Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mateship goes way down under

Storyboard was shocked to read the announcement on the front page of The National (Friday 25th June) of a woman taking over from a man as prime minister of Australia. “What happened?” echoed his article in the same newspaper the same day, which ran, “Whatever happened to the sentiments of mateship?” Even Steven’s Window when visiting the storyboard that day sounded mournful about the pace at which the word was and is diminishing, and that seems to be fast.

The people of Milne Bay – men, women and children, in towns and villages – who lavish the word as consistently as “goodie” or “how” might probably be the only custodians left of the Australian word. That is quite possible, even at the likely risk of the lexicographer lifting the mighty pen to strike out the word entirely from the Australian Dictionary.

It could happen. And it could happen in the manner the word history might, officially, be changed to herstory. Indeed, the women are on the rise: in Australia, as much as elsewhere. Come to think of it, those proud men in PNG politics must consider themselves fortunate they haven’t started shedding tears yet. What if, in the next elections, almost all of them found themselves sobbing and guffawing at the same time?

And the women’s story is not at all new. They started to climb the social ladder a long, long time ago, back in the days when, in the Western sense, they had been hounded and rounded up to be burnt at stakes in full view of the public with them rotten eggs and tomatoes thrown at them and all on account of expressing thoughts and opinions that were contradictory to the “norms” and “values” of the big Book written by men. In the PNG environment, they followed the men who walked in front carrying nothing but spears while they (the women) struggled with loads of firewood, bilums of taro and kaukau, and babies on their backs. Any protest or disagreement to all this arrangement in social behaviour resulted in the recommendation of the stake if not bruises and black eyes to nurse for days on end. It took the women centuries to change the world view about their status. Many lost their battles, big or small; but a lot left some lasting impressions on the minds of their male peers. Today, they are here to testify to that.

Some thoughtful analysts around the academic shopping malls might disagree, and might suggest that what happened at caucus level in Australia last week was purely coincidental, quite exemplary of the normal processes in democratic power play and should not, therefore, pose as sufficient indicators in feminist thought and practice, least of all be taken as issues of gender. Granted. But storyboard is of the opinion that just as the word “mateship” threatens to go walkabout, women themselves could be bracing for that giant leap in the opposite direction. Whatever else happens in Australia remains to be seen. Meantime, one cannot help but recall Germaine Greer who, in an abstract of her book, “The Female Eunuch”, made the interesting remark that: “In admitting women to male-dominated areas of life, men have already shown a willingness to share responsibility, even if the invitation has not been taken up.” By that, she probably means that whether or not they are invited, women already are taking that step further.

For our literature students in Papua New Guinea opting to base their theses on the problems of mateship or women issues, incidents such as this make a good starting point for a treatise. For their benefit storyboard is only too willing to offer an illustration of power play between men and women in a village setting, and as well indicate how women read what men write and vice versa. The illustration comes in the form of a lengthy quote of Gilian Gorle’s treatise, titled: “Translating the Female Voice in Russell Soaba’s Maiba.” The quotation starts at the part of the novel where three women of rank have already spoken:

“A fourth woman whose voice is noteworthy has even less personal identity and less to say. Unlike Elder Neville’s wife, who can at least be identified through her marriage, this one is entirely anonymous. Yet her words distinguish her as an important individual who challenges the conventional male wisdom and suggests an alternative approach. She only speaks once, during Cephas’s address to the crowd and the warriors who have assembled to fight Doboro. Asking who they are to be forced out of their own houses, Cephas continues:

“Are we like the shellfish susuba to sit back in our own houses and watch ourselves pushed out by that other shellfish with claws, the gumaga? Well, are we, People of Makawana?”
“No!” reply the People. “But let us be the gumaga instead.”
“What about kaitore?” comes a voice from a woman in the crowd. All cast stares at her. “Yes, what about kaitore, the other shellfish with much bigger claws which comes silently, without warning, upon one dark night, and when the morning comes the gumaga is no longer there?”
“That’s woman talk,” the people shout the woman down. “Let us be the gumaga instead.”
“Gumaga forever!” roars the crowd. “Forever gumaga.”
“Down with susuba! Down with kaitore!”
“UP WITH GUMAGA!” (pp. 95-6)

The rapid silencing of this woman’s unpopular view is unsurprising in a community that tends to denigrate female opinions. Yet the authorial tone indicates that her perspective deserves consideration, despite its unpalatability to a crowd wanting conventional war. The woman’s strategy is too far-sighted for an over-excited rabble content with simple formulae.”

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Whatever happened to mateship

 Whatever happened to the sentiments of mateship?

[Photo, left: courtesy of The National Weekender, National newspaper, library.]

Storyboard could not help asking that question after reading Malum Nalu’s review of Graham Pople’s The Popleography (Weekender, Friday 18th June). What really drew storyboard’s attention to that article was the description of quiet and peaceful settings of the Highlands region – of places such as Liagam, Kainantu, Minj, Banj and others. Though the descriptions were offered from the point of view of a kiap trying to explore the Highlands, they could also reflect the experiences of the Highlanders themselves in their venture to the coastal areas just to find out what was there to be discovered about their country.

Naturally, there was much of that exchange involved in sharing of sentiments, ideas and the search for new horizons that concerned the Territory itself in those days. Aside from the kiaps, a lot of coastal people went up to the Highlands as evangelists and generally church workers, while at the same time a lot of Highlanders came down to the coastal and islands areas in their capacity as interpreters, church college students, plantation workers and as participants in the Fuzzy Wuzzy camps of the last war. Some bond of friendship developed during those movements throughout the Territory, including movements to Australia itself.

Storyboard’s point in mentioning all this is that very little of this idea of sentiment sharing appears in the literatures of both Papua New Guinea and Australia. The fuzzy wuzzy sentiment does appear, but this is usually restricted to a single poem of a young Australian soldier and one supposes that it is only recited on Remembrance Day and not in a year-round kind of literary activity. This boils down to word that we want in this article: mateship.

In literature proper, be that literature Australian or Papua New Guinean, the word is mentioned only once. And that is in Ian Downs’ The Stolen Land. In that novel Joseph returns to PNG after completing school in Australian, but his involvement in politics drowns every possibility of this idea of mateship developing between Australians and Papua New Guineans. In ordinary conversation, be it in a pub or a rugby league oval, the word is used a million times over. But it would be nice if the same word appeared an equal number of times in print through novels, short stories, poems and plays, including memoirs and biographies. That would help us look back at places like Liagam or Kainantu less nostalgically than patriotically, the latter being what we truly want.

There is no denying, however, that things did happen wondrously in those days gone by. Look at the brilliance of engineering that Graham Pople captured through a photograph of a bridge at Liagam. Should not that be a “re-model” of the Sydney Harbour Bridge by any chance? I asked Graham of this possibility in engineering (Tuesday 22/6), but was advised that the people who had constructed the bridge at that time might not have heard much about Sydney or the bridge. That happened about sixty years ago, says Graham. That aside, it is good to share Graham’s recollections of our country in its infancy that way and well, too, that someone should offer to publish Popleography. Storyboard would prefer to see that done locally. Good on you, Graham. Believe storyboard: you deserve a Logohu for that (if you haven’t got it yet).

In that short telephone conversation also, storyboard asked Graham if he would agree that the word mateship by now has lost its true value and meaning. And he said that he did. Storyboard thinks along the same lines as well, not only of the word’s loss of value among Papua New Guineans and Australians but among Australians themselves. If the word maintained any of its values at all today then we would not be hearing stories about certain slurs at the Blues training camps when preparing for that battle with the Maroons at Suncorp Stadium. That’s sad.

Five months after he had turned nineteen, and when he had legally come of age, storyboard was invited to a party held in his honour at a local suburban Melbourne pub called The Sentimental Bloke. The people doing the invite were his class mates of Balwyn High. The party was considered special because they had all completed the Victorian Matriculation Examination Certificate successfully, thereby qualifying to enter any university in Australia. It was all the more special because Russell Soaba was the only Papua New Guinean (the Territory then) and a black man at that at Balwyn High School. As part of the party storyboard was given a guitar and asked to stand on a diving board of the pub’s swimming pool, without tilting or falling, and sing Slim Dusty’s A Pub with No Beer. He did, halfway, when all of a sudden – plop – into the pool, with the guitar, the suit and all. The rest of his mates joined in and it was fun. Patrons of the pub: well, mostly parents of Soaba’s class mates, including one or two young teachers from the school.

The sentiments of mateship were sealed then. This was Melbourne in the late 1960s. It was a decade when sentiments of high intellectualism were sweeping throughout Australia. There weren’t much of those “cult” activities such as “flower people” and “free love” evident at this time. Most adolescents that storyboard had come in contact with had only one ambition in mind: to reach the highest of stations in education and life. And they read the classics in literature: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Swift, Blake, Byron, Tennyson, Coleridge, Wilde, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Camus, Sartre et al. Since this was predominantly a bourgeois setting most of storyboard’s class mates have ended up overseas, one becoming a court historian at Buckingham Palace.

From out of this experience in mateship storyboard would further look for a model to follow and he did: in Sir Charles Perkins, who became the first Aboriginal Australian to gain a university degree.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Women at the loop of knowledge

“They are the ultimate bread winners. We know we will be going back to them at the end of the day.”

Thus, the storyboard’s remarks to a gathering of dignitaries consisting of academics, diplomats, women leaders and councillors, and most important, the mothers of Morata.

All this happened at the Parliament House at 12 noon on 31st March 2010, upon the occasion of Dame Carol Kidu’s launching of a book on bilums, called “Twisting Knowledge and Emotion: Modern Bilums of Papua New Guinea.”

So titled, the book intrigues as much as entices the curious observer into the arena of human creativity in the form of a loop, almost entirely controlled by women. From the loop begins the awesome task of weaving the fabrics of society together, which in turn promises sustainability, unity and strength.
Aside from the preceding metaphorical remark, the book, in essence, celebrates women’s sense of creativity through a format of art known as the bilum. And it is well that Dame Carol Kidu chose to launch the book at the Parliament House as that, in a way, was proclaiming the arrival and presence of more women not just as artists but also as leaders and participants in the government. All the more telling was the presence at this occasion of notable women figures such as Professor Betty Lovai (recipient recently of the US Secretary’s award for valour), Ms Florence Jaukae (the forerunner of the bilum as an industry), women councillors from the Motu Koitabu Assembly, the mothers of Morata as representatives of mothers throughout the country and Her Excellency, the Ambassador of Pakistan. The occasion at the Parliament House was therefore devoted to the women. It was their day.

 “Twisting Knowledge and Emotion” was compiled and edited by Dr. Nicholas Garnier. It is the result of a research and publication project which began around 2003 when Dr. Garnier joined the University of Papua New Guinea as a lecturer in French in the Modern Languages department. At that time he would ask his French students to collect as many names as possible of the bilum firstly in their own languages and then, through research, in all the 800 or so languages of Papua New Guinea. The result was overwhelming. We were actually sitting on a gold mine of enormous cultural wealth. This led to an exhibition which was staged at the Michael Somare Library, and it proved a great success. Women began flocking the library to witness what their handiwork of bilums finally led them to. Students, staff and members of UPNG community also contributed enormously to this exhibition, through poems and short prose pieces all speaking in praise of the bilum and the remarkable women and mothers who made the whole of this bilum enterprise happen.

        My Bilum

I love my bilum
Because it was given to me by my big sister
And I love my big sister too

My billum is purple
My favourite colour
I carry my bilum everywhere
To school
To church or just to spin around
To show the beautiful colours it has

My friends admire my bilum
And so I do
I love my bilum

        Iphigenia Soaba 

What was most rewarding to see was the stakeholders’ attention to the bilum as an art form. UPNG, as usual, stepped in as the main sponsor along with Alliance Francaise de Port Moresby, with more yet to come. 

Around October last year, immediately after the success of the exhibition “40 Years of PNG Literature” at the National Library, Dr. Garnier said: “Look, let’s publish a catalogue of bilums and take it out to the world.” Said his colleagues at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences: “Good, find the money and we’ll produce the book.” By December a major sponsor was found and the whole project went into press.

The storyboard would now like us to acknowledge that major sponsor. They are the Christensen Fund, a foundation based in America. They covered the print costs through a local printer called Tropic Print, and the result is what we see on gloss paper with all its brilliance in colour faithfully representing this great art form cultivated by the women of Papua New Guinea called the bilum! 5,000 copies were printed, 3,000 of which will be given to the Education Department for distribution to schools throughout the country. The remaining 2,000 will go to those wishing to promote the bilum as an art form, here and elsewhere.

Potential sponsors throughout the world often worry about where their money goes to in the third world countries. Perhaps their moment of hesitancy comes about because of the sort of people, individuals, organizations and institutions that they choose to strike deals and bargains with. With writers and artists, and academics and researchers, they need not worry as all that they spend is faithfully accounted for. They also worry about direct feedback from the recipients. However, representatives of Christensen Fund who were present at Dame Carol Kidu’s book launch at the Parliament House will now go home with a different story to tell. They have seen the response from the women of Papua Guinea directly, and that in itself was simply awesome. In his speech at this book launch, the Ambassador of France, HE Alain Waquet, said that “the present book represents a concrete example of a successful support,” adding that “rather than expression of intentions, the Alliance francaise has always acted concretely in favour of cultural actors in Papua New Guinea.”

“Twisting Knowledge and Emotion” contains 24 poems and short prose pieces speaking in praise of the bilum as an art form. These are supported by the editor’s treatise on the bilum, citing historical references of significance and how best this art form can be embraced by the outside world, particularly the Western one. There is much there that needs tapping into. The book also contains 3 to 400 coloured photographs of different patterns of the bilum, all ranging in themes from daily occurrences to the much more sombre and thoughtful. If we look at each pattern, each bilum, closely, it is true that although PNG is said to be 75 to 80 percent illiterate, we will have read a complete “book” of poems, short stories, legends and myths, even a text book in Visual Anthropology! The bilum serves as an alternative “book” as it were. Search for an important land mark, BSP, UPNG, a spider web, diamonds, coffee mugs, religious icons, sun glasses, fish bones, floor mats, bilum suits, mosquito coils, kundu drums, the Highlands Highway,  a love letter, seasonal greetings, the computer screen, even pokies and golf sticks and post office keys...they are all there.
All bilum photos courtesy of Nicolas Garnier, Visual Anthropology, University of Papua New Guinea.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sentiments of social control

One of the fascinating discoveries storyboard made this week was reading about the reaction of young people towards the demands of social control as seen through our oral literature and traditions. The discovery came out of the way these youngsters answered the question on basic social obligations such as respect for the elderly, the ethics of work, and the awareness of refraining from the sort of lifestyles that lead to negativity, lack of positive ambition and the possibility of total loss of confidence in the self.

The question asked by the examiners for this humble group of literature students was, simply, “Discuss how oral literature is used as a means of social control in our traditional societies.”

And that humble group of literature students was none other than the “home scholars” storyboard once mentioned through this column in an article titled “An open university for all.” Last week was their exam week, and this week was when storyboard sat down to read their short essays on the problems and demands of social control in our traditional settings.

Notice that about 98% of this group of young literature students is city-bred and subsequently has little or no access whatsoever to the privileges enjoyed by that other Papua New Guinean child growing up comfortably in a village environment. That child in the rural setting virtually basks in the brightness of the sun that greets him each morning while helping with the preparations of breakfast before running off to school along the idyllic settings of beautiful coastlines, lush greenery of footpaths and across serene valleys and hills in response to the soft pealing of morning assembly bells somewhere in the distance. In the afternoon the child will walk home along the same scenery, pausing now and then to gather greens, nuts and fruit, or even catch a fish or two for the family’s dinner at nightfall. Our city children miss out enormously on such privileges.

Here, in the cities, in the classroom environs such as those of UPNG Waigani and the School of Government campuses, they sit down quietly to answer those questions eternally asked by scholars in literature. What do we mean by social control in traditional settings? What is kinship? What lessons do we learn from proverbs, from chants, from incantations, from just watching that group of Kiriwina gardeners humming and weeding their yam gardens just next door to us, and so on? But in order to get here to sit down and answer these questions, they had to wake up early, get into the busy traffic and get hustled and tussled, even at the risked of changing direction at the insistence of peers who refuse to accept that where they are going will be beneficial in the end. 

So they sit down at last and tell you through their short essays that respect for the old and elderly tops their list of priorities on the scale of social control. You curse your elders now, they are advising us in their scribbling, and that same curse shall return to you and haunt you forever. No one else does more damage than what you yourself do unto yourself. Consult the beatitudes; they confirm it all.

Next on their list: the sort of respect shown by the old and elderly towards their young. These come in the form of proverbs, songs, parables and riddles, incantations and dance. Great moral lessons are imparted here. There is no greater joy in the world than watching the old and young get down to that choreographic stint together in which an important instruction is given. It is the time when the entire community is participating. In every dance move, whether it is about the philosophy of ba’a (taro) or pu’u (rearing of domestic animals), a lesson is being imparted, an instruction given. This becomes the best method of teaching wherein the young learn while participating in laughter, song and dance. Let your taro grow well this season, young man. Let your pig rearing bring us wealth and strength, young woman.

And then all that is followed by the rest of basic social obligations. Be kind to your neighbours. Serve your brothers and sisters well, if they happen to be the bread winners in the stead of lost parents and guardians. And if you are depending too much on them, and if indeed you are too old to be doing so, then for God sake get a job. Does not our constitution contain these very principles of basic social obligations? After the anthem, and the pledge, what do we do? Walk down to the nearest bottle shop and run loose and wild? Or simply pay little attention to a fellow countryman who, armed with a jack and spanners, decides to change tyres right in the middle of busy rush-hour traffic?

In a sense, these youngsters have answered the questions well; that is, according to storyboard’s judgment in literary criticism. The basic elements of literary criticism, and of social criticism for that matter, lie in the area of ethics and order. Storyboard noted as well that none of these students will be failing this particular literature course this semester. And that is a good sign.

But it is rather sad that a good number have decided to miss out on this opportunity of open college learning. It is a choice they had to make for themselves. It is doubtful, however, if their peers in the villages, particularly those of their own age and generation, are ever given the freedom of making their own choices, right up to the time they have their first children – all for the good of the community they live in.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Sensing greatness in creativity

The Waigani campus of the University of Papua New Guinea has now come to the end of its academic year and the students have just this week sat for their final examinations. In a few days all will disperse in various directions, leaving the campus deserted and desolate.

Members of the academic staff too will embark on their usual leave taking plans or sabbaticals, leaving a handful to do the final touches on teaching duties while awaiting the start of the Lahara sessions.

Those left on campus will probably, or should, find themselves asking: “Was it worth it? Has the year been good? Have we done much or little?”

The questions will no doubt affect the students and their welfare, as many will be returning in 2010 to either graduate or continue with their respective programs of study.

For those graduating, all will depend on the nature of work they had submitted for the final reckoning by their respective lecturers and professors and these will serve as determinants spelling out how much or little they have done during the 2009 academic year. These submissions can be in the form of sub-theses and major papers in various disciplines, or literary journals as is the case in Literature courses. Of the latter, quite a substantial amount of material has been deposited at the Literature strand this year. Complete collections of poetry abound, along with folklore, anthologies, short stories, novels, no drama this year, children’s story books, diaries, and even compilation of quotations in the fashion of modern day desk calendars and tourist brochures – all of these dealing with PNG Literature.

A graduating student of Literature and Journalism like Andrew Solien has submitted a set of children’s stories, consisting of nine complete books whose titles range from The First Lakatoi as examples of PNG’s cultural past to modern day themes of environment-friendly subjects such as Gou Beise and Iviro the Jungle Keeper. But as we read this, word has it on the grapevine that all these booklets are on schedule and are queued up to appear in the University Bookshop’s web publishing program.

Other similar submissions include a handy and what I must consider an important collection of oral material consisting of myths and legends from the Hela Province. Now we hear so much about Hela and are therefore led to viewing this part of our country as one of the richest, but we pay little attention to its cultural content, namely its literature. With work such as the submission made by the student Miriam Mandibi to this course we are given new insights to this province. It is imperative that we learn more about this province through literature.

These two examples come out of the course Writing, Editing and Publishing, regarded by far the most significant of our professional courses and serves to cater for our literature and journalism students along with those from the schools of Law, Business Administration, medical and pure sciences. The course is actually Dr. Steven Winduo’s, who is currently on furlough, so I have coordinated and have been teaching it this semester. The yardstick by which this course is measured is one of high intellectualism and must retain its credibility as such at an international level of appraisal and accreditation as, of course, propounded in its first makings by Dr. Winduo himself. The work anticipated in this course by way of manuscripts must be seen to be pointing in the direction of that great novel, poem or play yet to come.

But the overall expectation of this course is to see complete and publishable manuscripts. These must be edited, printed or typed and bound as books. We use our seminar sessions to workshop each material these journals contain and the discussions observed on them are vigorous as much as enlightening before sanctioning them, as it were, to be compiled into book form. One student presented a seminar on the theme of corruption. The classroom was a battlefield in the vein of Socrates and Spivak. In the end it was resolved that for all to be content the whole enterprise be presented in book form, to which the student in question gladly obliged.

A point of relevance here. Scholars elsewhere in the world are now becoming wary of how we conduct ourselves in dealing with themes that concern us deeply, particularly in the arena of creative literature. Readers might have noticed the tone of criticism on Trevor Shearston’s novel, Dead Birds, which appeared last Weekender (16/10/09). Indeed, the very idea of talking and writing about ourselves has evolved so much that it is not always easy even for an outsider to choose a PNG theme the way he or she did ten years ago. With authors like Shearston one sees a tremendous amount of courage and honesty in an outsider’s choice of setting a novel in Papua New Guinea. It is a choice not many Australian writers would be willing to make, but Shearston does, all in the name of words and literature. We regard Shearston’s work as mirrors from which we judge ourselves and assess the quality of material we produce as literature. This is why, judging by the material that we gather through courses such as Writing, Editing and Publishing, I say that we are about to produce the finest of literature through our younger generations. They feel comfortable, they know what to write, and they will do so quite successfully.

And they have a way of presenting their material. Consider the following workshop material, as presented by two students in the course, Emmanuel Gumaba and Nehemiah Akia: 

Once I asked a fertile land, what can I plant
Commercial or subsistence?
She replied: ‘I am not an adulterous woman.’
'Why?’ I said.

‘Because he has looked after me well.’

‘Explain, please.’

‘Sure,’ she answered.
‘There is no clear felling for me to lose my womanhood
There is no erosion for me to lose my fertility.’

‘Now I get it,’ I said.
‘But please, tell me more.’

‘My husband,’ she said, ‘He is a great lover.
And I feel it is my duty to compensate [that love]
With a great harvest.’

The sentiments of greatness in creativity are apparent in this instance of experimentation. If we look at the draft of the poem again, we will notice the ease with which the two young men make use of the literary device known as metaphor to enable the muse to stand out clearly. Tentative writings such as this eventually develop into memorable things. And they are meant to last forever.

Much of the material that we gather as creative writing exercises becomes the property of the Literature and English Communication strand. This we store away for future use in our publications such as the Savannah Flames, the strand’s recently introduced English journal, MAPS publishing program, or simply for the students themselves to come back many, many years later and see what they have written.  

First published in the National Weekender of the National newspaper of Papua New Guinea in October 2009. 

Welcome to the storyboard

Welcome to Soaba's Storyboard. This blog is purposely created for the student of literature and creative writing at Papua New Guinean universities and schools. We notice as well that visitors from elsewhere find our pages just as useful. Thank you for visiting. Be reminded also that your comments and suggestion will help Papua New Guinean students of literature and creative writing immensely. Reviews and opinions on writing and literature offered for these pages will do us wonders especially in our desire to know how other cultures view us as well suggest ways through which we can all improve our aspirations towards  knowing more about the wonderful world of literature and creative writing. Feel free to send in poems for the blog by emailing us at: ribuadakaipune[at]gmail[dot]com.

A lot of the articles represented on this blog appear in Soaba's Storyboard, the National Weekender newspaper of Papua New Guinea, on Fridays. Overseas visitors may have difficulty in logging in onto The National Weekender, so our best advise is you long on to our other blog, The Anuki Country Press.

Welcome indeed to Soaba's Storyboard!