Friday, December 12, 2014

The Paradox of "Other"

The Hero of Blind Pig Island by Jimmy Olsen starts with a party and ends with a drowning, but don't let that sober fact discourage you.

Jimmy Olsen spent some months in the Dominican Republic and this collection of short stories has a strong autobiographical feel. Almost all of the wifely characters in the various stories are named Patricia, which greatly contributes to this feeling. The recurring theme of scuba diving does as well.

Some of the diving passages get rather technical in language and this slows down the narrative. I was reminded of Moby Dick in this regard, although the effect in Olsen's stories is nowhere near that extreme.

The beguiling aspect of this collection is its attempt to present third world life through the eyes of first world - but fully immersed - sojourners. This book tastes of salt and sweat. One literally feels the heat of the tropical city streets and feels the thirst caused by sea water. We visit teachers' parties, restaurants, rural villages, islands. We find ourselves caught up in the paradoxes of city squalor and yachts. We experience a hurricane that blows away McDonalds' golden arches and having to swim for miles in the open ocean hoping to survive to walk on land again. We also experience violence surrounding opportunities for promotion at a school and have an interesting encounter with two elderly Lutheran missionaries. When we close the book we feel sunburnt and bleached, thirsty, and ashamed of our abundance.

Olsen tries to give us all viewpoints. The underlying current of  these stories seems to be how humanity views "others". Sometimes we look at the privileged vacationers through the eyes of the natives; sometimes we are the foreigners contemplating the exotic. This book is opening a dialogue between the two, sometimes with greater success and sometimes with less. The dialog is always engaging and doesn't shy from a few hard questions. Olsen is at his best when he asks these questions and requires a response, but does so subtly.

The Hero of Blind Pig Island is entertaining, but wise enough not leave it at just that.

Learn more about Jimmy Olsen on LinkedIn

Buy The Hero of Blind Pig Island on Amazon