Flash Fiction: The Last Tokelauan

Tokelau is a very small country, halfway from Hawaii to New Zealand—tiny dots of coral reef in the vast Pacific Ocean. I almost went there once—when I sailed with my husband around the South Pacific—but the anchorage was too iffy. The atolls that make it up are Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo. The total land area is four square miles. About 1,400 people live there.

No significant land is more than six-and-a-half feet above normal high tides. Tokelau is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. Cyclones are devastating. They wash over entire atolls, killing all the vegetation and eating away at what little soil exists. Survival there is tenuous, at best, but it is where Tokelauans have called home for a thousand years.  They have the distinction of being the first nation in the world to be 100% solar powered.

More Tokelauans live in Wellington, New Zealand, than in the islands. They bring their culture with them, but their government would like to continue to exist. From a conference in Kiribati in 2015: “So the questions related to forced migration because of climate change and rising sea levels are also critical to Tokelau: we need commitment from the international community, .., we need protection for our displaced people, we want to retain sovereignty and our Exclusive Economic Zone.” The question to the world is, where do these people go and how do they continue to be Tokelauan?

I wrote a Flash Fiction story about the not-too-distant future. It is best read while listening to Te Vaka’s ‘Te Namo,’ from their first album ‘Te Vaka.’

The sun rises, at it always does, creeping across the ghost white rim of the atoll. Mele watches its magic turn the lagoon from grey to shades of teal, then returns to kneading her bread. Her gnarled knuckles ache, but the action loosens the joints. She misses the birdsong. She looks longingly at her old clay oven, but there has been no wood to fire it in a long time—and burning is illegal, anyway. When the dough is ready, Mele shapes it into buns—a real loaf would take hours to bake in her little solar oven. Everything has changed.

She remembers running, naked, down to the lagoon—te namo—as the sun rose. She was four or five. She helped her father push the canoe—te vaka—into the water. She was there when he returned, midday, with the fish they would eat for dinner. There are no more fish in the lagoon. When the reef died, the fish disappeared. The sea is too warm, too acidic.

The sea is also too high.

“Mama”—Ione returns from loading the cart—“what are you doing? You should be packing.”

She peers up. How could this middle-aged man be her baby boy? “The bread needs to rise. I’m sorry it won’t be ready before you go.”

Ione squats beside his mother. “We’ve been over this. There is nothing left for us here. We can no longer grow food. The ocean rises higher every year. We have to go. Today. The ship is here. It won’t be coming back.”

Seagulls squawk overhead. They must have followed the ship.

“You pack. You go.”

“Mama, a cyclone is coming. They think it’ll make a direct hit. The island hasn’t recovered from the last one.”

“I remember.”

“Then you know, we have to leave. All of us. That includes you.”

“You pack. Hurry now. You don’t want to miss the ship. I need to put the bread in the oven.”

Ione stands. “I don’t have time to argue.” He goes into the little concrete block house where he was born.

Mele turns back to her bread. The flour will last another ten or twelve days—longer, now that she will no longer need to feed everyone, so maybe a month. She wonders if the supply boat brought more. She places the tiny loaves into the oven and makes sure it is facing the sun.

Copyright ©2014-18 Ramona Ridgewell. All rights reserved.

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Lessons from the Fledgling Author: Too Much Hair

I keep reading that I should limit—even severely—the descriptions of my characters. Yesterday, I read a 2001 article in The New York Times by the late author, Elmore Leonard, titled “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” It was from their WRITERS ON WRITING series. Point 8 said, “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.” It went on to say, “Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ what do the ‘American and the girl with him’ look like? ‘She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.’ That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.” I would guess, you might envision these characters as white Americans, as I did.

I understand this concept. It allows the reader to become part of the creation of the story—to become vested in the characters. I think it might be outdated. When we let readers create their own images of our characters, they will more than likely view them as white, and probably with light hair and blue eyes. In American media, we are completely conditioned to do so—even consumers who are not white.

My characters are predominantly brown. They come from mixed places and cultures—much like our own America. I feel it is important to make it clear that my protagonist would not be played by one of the Chris’s—Hemsworth, Evans, Pine, Pratt. I would choose someone like Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. I do not know how to do this without describing him in vivid detail.

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Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman – Photo: Paste Magazine

In the first scene of “Tishta the Crystal Orb,” Coltan arrives.

“He was a large, muscular man, about the same size as Malcan—but that is where the similarity stopped. His dark walnut hair was neatly cut to just above his shoulders. As he turned, one wavy lock fell over his brow, above expressionless brown eyes. His hand ran up over his head, integrating it into the rest of his hair. He wore a well-tailored black riding coat, and black boots that came halfway up his calves—he looked like a gentleman, out for an evening ride.”

I attempted to do a couple of things here—and maybe it is too descriptive. He is a big guy. Even though he is traveling, he keeps himself neat and clean. But, I also described his wavy, walnut-colored hair and brown eyes. Later, I describe his skin.

An issue one of my early readers had was that I described everyone’s hair in the first two chapters. But that is where I introduced the majority of my main characters, and there are a lot of them—eleven, at least. That was a lot of hair. I have since removed some of those descriptions and put them in later chapters—I still think it is important to note that it is not blond and straight. Well, actually, one of them is currently golden-haired, but I need to make her darker to fit in with the place she is from, as well as make her physically more similar to her cousin, who is another one of travelers.

Even Malcan and Brant, the two fairest among the group—with blue eyes—have dark hair. Brant’s is black. Malcan’s is dark auburn.

My lead warrior, Gillan, and her side-kick lover, Toran, are from a place where everyone is what we would call black. Their skin is very dark, their eyes are nearly black, and Gillan’s black hair is softly curled. How can I not describe at least some of that the first couple of times they are introduced?

“Shortly after the sun passed its zenith, Gillan slowed her horse while she removed the cord that bound her black hair. She shook out the curls before retying it.”

In the same scene, I described the boy, Kano. While he is not black, he is… well, I’ll let you read it.

“She was surprised to find a young boy, no more than eight or nine, sitting in a ray of sun.

His clothing, skin, and even his long, straight hair, so nearly matched the color of the russet and tan stones around him, he almost blended in with them. Laying beside him were a quiver of arrows, a bow and a small pack.”

Again, I think it is very important to describe him in this much detail when he is introduced, and not let the reader envision him as a white boy.

Ever since I first pictured my very large warrior, Toran, I have seen Isaiah Mustafa in my mind. If I was casting Tishta as a film, Mustafa would probably be my first choice, although, he is a little old to play my 30-year-old warrior. One night, a couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of eating dinner with Mustafa. Toran embodies a lot of Isaiah—big, handsome, beautiful smile, polite, deep booming voice (not the Old Spice voice).

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Isaiah Mustafa with Michael Rosenbaum at 2015 Echoes of Hope Celebrity Shootout Hockey Game – Photo: Ramona Ridgewell

Interestingly, in all of the early descriptions of Toran, I just discovered I do not describe him beyond how large he is. Now, I wonder if my readers assume he is as dark as Gillan, since they are a couple. And, I wonder if my transposition of Mustafa onto my character made it so I found no need to describe him. Writing about things like this always seem to lead me to some new revelation. I shall undertake an investigation of all descriptions of Toran.

I am interested to know how other writers overcome the assumption of their readers that their characters are white. Let me know in the comments.

Copyright ©2014-17 Ramona Ridgewell. All rights reserved.

Elizabeth Guizzetti’s “The War Ender’s Apprentice”

The War Enders Apprentice (Chronicles of the Martlet Book 1)The War Enders Apprentice by Elizabeth Guizzetti

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Guizzetti weaves a delightful tale of wars, politics and intrigue across seven worlds in her new novella, “The War Ender’s Apprentice.” Her characters are engaging and nicely portrayed. I was especially taken with Eohan as he tries to figure out how to exist in his new world as apprentice to a War Ender. I went to bed, but couldn’t put the book down until I finished it. I felt like my child self, hiding under my blanket with a flashlight—I kept expecting my mother to come in and tell me it was past my bedtime. A fun, quick read.

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Two Hour Transport – August 23, 2017

Last night, at Two Hour Transport, we had the pleasure of hearing Seattle author Nancy Kress read from her newly-released book, “Tomorrow’s Kin,” based on her Nebula-winning novella, “Yesterday’s Kin.” It was an intriguing introduction to a story about an alien invasion—they set up housekeeping right in New York Harbor. It’s always exciting to hear an author give voice to her story.

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The second guest reader was Evan J. Peterson. He read a delightfully weird short story, “Investment Opportunity,”—which will be included in “Unspeakable Horror 2”—about a scientist who gets sucked into an experiment. I have heard Peterson read other stories—they are always full of surprises.

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The open-mic readers included J. G. (Joe) Follansbee, who read from his new novelette, “The Mother Earth Insurgency;” Edith Follansbee, whose spin on the Cinderella fairy tale had everyone chuckling; Tod McCoy; Anaea Lay; and several others, including me. I read the scene, “Eclipse,” from my novel, “Tishta the Crystal Orb.” It seemed appropriate, given the eclipse on Monday.

Two Hour Transport happens each month on the fourth Wednesday at Cafe Racer. Host Theresa J Barker keeps the atmosphere warm and nurturing—a great place to practice reading to an audience, to share your stories, and to get to know other writers in the Seattle SciFi and Fantasy community.

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Copyright ©2014-17 Ramona Ridgewell. All rights reserved.