Aren’t Book Groups Great?

IMG_0913 (2)

Last night, nine ladies came together on a cold rainy night to discuss my novel, “Climbing the Coconut Tree”. As the author, I accepted the invitation to attend. I stood tentatively on the threshold of the house in Carnegie wondering what response I would get; if they had liked it; what sort of questions they might ask or even if they had read the book. Then I heard their animated chatter and laughter – it reminded me of my own book group of which I have been a member for almost twenty years. We meet every month and read books that we might never have chosen ourselves. There’s nothing better than talking about a book with others.

I was warmly welcomed and introductions were made. Penelope told me that she knew Jody a mutual friend and the ice was broken. The coffee table was covered with wine glasses, and a generous cheese and biscuit platter. The host, Lynnie had thoughtfully scattered bowls of coconut M&Ms (who knew they existed) and Bounties to provide a thematic background for the novel. Her only regret was she was unable to serve an appropriate cocktail like Pina Colada. But she made amends with a generous serve of hummingbird cake covered with cream cheese icing – delicious.

After glasses were filled and nibbles munched, the catch up chatter quickly turned to what we were all there for. Most had finished the book and were armed with great questions. Thankfully, I could answer them all. Here are sample few-:

Q. What is phosphate used for?
A. It is used as a component in fertiliser and after the second world war, demand by Australian and New Zealand farmers was high.
Q. Who lives on Ocean Island now?
A. Ocean Island is now known as Banaba and apart from a couple of hundred indigenous Banabans, it lies abandoned. It belongs to Kiribati which is the poorest nation in the world and itself  suffers from rising sea levels creating ecological refugees for parts of their population. They are a two-day boat trip away from the capital of Kiribati, Tarawa and since there is only one supply boat a year they must be self-reliant.
Q. When did the mining stop and what happened to the infrastructure on the island?
A. Mining stopped in 1979 and the roads and buildings now lay in ruin. Many buildings contained asbestos so this now adds to the ecological problems of the island.
Q. Do you think that the person accused of the murder was rightly convicted?
A. Initially I had my doubts but after reading the murder file and examining the evidence, I was satisfied they caught the right person.
Q. What drove you to write this story?
A. After reading my father’s letters recounting his life there, I realised that this was a part of Australia’s untold history. But I was even more compelled when I discovered a letter written by one of the murder victims. It was almost as if the victim was reaching out to me from the grave to tell this story.
Q. Will you write another novel?
A. Yes. I am still continuing to learn the craft of writing and am presently working on a collection of short stories. I am also conducting research on another historic novel.

I asked for feedback and we discussed the characters, life for women in 1948, mental health; the racial and industrial issues and so much more. Thankfully they had all enjoyed the book. Of course there were many more questions and the evening flew by.

Just after ten o’clock, Melinda announced that she had to go – a tap was leaking and a flood crisis needed to be averted. Dates were agreed for the next get together and farewells and thanks were made. Then I ducked out into the rain.

Where is Ocean Island?

pacificislands

I began telling friends about my project. I was surprised they were interested – they wanted to know more.

“Where is Ocean Island?”
“In the middle of the Pacific,” I happily answered. But that meant nothing to anyone.
“You know, Nauru?” I said.
“Yes.”
Everyone knows about Nauru but only because of the emotional and raging debate against Australia using it to house asylum seekers.

“Well, it’s near there. About a hundred or so kilometres to the east,” I said confidentally.But I knew very little else.

I thought I’d better find out a bit more and the internet enlightened and surprised me.

I read one reference from a fellow to the question, ‘where is Ocean Island’ and he replied, “All over Australia mate.” What did he mean? I soon found out.

In the early 1900’s, Nauru had been in the hands of the Germans who mined phosphate. Albert Ellis, a young New Zealander discovered that there was tons of phosphate on nearby Ocean Island and placed a stake on behalf of the British. He negotiated with the island chiefs and paid them fifty pound a year and promised to bring in water. The islanders or Banabans ( as they were known)  thought it was a great deal considering that most of their number had been wiped out from the last long drought some years before. So at the turn of the century, mining commenced and didn’t stop until the phosphate was virtually gone in 1979. During that time, Australia managed Nauru and Ocean Island jointly with New Zealand and Britain. When the First World War broke out, the British secured Nauru from the Germans and the Australians mined it too.

However,during the Second World War the Australians abandoned both islands when the Japanese advanced and occupied most of the Central  pacific region. The islanders were treated harshly and most of the Banabans were dispersed across the other nearby islands. Food was scarce and death was the norm at the hands of the Japanese. My father must have been touched by the site of old Japanese tanks left abandoned around the island. This is a photo he took in 1948.

Abandoned Japanese Tank left on Ocean Island ( Banaba)
Abandoned Japanese Tank left on Ocean Island ( Banaba)

Today, Banaba as it is now known, belongs to Kirabati, one of the poorest nations on earth. You can just make out the speck called Banaba near Nauru on the map above. Now largely abandoned with an ecological disaster on their hands, a small number of native Banabans try to eek out a living.  The rest of their people live on Rabi, an island bought for their relocation in 1945 – some hundreds of kilometres away in Fiji.

So what is phosphate used for? It was mined and brought back by ship and used primarily by our farmers as fertiliser.

My curiosity and excitement about this island was growing. I was drawn to the place and its history and the experience my father had in the twelve months he was there. In the back of my mind, the threads of a story was brewing.

I wasn’t a writer I told myself. I didn’t know what I was going to do or how this project was going to unfold, but I knew I had to push on.