“A fantastic work of storytelling and ethnography from Don Mitchell, channeling his days in the early 70's amongst the Nagovisi people of the South Pacific. These interlinked tales form an incredibly complex and moving narrative capable of transporting us far from our everyday lives. Worth buying several copies and sharing with friends.”
“This book is mind bending. As a person who has traveled a lot in Asia and the Pacific, it is great to come across a book that gets so convincingly into the mind of characters from an unfamiliar culture. And then to have these characters puzzle out how to get into the mind of ‘their white man’ adds another layer of depth to the writing. It's a bit like Victor/Victoria, but rather than a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman; it's a white man getting into the mind of a Nagovisi getting into the mind of a white man. But it's also more than just a neat trick to explore how people think, it's absorbing because it gets into their hearts as well.”
“Don Mitchell's book is a valuable read. It captures the fascinating nuances of a different culture and way of life. Those who have lived among other cultures can see subtle and not so subtle parallels between the people of bouganville and others.”
“In his forward, Don Mitchell tells the reader that he lived among the Nagovisi people in the early 1970s and that these stories are fiction. A good storyteller entertains; a great one makes stories real, and that’s what Mr. Mitchell did in this collection.
Through each narrator, the reader gets insight into the Nagovisi’s culture—learning as one goes along, perhaps similar to the way Elliot, the anthropologist, came to understand it. “Fireflies Killed Her” is about a man who struggles with who actually killed his wife and why the violence even happened. “I Don’t Kill People Anymore” is a carefully paced story about Mesiamo—a leader among his people—and Elliot, who discover that courage and shame aren’t perceived the same way. In “My White Man,” the friendship between Siuwako and Elliot is genuine and touching. Their dance of attraction, which could never be explored, is completely believable.
I enjoyed learning about a culture unlike the one in which I was raised. What I most appreciated was seeing how our common humanity and willingness to understand others can transcend so many perceived differences.”
“As someone with psychological training and avid interest in other cultures, I was delighted with Don Mitchell's book A Red Woman Was Crying with its linked stories from the Nagovisi of the Solomon Islands. There is a good deal of contemporary ethnographic fiction such as the recent The People in the Trees (Yanagihara) in which the native people and the anthropologists who work among them appear as crude caricatures. In his forward, we're told that Mitchell lived and worked beside the Nagovisi for a number of years, learning their language and culture. What makes this volume of short fiction both distinctive and compelling is his empathic understanding of the people he lived with and his decision to let the tribespeople narrate the stories: the speakers reveal both their unique cultural "take" on things and their deeper humanity that bonds them with Elliot and with us as readers. Mesiamo, a fierce old leader, begins by trying to put fear in Elliot with his tales of killing but ends up consoling Elliot for the latter's shame about what his country is doing in Vietnam. Siuwako is a young mother who works side by side with Elliot in the gardens as his "woman friend and teacher." Hers is a subtle love story in which she extracts from him a tragic secret and says with pride that together," they "became something [we] had never been, or seen, or heard about." For the reader who appreciates short stories of depth and complexity, and who is curious about other cultures, this book will supply much enjoyment, right up to and including the last story, a coda apparently told by Elliot himself years later. It's also worth noting that the Nagovisi myths and folktales that enhance the stories are themselves important windows into another culture. Let's hope we hear more from Mitchell who pulls off the rare feat of catching the rhythms of another people, another language, another culture.“
“A brilliantly original work of fiction, "A Red Woman was Crying; Stories from Nagovisi” is told by men and women from the Bougainville village of Pomalate. The subtitle makes clear the debt that the author owes to the people he celebrates in his lyrical prose. These stories are not “about” the Nagovisi, but come out of them and their interactions with colonizers who must still, on some level, be resisted. Elliot Lyman, anthropologist, may have traveled to Pomalate to study the Nagovisi, but he learns quickly that he is himself the subject of the villager’s studies of the white man’s colonizing ways. They are good readers of character, these Nagovisi, able to observe, analyze, and predict Lyman’s actions. And they are great storytellers, eager to spin long, boisterous tales, but just as likely to produce short, compelling myths like “Crocodile Kills His Father” and “Tricking Poreu.”
Mitchell first met the Nagovisi when he did field work as an anthropologist in the 1960’s and 70’s in Bougainville. It is fascinating to see the way he never allows his fictional anthropologist a point of view. We learn about Eliot from the villagers. They know him by the questions he asks, and often by the way he has learned from them. What do you do when you are offered a betel nut? Eliot has learned how the giver should lick it before handing it over, since licking it insures its non-poisonous status. The Navogisi trust Eliot because he has learned to be wary of them. Wariness means respect.
This is a work of fiction that demands respect, but ends in a sort of love. In “My White Man,” Siuwako, teaches Eliot the Navogisi way of gardening. But she also teaches him how to talk about menstrual blood. When she bleeds, she teaches him its name, just as the men are always telling him ”the name of this and the name of that.” He’s surprised because men in America don’t talk about such things with women. She goes on, teaching him, leading him, “her” white man. The proprietorial sense of the title of her story reveals just how much Eliot owes to the people he came to study. They have taught him as much about himself as about their own lives. And we are all the better for what he has learned. This is a work of fiction that makes real the meaning of respect, wariness and love. You must read it. "RED WOMAN will enlarge your life.”
“ ‘Fireflies killed her’ expresses a Nagovisi man’s fear that the world order has been overturned by World War 2, and his anxiety is expressed in tentative, winding dialogue. In Polanara’s understanding, white people always boss black people and if black ever fights white, the whites kill the blacks. Polanara’s wife was killed during World War 2 by a fighter plane that strafed her as she worked in her taro patch. Because the plane did not have red circles on it, they reasoned it was an American plane, but the critical question was ‘I want to know if the pilot was a black man or a white man.’ When Elliot explains that American pilots in the Pacific were always white, Polanara says ‘If the pilot was black then everything I understand about the world is wrong. But if the pilot was white then the world is as I have always thought it was.’ And finally ‘Then you understand it comforts me, that the pilot was white.’
‘I don’t kill people anymore’ is the headman’s story of his experiences before and during World War 2 as a man suspected of and famed for killing Japanese soldiers and local informants. He tells us he is feared all the more because no one really knows if he killed, why and if he might again. As headman he is concerned about Elliot (the White Man) because he worries that Elliot might be the first of many white people invading his country. He maneuvers Elliot into building his house in the village next to the headman’s so he can hold his possible enemy close. He decides then to talk to him about his killing days, not as a threat, merely as a caution that ‘only a fool would believe that a man who’s stopped doing something of his own accord would never start doing it again.’”
“Don Mitchell's ‘A Red Woman Was Crying’ is a very different type of book for me. As a fan of mostly fantasy and scifi, I have very little experience with either anthropology or literary fiction. This book is a mix of the two, described in a blurb on the back as "ethnographic fiction". The book's format is simple: short-story length chapters about the Nagovisi are punctuated with flash-fiction length folk tales. The twist? The stories' narrators are Nagovisi themselves, describing their experiences with a white anthropologist named Elliot. It's a great way to explore people (and that's really what fiction's about anyways). Despite my lack of experience with anthropology, I imagine the concept behind the book might be an issue for some people. Mitchell sidesteps this by writing the Nagovisi with clarity and honesty instead of presumption.
The book was a little slow for me to begin with, but by the end I was enjoying it thoroughly. I suspect this has less to do with the book itself than it does with my tastes -- once I got ‘into it’, I was hooked. It's definitely a book I would consider reading again so I can get the most out of those earlier chapters.
Overall, ‘A Red Woman Was Crying’ is a great book, especially for those looking for character-driven literary fiction, or for someone interested in anthropology. I'm glad to have read it -- hopefully things will go this well next time I decide to try expanding my literary horizons.”
“A wonderful breakthrough novel that is beautifully written and rich in detail. Mitchell has successfully created a carefully crafted novel that is at the same time heartbreaking and uplifting. A must read!”
“Speaking in several voices, Don Mitchell reveals another culture (as well as our own) with grace, thoughtfulness and wit. This gem of a collection is thought provoking, intelligent, and utterly accessible. His characters are insightful, complex and utterly real and quite identifiable. It's a joy to discover them and spend time with them through both their joy and pain. A Red Woman Was Crying is a true treasure on the shelf.”