Monday, July 19, 2010

The aristocrat of literary devices

 Maiba stands at the uppermost stations of imaginative literature as the aristocrat of literary devices. It ranks alone, unassisted and unequalled in the realms of figurative speech. Ultimately, its significance surpasses that which is symbolic and metonymic; that which is judged sublime and beautiful.

To get to those higher stations in figurative speech where maiba is, one needs to travel that long road starting at the basics of imaginative literature. These basic elements consist of technique and style or more precisely clever manipulations of language for no other purpose than to attract attention. Thenceforth, one progresses to the arena or domain of literary devices. Arriving at literary devices, one then notices a kind of highway leading skywards. But one has to start the climb at the bottom – which is the logical thing to do.

Before we begin that climb it is necessary to recall our previous storyboard article Redefining literary techniques and devices. In that article, some distinctions were drawn between techniques and devices, along with some definitions offered of each. But we did not provide an elaborate list of what are considered techniques and what are devices. Now opinions vary from one literary expert to another, but it is much simpler and less worrisome if we pay attention to the definitions provided in that previous article: literary techniques seek to please, whereas devices invite some thought.

Let us now quickly draw up that list. Firstly, our literary techniques; and these include the following: format, style of presentation or narrative mode, structure of story and plot, characterization, foreshadowing and build up of suspense plus, as in the case of sounds in poetry, alliteration, onomatopoeia, metre and rhyme, rhythm, repetition (of consonants and vowels), pun, even riddles and oratory, lilting or sing-song sounding words and stress on words or sprung rhythm such as those noted in the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins. Here we are dealing entirely with what pleases the ear and generally the human senses.

On the other hand, it is with literary devices that we begin that climb skywards, as it were, towards that which is symbolic as much as metonymic, and around which area also we find maiba. Thus, starting from the bottom up this is what the stratum of literary devices looks like: simile, metaphor, allusion along with animation and personification (consider George Orwell’s Animal Farm), symbol, metonym and, finally, allegory or maiba. It is immediately after metonym, at the highest level of this stratum, that we find maiba, the ultimate of allegorical utterances in literature.

Here are examples of how literary devices take shape from the bottom up:

1.      Our country is as beautiful as the bird of paradise (simile).
2.      Our bird of paradise (metaphor).
3.      The bird (symbol)
4.      The crest (metonym, as in carvings depicting the bird).
5.      Plumes (maiba, allegory).

Notice that once we utter the word “plumes”, we are at one and the same time referring to all of the devices listed above. Thus, plumes though appearing as a single word implies the following: Papua New Guinea is our country, and it is in this country that you find that rare species of the bird whose feathers (plumes) we use as headdresses in order to identify ourselves as dancers coming from that particular country. Just one word means all of that. And that is what maiba is.

And here’s the exciting part. At the beginning of this article we said that maiba ranks alone, unaided and unequalled in literary devices. That should not imply that it operates alone as a literary device. Rather, maiba moulds and shapes, defines, accommodates and nurtures all the other elements in figurative speech, both techniques and devices. Being the aristocrat of literary devices, its responsibilities in serving the purposes of both technique and device are enormous.

To quote Kwamra once again: “Kwamra offers the reader these two ingredients (techniques and devices) of imaginative literature, both happening all at once. And when that happens, when both technique and device converge as complementary if not “contemporaneous” components of aesthetic judgment in our consciousness, we know we are experiencing the true nature of maiba itself.”

As an allegory itself, maiba has been regarded in so many ways by readers and scholars alike. But almost all the critics and scholars who felt invited to know this Anuki word through the novel by that name seem to agree that its significance as a literary device, if not easily understood in the first instance, remains monumentally universal. Bill Ashcroft describes maiba as an “allegory without closure” and goes on to suggest that it offers “a frame work of open possibilities which are neither closed nor limited by the text.”  Some Western readers simply give up altogether by claiming that within the word maiba “impositions of meaning take place in such a provisional and tentative way that they serve to create a pervasive absence of stable meaning.” Good for them. Others mildly admit: “As a foreigner who knows neither the Anuki language nor Milne Bay Province, I can only approach maiba as an act of translation between distant worlds: a precarious journey indeed.”

It is all very well for a Papua New Guinean to boast of the fact that maiba might have been one of the best things that ever happened in PNG literature. But even the author himself seems worried at times that he might not have been too kind to his Western readers. Nonetheless, here’s the most exciting part of our storyboard article: a better way of understanding maiba as the ultimate in literary devices is to read the novel itself.

  To get to those higher stations in figurative speech where maiba is, one needs to travel that long road starting at the basics of imaginative literature.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ah yes, one bilum of a gift

                               "Long live the little tax payer."

For those of us who work for organizations dealing with arts and crafts, think of how often we take things for granted without pausing to think that we do so at the expense of someone else.

The number of trips we take overseas that cost thousands and in many cases millions of kina. Yet we pay no attention to the little people who pay for these things. One moment we are in Nicaragua, at another in Paris or London. And yet at another we find ourselves at Noumea Cedex, New Caledonia, not that we can read billboards in French but we jump on the band wagon nevertheless thinking we are riding back to the city while in fact we are travelling further and further out to the rural areas. Once out there, we will be lucky if we find someone who speaks English, just to tell us we are heading the wrong way. Back at home, Papua New Guinea, it is always someone else, a very small and insignificant looking fellow citizen, in fact, who had made the trip possible for us, to come all the way to New Caledonia and make fools of ourselves by travelling the wrong way.

The little people who attend to the job of paying for our trips overseas do so because our constitution tells them to. The particular line referred to in the constitution runs: “to contribute, as required by law, according to their means to the revenues required for the advancement of the Nation and the purposes of Papua New Guinea.”  That means we have that social obligation of paying tax. And we all pay taxes to ensure that Papua New Guinea is well regarded, here as much as abroad.

Of course, storyboard never had the luxury of enjoying such expensive trips overseas at the tax payer’s expense and all in the name of culture and art. But his payslip reports that over K400.00 is deducted from his salary each fortnight by way of tax to help fund such expensive trips for someone else professing to be an expert in literature, the arts and culture.

Sometimes, in the process of writing a short story, a poem or a novel, storyboard pauses and wonders who in the world he is doing that for. Other times some sort of inspiration comes to him: certainly these little people who pay taxes deserve a song or two of praise. Long live the little tax payer, is the song that comes to his mind readily.

“But what about that other tax payer,” storyboard asks suddenly, “now living in retirement?” Has he or she been honoured by anyone through some special mention or accreditation? Indeed, many have now filled the dome of lists of those wonderful, unheard of people who, at one time or another, did something good for others without ever asking for rewards.

Now storyboard has been walking to and from work over a certain route for many years. He would be that familiar sight for those around the neighbourhood, especially with the torn and weather-beaten bilum that he carried over the shoulder. So who would want to know anything else other than that familiar sight seen every day?

One evening, walking home from work, storyboard happened to stop by a local shop for a can of orange drink. As he came out, a “betel nut vendor” in front of the shop asked him to sit down with him and have a little talk, or rest a little, before walking the rest of the way home. Storyboard was reluctant. He just wanted to quench his thirst, preferably without having to share it with anyone else, and walk home. But the man insisted, so storyboard sat down.

“Come, yu mi sindaun na wetim misis pastaim (Come, let’s sit and wait for my missus.)”

So the two old timers just sat there, in silence: one, feeling guilty about not sharing his drink; and the other, well, who could tell what was going on in his mind. A brief conversation ensued. Was storyboard from Gulf, the man asked, to which storyboard nodded, “Yea, olsem. But actually, I am from Raba Raba in the Milne Bay Province.” Then the wait for the man’s wife was getting longer. Suspense began to build up. At which point the wife arrived from the back of the store.

“Come,” said the man to his wife, “bring the bilum and give it to my brother here.”

“Oh no!”

Storyboard was overwhelmed. He just didn’t know what to say. Why, this was a gift from a neighbour who sat there and sold betel nuts and cigarettes every day.

He looked at his old bilum and realized how torn and perhaps outdated it was. The man’s wife merely smiled and said, “Em bilo yu, bikos narapela yu holim ya em bagarap pinis.”

The cost of the bilum in Port Moresby ranges from K80.00 to K500.00, depending on the mood and quality of the art work. This is a commodity that is almost priceless for an average wage earner like storyboard. A gift given like this would not be forgotten for a long time.

The gift, of course, humbled storyboard enormously. All that irritation he felt about the fate of the little tax payer left suddenly. Perhaps in the next article he will tell us more about his gift providers.
 Acknowledgments: above photos, Russell Soaba; idea of bilums as a social science subject of study belongs to Nicolas Garnier, Visual Anthropology, UPNG; the article you are reading here is based on a true story.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Redefining literary techniques and devices

It’s back to the classroom for the storyboard after a whole semester away. And what better way to re-kindle the undying savannah flames of creativity than to re-visit the views of the sage when considering the terms literary techniques and devices?

So what are literary techniques? And what are literary devices?

They may mean the one and the same thing, but they are not.

And where is the best place to look for a good definition of either one? Why, Kwamra, of course. Those of you at the Waigani campus doing Creative Writing this semester must own a copy of Kwamra: a season of harvest. Refrain from heavy reliance on photocopies, borrowing a copy from a class mate, or simply bothering your lecturer for a spare copy or lecture notes after class. You are on your own now and that means starting to relish the respite of owning a library of your own. After all, you are studying literature, and that in itself is a calling of a lifetime.

Let us now get down to the business of defining the two literary terms.

Firstly, those terms referred to as literary techniques. What are they? Let us look at the denotative aspects of the term “technique”. That means – and don’t be shy about this – consulting the dictionary right away. The Oxford English Mini Dictionary defines the word “technique” as follows: 1 a way of doing something. 2 practical skill. What we want here is the first definition offered: “a way of doing something.” “Technique” in our case now becomes “a way of writing about something.” Further, the term becomes a way in which we use language to describe, or more precisely, write about something. In Tok Pisin, we refer to this process of creative writing as “yu mi stailim tasol.”

Secondly, we do the same with literary devices. The mini dictionary referred to above defines the word “device” as follows: 1 thing made for a particular purpose. 2 a plan or scheme. What we want here is the second definition offered: “a plan or scheme.” The word “device”, therefore, becomes a plan or scheme to follow when setting out to write about something. In Tok Pisin this is referred to as “igat sampela stail kamap yet.”
You can now see that although the two terms “techniques” and “devices” may appear to mean the same thing in creative writing and generally imaginative literatures they are, in essence, not. The Preface of Kwamra best explains the rest, as follows:

Kwamra... introduces the reader to some tentative definitions of the terms literary techniques and literary devices. Although the two may mean the one and the same thing in imaginative literature, they do have their distinctions which deserve scrutiny in order for us to arrive at some reasonable definitions of each. In the first instance both serve the purpose of appearing merely as appetizers to further interpretation and criticism in given imaginative literatures.

“Somewhere along the line one loses its interpretative value while the other persists in causing the reader to read into an imaginative piece of literature. It is at this point that a distinction needs to be drawn: that a literary technique deals exclusively with the denotative aspects of an imaginative piece of literature whereas a literary device deals exclusively with the connotative aspects of that same piece of literature.

“A technique deals with talent and style, whereas a device deals with the inner necessities of a literary creation. Any literary creation that is pleasing to the ear or sight must indicate an instance of some literary technique being used. Any literary creation that intrigues or disturbs the inner compartments of the mind and human sensibilities must likewise indicate an instance of some literary device being used. Thus, an alliteration can be viewed as a literary technique whereas an allegory or maiba as literary device.

“With literary techniques we read to enjoy, whereas with literary devices we feel we are being invited to think.”

And that much the sage can give us, on the definitions of the two literary terms. But, he cautions: “It is worth noting that both literary techniques and devices constitute the form of imaginative literatures and not necessarily the content of these. Their purpose is to help us better understand the content (i.e. the main idea, the author’s intention and the moral lesson) of a poem, short story, novel or play.”

With the above definitions given, let us now apply that knowledge to the following Haiku, usually attributed to Edmund Conti:

OK, all you frogs:
Everyone out of the pool
And form three lines

Now, at the top corner of your exercise book write the heading Literary Techniques. On the right hand corner of the same page write the heading Literary Devices. Under the heading Literary Techniques jot down the following points: that a haiku poem consists of three lines; it runs for 17 syllables; 5 syllables in the first, 7 syllables in the second, and again 5 syllables in the third. Here, of course, we are looking at technique and style of writing.

Here’s the exciting part. Under the heading Literary Devices, and as you jot down your notes, you will notice that Edmund Conti’s treatment of the haiku form does not follow the rules noted above. In fact, his haiku runs for, at best, 16 point something short of the required 17 syllables. And that is the intriguing part. That is when we start looking at literary devices. And we ask: “Why would a poet, perhaps an American one at that, choose to treat a Japanese style of writing that way, by almost looking as if he is deliberately breaking rules?”

Welcome to the storyboard’s literature classes, semester two, Waigani campus, 2010. (All bilum photos on this blog courtesy of Nicolas Garnier, Visual Anthropology, UPNG.)