Friday, July 29, 2011

Norway's fearful Friday

What a sad day!

I was in my car all day, driving home from friends in Sweden. I followed my plan to stay north of Oslo, and passed that area an hour before the bomb went off. I even drove by the shore of the lake where many youngsters were shot and killed two hours later. My radio was on all day and the continuous updates just turned more and more horrifying and unbelievable as I was driving westward. Now I’m back in my house. It’s just before midnight and I have seen the Prime minister and others giving their comments, condolences and reactions on TV.

This day is going to affect the whole nation in several ways and for years and decades. In the next few days we will find out who are among the victims, and in a small country like Norway so many will be personally affected. I also know people working in the buildings that were bombed in Oslo. I keep my fingers crossed.

That is Jan Hasselberg writing close to midnight, Friday, 22nd July, in the quiet of his home in Bergen, Norway.

By midnight and Saturday morning 23rd July he will have emailed that message to friends and acquaintances everywhere, including storyboard and many others in Papua New Guinea.

A sad day indeed for Norway, a country as small as ours.

Readers will remember Jan Hasselberg. He was among that little group of writers  gathered at the Tufi Dive Resort upon a weekend of March earlier this year (4-6/03/11). See The Literary Marvels of Tufi. Jan (pronounced Young) described himself then as “itinerant Tufi resident” when storyboard met him and as always was busy at his lap top in between conversations that sometimes touched lightly on the similarities of fjords in Norway and those of Tufi.
 “Is Norway as peaceful as our Tufi surroundings here?” storyboard asked Jan once. No, came the prompt reply, my country is just as bad as any story you hear about corruption in your country, and away he would go. There were the logging disturbances at Collingwood Bay, he would maintain; where is there peace anywhere on this globe for us sad writers and artists. Are we way out? Are we odd? He was a nice man to meet and strike up a conversation with. All the more nicer to hear that he is safe and sound where by this time the varying theories on this notion of the “terrorist” entity is further engulfing the norms of ordinary human concentration. And then again all sorts of questions are being asked and slung as weapons by one group of humanity against another, one religious sect against another, one extreme against another, and so on and so forth.

In Papua New Guinea we are not quite used to such threats of “unrestful silences” as Conrad would put it straight from the “heart of darkness”, or violence, if we can describe them as that. But oh, yes, we do have our own notion of civil or social differences, and nine times out of ten we deal with them successfully, almost every day of our lives – but not in as horrifying a manner as those bombings and wanton slayings as in Norway or elsewhere which, unfortunately for us, require a lot of theorizing. And these theories lead nowhere else but to utter confusion which the so-called civilized parts of the globe regard as rational thinking. One needs only look up the blogs, read the newspapers and view various channels of the TV box to see what all that is about.

When Jan Hasselberg sat down to write at his desk in the peace and quiet of Tufi in March earlier this year he felt he was far removed from the hum drum of intellectual noise that affects much of Europe today, at this very hour. We see a man carrying on with his life upon the age of retirement, going out to open sea, tasting the salt air, scuba diving or fishing, then coming back to a lovely evening and a dinner table laden with crabs and oysters. The only moment of disturbance he felt there and then was the way humanity began to meddle with ancient and ancestral land marks such as Keroroa (Mt Victory, so named after Lord Nelson’s battleship). He even wrote a nice coffee table type of article called “Keroroa is weeping” which covers much of the logging activities that go on around Collingwood Bay area.  A full text of that article will appear shortly in one of the storyboard blogs.

Some of the information regarding the tragedy of Norway mentioned here comes from Jan’s fellow Norwegian citizen, Aslak Sira Myhre (, Sunday 24 July 2011 13.25 BST). There we get into the inner workings of such modes of “unrestful silences”. That in turn forces us to wonder, as a very small country and far removed from the rest of the world, if what we hear about Norway will eventually reach our shores one day. Those premonitions we are not in the position to see, but we do have our own moments of uncertainty and doubt. And though we are often described as “the land of the unexpected” our choice of taking the middle ground of things seems to be adamant. But that should not mean we have a fate we will never know.

A further reading of Aslak Sira Myhre’s lamentation leads one to some sort of conclusion that Norway’s tragedy affects us all in one way or another. Those awkward yet indefinable moments of “unrestful silences” become our mystery as much as any other cultural group or setting. But as we read Myhre’s opinions as well as others we take particular note of the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s remarks that what we all need in times like these is “more democracy and openness.”

Now as writers we should know how to interpret such a phrase: that we must talk about things that bother us; that we must be alert about the next step we take; and that in this modern age of hi-tech distractions, it is best we keep our fingers busy with every strum of the guitar chord, with every turn of the pen on paper. And out of all that comes the anticipated poetry and song. That is where the dance is.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hollywood’s misconceptions about Papua New Guinea

By Nou Vada

  “I’m finished with this crap. I’m going to Papua New Guinea. I’m outa here. I’m going off the grid. No more franchises. No more botox. No more ‘Oh, let’s clone another sheep’... and certainly no more sexual harassment suites...”  
These are the remarks made by one of the characters in the 2008 Hollywood flick Accepted, starring Justin Long (Die Hard 4.0), Jonah Hill (The Rocker) and Maria Thayer. The character in question – what I’ll describe as a cynical old man – speaks of Papua New Guinea as a care-free, backward country where progress and civil ethics are irrelevant in society. To another 2008 Hollywood flick, The Condemned, starring World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin, Papua New Guinea is the host country to a globally broadcast free-for-all reality show where the contestants – hard-core criminals from around the world – are let out into the Sepik jungles to kill each other, the last surviving contestant winning his freedom. Accepted and The Condemned are examples of film that portray a bad image of Papua New Guinea to the world. These films impress on movie-goers everywhere that Papua New Guinea is an outrageously dangerous place to visit. 
Then there are films which completely distort Papua New Guinean culture. There are so many I’ve seen and would mention if I had the time to properly research them, but I’ll mention two. I suspect many Papua New Guineans did notice that in the cannibal Island in the Caribbean that Captain Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp) deserts to in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the face-paint worn by a couple of natives is distinctly Papua New Guinean; the most obvious of these is the bright yellow of the Wigmen of Southern Highlands and Hela, which in the film, is worn by one such cannibal native of the West Indies. One more film comes to mind. Bruce Lee in New Guinea, a flick made after the death of the real Bruce Lee and was a product of the Kung-Fu craze that had engulfed popular culture in the 1970s and 1980s. In that film, the Bruce Lee inspired protagonist sets off to investigate a special type of martial arts practiced in the New Guinea Islands. The film’s depiction of New Guinea Islanders is awful. Papua New Guinean natives are played by Asians. The bilas these ‘natives’ adorn themselves with are those of American Indians. I recall now my father in a movie-buff’s rage taking the disc out of the VCD player and breaking it.
There are so many more examples of inaccurate and ignorant portrayals of Papua New Guinean society and culture in motion pictures. The issue I put forward to whoever else noticed was why this was so. General awareness of Papua New Guinea around the world is poor. Those who have heard of Papua New Guinea will usually say the things films like Accepted and The Condemned present; that Papua New Guinea is a primitive and dangerous yet beautiful exotic paradise. Our efforts to turn this country into an international tourist destination are made difficult with such an existing global perception of our country. I wondered why big budget Hollywood film franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean would make such ignorant blunders and so I raised the question with one of UPNG’s Art and Culture experts; the image of the ‘Asian-apache’ New Guinea Islanders and the touch-down of a G6 private jet aircraft in what could only be a fabled international airport in the bush of Aitape as in The Condemned were fresh in my mind.

The expert’s response was as enlightening as it was heavy. “Papua New Guineans are partly to blame for all this”, he said, referring to the mis-portrayals of our country in film. I asked him how it could be. “Well, you people haven’t done enough films about yourselves and your country,” came the response. I felt the devastation of this truth hit me hard. Harder still was this confused feeling I felt that I was somehow personally blameworthy for this truth. I had championed the chorus of condemnation against Hollywood and film industries elsewhere for portraying Papua New Guinean society and culture so negligently, never once had I stopped that this negligent portrayal was simply the by-product of our own inability to show the film makers of the world and the world at large on film what real Papua New Guinean society and culture is. Film makers and screen-writers aren’t cultural anthropologists; the most primary knowledge of content they’ll have recourse to is the work of other film makers rather than academic sources. The thought was profound. Papua New Guinea hasn’t made enough films about Papua New Guineans and Papua New Guinea for film makers elsewhere to know exactly what Papua New Guinea is and looks like.

The gloominess gave way to a feeling of urgency. I returned to my dorm, determined as ever to settle a screen-play the general idea of which had been sifting around in my mind for quite a while. The setting of the story is UPNG in the present. I imagined it would be at its core a love story, but I’d throw in a bit of socio-political undertones as well. In all honesty, I hadn’t decided how this love story would unfold. To that extent some of my friends came in with different angles and plots and twists to these plots; mostly derived from their own experiences in UPNG. Over the next few nights we discussed this as a yet unwritten screenplay. We thought of the quirky characters we could put in, the contemporary and political symbolism and imagery we could deploy. We decided a policeman would be a character and in honour of the Major we were studying, we’d put a Law student in the story – a kind of tortured soul. I was interested in the music we could use. I thought Wass Kadoi’s Vaisi would be a good soundtrack for a montage scene in the film.
The screenplay is still not written. Like many other good ideas Papua New Guinea literary artists wish to pursue, there is no clear future for such a screenplay if I finished it tomorrow. We need a film industry in Papua New Guinea. The true fault of the current inaccuracy and ignorance in portraying PNG in film lies with Papua New Guinea itself. Not to pardon the blunders of film makers, but this is the true gist of the issue.

Nou Vada is our regular guest writer on this blog and the National Weekender.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Unforgetable Yonki Dam

By Lee Whiejin

Photo courtesy of Malum Nalu

  The Yonki Dam, located in the Eastern Highlands, has become a household name in Papua New Guinea. The hydroelectric power plant on this dam has supplied electricity to five neighboring provinces. In my imagination the dam itself did seem to be huge and impressive. In fact from afar the seeming enormity of the dam was not even visible, and the dam was ensconced in the surroundings. The dam did not seem to evidence any feel of artificiality.  The construction of such a big dam would usually show a stark contrast with the backdrop nature of mountain hills and river.

   The embankment used as a road was not seen to be elevated, but on an even level with roads on both edges of the dam. I could barely notice its artificial shape and enormous size only when I stood in the middle of the dam and looked down upon the clear water falling down at the edge of water slope. The water did not flow over the steep downward slope, but under the slope due to dry season. It would be marvelous if the floodgate were open and let water run down the slope. The flow of water would have made a big noise. Though it was a man-made installation, it did not smell of any unbalanced, unnatural aspect. The location of the dam became part and parcel of the nature, assimilated into the mountains and Ramu River. I marvelled at the design and construction of the dam. People did talk about the Yonki dam not as much because of power generation, but because it contained natural elements as part of the river and valley.

   Electric power is considered as one of the main pillars in economic growth. Needless to say, without power factories cannot be run, and people might have to live in darkness once the sun sets. Formerly economic development has entailed environmental destruction, the shadow in its wake. But now it is to be long-term, taking into account the possible side effects upon the posterity, and should be economically sustainable and eco-friendly.  Among the various ways of generating power, using wind, tidal wave and sunlight is still under development and costly, though regarded as the power of the future. While the current main mode of power generation is hydroelectric, fuel and nuclear and has its own strength and weakness, hydroelectric power seems to stand out. PNG is blessed with plentiful rainfall throughout the year, adequate natural environment for hydroelectric power. It is anticipated that several other hydropower plants like the Yonki could be built, and benefit spread to every corner of this country.

   The Yonki hydropower plant was built 20 years ago by the Hyundai Construction Co., then the flagship of the Hyundai conglomerate led by the late mythical businessman Chung Juyoung. He had natural talent for business, though of short schooling. Underpinned by his vision and leadership, the company had made a great leap forward, working miracle in the business world. The Yonki dam was part of his great feat.

   Speaking of power supply, most dwellers in and around Port Moresby have heard of the Hanjung Kanudi power plant, whose power generating capacity is 24 MW, meeting about 30 % of electricity demand in NCD. The Kanudi plant, currently operated by Hanjung Heavy industries, is expected to be transferred to the PNG government in 2014.

His Excellency Lee Whiejin, our guest writer this week, is the South Korean Ambassador to Papua New Guinea. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Election Fever – A Rower’s Song revisited

“Elections in Paradise
Beer, rice and tinpis
The vote enticer”

Steven Winduo summarises election fever in Papua New Guinea in that one stanza. The stanza gives me a flashback to the last General Election, where in my village, maverick campaign managers came around with packets of rice and sugar to buy votes. The image of one such maverick manager comes to my mind so clearly. He was one of those villagers who disappeared from village-life years on end and spawned around at times when you only began to miss them. This campaign manager gave my mother packets of rice and sugar. I remember him now all these years later because he had such a skill justifying his bribery.

He said the goods were not bribes; rather they were gifts and even before Mother could say something he added that rejection of these “gifts” would adversely affect what I’ll now term as social and cultural efficacy. His reason was that every other household in our clan of houses had accepted the “gifts” and for my mother not to do so would cause scandal and possibly conflict. He spoke of the latter so tactfully it was impressive rather than apprehensive. The proposition as a whole was clever. My mother at the end accepted the gifts, and indeed we all saw them as gifts rather than bribes.
The poem Elections in Paradise is taken from A Rower’s Song, which is Dr. Winduo’s third book of poems. It is just 1 of 104 poems in the book which were written between 2000 and 2009 and capture the essence of this period in Papua New Guinea’s history. It was a period of deconstructing hopelessness that had become so structural in nature, and in our endeavours to do so our country entered “once more into the breach”, as Shakespeare would’ve put it.

The book carries in its poems stories of life in Port Moresby. Stories of settlements and villages like the one I lived in last election, of city suburbs and betel nut markets, and of those who long for the light, ideologically even literally (yes, city blackouts).

The characters in the poems are the characters of Port Moresby. These are Betel nut vendors, second-hand clothing merchants, charismatic street preachers, vulgar-tongued drunkards, church-going mothers and hangover fathers and little street seller kids.

The poems have that essence of contemporary Papua New Guinean society that everyday Papua New Guineans, especially those of us in Port Moresby live in. The cacophony and the stillness of these poems are moving because they are distinctly Papua New Guinean and Melanesian. Few pieces of Western literature come close to capturing this essence. Sir V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street is one novel I know that does.

Succession and destiny is one of the over-arching themes you’ll find in A Rower’s Song. In Little Star, a father wonders if his son could be the next leader. In Beggar, a tale of Papua New Guinean election culture is told. In One Nation, familiar laments of everyday Papua New Guinean are echoed. One particularly moving line in One Nation goes,

“Stand up for your future
The ones your children and mine
Will Judge
In their own time”

Next year is election year in Papua New Guinea. The Storyboard revisits A Rower’s Song by Dr. Steven Winduo and reminds everyone that whatever happens to this country, we can be sure of two things; firstly, we will only have ourselves to blame as voters of Public Office and secondly,
Papua New Guinea’s literary artists will document the moods, the emotions and the stories of the times in their work.

To that effect, we can say there arises a third certainty; that whenever such work is published, we at the Storyboard will discuss and dissect it for you.

Whatever happens and whoever you vote in Election year 2012, let us remember the last stanza of Elections in Paradise:

“Election is on everyone’s lips
As if politicians are the only ones
Who build a country?”
By Nou Vada
The writer is a keen follower/guest writer of the storyboard and is a second year Law major at the University of Papua New Guinea.

Friday, July 8, 2011

In the light of wisdom

In the light of such wisdom,
I am found wanting

There was a rusty kerosene lamp
of which my bubu had inordinate pride
He kept it lit
at his bedside mat
beside the firelight at night
I’d always wondered
why he’d bothered
to keep that relic of times long past
He’d always wondered why I’d asked
for his purpose seemed sure enough
And although my MagLite made him gasp
he said, “Such items come to pass.”
Awash in fire and lamplight both
we’d sit together of a night
ruminating on each the other’s plight
Mine modern – carefree, careless curiosities
His ancient – careworn, careful custodianship
On those brightly lit city streets
of which I had inordinate pride
no need for torch or kerosene light
beside the television light at night
too tired to ponder
why even bother
to regard such technological badges
those wondrous gizmo’s and cool gadgets
for my purpose seemed sure enough
And although my modernity makes me laugh
He said, “Such items come to pass.”
Awash in streetlamps and car beams both
there are no quiet sitting places
every rambling soul has a lonely plight
in a bright lit city with its haunted inhabitants
or a village hut darkened by my bubu’s ghost.
A poem by Michael Dom
Dedicated to Soaba’s Storyboard
(Courtesy of the National Weekender June 8th 2011) 

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Nam Le twist in straight narratives

Photo as adapted by the National Weekender.
Three years ago the name Nam Le was unknown throughout the literary world. Then in 2008, courtesy of Penguin Group (Australia), book lovers woke up to the arrival of this Vietnamese-born Australian author as “a disturber of peace.”

His critics raved on, among them the well-respected Barry Oakley who wrote, “The Boat (title of Nam Le’s book of short stories) raises the bar for Australian writing”, adding with irrevocable endorsement somewhat that “Nam Le has a nerve and a power, a refusal to take any setting, local or American or exotic, for granted, that leaves quite a few of our prize-winning authors for dead.”

Those words of appraisal in mind we would think that Nam Le’s mission in literary creativity is more than the phenomenon of ethnicity, whatever that may be, and which promises to dwell on reminding the world at large that it got all its literary perception and perspectives wrong. A question that immediately comes to our minds is how non ethnical Nam Le is when treating his art as overtly universal and seemingly indifferent to fixed local settings.

Perhaps the answer to that lies in Nam Le’s willingness, as a literary debutant, to seriously look at certain existing literary devices that for centuries man has been too timid to explore. After all, writing, and indeed literature, should be about re-writing literature as much as history, particularly the one that, as Barry points out above, sets a bar right across the board of what is and what is not. Storyboard believes Nam Le wants to do more than explore those literary devices, more particularly those devices that fall under the category of metaphor as a fitting mode of prose narrative.

There are seven short stories in The Boat and a telling aspect of them all is that each story is about as long as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or about as long as a single sentence in William Faulkner’s novels (most Faulkner novels are single sentences that run for over 300 pages). And it is from William Faulkner that Nam Le derives the phrase “love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” as the title of his opening short story. The other six are, consecutively: Cartagena, Meeting Elise, Halflead Bay, Hiroshima, Tehran Calling and The Boat.

We can see by the titles of the stories that there is a kind of literary mapping offered by the author especially those that appear as geographical contours tracing the reader’s literary consciousness. In the first story with strong Faulknerish albeit apocalyptic reflections we see glimpses of a father re-united with his son after years away through the son’s parents' separation. The son by then is doing a course at the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop. There one of the requirements in the form of a major paper is to submit a short story with strong sentiments of ethnicity. Notice the duties that the professors have assigned this budding writer: “I had two and a half days left. I would write the ethnic story of my Vietnamese father... I fed in a sheet of blank paper. At the top of the page I typed ‘ETHNIC STORY’ in capital letters. I pushed the carriage return and scrolled down to the next line. The sound of helicopters in a dark sky. The keys hammered the page.”

The Vietnamese father talked about in that story was one of the victims and survivors of the famous (or infamous) My Lai massacre, a major sequence in America’s withdrawal of its forces from Vietnam. It is, of course, a true story as related by the father to the son so that it could be written down. But rather than sound piteous about the massacre and how many lives lost, the author chooses a certain mode of narrative that, ethnicity or not, make us think of it as all too familiar.

“May be he didn’t tell it exactly that way,” writes Nam Le. “May be I’m filling in the gaps. But you’re not under oath when writing a eulogy, and this is close enough. My father grew up in the province of Quang Ngai, in the village of Son My, in the hamlet of Tu Cung, later known to the Americans as My Lai. He was fourteen years old.”

On the day that the major paper is to be submitted for assessment the father had, in the act of not only chastising but critiquing his son’s creative efforts, burnt the whole manuscript and sent it packing in the form ashes downriver. There goes the truth about My Lai.

The other six stories are similarly narrated: strong, incisive, less piteous, and all the time nudging the well experienced writer that “this is how it is done in creative literature.” And the literary device used therein is the metaphor, touching powerfully the edges of the surreal and the absurd: an old run down junk full of ghostly beings fleeing a certain fate (The Boat); a fourteen year-old boy in Columbia being manipulated as a drug pusher, getting “promoted” to an “office job”, a post where he will be closer to the drug lords and their empire, only to learn that to qualify he must eliminate a rival who happens to be his close friend simply because the friend has converted to a United Nations humanitarian aid program of sorts thereby placing the whole drug ring at risk, and that he must act fast since his own life is at risk, and that in his choice of suicidal assassination when in close range of the drug lord whom he is meeting in person for the first time, his hand in his hip pocket, having pulled out the pin of the hand grenade, he realizes to his dismay that the leader, the benefactor of all youth of Cartagena, is an albino, meaning a black man (Cartagena); a grade three little girl smiles before a camera just to be blinded temporarily by a sudden streak of bleaching flashlight from the lens (Hiroshima); a small town youth challenges a bully over a girl with threats of ethnic violence looming menacingly at the background (Halflead Bay); a haemorrhaging cancer-riddled father half bleeding to death in anticipation of meeting a lost but remorseless daughter after eighteen years (Meeting Elise); and a middle aged American woman curious about the complexities of gender issues in the Islamic world (Tehran Calling).  
We could talk about The Boat and Nam Le’s art more, space permitting, but for the moment just the mention of the book’s relevance to PNG. We have to read as much as we can books of this quality in order to get our world view polished up a bit. That book coupled with those of the Arabic world telling you about the oil rich desert countries, about those that romanticize Diaspora such as which Mogadishu- or Bengali-born individuals are trying to make do with what they have as their roots somewhere in the middle of New York, London or Paris, or about those that tell you, a respectable Papua New Guinean reader, that a certain Turkish-born Orhan Pamuk deserves to be read because he is the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and so on. (Mr. Orhan Pamuk must forgive us here but his surname in Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin denotes a term of the same spelling with strong sensuous connotations.)

But out of that variety of books we must certainly consider The Boat an equally enlightening bargain for the well-informed PNG reader.