JUNE 2020:

I finished my first novel called SAV•AGE(S)—and won a literary award!


In a war, who are the savages?


In 2002, when I returned to the US from Papua New Guinea, I couldn’t let go of the story spinning in my head. 

I had been in the island nation teaching climate change educational workshops for local teachers. Papua New Guinea is a multi-island country grappling with modernity. It’s a nation where the sprawling main island city of Port Moresby is considered one of the most dangerous on earth. And it is a country of glorious contrasts where otherworldly tropical wildlife meets 800 languages and deep-rooted tribalism. I was in heaven. 

The workshops in Port Moresby were hosted by the local national meteorological service in their hilltop facility. Throughout the lessons, we had breaks for snacks, which among other things, consisted of betel nuts, pepper, and lime. The tropical betel palm fruit has white flesh and a bitter taste, but when paired with the other ingredients: a Piperplant’s inflorescence dipped into “lime” or powdered coral and chewed simultaneously with the bite of betel, the experience was multifold. The chew created a mildly mellowing effect like having a sip of wine or a drag on a cigarette. And the chemical reaction of the pepper and lime turned mouths brilliant red—causing everyone to spit scarlet globs all over the sidewalks, streets, yards—everywhere. I loved the taste, but learned quickly: a) the red juice stains clothes and it never comes out, and b) that long-term users of betel, pepper, and lime combo corrode their red-stained teeth because it is super acidic. I learned to eat the palm fruit raw as much as I could and with as little outward grimacing at the bitterness to avoid staining my teeth. But admittedly, I missed the red-spitting part.

During one of these breaks, I was chatting with a teacher. All of the teachers in the workshop currently lived in the big city, but everyone had family throughout the islands living in traditional villages. I’m not sure how we got on the topic of cannibalism, because it’s not something that might typically worm its way into polite conversation—unless one is in Papua New Guinea where there is a long history of headhunting. It seemed perhaps a delicate topic to bring up, but up it came. Her response was classic: “We were all cannibals once, dear. But we haven’t been in a long time.” Ha! But the quote stuck, and helped drive the journey of this story.

When the workshop in Port Moresby was over, I went to Manus to work with rural teachers. This small, remote island was much more “tropical paradise” than where I had been. The men wore skirts and the women smoked pipes. Everyone ate fish and hunted cuscus. And of course, young and old chewed betel nuts.

I was staying in Laurengau in the only hotel at the time. I took many of my meals in their dining area, which had a lovely view of a white beach with aquamarine waves crashing on the distant reef. One morning on my way to a table, I took a moment to enjoy the vintage black-and-white framed photos that were the only decoration in the room. Several were of the same beach right out in front of the hotel—only the photos were of General MacArthur visiting during 1943—well before a hotel ever existed. There were tanks rumbling across the sand and white men wearing decked-out flak jackets trailing along. (I had no idea why US tanks were on the beaches in Papua New Guinea during WWII. Apparently, I had missed that somewhere in high school!) Those photos haunted me because the juxtaposition of the tribal, traditional, smart, dedicated, and formerly cannibalistic people who I was working with on a beatific remote island in the Pacific, didn’t add up thousands of troops from non-neighboring countries trolling the shores in the not-so-distant past.

The thought that continued to plague me was, “What were the tribal people doing while someone else’s war was happening in their country?”

One day, I was wandering the small, sand pounded streets and I found myself in a local grocery store. There, right on the racks of pre-packaged foods was another holdover from my country’s influence during WWII: plastic packaged biscuits—remodeled hardtack—in a variety of meat, vegetable, fruit, sweet or savory flavors. I didn’t have to imagine these were relics of war with signs declaring “Hard, Large or Beef Navy Biscuit” in meat, chicken, or wheatmeal flavors. It was amazing how many rows there were of these things. I tried several flavors. They were awful, but the locals loved them. You’d think in sixty years there was a way to improve the old military biscuit, but much like grandma’s yams and marshmallows we eat at Thanksgiving, people get a taste for things that become tradition. Compared to the locally hunted, fished, and farmed foods of the islands, hardtack was special—born of another land and time.

I couldn’t let go of the story spinning in my head. I had to know more. My family’s military connections spanned from my mother hiding with her family during blackouts in southern California during WWII and watching old black-and-white war films to my grandfather driving an ambulance in Paris in 1917. Years later, my father was deployed in Germany after the Korean War, so this idea of military, service, war buddies, and tales too fierce to tell little girls was steeped in my family’s heritage. 

I was telling my father-in-law about my obsession and he told me stories of his dad, who grew up in Sterling Kansas and had toured in New Guinea during the second world war. I knew from talking to him that the best way to look at a war that did not belong to a country where it was being waged was from the eyes of an outsider. I had found my Alice and could drag him, and the reader, through tribal wonderland. 

While this is a work of fiction, I tried to ensure that all facts of time and place were accurate for the war effort and tribal life. In particular, I used personal stories and moments of history that I thought were interesting or poignant, such as the opening strafing run. A teacher in the Republic of Nauru told me about when her mother, pregnant with her during the 1940s, and her grandmother were out fishing the reef when a strafing run came down the beach. Neither woman was wounded, but they did have to shelter in an old pill box when the bullets fell. I modified this story because it felt like probably happened in New Guinea as well. 

During the 1940s, what were the tribal people thinking when all of these people—Japanese, Americans, and Australians—showed up to shoot each other? Who was more brutal: the cannibals or the militaries?


In a war, who are the savages?