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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Living among Marshallese yields textured first novel

 •  Barclay weaves worthy tale of endurance

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

For Robert Barclay, the Marshall Islands in the 1970s was the perfect place to be a boy — paddling around in boats, fishing and diving, collecting old gun casings, climbing in and out of World War II bunkers, watching missiles streak across the sky at night. There was no TV, no video store, no Internet.

It was, he recalls, "just a wonderful place to live."

Robert Barclay was ten when his family moved to the Marshall Islands.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

He was 10 years old and his family had moved to the remote South Pacific islands in 1972; his father was an engineer on the "Star Wars" project. Barclay, now 39 and a doctoral candidate and lecturer at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, no longer lives in the Marshalls. But his experiences there formed the roots of his first novel, "Melal: A Novel of the Pacific" (UH Press, paper, $14.95).

Early this summer, "Melal" was selected for Barnes & Noble's Discover Great New Writers program, meaning it's part of a special display right now in every Barnes & Noble store in the country. The first printing of 4,000 books sold out almost immediately, and UH is reprinting the book, expecting a shipment within the next two weeks.

Barclay's teachers, including mentor Ian MacMillan, who calls the book "superb," and writer Steven Goldsberry, who recently chose the first-time novelist as the recipient of the Harriet Goldsberry Award, consider Barclay someone to watch.

Marshallese struggle

Before the move to the Marshall Islands, the Barclays lived in Virginia, where young Robert lived the life of "the typical suburban American kid." Then, suddenly, "the flatness, the tiny size of the island compared with the vastness of the ocean, was fascinating ... a whole new planet," he said.

At that time, the Marshalls were a trust territory of the United States (they became a nation in 1991), just beginning to recover from a period when nuclear devices were tested nearby. The atolls were still being used as a testing site for military hardware.

Barclay observed the horrific crowding and unsanitary conditions on Ebeye, where displaced islanders were required to live, while he enjoyed the relative comfort of the U.S. enclave nearby on Kwajalein. But to a child's eyes, the decrepit houses and teeming streets were exciting and new, and the Marshallese he met made Ebeye seem like a safe and friendly place to be.

He remembers protests by Marshallese who wanted to return to their native islands and regain control of their country. He saw police beat up a Marshallese activist once. But, again, as a child, he couldn't appreciate the bigger picture.

It wasn't until the mid-1990s, when he began to write and to do research for his writing, that he better understood some of what he had seen and heard. The perspective he gained emerged in a pair of stories about Marshall Islanders that were the seeds of "Melal" — one involving a Marshallese who realizes he is selling out his culture, the other about a pair of Marshallese boys on a fishing trip.

In the mysterious process typical of a novel's nativity, Barclay began to think, "maybe these people know each other. Maybe I've got a family here, a father and sons." And so Rujen Keju and his sons Jebro and Nuke took form, along with a whole pantheon of Marshallese gods, demigods and spirits whose stories are interwoven with that of the Keju family.

Not autbiographical

Near the U.S. enclave of Kwajalein is crowded Ebeye, where displaced Marshallese live in squalor. For Robert Barclay, an American growing up in the Marshalls, a place that was a wonderland in childhood became the stuff of fiction in adulthood.

Advertiser archive photo • 1997

Barclay knows that some people reading the book will assume that he is one of its characters. He's a little impatient with this kind of thinking: "It's not something I do myself — assume the author is the protagonist," he said. "And as a writer, I tend to just purposely stay as far away from myself as I can. I don't think I'm that interesting. ... I just think any book should be allowed to stand on its own."

Yes, he says, experiences are among the raw material of fiction. He has, indeed, been fishing between Ebeye and Tar-Woj, as Jebro and Nuke do in the book, for example, and those tactile memories inform the scenes he painted.

"But," he says, smiling broadly, "to me, writing autobiography is cheating!" The creative process takes the writer far beyond mere experience. "That's what was so much fun about it. You're creating a world ... but then, once the story starts, it's not a matter of, 'What am I going to make them do today?' It's more a matter of seeing what they do. You're almost like a reporter. You follow the path of least resistance, allowing the story to go where it wants to go."

He also knows some people will assume he is Marshallese. He was dismayed when a sign in a Barnes & Noble declared "Melal" to have been "penned by a Pacific islander."

Though he cares deeply about the Marshall Islands and its people, he wouldn't consider speaking for them, nor is he particularly comfortable speaking about them in any monolithic way. He is neither a scholar of Marshallese history nor Marshallese language. And he doesn't consider his novel a political one, though politics is a thread in any discussion of these islands because of their complicated history.

"It's a book about people, about humanity," he said. "Fiction has its purpose primarily in understanding ourselves, understanding our humanity."

Second book completed

Perhaps this stance reflects somewhat his initial child's-eye experience of the Marshall Islands. "Most people get up in the morning and they're just trying to live, just trying to survive. They're not thinking about geopolitical issues," he said. For example, the young man in the novel, Jebro, embarks on a fishing trip to his family's former home island. The island is off-limits to Marshallese, and Jebro runs the risk of being spotted by patrolling U.S. helicopters and then fined or arrested. But, Barclay said, "his motivation is not to be political. His motivation is to catch a turtle."

Barclay has completed a second book, which he calls a potboiler-type mystery, "soon to be in an airport shop near you." And he's at work on a third, more literary novel, about Americans in the Pacific.

One legacy of his time in the Marshall Islands is a strong preference for being outdoors. His ideal life: To move to Hilo with his girlfriend, write and fish. "That's all I need," he said.