(Notes From Elsewhere: Travel and Other Matters, 2011) dissects
Tahiti’s complex history by examining not only historical accounts, but also the
cultural myth these accounts spawned in the Western world.
Beginning with the initial accounts of European navigators’ arrival on Tahiti while searching for Australia and continuing through the island’s colonization to its current political and cultural climate, Layton juxtaposes Tahitian history with its idyllic image, which has long permeated Europe and America. Layton details how Tahiti’s beautiful landscape, abundant produce, and seemingly sexually receptive female population made it a paradise for explorers. It was these initial accounts that formed the basis for this myth, a version that, while immensely popular and appealing, was shaped as much by European ethnocentrism as it was by the actual culture of the island. Layton explains how European accounts may have not only misrepresented the culture of Tahiti, but also brought about an influx of European sailors, missionaries, and merchants whose presence had detrimental results for the people whose way of life they romanticized. Disease, religious turmoil, and slavery devastated the island’s population and culture, leaving lasting effects that modern residents are still contending with. Later chapters examine modern Tahiti, particularly the work of modern Tahitian writers, and show how many are attempting to rectify the stereotypical images the myth instilled by creating more realistic portraits of past and contemporary Tahitian life. Drawing on her background in anthropology, Layton is an informed writer, but she never drifts toward the stuffy. The vast resources used—early explorers’ diaries, contemporary academic analysis, as well as art and literature—offer solid context and support for her thesis.
A layered and fascinating analysis of history and anthropology.