Pacific Islanders remember and celebrate the trans-Pacific connection that goes beyond the borders of nation-states. Although Taiwan is not always in the spotlight of Trans-Pacific discourse, which mostly focuses on Japan, Korea, China, and the Philippines, I hope the above literary works demonstrate the important position of Indigenous Taiwan in the Pacific connections.
Chiahua Lin is a PhD candidate in the English Department of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She is the recipient of the 2018 Fulbright Graduate Study Grant and the 2020 Government Scholarship to Study Abroad (GSSA) from the Taiwanese Ministry of Education. Her research interests include Trans-indigenous Studies, Ecopoetics, Hawaiian Literature, and Pacific Literature. She currently serves as the Asia Pacific Observatory of Humanities for the Environment secretary. She is the co-editor of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America: Recovery and Representation and Pacific Literature as World Literature.
This article was published as part of a special issue on “Pacific Encounters.”