Many many ocean waves ago, someone told me that I reminded her of an island girl. By that she meant I looked Polynesian or Hawaiian. The signs that cued her to think this were a golden tan, a natural tint highlighting my dark brown tresses, and a healthy glow.
I was indeed an island girl. I was living in Singapore then.
For those of you who don’t know Singapore. It is an island-nation; a Republic. It has nearly 6 million people. In comparison, Hawaii is 24 times larger than Singapore, with a population of less than 2 million. It is the only island state in America.
I guess comparisons can be challenging. One island is in Southeast Asia, the other is in the Pacific. But what both islands share in common is their government’s and their people’s varied notions of democracy and freedom. Or put it another way, their shared surface and passive ideologies: their “[…] explicit social, political or moral beliefs”. [Hollindale, Peter. The hidden teacher: ideology and children.]
I now live on another island. I guess I am really an island girl after all.
It was on the island of Great Britain that I came across another island. This one had no name. It was simply called The Island, and it was found in a book, a picturebook. I hesitate to call it a children’s picturebook, because the author (also the illustrator), Armin Greder, did not intend for it to be so. The Island was published in 2002 by Saulander Verlag in Germany. Greder is Swiss. The copy I am referring to is the English translation, published in 2007 by Allen & Unwin, Australia. Greder had lived and worked in Australia.
The Island by Armin Greder
Dark. Disturbing. Devastating. Three words that come to mind immediately upon finishing this picturebook.
The story begins with a new arrival to The Island. A man who came on a raft. “He wasn’t like them.” In the opening page, difference is introduced by these four words. On the recto (right) page, a naked man greets us, looking forlorn. His gaze holds our attention.
The first islanders we meet are burly, fierce looking men with beady eyes who debate what to do with the man. They decide to send him back. But a fisherman was against the idea because he knew the sea. Sending the man back on his raft would be to send him to his death.
“‘I don’t want that on my conscience,” he said. ‘We have to take him in.’”
And so, they took him in with sharp farming tools they turned into weapons that poke and prod the naked man leading him to the part of the island where nobody lives. There was a goat pen, empty for a long time. They threw some straw at him and told him to stay there. And then they locked the gate. After, it was business as usual on The Island. Life went back to normal.
“Then one morning the man appeard in town.”
The Scream. The Anger. The Commotion.
But all the man wanted was some food. And it was the fisherman again who said that they must help him.
The Fear. The Insecurity. The Unwillingness.
It was the fisherman again who suggested that they must look after the naked, hungry, weak man together. [emphasis mine.]
They tossed him some scraps. They put him back in the goat pen. They took turns guarding him.
He troubled them. He haunted them. He gave them nightmares.
The naked, starving, helpless man becomes the bogeyman. Every adult, every child, everybody is afraid of this stranger who washed up on the shore on a raft. A stranger who did nothing to anyone.
The only way to get rid of fear is to banish that thing that scares us. The man was sent back to his raft, chased out of The Island. The islanders build a fortress just in case.
As for the fisherman, he lost his boat, “because he had made them help the man.”
The Island as a moralistic fable
I read The Island several times, looking for ways to give Greder a bad critique. How could this be a children’s picturebook? How could this even be published? Why did Greder think that this was a good story to tell, assuming he was writing not for children but for adults?
It didn’t leave the reader with any hope. It didn’t leave us with a lifeline. Come on. We need some good thing to hold on to. Isn’t that what picturebooks do—leave some light at the end of a dark tunnel?
Who did I identify with?
I definitely did/do not identify with the islanders— a bunch of fearful, insecure, and passive-aggressive people. I don’t think any reader would identify with the islanders, even those who are like the islanders themselves. It takes being woke to know if you are that islander.
At the start, I’d identified with the naked man. I felt his vulnerability. I am vulnerable too—lost at sea and washed up on a strange shore. Then, I identified with the fisherman, who is not depicted, by the way. We never see the fisherman; only a representation of him in flames, but that comes later. We hear his voice, though, loud and clear. A voice of conscience. I identified with the fisherman because I want to help too. But like the fisherman, my boat only has room for one. Oh, the guilt.
On turning to the last page, reading about and seeing how the fisherman’s boat was destroyed by the islanders haunted me. That was his livelihood, a symbol of his rice bowl. This is Singaporean speak for jobs. Does is it mean that helping the ostracised would result in losing one’s ability to earn? I have witnessed this panning out on a sunny tropical island in Southeast Asia. There is truth in Greder’s narrative. What happens if you don’t participate in groupthink, especially when you live in a society that thrives on maintaining the status quo? Would you end up being ousted like the naked man? I have also seen this happening. There are many ways to ostracise someone. What if you were that fisherman, who wants to help, who instigates a reluctant community to help, but does nothing yourself? I can understand starting something but not following it through for whatever reasons.
I have no bad words for Greder. This is an extremely layered story. Some have called it a fable. It is literature at its most powerful: a tale that leaves its readers with more questions than answers. Life is nuanced and takes place in the shadows of light and grey.
What was Greder’s message?
All books have a message, whether implicit or explicit. It is the nature of stories, especially stories for children. And, “the same book, read by four children in the care of these four adults, will not in practice be the same book.” [Hollindale, Peter. The hidden teacher: ideology and children.]
In any reading of literature (and same for art work) Reader Response Theory comes into play. We respond to words and pictures through personal lenses. We are informed by our culture, our lived experience, especially our lived experience, and our values, mostly our values. Society is a system of values, if you will, because society is a construct of human beings who are products of their values that become their beliefs. Culture is a value and belief system.
However, as a writer who reads to inform my practice, it is the power of the imagination that nudges me in my responses.
My friends in England read The Island and they felt its message through the currents of Brexit.
The pandemic has added another layer to the meaning in The Island. As someone who is looked upon with suspicion because of “the China virus”, the story’s message was palpable.
This is a cautionary tale of what oppressive systems do to people. This is a fable of the detriments of groupthink. This is a story of how perceived difference can destroy everyone. But as a story, it is so much more.
I know this because I lived on an island exactly like The Island for seven years. And, because I wasn’t like them, The Island spoke to me through its narrative. You can imagine how, can’t you?