Friday, March 25, 2011

Reading into a story

"It was raining outside. Alotau was entering its wet season...Dasaid nodded with a smile, then sat back in his chair, listening to the music of the night’s rain and immortal silence.”

Those sentences come from a short story titled: “Introducing Dasaid.” It was written and published in 1979 but has been re-written and popularized so much readers think it was written just yesterday.

Anyway, the protagonist of that story, Dasaid, is a product of colonialism, one might say, though he himself would consider his own character and faculty of thought as otherwise. That is, he would prefer to be regarded as Dasaid; nothing more, nothing less.

In that story an attempt is made by Dasaid’s contemporaries, and post-contemporaries alike, to scrutinize and deconstruct his being thoroughly to find flaws, if any, in his character. They find little or none and this puzzles them somewhat. Ultimately, the colleagues send out what appears to be their “secret weapon” in the person of Yoyo, a tutor in Literature at the University of Papua New Guinea. Yoyo manages to hunt down Dasaid at Alotau where a three-day interview is conducted with the latter.

After which, Yoyo returns to the Waigani campus more frustrated than ever, just to declare to his superiors: “The guy is impossible. He just cannot be engaged in a reasonable conversation.”

To which, this reply from one of his post-graduate supervisors, with a knowing smile and taking up the pen to acquit the cost of the trip: “One should imagine so, considering how impressively deceptive things can get if one wishes to interview this – this music of night rains and immortal silences.”

Thereupon, Yoyo walks away biting a lip of covetous irritation for Dasaid more than the regret of his having had taken the trouble, at all, once in his many moments of studentship conviviality, to read Freud and Derrida. Freud because one is given a leeway in “reading into a story” and Derrida because one has the opportunity of beating around the bush a bit (which is a favourite preoccupation of academics everywhere) before reaching the conclusion that really there is no point in arguing over a given text.

And it is true. One cannot interview “the music of a night’s rain and immortal silence.”

Of course, the trapping that Yoyo got himself into was that in meaning to interview Dasaid it was he, Yoyo, who was interviewed albeit treated as the subject. Dasaid never said a word beyond a few gestures of greetings and offers of cigarettes during their so-called three day interview.

But that is Dasaid, a fictitious character; and that is how he wants others to regard him. The more we try to know such a character, the more vulnerable we become in laying bare our own weaknesses and shortcomings.

And now to the point of what storyboard is getting at here: the use of language and choice of words.

In that short story, which runs for a page a half, everything about grammar in the English language is present – except the auxiliary verb. There are doing verbs, certainly; but there are no pre-qualifiers to them.

According to the author of this story, pre-qualifiers are allowable items that help decorate a creative piece of writing. But they are not absolutely necessary.

By pre-qualifiers we mean certain probables such as “Thou mayest” or “Thou mayest not” and so on. These are missing. And if we asked the author why this was so, he would, aside from recommending “Thou shalt not”, promptly reply: “They are unnecessary burdens that distract more than help tell the truth.”

Upon the shelves of filing cabinets such pre-qualifiers, if included as parts of records in libraries and archives, can turn out to be less reliable than truthful. In many cases they may become cause or causes of human conflict. A document among them, for example, might read as follows: “Where two or three are gathered in the name of justice to preside over the case of a senior officer’s misconduct in office involving misappropriation of millions in the nation’s earnings, the onus lies within the power of the said three to determine whether or not the worthy and learned senior officer may be penalized.” You can see the obvious, now, regarding the auxiliary verbs. They mean a complete waste of everybody’s time. Woe unto that native English speaker who claims to know his own language well, while in fact he should be the one telling us, “Guilty. Penalize him.”

And so we go back to our selection of sentences again and realize how much of the unnecessary jargon has been left out, all in the name of truth:

“It was raining outside. Alotau was entering its wet season. Dasaid rolled a third cigarette and asked Yoyo if he wanted it. Yoyo quickly got up from his chair and took it. He lit it and sat down, smoking hurriedly, greedily, until the cigarette burnt out... Dasaid nodded with a smile, then sat back in his chair, listening to the music of the night’s rain and immortal silence.”

Now, delicate reader, feel free to attack the passage. Dissect it, deconstruct it, analyse it as much as you must because the protagonist has given the nod with a smile. The auxiliaries are missing. And thank God the story was written by someone who never became the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea.

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.”