Thursday, March 10, 2011

The literary marvels of Tufi

From left: Drusilla Modjeska, Hilary McPhee, Max Forman, Storyboard, John Wesley Vaso and (front) Jan Hasselberg.
What is it about the fjords of Tufi that makes them special in Papua New Guinea?

Snorkelling? Scuba-diving? Fishing? Lobsters or crayfish at the dinner table? Or the land mass of Tufi itself with so many fjords and estuary-looking bays and inlets that go zigzagging north and south of its coastline? Or the villager who would like to sit down with us, his visitors, and tell us about those days when the Kotofu ruled the surrounding hills and mountains, including the fjords that go deep into the sides of the mountains; those days when the warrior kotofu rushed down to the shores with spears to welcome strangers in large sailing vessels; or those days when a certain class of kotofu met and negotiated with the visitors over a certain portion of the fjords for the price of a few sticks of tobacco and axes?
From whatever aspect we look at the fjords, the answers to those questions are numerous. Some answers can set our minds at rest. But there are answers, questions in fact, that are waiting there, yet to be asked or answered, in order to make us all feel at ease.

One of these questions would be the fjords themselves, as looked at from the point of view of writing and generally literature. That was what storyboard went to find out last weekend at the request of fellow writers from Australia and Papua New Guinea wanting to treat the resort as a central meeting place. There several questions were raised and answered – but only to a degree; since a lot was in want of (should one say) investigation.
One of the things looked at was in the area of writing novels. Now Drusilla Modjeska, a long time visitor and friend to the people of Tufi, had always wanted to write a novel about that part of the world. And now she feels she has completed the manuscript. But the thing that makes her hesitate a little about publishing it is the fact that she feels she is an outsider looking at a setting that is outside her own view.
How can one overcome such a dilemma, one may ask. Well, storyboard and those around Tufi area who know Drusilla very well, think that this can be done by having the author accompanied by friends in the know sit down and talk about the book with the villagers before going into press. And this is what storyboard went over to Tufi to do: to talk about the book with friends in the village and set a date for its launching nowhere else but at that village.
The book is about a mountain, which could be Mt Lamington or anyone of the highest mountains around Tufi Wanigela area. It is well narrated using that mountain as a metaphor and this becomes the central theme which in turn poses as a web weaving all the different language groups of the area together. In short, it is a novel about the Oro Province with the mountain looming at the background as that entity that keeps all these little groups of people together.
The undercurrents of all that would be the sort of questions we would ask about the province and the sort of answers we would anticipate to them. But what comes to the reader’s mind so powerfully is the question of whether or not we are content as we are now. Or are there rather questions within the undercurrents that are yet to be asked and answered.

Of course, when a writer is faced with that dilemma, he or she must need some critiquing from the people for whom the book is written in the first place. And so storyboard goes to that meeting, along with a kotofu from the Maisin area who might assist with the critiquing – including the villagers themselves as objective readers and critics.

Drusilla Modjeska’s novel, “The Mountain”, is a big book in its own right. Not only does it trace the history of written literature in Papua New Guinea through various characters posing as writers of the 60s and the 70s of the pre-Independent era, but other aspects of the country’s development towards nationhood. All this happens entirely in fiction. But all the characters, both white and black, are as truthful sounding as ever, then, now and in the future. And this is what Modjeska wanted the people of Tufi, especially those at Siu Village, to know and if possible comment upon. And here’s the catch of it all. All royalties from the sale of that book will go to the people of that and surrounding villages to help pay for their children’s school fees. Not a bad fishing trip round the fjords, eh?
Modjeska was also accompanied by a fellow writer called Hilary McPhee, herself a writer but better known as a publisher who had helped so many young Australian writers gain international exposure. So when we see a publisher and a writer or a group of writers milling around the Tufi fjords this turns out to be a big thing,  effects of which might be felt in the not too distant future. Other people present at this meeting were John Wesley Vaso of Uiaku in the Maisin area and Jan Hasselberg of Norway.
John Wesley Vaso (left) and Max Forman (Headmaster of Tufi Primary School) at a Siu village guest house.
John Wesley Vaso was present there as a village elder and member of the kotofu of Maisin because he has been working with Drusilla Modjeska for many years: writing manuscripts, re-writing and editing them. But his presence there finally boiled down to the question of what is happening to the people of Collingwood Bay area today. Are they happy? Are they content? Or is there anything happening in their area that might need attention both at the national and international levels?

Perhaps the answer to that lies in the way the other member of this group, Jan Hasselberg of Norway, reacted when he first came to Tufi as a tourist. The fjords reminded him of his own country and generally the Scandinavian parts of Western Europe. Therein lies one’s idea of beauty in landscape as much as the sea that moves in gracefully or otherwise to meet it. To Hasselberg Tufi is another way of looking at the beauty of his own country. But if a tourist like Hasselberg comes to our country to snorkel around, do a bit of scuba-diving and even go fishing, and then see that things just next door are not right, then truly he too shall be disturbed.
To this group of writers, Jan Hasselberg declared one evening at the resort’s dinner table: “You know, of all the friends that I have been meeting at this resort this is the best group that I have met and have become part of.” Hence, storyboard’s choice of the title of this article.
But Jan Hasselberg’s other reactions to being at Tufi at all can be summed up in just this one intriguing sentence through an article that he himself has written: “Keroroa (Mt Victory) is weeping...yet another example of how the assets of the people and the nation are given away to end up as luxury cars and diamond rings in Kuala Lumpur and Sydney, or turtle- and shark fin soup in Shanghai.”