To take down a 60-ton sperm whale with bamboo harpoons, you need to coordinate dozens and dozens of men. Then, once you actually catch a whale, you have the problem of—well, one person can’t own the whole whale, right? That guy would never be able to eat it all, and everyone else would starve.
So the Lamalerans have evolved something anthropologists call “reciprocal altruism”: Basically, anytime anyone gets some prey, they just share it out until everyone has some. Any single boat might only catch one whale a year, but they’ve evolved these systems where everyone shares out everything they get, which means that everyone always has enough. So it’s maybe not surprising that a profound sense of communal sharedness is central to Lamaleran life.
After nearly a year of living with the Lamalerans—on and off, over the course of three years—I’d generated a huge volume of notes: multiple Word files of hundreds of thousands of words. My challenge was to distill that vast bulk of material into a compelling single narrative. In the beginning, I thought I would tell the story of the tribe through the perspective of one young man as he learns to hunt and master his tribe’s traditions. The story I was trying to tell was a very traditional Western coming-of-age story, focused around the experience of a young apprentice harpooner, Jon.
I spent several months working with this in draft form, but it just wasn’t working. I kept feeling that this one person’s story just couldn’t capture everything about the tribe. Then one day, while reading over an interview, I was reminded of one of the most important sayings in the Lamalerans’ native language: Talé tou, kemui tou, onã tou, mata tou. Translated, it means, “One family, one heart, one action, one goal,” and almost all of the Lamalerans’ oral histories reference it at some point as the primary directive from the ancestors to the tribe.
There was this moment—this sudden sparkle of realization—when I realized that the book’s hero wasn’t Jon. It was really about the tribe itself, and the ways it’s trying to reckon with the outside world as it encroaches, pressuring it and forcing it to change. Once I realized that my job was to tell everyone’s story, it was like this light bulb went on. Over the next two or three days, I got up, scrapped the outline, and rewrote—merging the individual perspectives together, thinking about relationships rather than individual characters, and weaving their stories together like a braid.
This approach started to influence my reporting in my remaining time in Lembata, where I realized that interviews were best conducted in a group setting. As a Western journalist, my instinct was to sit one-on-one with a subject in a quiet, secluded place—the cashew-nut orchard, or up in the mountains, anywhere I could have some time alone with the person. But then I realized, what better way for people to tell me their story than communally, sitting around the fire or with a jug of palm wine, the way they’ve been doing for hundreds of years?