Saturday, September 25, 2010

Justifying Papua New Guinea Literature

                                1.  Two places my friend Jack Lahui and I have been to in 1974 that I shall never forget. They are Utu High School in the New Ireland Province and Holy Name High in the Milne Bay Province. It was at these two wonderful places that I have learnt the true value and meaning of literature. We were conducting creative writing workshops then during the schools’ term holidays.
At Holy Name High, a 15 year-old boy, who had travelled all night by a government trawler from Salamo High School on Fergusson Island, just to arrive in time on mainland Dogura for classes at 9.00 am the next day, wrote: “Oh, rose, rose, rose/How I love you so/But your hairy body is prickling me!” instead of complaining perhaps of sea-sickness. At Utu High, another 15 year-old having similarly travelled from Manus to be present at the New Ireland workshop, wrote: “Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes/Always picking on me for mistakes in grammar/But I know this is love, love, love.”

It was quite an experience watching these youngsters pore over their exercise books, trying to write poems and short stories. All the more amazing was their desire to travel long distances, by sea, air, land or foot, just to be present at the workshops. They were certainly taking creative writing seriously; for creativity, says the sage in literature, is the birthright of every human being. Their teachers would later write to us saying how much our presence meant to them in improving their sense of creativity as much as empowering them to conquer and tame this imposing foreign language called English.
 Thus, the humble beginnings albeit consolidation of what must correctly be seen as PNG Literature. Earlier, of course, at the Waigani Campus, Ulli Beier had succeeded in selling worldwide but only one aspect of PNG Literature. This aspect falls more on the category of protest or anti-colonial literature than on what Jack Lahui and I had intended to promote through the Department of Information and Extension Services as PNG Literature overall. Jack was then editor of “Papua New Guinea Writing” when I joined him while at the same time conducting the popular National Literary Competition. The literary competition drew interest from writers all over PNG. The university crowd, in particular, dominated the prizes, and the winning entries were then published by the Literature Bureau.

The competition itself was divided into various sections, from open field to entries catering for secondary and primary schools. Myths and legends, oral histories and essays, even vernacular entries accompanied by translations, also found slots for themselves in prize money within the budget of these national literary competitions. With that amount of work at hand, one can imagine the amount of reading material produced and made available as part and parcel of PNG Literature.
But Jack and I believed sincerely that ours was an extension, indeed a continuation, of PNG Literature whose origins go as far back as the 1890s. There is ample evidence that our national literature began to flourish around that time, mainly at church surroundings and through the influence of earlier missionaries. In 1895, for example, barely five years after the landing of the first missionaries at Kaieta, Dogura, on August 10th 1891, myths and legends were already being written in the English language by the so-called natives at a place called Makawana (now Mukawa) in the Milne Bay Province. By 1900 this creative writing enterprise culminated in its actual objective of activity, and that was translating the Bible into “Mukawa” language, which was really a creolization of the Anuki, Are and Gapapaiwa languages. (That explains why the present generation cannot read and understand the Mukawa version of the Bible.) In 1904 the entire “Mukawa” translation went into print in London and was ready for distribution along the north coast of Papua the following year. Speakers of these three languages along with their English speaking missionary counterparts needed a common field of experience in communication in order for them to understand each other. Hours had been spent under modawa and mango trees, trying to decide on a language that could be understood by all parties. In the end the task of learning languages became a two-way process for all parties concerned. 
But hitting two birds with one stone is the point I am getting at here. Successful translation of the entire Bible into a local language accounts for the very development of the literature of that locality, irrespective of whatever choice of language it appears in. Thus, the first written PNG myths and legends. Notice that these myths and legends were written by the natives themselves, unlike those collected in the western districts of British New Guinea some decades later by the government anthropologist F.E. Williams, including those of Malinowski’s and at certain instances, by way of illustrating a point, Mead. A written literature of a nation is born when a native of that country sits down and consciously writes it. What followed the Mukawa writers of myths and legends came spontaneously everywhere in PNG as a common experience of scribbling thoughts on paper, most times in the form of letters to loved ones, and often in the lingua franca (not excluding English) used by the missionaries, such as Mukawa, Wedau, Dobu, Suau or Motu in Eastern Papua, Kuanua in the New Guinea islands, Zia, Siassi, Waria etc in the Momase region and Nagum Boiken, Arapesh and Telefomin further west. In the Highlands region, PNG Literature was encouraged through a similar process by the Catholic Church mainly, and later through other denominations in partnership with the SIL translation programs.
Even within these church environs, some attention to creativity was given by our people. Autobiographies and generally accounts of personal experiences began to flourish by the turn of the last century. Aside from the Mukawa writers, we have on record works by Osea Linge of East New Britain (as reported by Minol and Wolfers). Now Osea Linge was a charismatic figure, but a colourful one at that. A hunter by profession his brothers would laugh at him as he took off before dawn in search of wild game in the forest instead of going to school with them. Soon the laughter became too much to bear and he decided to teach his brothers a lesson by going to school himself. Now there are so many hymns sung in Kuanua today which are attributed to his sense of creativity. Moreover, his work would be among the first by way of book publications that fall under the category of PNG Literature. His book “Erstwhile Savage”, first written in Kuanua, was later translated into English by a woman missionary in 1932. This was followed by two more books, and these the UPNG Bookshop is currently preparing to re-publish under its PNG classics program, which includes works by Kiki’s, Eri’s, Kumalau Tawalai’s and so on.
 In all, what we regard as PNG Literature today from Albert Maori Kiki onwards is merely the tip of an iceberg of what we actually own as our “written” literature and this goes back to the 1890s. While many see “Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime” as the first PNG autobiography or “The Crocodile” as the first PNG novel, PNG Literature took its form as such much earlier than that, the Mukawa writers and Osea Linges being examples. There is a wealth of written material available in government archives, and in the monthlies and bi-annuals produced by both the government and the churches, such as “Talaigu”, “Pren bilong mi”, “The Papuan Villager”, “Catholic News” to name a few. These constitute PNG Literature.  
There are also arguments at certain quarters, particularly within university circles, that PNG Literature does not contain enough reading material to warrant its existence as a course offering at both tertiary and secondary/primary school levels. For those of us who are actively involved in developing PNG Literature, we see such arguments as coming from those who specialize in marginal literatures and not mainstream literatures. Indeed, PNG Literature has established itself well enough as an academic discipline, and finds its equivalents in the literary and cultural disciplines of other nations such as American Civilization, American Studies, African-American Studies, African and Caribbean Literature, British Literature, Singapore-Malaysian Literature, Indian Literature... the list goes on in English speaking countries.

                                2. You find yourself at the college green of a campus regarded as the centre of American civilization, and as you stand there admiring the surroundings, an elderly academic walks up and joins you. After a few words of greetings he asks what you are doing there. When you explain that you are there to teach PNG Literature, he suddenly feels he must visit his doctor.

You let the good professor go, of course.

A minute later, a much younger and athletic looking individual, probably a freshman in the natural sciences walks up. He asks you the same question. You give him the same reply. His face lights up, but warns that he has only a few minutes to spare in listening, and if not convinced, he’ll enrol in another course as an elective. So you take him by the hand and lead him to the library, for that school boasts of over 15 million books in its possession, go through all the stalls, and there, sure enough, at an appropriate section, is a copy of “Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime.” There is your evidence, you tell the young man, and before you know it you found yourself a friend for the rest of the morning. Now you have to convince him that the course you are offering is worth all the trouble in the world (assure him that Thoreau, Emerson and Dickinson are synonymous with Kiki, Eri, Wedega and Kilage, that Obama* will make a fine president, and encourage the young man to believe in himself as a product of a larger and most powerful culture in the world) before he also decides to go to Iraq or some other corner of the earth in search of new discoveries.

Tell him that Papua New Guinea is rich in all its resources and has a wealth of cultural knowledge, 20% of which is published and in book form while 80% lies untapped and deeply embedded in the unconscious segments of human memory.  
Before embarking on teaching the course proper, you must familiarize your friend with the sort of ideological and philosophical connections PNG has with his country, especially in literary studies. Point out the similarities between Kiki and Thoreau, for example. In Kiki the notion of self-hood, self-assertion and self-respect stand out powerfully, whereas in Thoreau that same phenomenon of the individual transcends all else in order to find a greater meaning in life and human existence. Kiki talks about the significance of human life by drawing out ideas from his own personal experiences as a product of colonialism. Thoreau on the other hand opts for the same method of explications, except that he would rather remove himself physically from the humdrums of industrial environs and lead an exemplary life in nature or some quiet geographical setting. You must also point out earnestly that the reason why America is such a powerful industrial state in the world is that virtually every American takes a very simple poet and philosopher like Henry David Thoreau seriously in much the same way your country would regard Albert Maori Kiki. Thoreau teaches, for example, that in order for a country to become rich and powerful it must first be willing to cut down its expenditures on its wants and increase its spending on its needs.
When you have established that connection as your base, you can now proceed to teach the course proper. Now the amount of material constituting PNG Literature is so big that scholars and researchers have difficulty in determining where to start. Following T.S. Eliot’s mathematical rule of objective correlatives (that of arranging data in their logical sequence from point A to Z) you begin where the main focal point of PNG Literature lies. PNG Literature can, therefore, be viewed through four main compartments of study and research. Firstly, protest or anti-colonial literature; secondly, works of self-appraisal or autobiographical writing; thirdly, social commentaries and criticism; and finally, oral literature and traditions.

Protest or anti-colonial literature deals with PNG’s struggle to re-assert itself in the face of the world and subsequently prove its existence as a member of the overall global setting. This category of PNG Literature was the one publicized and distributed widely through Ulli Beier’s entrepreneurship. It includes works such as Kasaipwalova’s Reluctant Flame (which sold out in New York in 1972), Leo Hannett’s The Ungrateful Daughter, John Waiko’s The Unexpected Hawk and Kumalau Tawali’s The Bush Kanak Speaks, to mention a few. This segment alone would take up three weeks of reading and research in a given semester.

Works of self-appraisal or autobiographical writings include those of Kiki’s Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime, Wedega’s Listen My Country, Kadiba’s Growing Up in Mailu, Osea Linge’s Erstwhile Savage and Kilage’s My Mother Calls Me Yaltep, to mention a few. This category of PNG Literature covers those insights that researchers from other cultures would anticipate knowing. No other art form succeeds in truthfully representing the soul of a people and a country than the autobiography. It is through this form of literature that other countries become aware of the inner and psychological workings of a country. This segment also would take up three weeks of semester work.

Works of social criticism and commentary look at the way a nation re-examines itself, for a life without any element of self-criticism to it (says Socrates) is a life not worth living at all. This segment in your case would include works such as Nora Vagi Brash’s Which Way Big Man, Moses Maladina’s Tabu, Sorariba Nash’s A Medal without Honour and the novels Wanpis and Maiba, to name a few. This segment would again take up another three weeks of semester work.

Oral literature and traditions which forms the fourth compartment of study and research in PNG Literature constitutes 80% of the country’s literary material, much of which is yet undiscovered but there enough to be delved into and understood. It best represents the arena of PNG’s very attempts at re-discovering and knowing itself, and in further observing the epistemological reconstructs of its own cultural identity. This type of literature comes in myths and legends, oral and family histories, fables and light operas, dances, tattoos and associated decorations which do require serious study and research as far as traditional knowledge systems go. This would also take up three weeks of a semester.
All this would make up the necessary equipment you need in your pursuit of teaching PNG Literature in the world’s renowned universities. Indeed, our literature cannot be seen merely as a particle in greater arenas of global discourse, and should no longer be dubbed in with the rest of the world’s intellectual preoccupations such as literature of new nations, emergent literatures, whatever that is, indigenous writings, post-colonial literatures, new writings from the Pacific, and so on. You must believe sincerely that your country has come of age and is now ready to offer meaningful courses in the global arena of intellectualism in other universities as well. Moreover, you are there no longer as a budding graduate student attempting to defend a dissertation on the new literatures of the Pacific region but as a professor of repute from PNG at an American university. On this point, I think we should commend Steven Winduo for being a visiting professor teaching PNG Literature at the University of Minnesota last semester (2007/8 U.S. academic year).

Finally, what new idea is there for the world to know? PNG’s world view overall through literature is divided into two: the philosophies of lusman and wanpis. A PNG individual is one or the other, and that is how the whole world is seeing Papua New Guinea at present. The lusman is one who believes that he is by nature free to exist and do whatever he wants. In fact, he is free to exist without any rules attached to his conduct and behaviour. The wanpis is basically the same, but with one difference. He has a conscience, and that’s the worrying part. He is not just free as a human being. He is, as the appropriate philosopher puts it, condemned to be free. All these instances of philosophical enquiry boil down to that one focal point of what PNG Literature is: the wanpis phenomenon. Whereas the lusman possesses all the vulnerabilities that can lead a country to total ruin and downfall, the wanpis does not. And that is the greatest phenomenon that we have about ourselves and which we would like to share with the world, even at the campuses that exist as the centres of their respective countries and their civilizations.
*This article was published in The Weekender of The National newspaper of Papua New Guinea some many moons before the election of Obama as President of the United States.