“Swallowed up by the ocean”: Narrating climate change in Under Solomon Skies
By Jia Wen Ho, Shaniah Shields, Leanne Francis and Jane Link
This issue, we are delighted to share our eye-opening interview with Berni Sorga-Millwood, author of Under Solomon Skies. During our short call, Berni shared so many experiences from her time in the Solomon Islands, that we just couldn’t wait to pass them on.
Under Solomon Skies gave me an insight into the culture and difficulties of communities in the Solomon Islands. What was your experience of living there and how has it shaped your writing?
I was a travelling teacher trainer for two and a half years. So, most of that time was spent on boats or light aircrafts travelling to nine villages on five different islands. The journeys took between three and seven hours. It was quite insightful because everyone was so open and friendly, and local people welcomed me like I was a relative. My first experience of travelling to the Shortlands was interesting. As soon as my plane landed, the Solomon Island army met and escorted me to three schools on different islands. At the time, PNG (Papua New Guinea) and Bougainville were in the middle of a civil war. Recent incursions into the Solomons from these two countries had caused several problems. So, I arrived in the Shortlands and spotted a warship sitting in the ocean. I didn't really know anything about the Solomons; people I spoke to had never heard of it.
This truly is a unique story. Are there any other novels or writings coming out of the Solomon Islands that guided you, or were you doing something completely new?
There were only two books that I knew of at the time. Solomon Time by Will Randall, a travel book; Living Traditions by Michael Kwa’ioloa and Ben Burt, more of an anthropologist book of the islands. There aren’t a lot of novels written about the Solomons. When I started writing I didn’t know where to begin, because nothing had ever been written from the perspective of the Islanders before. I thought it was important to tell the story of real people having real issues – living in real time.
You provide an honest contrast between the beauty of the Solomon Islands and the environmental impact that has occurred due to rising sea levels, overfishing and deforestation. Why did you decide to write about these important and current issues?
The Solomons is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. You're surrounded by lush rainforests and fish swimming around your feet in the water. I saw first-hand the devastation caused by deforestation. People in the Solomons live off the land, but some can no longer grow food and are forced to buy processed food from shops. This change in diet has led to a rise in health problems, including diabetes. Overfishing occurs because other countries are allowed to go in and trawl close to shore, gathering up huge amounts of fish. This is then put in tins and sold back to Solomon Islanders at extortionate prices. I bought Solomon Island tinned tuna from Sainsbury's in New Cross London; it was cheaper in the UK than it is in the Solomons. This isn’t right and shouldn’t be happening.
My uncle-in-law, Bishop William Pwaisiho, is the retired Bishop of Macclesfield, and tribal Chief of Walande. In 2002, he took a Blue Peter camera crew to visit his village in Malaita as part of a cultural pilgrimage. When he returned in 2016, the whole of Walande was underwater. It had been swallowed up by the ocean. He gave a harrowing account of the devastation and seeing the church with just the steeple sticking out. He has been trying to raise awareness ever since. It really touched me because climate change is something that’s been happening in places far away that most of us have never even heard of. These islands are becoming eroded, and their cultures are being lost. People are having to pack up and move to higher grounds. The majority of Solomon Islanders don't have a voice, they don't know how to raise awareness. I wrote about something that touched me because I saw the impact it had on the people living there.
“The majority of Solomon Islanders don't have a voice, they don't know how to raise awareness.”
What inspired you to write about kustom, and did you have a personal experience with it during your time in the Solomons?
I was immersed in island life and exposed to traditions, beliefs and rituals. Most people are encouraged to practice Christianity, and leave kustom behind, as such beliefs are frowned upon. I know this is common in a lot of other countries too because people attend church and forget about their own traditional beliefs. One of my friends had her stereo stolen, so she went to a kustom man who performed a ritual compelling the thief to return it. Within 24 hours, he brought it back saying he couldn't eat or sleep. It bothered him so much that he had to return it and confess. In some villages, clinics and hospitals are several hours away by boat. So, when people fall ill, they naturally turn to herbal remedies or consult kustom people. A lot of the practices I write about are hearsay, but they come from people I trust and believe. I haven't experienced any kustom practices myself, but my Jamaican family and relatives have told me of similar experiences. They also spoke of being forced to squash traditional beliefs, embrace Christianity, and view people who practice such beliefs as heathens.
Under Solomon Skies is based on a true story. What was the original story and what inspired you about it?
When I visited the Shortlands, I heard about two men who had gone missing in a boat. Since there was no TV or radio, people sat and shared stories about them. Many thought the men had been killed by PNG soldiers, so they didn’t expect them to return. After two weeks, they were found by PNG soldiers because they had drifted into their waters. The men survived by catching and drinking rainwater and eating fishes, baby sharks and sea birds. I wanted to tell their story.
As for my inspiration, I was on my way to an island three hours away from Gizo. My new boat driver drove for two hours before admitting he was lost. I saw some birds in the distance and figured they must be near land. So, I told him to head in their direction. I remember sitting in that boat thinking “this can't be happening.” Our three-hour trip took over five hours. That's why I wanted to write this story, because for me it was only a few hours, but those two men were lost for two weeks, yet, managed to survive.
How did you become part of Jacaranda’s Twentyin2020 initiative and what was it like to be part of something so historic?
When I first wrote the book, I was unsure of it as it had a very different structure, written both in first and third person. I saw an ad in a writing magazine looking for Black British writers. I chose Jacaranda because they are a black owned publisher and they did not specify which country the story should be set in (like so many other publishers do). I was really surprised when they said they loved the book and were going to go ahead with it. It's ground-breaking for an independent publisher – with around four members of staff at the time – to take on something so epic. No one's ever done that before. I feel really privileged to be part of the 2020 Jacaranda family. Valerie Brandes and her inspirational team made my dream possible. They edited and produced twenty books; which is an amazing feat. They worked tirelessly to see it through in the middle of a pandemic.
Do you have any advice for BIPOC writers?
If you think you have a story to tell, write it down. You don't have to be brilliant at writing, because to be honest, I never thought I could ever write a book. Share your ideas in a writing group and read as much as you can. I learnt the craft of writing by attending evening classes. Writing is hard work and takes a tremendous amount of commitment, especially when you’re working full time. Doing a little and often is the best way. When I speak to people who want to write, their biggest fear is lack of confidence in grammar and punctuation. All you need to do is get your ideas down, because the rest can be fixed later. Don't let anyone tell you that it's not good enough.
How was the book received in the Solomon Islands?
A few people I know who live there are absolutely delighted with it. Bishop William Pwaisiho and other Solomon Islanders have told others about it, because there has never been a book written from the Islanders’ perspective. It's always been about outsiders looking in. The book is telling his experience of Walande, the rising sea levels, the overfishing and things that he is campaigning about. The Solomon Islanders are slowly sharing it because books are very expensive, so quite inaccessible, but it has been really well received.
“There has never been a book written from the Islanders’ perspective. It's always been about outsiders looking in.”
Do you have any favourite authors or book recommendations that you'd like to share?
A Famished Road by Ben Okri and Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
Berni has just finished editing her second novel, which deals more with kustom and spiritual beliefs in the Solomons. You can find Berni on Instagram: @sorgamillwood.