John Pule: Burn My Head in Heaven (Tugi e ulu haaku he langi)
The novel is narrated by Fati, recently born, though his role is minimal, as he concentrates more on his parents and grandparents. His father is Potau. He mistreated his first wife and now marries Lamahina, Fati’s mother, who herself has two adult sons from two different fathers. Much of the story is whether Potau (and others) will stay in Niue or go off to New Zealand. Things are not good in Niue. The colonial administrator, first the British and now the New Zealand resident, has always mistreated the natives. Indeed, their problems started earlier when the early Niuean settlers were regularly attacked by Tongans and Samoans. But now the resident, together with the church, is the main problem. There seem to be numerous churches on the island and they are always trying to expand their empire at the expense of their congregation. They come to Potau and try to claim his land but he points out that he has changed churches and resists. The resident is also demanding. There is a funny episode when the resident comes with an interpreter to tell Potau he has to regularly attend council meetings. The interpreter adds, after interpreting what the resident has said, Why don’t we rip his carcass apart? and Potau responds Tell the prick to eat his cock. Naturally the resident is oblivious to this exchange. But the resident can make it difficult, by denying an exit visa for the Niueans to go to New Zealand.
Potau twice goes to New Zealand. The second time, he follows his sister. In New Zealand, there is at least work, unpleasant though it may be. (Potau works in a meat freezing factory.) But the Niueans are not happy there. Outside work, their life is drinking and eating and partying. They are continually in trouble with the police and Potau gets into fights all the time and more than once knocks out a police officer. The loss of culture is more accentuated when they are away from home. Aifai, for example, who has been brought up by his mother, can barely speak the language but nevertheless feels alienated on New Zealand. Eventually, he goes back to New Zealand but his mother, after the death of her husband, goes to New Zealand to stay with Potau’s sister. In short, life is hard in Niue but at least it is home.
Fati grows up, having been brought up in New Zealand, and becomes a poet and painter. He is presumably the young Pule as, like Pule, will go back to Niue but then return to New Zealand, again unsure of where he fits in. Pule tells the story of the difficulty of where the Niueans fit in, a not uncommon story, particularly in the developing world, where work is scarce and freedoms limited. He uses local myths and legends as well as local language and local colour to enhance his story, which is told effectively.
First published in 1998 by Penguin