by Rebecca Weaver
Sarah Pemberton Strong's debut novel Burning the Sea explores the idea that all politics originate in the physical and personal body; despite our protests to the contrary, we cannot separate the events of our lives and bodies from the larger social, linguistic, or geopolitical contexts through which they move. Strong blurs the line between what constitutes a political body—be it land, language, or voting bloc—and what constitutes the political body, as the two main characters move in (and sometimes against) their bodies and the stories that make up the body of the island of Santo Domingo.
Michelle and Tollomi meet in the Santo Domingo airport after Michelle's bags are confiscated and Tollomi tries to help her. She has just arrived from Germany, after witnessing both the collapse of her own love affair and the Berlin Wall. Her reason for travelling to Santo Domingo is to find the house and land her grandparents bought (and soon deserted) before her mother was born. Tollomi has arrived from Guatemala, where he was monitoring media censorship, and comes to Santo Domingo to research a revolutionary group there called the "Quisqueyas."
Aside from these ostensible reasons, neither Michelle nor Tollomi can articulate to each other why it is they persistently leave each place they visit. Michelle has no memories of her childhood (except those told to her) and her mind often drifts away. As these lapses intensify ("as I watched from a distance, the woman who was me dropped the tea cup she held . . ."), she leaves lovers, jobs, countries. Tollomi was born to a shipping magnate's wife and a Cruzan sailor. Torn away from his home in neighboring St. Croix by his father and thrust into boarding school as a young boy, he can't quite recapture his young identity and the language that gave it to him. Michelle and Tollomi begin their journey together by splitting a hotel room, and soon they are travelling around the island together, working on the house, and visiting revolutionaries. They are not bound by familial or romantic ties—their strong bond develops out of the instinctive knowledge that each of them live in bodies they don't completely own.
Narratives of destruction, colonialism, and revolution are layered in and through Michelle and Tollomi's own stories, but what's most compelling about Burning the Sea is that the narration is split between the alternating voices of Michelle and Tollomi, which underscores the fluidity of identity and culture and memory they experience. Strong's beautifully written intersection between the body politic and the political body does what all good literature does; it resonates simultaneously on a number of levels, be they political, linguistic, historical, personal, etc., without having to grandstand.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002