Charles Montgomery’s South Pacific trek yielded an award-winning book and a new perspective on reality and imagination.
AT A CAFÉ IN VANCOUVER'S CHINATOWN, Charles Montgomery takes a break from his KitKat bar and mentions he once asked a snake-shaped stone to bring forth rain. “When I talk about this in downtown Vancouver with buses running by, of course it sounds silly and impossible,” he says. “[But] no-one in the [Melanesian] lagoon was the slightest bit surprised.”
Montgomery, a 37-year old freelance journalist who completed a UVic Geography degree in 1991, is describing the moment he witnessed his first miracle. At the time, he was trekking through the Melanesian archipelago to research his book, The Last Heathen: Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in Melanesia. Relaxed and pausing between sentences, Montgomery looks every bit the classic adventurer: khaki shorts, weekend stubble and sharp blue eyes.
“The Melanesians taught me that there’s more than one way to hear and to tell a story,” says Montgomery, who traced the path of his great-grandfather, an Anglican missionary who travelled to the South Pacific in 1892. Montgomery grew up with the images of cannibals and sorcerers that populated his ancestor’s diary and became obsessed with the magic land described in his grandfather’s notes. Yet after years of hanging out with queer activists and reading post-colonial theory, Montgomery became more critical of his great-grandfather’s stories, which began to strike him as a puzzle that needed solving.
Montgomery describes the first miracle he witnessed—a sudden storm that raged after he blew in the ear of a sacred snake-shaped stone—as a gift. After spending time in Melanesia, with its myth-rich culture, the scene seemed straightforward: use an artifact to call a storm.
Later, Montgomery became more critical, and had to decide whether it rained because it rained in that area every afternoon, or because he put his faith in a sacred object. “The [rain came] as if it came to challenge me. I was so cynical about the Melanesian point of view, yet wanting so badly to believe in my great-grandfather’s version of the world, a place where supernatural forces are constantly at work.”
Montgomery’s book, which claimed the 2005 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, traces his realization of some of the assumptions behind colonialism, mythmaking, magic and travel. He began his journey thinking he could uncover the belief systems of the Melanesians through rational observation, and in this way deconstruct their so-called miracles. Through critical scrutiny, he thought he could decipher how such magic tricks fooled people into believing something that cannot be true.
But after witnessing the culture firsthand, Montgomery’s motives changed. “I realized the struggle in Melanesia and the struggle in me and other people in my generation is not the struggle between Christ and Paganism. It’s a dialogue between the rationalists that we feel we’re supposed to be and that part of ourselves that wants to believe and be changed by miracles.”
After visiting over a dozen countries in five continents and witnessing the confluence of globalized and local cultures, Montgomery feels that such miracles can be more real—that they can expose more universal truths—than the objective reality he once pursued.
“[The book] was partly an exercise in getting over the lessons of journalism school,” he says. “[There] you’re told to remove yourself from the story. For me, it felt increasingly dishonest not to declare my point of view.”
While grounded in fact and experience, Montgomery’s work attempts to sift through pieces of history, experience and feeling to mould a story. For Montgomery, the year he spent writing his book in an office in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver was a period of mythmaking.
“It’s [about] digesting, refining and realizing experiences from the very moment that they happen.”
Like any good journalist, Montgomery reported on and verified the facts in his work. He read widely, studying post-colonial theory, historical accounts of the first European visits to Melanesia and subsequent attempts to colonize and convert its inhabitants to Christianity. He interviewed anthropologists, businesspeople, rebels and missionaries. He clearly noted those occasions where the truths he reported were subjective, at least for a Western audience.
Yet even with this careful planning, Montgomery acknowledges that on some level, his story will always be seen as a myth.
“We’re realizing, as storytellers, that we hold tremendous privilege in being the shapers of history. If you compare a journalist’s notes from an interview to a taped manuscript, they won’t match. They never do. The reason is not because the journalist is not writing fast enough. It’s because sometimes we decide what we want to hear.”