The Emergence of “Fantastic” in Chamorro Literature

by Monique Storie, University of Guam

During a discussion on multicultural children’s literature about a decade ago, a comment about modern fantasy shaped the way I watched the growth of Chamorro children’s literature. The comment was that modern fantasy was one of the more challenging genres to write authentically because the author’s need to suspend reality to allow the impossible can sometimes affect his or her ability to present a world that community members will recognize as their own. At the time of this discussion, Chamorro literature was emergent and so “modern fantasy” had, in my mind, become a measuring stick for the progress of Chamorro children’s literature. If an author was able to produce an engaging, “can’t put it down” fantasy story from a Chamorro perspective, then I felt that that was a significant indication that Chamorro literature had moved beyond its infancy stage.

So began my quest for “fantastic” literature. I had believed that because there was a supernatural element (the taotaomo’na) within the Chamorro culture, it should not be difficult to find modern fantasy. I immediately picked up Fafa’nague yan hinengge siha : Ghosts and superstitious beliefs (Onedera, 1994). In reading the stories, I came to a couple of realizations. One, calling taotaomo’na stories “modern fantasy” would never work; and two, I was wrong. An actively maintained supernatural element does not equate to the easy development of modern fantasy literature. Even though I was still stubbornly holding onto the idea of modern fantasy being the epitome of Chamorro children’s literature, I took a closer look at the available genres and realized that different genres emerged and developed at different paces… and that I had to discover of the “fantastic,” or marvelous, within each genre.

The establishment of non-fiction can easily be traced back to the early beginning of American governance and grew slowly during the reconstruction period of World War II. The earliest known children’s book is Marjorie with the Chamorros, published when Guam had been a part of the United States mainland for less than a decade. Between the 1920s and 1950s, Guam schoolteachers began developing books on local history and culture. By the 1960s, authors and publishers began incorporating review questions and chapter summaries, bringing a textbook quality to these books. These quasi-textbook, fact book type of publications had been a mainstay in books about Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands until Inafa’maolek: Chamorro Tradition and Values was published in 1996. In this phenomenal informational text, the narrators introduce cultural practices and their significance in the calm but frank tone that Chamorro grandparents would use to talk to their grandchildren. Inafa’maolek was followed by the hilariously funny A Pictorial History of the Northern Mariana Islands (Battaglia, 2008). What makes this book stand out is that historical facts are offset by comic strips that highlight islander and Western perspectives of the events.

Non-fiction books developed well in advance of works based on traditional tales; however, both grew out of an educational need. Written folktales for island children emerged as a part of a bilingual/bicultural program. Anthropologists and historians may have written down and studied the island’s folklore prior to World War II but Chamorros continued to share these stories orally until the Departments of Education printed a Micronesian legends anthology in 1951 and a Chamorro anthology in 1976. Sadly, it appears that this is where traditional literature seems to have stalled out. I have found it odd (and a tad bit frustrating) that are VERY few books based on island legends. The story of Sirena has been made into two picture books— one retold on cd by Alpha Cesar Espina and Tabitha (Espina, 1999) and the other told in rhyme by Tanya Chargualaf Taimanglo (2010)— but I have yet to find a picture book of any of the numerous other legends (the 1976 anthology presents over 30 stories).

Realistic fiction for children began in the 1970s and has grown steadily in numbers and quality. Coconuts for Candy (Mitchell, 1972) and Endless Summer: An Adventure Story of Guam (Akau-Weillen, 1976) provided glimpses of the island lifestyle with details that make it is easy for the reader to place him or herself into the story. Sadly, ten years passed before the Evelyn Flores’ Island Cousin series emerged and almost another decade before Lola’s Journey Home (Leon Guerrero, 2005). Flores’ Dolphin Day (1988), Duendes Hunter (1988), and Isa’s Avocado Tree (1988) and Leon Guerrero’s Lola’s Journey Home are standouts because they have captured the vibe of being Chamorro today (e.g. struggles with cultural identity, changing family dynamics because of relatives moving off island) but have also adeptly incorporated how Chamorros still rely on the traditional values of respect, interdependence, and resiliency in resolving contemporary problems.

Modern fantasy has probably had the shortest lifespan of all available literature types. The first attempt at modern fantasy was the The Adventure of Carmen and the Wishing Stone (Chambers, 1987) followed by Bunita the Bat (Dooley, 2007). The storylines had great potential but the “lessons” overpowered the story at times. In 2010, a literary folktale for children and a collection of short stories for adolescents were published. Allison Taimanglo Cusay’s Tasi and Matina: the Story of the First Clown Fish tells how the clown fish got its stripes and how families support each other in times of need. Tanya Chargualaf Taimanglo released Attitude 13: A Daughter of Guam’s Collection of Short Stories. The collection is mostly realistic fiction except for “Resurfacing.” “Resurfacing” is fantastic because it works off of the idea of what would happen if one of the characters from a Guam’s legend returned to the island today, would that person recognize it as home? It was fantasic because the author used a well-known character from a local legend to explore a contemporary social phenomenon (the changing identity of the island) rather than try to modernize a traditional tale. Basically, “Resurfacing” was that piece of fantastic literature that I had been looking for.

The growth of Chamorro children’s literature may have taken about a hundred years but great strides have been made in the past two decades. The plots and the ways in which the culture has been captured lead me to believe that island authors have found the rich stories that need to be told. I am glad to see that many of the genres have something “fantastic” to share.

References

Battaglia, Beverley. (2008). Pictorial history of the Northern Mariana Islands. Saipan: Elite Printing.

Chambers, Diane. (1987). The adventures of Carmen and the wishing stone. Guam: Taro Patch.

Cusay, Alison Taimanglo. (2010). Tasi and Matina: the story of the first clown fish. California: Guam Books and Beads; Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse.

Dooley, Maria Borja. (2006). Bunita the bat. Illustrated by Ron Castro. Guam: Maria Borja Dooley.

Espina, Alpha Caser and Espina, Tabitha Caser. (1999). Sirena. Guam: IslandDream Productions.

Flores, Evelyn. (1988). Dolphin day, Illustrated by Vivian Lujan Bryan. Guam: Green Island Publishers.

Flores, Evelyn. (1988). Duendes hunter, Illustrated by Vivian Lujan Bryan. Guam: Green Island Publishers.

Flores, Evelyn. (1988). Isa’s avocado tree, Illustrated by Vivian Lujan Bryan. Guam: Green Island Publishers.

Leon Guerrero, Victoria-Lola. (2005). Lola’s journey home. Illustrated by Maria Yatar McDonald. Guam: Estorian Famagu’on.

Mitchell, Boonie. (1972). Coconuts for candy. Illustrated by Lois H. Kerr. Agat, GU: BB Mitchell.

Onedera, Peter (1994). Fafa’ñague yan hinengge siha : Ghosts and superstitious beliefs. Guam:

Political Status Education Coordinating Commission. (1996). Inafa’maolek: Chamorro tradition and values. Agana, GU: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission.

Stevens, Mary C. (1907). Marjorie with the Chamorros. New York: American Tract Society.

Taimanglo, Tanya Chargualaf. (2010). Attitude 13: a daughter of Guam’s collection of short stories. California: Guam Books and Beads; Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse.

Taimanglo, Tanya Chargualaf. (2010). Sirena. California: Guam Books and Beads; Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse.

Wellein, Marsha D. Akau. (1976) Endless summer: an adventure story of Guam. New York: Vantage Press.

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