The Future Fire Interview
I really liked writing this story and was happy to see it in print, but I am terrible at promoting things, especially if I'm the one who created it (ai lokkue'). Here is an interview that I did with the website The Future Fire.
TFF: How would you describe the taotaomo’na, who appear in your Pacific Monsters story, “I Sindålu” or “the soldier”? What should we do if we ever meet one?
MLB: They can take any form, but you usually know if one is around you because there will be an overwhelming presence around you. This can sometimes feel like a strong, but invisible pressure, or for most people it is an abnormally potent smell. They can assume very natural forms and look like trees, but they can also appear in human form. One of the most frightening things about them if they appear in human is that they tend to not have heads, but instead an empty neck.
If you meet a taotaomo’na, make sure you are respectful, but they usually make themselves known in response to people being disrespectful in sacred or natural areas. This is important because sometimes the spirits don’t quite know their own supernatural state. Some of them may think they are still alive and if they touch you they may inadvertently curse you.
Guam is an island of just 212 sq. miles. 1/3 of those 212 sq. miles is US military Navy and Air Force Bases. Guam has been a vital asset for the US in maintain its interests in Asia since it was taken from the Spanish in 1898. Troops and bombs have been fed through Guam to US conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East today. Military commanders and strategists have referred to Guam as “The Tip of the Spear” because of what it represents in terms of projection force into Asia and defending American interests in the Pacific.
The Chamorro relationship to the US and its military is complicated because of how this heavily militarized state has come about. Chamorros, as a people feel a great deal of gratitude to the US for its role in expelling the Japanese who brutally occupied the island for 32 months during World War II. Each year the island celebrates the American return as “Liberation Day” and that experiences allowed Chamorros to develop feelings of patriotism to what in other terms would be their colonizer. But the US took advantage of Chamorro gratitude to seize 2/3 of the island illegally. Chamorros who waved American flags to celebrate the return of American troops were within months being forced off their farms to see them bulldozed to make runways and Quonset huts. Many Chamorros were willing to give up their lands while the US was still at war with Japan, but most of these land-takings took place after hostilities had ended. This experience is compounded by other programs and policies of Americanization in the island that have attacked the Chamorro language and traditional Chamorro culture. So while Chamorros serve in the US military in large per capita numbers for such a small ethnic group, and enjoy the opportunities it provides, they also remain angered over the historic and continuing treatment of their people.
Is there a distinctive quality to SF/F stories written by Chamorro authors?
Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of science fiction Chamorro stories, but there are an increasing number of Chamorro fiction writers. One of the interesting thing about these emerging writers, is how they write almost exclusively about the past, as in historical fiction. Few of them engage with Guam or the Pacific as it is today, and none, with the exception of my work, talk about the future. This in many ways represents the modern trap in which indigenous people often find themselves. Your vitality belongs to the ancient past and as you move through time, you are always losing your culture, your essence and on the verge of dying out. For me, this anxiety that indigenous people feel from being ensnared in the modern gaze makes fertile ground for fiction however. Even though I’m a historian as an academic, I don’t delve much into historical fiction, but instead love to challenge notions of the inevitable indigenous extinction.
What do you think about the relationship between a group’s cultural heritage and its representation in popular culture products like comics?
For me this is an essential link in terms of cultural revitalization and indigenous empowerment. One person who influenced me quite a bit was the late Chamorro author Jose Mata Torres. He had a classical music program for decades on Guam, which was notorious for his speaking about Bach, Beethoven and Brahms in the Chamorro language. Much of the media in Guam is in English, and so his program stood out as unique. Before he passed away I talked to him about his motivations. He said that as a young man, he had attended college in upstate New York, which was as different from Guam as he could imagine. He felt isolated and alone, but one thing that spoke to him was classical music. He would listen to it and it would make him feel as home, it spoke to him in a special way. He said that it was in his heart and his heart was Chamorro and so the best way he could express himself was to use the language of his heart and the music of his heart together. The prevalence of Western popular culture in Guam makes it so that the ways in which we have to speak to youth in particular has shifted, and so I feel that adapting things is essential in keeping things vital and active in terms of identity and culture.
You are also involved in the publication of children books and comics in the Chamorro language. Does this endeavor in particular have an educational goal?
Decolonising a country is a long process. If you think of cultural products on offer in Guam when you were a teenager and now, do you see any encouraging changes?
We are already seeing the impact of efforts that are locally referred to as a “Chamorro renaissance.” After centuries of cultural attacks by various colonizers that left Chamorros without much of a sense of pride in their heritage, this is starting to shift. The creation of art, music, literature and other types of media that reflects more the Chamorro perspective or aspects of the continuum of Chamorro existence has led for a greater sense of desire amongst youth to learn their heritage and to embrace their language. This heightened sense of Chamorro consciousness about their history and their place in the world has also helped to foment movements for change in Guam’s political status. At present Guam is a territory or a colony of the US, and the majority of people today wish for a change in that status to something more beneficial for the island and its people.
What is the first thing that you teach to your students about Chamorro heritage?
That their choices shape the culture in which they will live their lives, and therefore pass down to their children. In a community of millions of people, the choices of 100 don’t necessarily affect the fate of all. But if you are a community of around 200,000 worldwide, where only 20% speak your native language, whether or not you decide to teach it to your children or learn it yourself makes a huge difference. The same goes for a variety of cultural forms. The culture isn’t being maintained by some amorphous government bureaucracy. It is being maintained or lost by the choices each of our families make.
If you were a taotaomo’na, who would you haunt?
Probably the US military. They have a reputation lately for wanting to target historic and culturally significant sites for their construction projects. I would want to make that process a bit spookier if I could.
Do you remember the name of the protagonist of the very first story you wrote?
When we were young, my brother and I tried to create our own fictional universe akin to Marvel or DC. We made a lot of random and obviously very derivative characters, but one of my favorites was a warrior named “Nomad Shredder.” He was an archer whose mouth had been sown shut long ago and no one knew what he had done to deserve the punishment.
What is your favourite optimistic science fiction work?
Before I became a father I would have answered differently, but when my daughter was born, I was reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy and even though it is depressing and dystopian, it will always remind me of the importance of sharing a bond with my children.
The ability to drink clean water.
What do you think future archaeologists will think of our century?
I feel embarrassment just thinking about it.
What are you working on next? What can people who enjoyed your story in Pacific Monsters look for to read more?
They can check out our website theguambus.com. We have another comic in our Makåhna series coming out later this year.
You can read Michael’s graphic story “I Sindålu” in Pacific Monsters.