Chain reaction

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 March, 2009, 12:00am

Not every book needs a story and Julia Whitty's latest, The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific, is a master class in what the filmmaker cum author describes as creative non-fiction.

If you're looking for a book cataloguing man's destructive impact on a part of our natural world that ends with a neat conclusion, then this is not for you.

'It's truly deeply plotless and that's one of the joys of it, for people that like it,' Whitty explains from her home in Sonoma County in California's wine country.

'It meanders the way you meander in a wilderness without a track. For people who like it, it is like entering another world. It's like a fantasy world almost.'

The action takes place in the South Pacific, where Whitty spent time snorkelling and scuba-diving while making a documentary. The first chapter, Rangiroa, focuses on the underwater world; the second, Funafuti, on the people who live on the coral atolls; the third, Mo'orea, on the immediate effects of modernisation and globalisation on these remote places.

A spiritual person, Whitty offers sculpted descriptions interlaced with thoughts on eastern philosophies such as Jainism and Buddhism, and literary epics including the I Ching, the Upanishads and the Mahabharata. The book also draws on science to highlight the damage that the practices of the modern world are having on just one-tenth of one per cent of the Earth's surface.

'Coral reefs are powerful arbiters of life both in the sea and on the land,' Whitty writes. 'The oceans they help stock are the chemical engine driving the planet, stabilising our climate, refreshing the air we breathe, making the rain that feeds the rivers and lakes, which water the crops upon which we depend. This water world and its most fertile and fragile edge, the coral reefs, are the continuing cradle of life on Earth.'

What the book lacks in structure it more than makes up for in immensely personal and expressive prose. This genre of nature writing is highly developed in North America, which is why The Fragile Edge has already garnered prestigious awards such as the Northern California Book Award for creative non-fiction.

Her previous collection of short stories, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga, was a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist.

Whitty, who has written and produced documentaries for PBS, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, is also the environmental correspondent for Mother Jones, a non-profit news organisation. These days documentaries take a back seat to her online blog and lectures on environmental issues.

She says her love for coral reefs, and the underwater world in general, was a strong motivator for writing The Fragile Edge. Although many people have seen documentaries of life below the waves, she wanted to use words and ideas that would enable the reader to expand their understanding and perhaps their own experiences.

'It's not like a lot of modern solution-oriented non-fiction. Here's the problem, 'bang'; here's the solution, 'pow'. The book really is different and the reason it's different is I want to reach those readers who would not read that hammer blow of modern solution-oriented non-fiction writing. I want to reach people who enjoy the literary experience and the travel experience and slowly and subtly convert them,' she says.

The Fragile Edge is stuffed to the gills with rich metaphors and alluring alliteration, providing a literary vehicle into a spectacular world few of us will see. It is not a book meant for cherry picking and should instead be read as a single uninterrupted source, albeit from a deeply personal perspective. It is one author's documentation of a tiny fragment of our world that in 50 years, if our abuse of the planet continues unchecked, could be on the historical reference shelf next to Darwin.

Although the book offers a rather pessimistic view, Whitty's take on the future of the planet is more optimistic. She believes there is a political and social sea change afoot that could, if managed properly and expediently, prevent some of the predicted worse-case scenarios. Until then, she says, it is up to all of us to do our bit, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem.

'I would love people to read my book and understand a little bit more than they did of the role of the humble players in our world, be they human, animal, fish or plant. And to move through their life with a better understanding and more love and respect.'

The Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2009
Julia Whitty will appear at the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival on Tues and Wed