Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Transitions and Transformations
Literature, Politics and Culture in Papua New Guinea
available from the University Bookshop, University of Papua New Guinea

A book review by Russell Soaba

“Transitions and Transformations” is a new publication by Dr Steven Winduo from the University of Papua New Guinea Bookshop. Aptly sub-titled “Literature, Politics and Culture in Papua New Guinea” the book serves its purpose well in answering the academic and intellectual needs of literature and political science students at third and fourth year levels of study.

But the book itself in Winduo’s publications checklist aims to do more than just restrict itself to the classroom environment. It is to re-awaken the slumbering intellect now comfortably nestled in our institutions of higher learning throughout the country. Indeed, and with the sort of political rigmarole of the hours that goes on in our prominent national universities such as UPNG and UNITECH, our literature, as written by Papua New Guineans, is not embraced enough not only by the Education Department, or the Office of Higher Education for that matter, but also by those in power who should be doing better.

Consider the following narrative as excerpted from this new book:

“Rabbie Namaliu and John Kasaipwalova are said to have quickly realised that drama and fiction can be used as ‘a basis of commentary on their country and the new nationalism, with particular reference to colonialism as they understood it’. Kiki and Matane achieved the status of ‘grand old men of letters’ while Kasaipwaloa and Soaba assumed the role of ‘token rebellious youth’. But such labels served to pamper their creative impulses more than to build up the recognition accorded by any nation to its writers. Papua New Guinea has forgotten its early writers. They have been abandoned, just as happens to the character Jimi Damebo, the writer-figure in Soaba’s Wanpis. The death of Jimi Damebo in Wanpis can be viewed as signifying the death of any serious support for the development of literary culture in Papua New Guinea. The birth of PNG literature in the late 1960s and its developments in the early 1970s had the full support of the Administration of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. In Papua New Guinea today the scenario is one of neglect. Access to publishing opportunities, writing grants and support groups is very limited. Russell Soaba often reminds me that the life of a Papua New Guinean writer is a difficult one because the society itself is a difficult one.”

As early as the 1920s Papua New Guineans had already begun publishing their thoughts in the English language. The government anthropologist, F.E. Williams, initiated an ambitious experiment known as “The Papuan Villager” through which they were able to do so. It was a good start, although in some areas there was scant certainty as to the authenticity of material published. Some argued that the government anthropologist wrote most of the stories, consisting of myths and legends, himself.

That should not, however, deter us from digging into the scholarly aspects of what is being written by way of literature today. “Transitions and Transformations” does exactly that, but with a tremendous sense of scholarly intent. The book itself is a heavily researched monument of literary preoccupations covering an important era in our literary history - from those anthropological collections of myths and legends of the 1920s to Ulli Beier’s creative writing boom of the 1960s and 70s and, indeed, to the academic enquiries and theoretical discourses of the present. And as far as formalist approaches go in literary scholarship it is so well written that it feels all the more entertaining for the ordinary reader as well.

The book contains altogether 16 chapters that both the student and the general reader will also find familiar. Chapters such as “Unwriting the Papuan Villager”, “Writing the Political Unconscious”, “Constructing Indigenous Poetics”, ‘Creative Spirit and Political Energy”, “Literary Culture as Intellectual Capital”, “Contemporary Undercurrents”, “Oral History to Folk Opera” and “Transitions and Transformations”, to name a few.

Then there are those that both the student and researcher into PNG literature find memorable, including the internationally acclaimed essays such as “Double Conscience Without the Instrument to Liberate” or “Wanpis Existentialism” where the Papua New Guinean is seen as “an object of knowledge, exhibition and control.”   But each chapter is a kind of diary as set down daily, week by week, month by month and year by year by a writer such as Steven Winduo who stands in the lecture room today and makes both the students and us eternally aware and warns us subsequently that our culture, our literary attempt at understanding ourselves as a nation, is the thing that matters the most.

All the 16 chapters become dialectical embodiments, as it were, of true scholarship that make us wonder if our critics, who declare openly that our institutions of higher learning have lost face a bit, could think twice about what is actually being taught in the classroom environment to the younger generations that follow us today.

As recently as last week there was a squabble reported of certain MPs and Ministers of parliament opting for full time studies at UPNG, even during their terms as members of parliament. Aside from Post Courier’s beautiful editorial on this which sounded more like a eulogy than anything else (Thursday 21/3/13), we ask: “What has really gone wrong with our country? But more precisely: what is it about our institutions of higher learning that makes even an MP want to pursue further studies at, for example, places like UPNG? The answer to such musings is quite simple: in drafting our Constitution we forgot that the crucial point at heart was education for all. It seems that our Constitution has addressed everything else in our country – except the clause dealing with proper education for all, be they ordinary citizens or members of the national parliament.

“Transitions and Transformations” by Steven Edmund Winduo is an important publication. While we would like to think that it is targeted towards senior students of literature and political science at UPNG it is quite, at yet another level, an important indicator for all of us.
Published simultaneously today by the Post Courier of Papua New Guinea.