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.

Monday, 19 July 2010

A story within a story

 The rationale behind storyboard’s decision to prescribe Pride and Prejudice as a major text in the course Modern World Literature (UPNG) lies in the potential the novel has as the best model to follow when it comes to the idea of successfully utilizing literary techniques in fiction and drama.

Miss Austen’s novel is not entirely about romance in the vein of Mills and Boon as many readers mislead themselves into believing. Nor is it merely about five young women going out dancing at the prompting of a middle class mother who wants them to meet a rich Mister Right quickly in order to bail the family out of its incessant financial woes, both at domestic and real estate levels. Nor again is it a novel about successive debunks of certain themes in popular literature such as family sagas, dinner time soap operas and the like.

It is rather a novel about breaking away from past traditions of Elizabethan to 18th and 19th Century narrative modes in British (or Commonwealth) literature and having those substituted by a greater sense of modernity in creative energy and enterprise. Miss Austen’s technique of foreshowing in story-telling is unsurpassable. Her technique of a novel within a novel in the manner of that Shakespearean craftsmanship of Hamlet within Hamlet or drama within drama is also noted to be uncanny as much as original. Above all, her ability as a novelist to explain her intentions in setting out to write a story well in advance is noted to be trustworthy. With this last point most authors would rather leave suspense itself hanging in the air rather than tell the truth that they themselves are such poor writers after all. Who can understand James Joyce’s “stream of consciousness” in Ulysses much more easily than Miss Austen’s frankness in narrative found in Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice?

On the technique of foreshadowing this is what Miss Austen, writing the novel in 1812-13, has done. We know that the protagonist Mr. Darcy will appear unpopular, despite his good looks and the enormous amount of wealth he has. We know as well that Elizabeth will become vulnerable as far as the demands of social etiquettes go, so much so that her mere presence will provoke some utterances of male arrogance from Mr. Darcy. For the rest of the novel we won’t be sure who will deserve our pity and with whom our sentiments of identification can be shared – identification in the search of certain characters that fit our descriptions of a hero or heroine. Of course, Darcy becomes so unpopular that he is reported missing, and mysteriously so, for the best part of the novel. And what we see of Elizabeth is the sort of stubbornness in character of those that are hard to win over.

But there is your art of foreshadowing. In ordinary, straightforward modes of narrative structure you have your story, your characters and of course the change of mood and development in character that determines the progress of plot, and so on. Miss Austen’s art of foreshadowing lies in the area of introducing characters we know will become our heroes, but not before we are thoroughly familiar with the definitions of the words “pride” and “prejudice”. In essence, what she has done is simply treat those two words as far more significant than the characters Elizabeth and Darcy. These two individuals who we regard as protagonists are in fact the very entities that pose as necessary elements of foreshadowing (the smoke screens) of the two words of significance that are to come, namely “pride” and “prejudice”. Thenceforth, Miss Austen proceeds to define the two words for us through a character out of the five sisters called Mary Bennet.

A great number of novelists before Austen – and they were predominantly men – did not bother to offer that to the reader. What is my novel about, Miss Austen seems to have been asking in 1812? It’s about pride and prejudice. And that’s that.

On the technique of story within a story, we see all that unfold when poor Fitzwilliam Darcy’s unpopularity intensifies to such an extent that even we, the readers, are doubtful if he will ever succeed in winning Elizabeth over. For the moment we see some happy liaisons developing between Jane (one of the five sisters) and Mr. Bingley and well, Lydia has eloped successfully with a Mr. Wickham, and that Elizabeth, well, doesn’t seem to look as if she will ever want to see Darcy again. But, lo and behold, what do we have here? Here’s Mr. Darcy writing a long, soul-searching type of an explanation on how much he feels and cares about Elizabeth! Now that’s something. The letter is so long it virtually becomes a novel itself within a novel!

Finally, on the novelist’s techniques of explaining his/her intentions, this has been explained above. Miss Austen’s main intention in writing this novel was to simply define the terms “pride” and “prejudice”, the former meaning how much we elevate ourselves without realizing we could be stepping on others’ toes and the latter meaning how much destruction that self-elevation can cause us if we are not careful.

But storyboard believes that the most important thing to realize when reading her work is that Miss Jane Austen herself and speaking in terms of formal education went as far as Grade 5 by Papua Guinean standards. Or at best Sunday School. It was because her father served as an Anglican chaplain at Trinity College, Oxford, that she was able to gain access to the library and books in order to learn herself become the great writer that we know her as today. Her influence in the build up of plot, character development, suspense, dramatic experience and denouement has pervaded the minds of many a film director, literary critic, scholar, playwright and novelist for just about 200 years this year.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Writing habits and lifestyle

At about 4.30 am, Monday, July 5, storyboard woke up to surprise himself with the thought that he had loitered around long enough to turn 60 years old. Half an hour later, as the new day dawned and after a brief utterance of thanksgiving, he felt slightly at ease because he had, the previous night, completed reading the manuscript of Steven Winduo’s forthcoming publication, The Unpainted Mask, courtesy of Manui Publishers and UPNG Press & Bookshop.

But there was the preface yet to be written, he realized at that hour.

So, at his writing table some 25 minutes later and in the concluding paragraphs of the preface to that book, storyboard wrote: “...the central theme of the book, as noted earlier, lies in the mask and who wears it. Sometimes there is laughter noted in these masks; other times some suggestions of sombre moments in creativity, desolation, abandonment and much, much questioning as well as wonder and amazement.

This is an excellent collection of short imaginative prose. As I write this preface this morning at 5.30am, feeling somewhat surprised at myself for loitering long enough to turn 60, I come to realize that the long journey of literary creativity undertaken by my country during all those years has been worth it; and then, and then, I uplift myself with the thought that I could ask for no better way of celebrating this special day than to join in the dance of the masks by contributing just one sentence to The Unpainted Mask.”

After he had written that in long hand, storyboard reflected on his younger colleagues, particularly writers and artists, who could not make it to 60. However, he could console himself with the thought that even at 60 Shearston published Dead Birds, certainly not his last, and that Albert Wendt at 71 years old was still winning major international book prizes such as the Commonwealth best book award for 2009.

Albert Wendt continues to write, and as Paul Sharrad reports, “often in bed of an evening with family all around him.” One can imagine the lively atmosphere an old man finds himself to write in, what with all the bubus fighting over biros and exercise books, etc. Other writers such as the storyboard or Steven’s Window usually find themselves scribbling or typing away vigorously at 4.30 am to 5.30 am, just to avoid the nagging toddlers, before washing up for breakfast and then rushing off to school to drop off children or themselves to deliver lectures.

But it really does not matter what job one does. Make it a lifestyle to wake up at 4.30 each morning and do some scribbling on a writing pad. It doesn’t matter what you write, as long as you are flexing the muscles, moving the limbs and that sort of thing. But above all, you are thinking in the process, and that is the sort of preoccupation that pays good dividends in the end.

We may not be absolutely aware of this, but great poems of the world are usually written between the hours of 4.30 and 6.45 in the morning. T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, for example, or Rainer Maria Rilke’s Eight Elegies.

After all, what kind of a lifestyle is it that gets you working late well into the twilight of the next evening, if you know that you are bound to end up in a pub, probably stay longer than you should, then drive home to some rich food waiting – and then, instead of reading the labels of what you are about to consume, even at home, gobble everything down. Then retire, and then forget to wake up at 4.30 am the next day to observe the ritual of random scribbling before rushing off to the office without even saying goodbye to the little ones still asleep. And by the time you reach the office, lo and behold it’s 9.55 am.

All that time-tabling exercise of writing habits works perfectly – but only in principle.

Here’s the melodramatic part. Waking up at 4.30 am to do your writing simply means that by 6.45 am you are bound to feel a little exhausted again. We all are bio-physical entities, don’t forget. We cannot behave and perform like those carefully programmed mechanical instruments that are subjected to certain given commands.

So if by 6.45 am you are beginning to feel lethargic again, for goodness’ sake dive back into bed for a 30 minute nap before taking off for the office. Don’t worry. You won’t be more than 15 minutes late for work.

Most writers known to the storyboard use the remaining free morning hours at home to go out of the house for a stroll, and, on the pretext of buying breakfast at the local shop, greet the brightness of the new day and God’s glory through the smiling faces of neighbours. That gives them the energy to stay awake the whole day, as the following poetry suggests:

The kwamra’s dreams are waking                                    
And leaves that were written dead
Are waking deeper than the roots
Thant penned them. Each cotyledon
Each tentative bud saves the day.
The earth stands still, mauve-
Coloured and olive, a chalice
Before the morning sun

The earth is the ultimate
In our song of the womb:
The final grace that is mother.
Tall. Graceful. Elegant.
She embraces and shields us
Shows us the wounds at the side
At the feet and hands, where
The world has died. We sing praises
For her great strength, for the bread
She breaks; and the living spring
We drink from the cup of her hands.
From Kwamra: a season of harvest. 

Saturday, 10 July 2010

One bilum of a gift

Coming soon.
 So much has been said about bilums. In Papua New Guinea this is a special commodity, a utility item, in fact, that is as commonly used as the consumption of that daily diet of rice and tinned fish.

Most bilums cost between K80.00 to K200.00, and indeed, in some cases, and depending on the mood and quality of the utility item, up to K500.00. That is almost an equivalent of $26.00 to $160.00 in U.S. currency.

But to be given a bilum as a gift becomes in itself a treasure to remember for a lifetime. Recently, storyboard was given a bilum as a gift for reasons which he did not expect.

 Until he was given the gift, he did not realize that there are people who care about your bilum, especially if it appears torn, weather-beaten and that, well, you really need a new one.
But, such are the ways in which Papua New Guineans regard each other and themselves when it comes to gift giving and exchanges, especially when these items prove virtually priceless for an average wage earner.

 Keep an eye out for this story in the forthcoming Weekender of The National, the newspaper of Papua New Guinea.

Friday, 2 July 2010

When dead birds sing

Dead Birds
By Trevor Shearston
2007, 241pages
ABC Books
Sydney, Australia.

What happens when the head of the vates is severed? It continues to sing. And what happens when an ancestral skull is placed on a pole and lifted high in the air? From that height it sees the cosmological womb of the earth more deeply than the living.

Or so go the ancient riddles and oracles. But all this sounds strange. All the more so because it is the chosen mode of narrative in Trevor Shearston’s latest novel, Dead Birds.

The story is told by an “utamu, the spirit of a beheaded man.”

In 1877 Signor Luigi Maria D’Albertis returns for a second expedition up the Fly River in search of bird of paradise plumes which he hopes to sell for reasonable amounts at various cultural institutions in Europe. He hires a 52 foot steam launch from the government of New South Wales and for his crew he takes with him several Chinese, some Pacific islanders and a British engineer. Every one of these men signs some form of agreement with D’Albertis on how the spoils will be divided among them when the expedition is over. Along the way some villages and longhouses are destroyed with dynamite and coarsely constructed rockets. Subsequently, what the villagers see of the entire expedition is the return of not their ancestral spirits but those other aliens who have come to annihilate them.

Shearston’s novel is thus based on this second expedition of D’Albertis. But since the novel is narrated by an utamu, the names of each character appear not as we would know them when reading the chronicles of D’Albertis, but as a native of a Fly River longhouse hearing and recounting them through oral narrative. Thus, D’Albertis is referred to as Sinyor, the Chinese crew members are named as Fu, Seng, Tong, Zian and Aou, the British engineer as Mistaprestin and the Pacific islanders as Jek, Tomi and Bopa.

It is Bopa who shoots the villager at a certain point of the river called Daramb-wi and beheads him with a machete to give the head as a trophy to Sinyor who in turn preserves it in a methylated filled jar. The jar is then placed aloft, on a rack, whence the head keeps vigilance on everyone aboard the steam launch, and thus assumes its role as the omnipresent narrator of the novel.

The expedition lasts for two months or so, as the party moves up and down the Fly River, covering the whole 500 miles of it, mooring at and camping along its mud banks, while in search of the prized “flame-tails” and “noon-suns”. The villagers along the banks of the river are scared off further inland by Sinyor’s display of dynamite explosions and rocketed fireworks some nights. Then it turns out the expedition might be lagging a little; Sinyor is becoming somewhat ruthless in his approach to hunting wild game and the birds of paradise. At one point of the expedition he forces Zian who had returned empty-handed from a hunt to go out shooting again and not come back without a noon-sun or flame-tail. Zian walks off into the wilds with a gun never to return. At another, he flogs Aou for disobedience and this leads to the other’s worsening ill health and eventual death. Does Sinyor care, the others wonder. In all, Sinyor becomes nothing more than a cruel and merciless product of his own sense of meritocracy.

Yet, while we are occasionally woken up by such familiar historical details, we are nonetheless given the mood of viewing the whole expedition through the eyes of a dead ancestor. The idyllic river setting as home, stretches of sand banks for canoes to be pulled up, egrets stretching forth their necks for fish, the cutting up of sows as game in an old garden, the longhouses, call of women and children at dusk, and the light stamping of feet in accompaniment to the running dance. Bopa by now is acknowledged as a worthy slayer, for he is recorded in real life as ‘a reformed cannibal from Fiji’, and must therefore live up to that expectation through his behaviour and attitude. Sinyor too is seen in his best element as a melancholy and cultured individual, complimenting his men with extra spoonfuls of sugar in their tea when a task is successfully done – such as game shot by a member of the crew to supplement a week’s rationing in food, or the number of “flame-tails” and “noon-suns” brought in for him to display, compare, and to finally reach some conclusive evidence of a cross breed between the raggiana and the apoda species of the bird of paradise. (D’Albertis himself has had one species of the bird of paradise named after him.)

As the narration flows further other issues come into play. Like the real D’Albertis expedition, this one also becomes an awesome ordeal of longhouses plundered of garden food and domestic animals, abandoned villages, and displaced villagers attempting to regroup in order to offer resistance against this strange party of spirits which does not seem to care what it does.

Eventually, Sinyor himself begins losing control of his men. They rebel against him, while a few such as Tomi and Aou, think it is the head, the utamu, which is influencing the sentiments of bad luck upon the vessel. The Chinese, led by Fu, are the first to stage a mutiny, which is unsuccessful and tragic as the skiff they had managed to escape in is abandoned a few miles downriver and this the rest of the crew discovers some days later. Then it is the turn of Bopa and his party of Pacific islanders with just Jek joining him since Tomi by now has become something of a close companion to Sinyor so cannot join them. Using the skiff to make their escape, the two men do not get far. Sinyor punches a few holes in the skiff with bullets and the two men will have to swim ashore to survive at all.

Now, with Bopa and Jek gone the party is reduced to three and it is this number that the villagers of Daramb-wi finally attack, killing and beheading all but the utamu who must remain guide of the vessel that will float downstream to the mouth of the river, with its cargo of “bones without skulls, uneaten biscuits, boxes filled with dancing-birds.”  

Dead Birds has more to it than the story of one man’s quest for noon-suns and flame-tails. Trevor talked about this novel as a work in progress during the Writers Workshop at the Port Moresby Holiday Inn in May 2005. At that time we were not sure how to take it, because the idea of an utamu telling a story defied human logic somewhat: that dead men tell no tales.

But in Papua New Guinea this mode of story-telling is as realistic as Lomogha disappearing into the bowels of the earth to re-appear years later as a well-respected orator, or an artist going overseas to return later and dig up his ancestor’s skull through whose eye-holes he will claim a better view of the world that surrounds him. The main objective here is for a narrative to delve deep into the past in order to wake us up to the realities of the times we live in.

More could be said about this novel, but for lack of space just a quote from Trevor Shearston will do. Why did he write Dead Birds? “Because,” says Trevor, “I have been waiting for a Papua New Guinean to write this book, and it hasn’t happened. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. Therefore it falls to me. That will, I’m sure, bring accusations of appropriation. I couldn’t care less. The only judgement that matters, the only one that interests me, is how well I can do it [Meanjin 2003]”.

And he has done it well. Again. This is a good novel. Buy it and read it – not any other day but today.