The short story A Pearling Tale by Maxine McArthur is about Jiro Aoyanagi, a diver who is forced to go on a boat ride with his crew at the end of the diving season. His job is to dive for pearl shells which the crew later sells for profit. On this boat ride, however, Kamei, another diver of the crew, dies underwater. For this reason, the crew decides to return home after Jiro was tasked to obtain Kamei’s lost shell bag. While on their way home, they are approached by a ghost ship. The ghosts onboard demand to have Kamei’s body and threaten the crew, even though giving them what they want would also mean death for the crew. Jiro is the only one who knows how to deal with the ghosts and saves his crew by throwing Kamei’s broken shell bag onto the ghost ship, earning some respect from Flynn, the boat’s master and tender.
In A Pearling Tale readers can find many situations in which both “Othering” and “Orientalism” play a huge role. Already at the beginning of the short story, Jiro is characterized as different than those
around him. His otherness is not kept a secret, and instead often referred to, especially in comparison to Flynn, who is portrayed as Jiro’s direct counterpart.
Jiro is depicted as an Asian who believes in Ebisu, the God of the Sea. His worship for Ebisu is frowned upon not only by other citizens but also by Flynn, who is presumably white and, just like other people, doesn’t think that Ebisu can exist in their country. He is equally convinced that the Sea doesn’t belong to all countries, only to his own, and shuts down Jiro’s attempts at arguing with him, forcing him to work instead. This power dynamic between Flynn and Jiro is constantly evident throughout the short story and only flipped at the end.
On board the ship, Flynn is focused on making money and doesn’t care about the consequences. He doesn’t fear the mysteries that lie beneath the sea; nor does he fear ghosts, unlike the rest of his crew, which seems to mostly consist of Asians. Portrayed as calm and rational, Flynn stays focused on making profit even when Kamei dies and doesn’t feel unease like Jiro and the rest of the crew. He forces Jiro to dive back down to retrieve Kamei’s lost shell bag and only then agrees to sail back home due to the complaints and worries of the crew.
When the crew is attacked by a ghost ship on their way home, however, Jiro is the only one who can save them. But even when confronted with the truth that Jiro’s beliefs were correct and that ghosts do exist, Flynn still largely keeps his composure, except for a brief moment during which even he prays to his own God. Flynn refuses to hand over Kamei’s body to the ghost ship, convinced that no one would believe them if they claimed that they were attacked by ghosts who demanded Kamei’s body. He argues against the other crew members who believe that their only way out of the situation is to give the ghosts what they want.
Jiro, who had no choice but to do everything Flynn asked of him whether he liked it or not, gains power at this point of the short story. He is the only one who knows how to deal with the ghosts and ends up saving his crew. It is his Otherness that prevails in the end and manages to earn him the respect of Flynn. While Flynn continues to order the crew around as if nothing happened at the end of the short story, he also acknowledges that Jiro was correct about his God.
Flynn grinned and clapped him on the shoulders.
“Sea god all country, eh, boyo.”(p.120)
A big part of Jiro’s otherness lies in the depiction of orientalism connected to him. He believes in different Gods, as well as in ghosts and other mysteries. The power one culture holds over another, mostly represented through Flynn and Jiro, is equally typical in orientalism. This superiority is also portrayed through Muratsu. Muratsu is a character who also owns boats, speaks the same language as his crew, and believes in the same Gods as Jiro. But it seems to be this exoticness of Muratsu which hinders him from being as successful as Flynn. He doesn’t own the newest diving dress which offers more protection to divers, allowing them to find more pearl shells and thus gain more profit. His counterpart Flynn does own the state-of-the-art diving gear and is for that reason more successful and superior.
However, in comparison to other works in which orientalism and otherness play a huge role, A Pearling Tale uses them to defuse some of the usual depictions of white superiority, and of the Other being something abhorrent. It succeeds in doing so by inverting Jiro and Flynn’s positions at the end, making Jiro the hero of the story who manages to gain the respect of someone who had previously seen him as the Other and thus considered him inferior.
- McArthur, Maxine. “A Pearling Tale.” In Baggage. Tales of Speculative Fiction, edited by Gillian Polack. Borgo Press, 2014. 110-120