Favourite titles

Favourite titles
Whether it is "Redefining literary techniques and devices", "Justifying Papua New Guinea Literature", or "Translating the Bible into Anuki", these offer valuable reading for the paperless student of literature, and indeed the best sort of literary entertainment you can get out of Papua New Guinea. Check them out either on Soaba's Storyboard or The Anuki Country Press.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

They never return

Modern interpretations of myths and legends prove useful in our attempt to understand ourselves as a people, a nation or a country. These interpretations give us our sense of identity as Papua New Guineans, our sense of place or geographical setting, and of the times that we live in.

One such interpretation of importance lies in the area of land ownership; who owns a particular stretch of land, water or sea. The other deals with the origin of plants and animals, and man’s relationship with the surrounding flora and fauna in general. Examples of these in PNG folklore or oral literature and traditions abound.

But we do not often look at the significance of the much more heavier and philosophical aspects of interpretation surrounding the phenomena of life and death, the quest of immortality, and the search of a deity to fear or worship. Our attitude to such a phenomenon is noted to be shy or timid and there is often much taboo that surrounds it, thereby causing us to become reluctant interpreter/critics of the subject matter.

When Ulli Beier first came to Papua New Guinea, one of his literary interests and preoccupations lay in the area of folklore. As much as encouraging Papua New Guineans to write their own literature, to assert a firmer stand in the face of global politics through writing, he drew his students’ attention to what they had had by way of ownership in their own cultural settings. Was there a deity or a god among the Nasioi speakers of Bougainville, or among the Binandere of the Oro Province or the Motuans of the Central Province? If there was then what was that deity named as? Did Papua New Guineans believe in life after death? If so, how did they explain this?

But Ulli Beier, rather than become overtly metaphysical about such universal questionings, felt that there was no greater fun in creativity than experimenting with a variety of genre selections in literature. He chose the drama format and here we see the great mentor of the Papua New Guinean student of creative writing at his best. Two “Papuan” traditional plays are attributed to him as an author himself. They are Alive and They Never Return.

Both plays are based on PNG oral literature, on the theme of life after death – or in the strictly PNG sense, on the world of both the living and the dead. Indeed, in PNG mythology there is no dividing line between the living and the dead. As Papua New Guineans we just grow up with the idea that the only thing that separates us from our dead ancestors is the stretch of water, mountain or valley before us. Our dead relatives are just across the hill yonder and that sort of thing.

The play Alive talks about Ada, “a petulant woman, bitterly resentful of male pretensions and male exploitation of women” [Kirsty Powell, 1975] and Gombe, the man who succeeds in taming Ada to realize that she is just like any other woman in the village. How Gombe succeeds in getting Ada to accept the traditional norms of where women should be angers the latter so deeply that towards the middle of the play she kills Gombe. Gombe then departs to the land of the dead. Upon reflection, as the drama slowly unfolds, Ada merely looks at the red laplap, the material luxury item with which she was seduced, and hates herself even more.

But the drama of the play revolves around man’s desire to explain life after death. Gombe does appear occasionally as a dancer during feasts in the village but a now relented Ada cannot join him in the festivities as a dance partner because he is dead. Much as she tries, Gombe merely shakes his head and dances away. In the end, Ada kills herself in order to become one with Gombe. And such dance feats continue, of course, in traditional settings, but the world itself becomes one for both the living and the dead. Everyone enjoys, just as much.

The play They Never Return is based on the Motuan rendering of the theme of life after death. Moeka Helai, once a student of Ulli Beier, gathered the material from Porebada, and they both set out to construct the play. When Moeka was away, Leo Morgan assisted Ulli Beier with the write up of the script. The result was both plays being produced in Canberra in August 1969 by Prompt Theatre and under the directorship of Algis Butavicius. When both plays became popular to those audiences in Australia, the media in turn referred to those two plays as written by a Papuan student called M. Lovori. Storyboard came to the University in 1970 when he learned that M. Lovori was a student of literature then but had difficulties in meeting the author in person. All storyboard can remember is seeing the cheques for M. Lovori floating around the pigeon holes of literature students but that there was no one to claim them for months on end – until disappearing into thin air somewhat.

But we all know now who the “author” is and are, of course, curious about the titles Alive and They Never Return. A man and a woman, Ubi and Hene, love each other so much nothing can separate them. But Hene dies, and that is sad. A little boy approaches his grandfather with a lot of questions surrounding Hene’s death. Can the dead return? These are difficult questions to answer, but upon even Ubi’s request and insistence, the old man relents and thereafter advises that a feast must be held in which the dancers will no doubt be both the living and the dead.

During the dance Ubi pours a special potion on Hene and she becomes powerless, unable to move. By dawn when the dancers are making their escape, Hene is left stranded in the village square. Ubi is then able to reclaim his beloved.

But, the old man warns Ubi, there are certain conditions to all this. And we know the rest of the story. If it wasn’t for Ubi’s stupidity we would all be able to commute freely between the world of the living and the dead. Ironically, the elders and the rest of the village populace could thereafter only let out mutters of exasperation and in a typically Porebadan fashion: “A curse on Hene whose beauty turned Ubi’s head...” 

This article was published on Friday 4th June 2010 in the National Weekender newspaper of Papua New Guinea.  


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Anuki Country Press said...

Comments to these pages are welcome. The one removed here was actually posted by mistake by this blog and not from our readers outside.