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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.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Remembering Kirsty Powell

September 16, 1975, and Kirsty Powell would not be around to see the great dawn arrive. John Guise had read the declaration of the new sovereignty and the flag had been raised in the presence of Prince Charles. Reports came from all over the land of much cheering and clapping, much feasting and dancing. A new nation was born.

But Kirsty Powell was not there to be part of the celebrations.

In a bleak hut which would later turn out to be a chapel for the Waigani Campus, and a day later, a quiet remembrance service was held in honour of Kirsty Powell. Her body by then had been taken home to Australia. Present at that remembrance service were a handful of Anglicans, Dr. Elton Brash who was then about to be appointed Vice-Chancellor, and a few dignitaries from town. In all, there would have been a mere one or two hundred people in attendance.

A few hymns were sung in the Anglican tradition, one or two speeches made, and a brief eulogy read. Then the eldest of Kirsty Powell’s children stood up quietly and spoke of her mother and on behalf of the Powell family. There was something she said that would trouble storyboard deeply for a long time.

“Kirsty died,” said the young woman, “having just completed the final chapter of her thesis which was on Russell Soaba’s plays.”

Was the young woman angry? Was she sad? Was she forgiving when she said all that? Was her mother taken away too much by work to be present even for a brief moment and be with her children? If so, how significant was that work compared to her own life and family’s? Storyboard came away feeling more remorseful than ever. Remorseful, because he was the writer at that time that Kirsty Powell perhaps felt more at home with.

At the fall of evening that day, and all around Waigani Campus, there were heard hushed tones of poetic lamentations.

“She was a nice woman; a friend to all, enemy to none. Why such tragedy?”

The more he thought about the tragedy the more shocked storyboard became. Was it an existential exit? Surely, this can’t be Kirsty. Kirsty always lets everyone know who she is, up here, in the head.  Or has she rather left a riddle, a maiba, for the Papua New Guinean writer to solve? Or was it something else that she could not share easily within the circle of campus writers some parts of which comprised “outsider” writers led by the storyboard himself. There and then the whole campus felt like an intellectual jungle that the explorer-pioneer needed to discover. Storyboard was so shocked at the thought of this he stopped writing. Occasionally, however, a poem would come to mind, and then slip away. “Come to my village one day, and you will see that... No, what you see are two eyes stilled and a smile falsified. Here, let me move an inch, and there, right before you is...”

And that seemed to be all. And the clock would not stop ticking by.

Storyboard had always enjoyed the company of Dr. Kirsty Powell: an afternoon tea at the FCA (Faculty of Creative Arts) UPNG, or at the cafeterias of downtown Port Moresby. And at each of these occasions there was a poem read for the world over the rim of a cup. Sometimes he would go away to the village and a letter would follow with reminders from The Four Quartets.

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land's edge also, the granite,
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

Then of course there would be additional reminders from Sophocles, as if the storyboard’s choice of departure to the village was an act of self-imposed exile, such as this dialogue between Antigone and Isemene. “Let’s go back.” “For what?” “To see the final resting place.” “Whose?” “Father’s.” “But that’s not allowed; don’t you see?” “Don’t reproach me.” “Remember he had no tomb.” “Take me there and kill me too.” “Oh, I’m lost, helpless, and without a friend. Where should I go and live?”

All this, including Antigone’s concluding remark: “There’s no way for me to go home again.” And all this, again, amid so much unease and speculation on the sort of associations observed by the academic populace of the Waigani Campus itself. Who indeed could tell what so and so was thinking about whom and for what reasons. And amidst all this, again, storyboard had always taken it for granted that Kirsty Powell was a friend and that was it – but a friend he could not save from a sudden turn of destiny he could not define or whatever there might have been that could have been troubling her deeply.

A quotation of Kierkegaard in her thesis remains something that storyboard will never forget for as long as he himself lives: “Man sees deeply, and what he sees is chaos.”

Three years after that Waigani Campus remembrance service storyboard completed the novel “Wanpis” and had it dedicated to Kirsty Powell. It may not have been, and it might never be, a good gesture by way of tokens commemorating the lives and works of worthy and learned colleagues, but a gesture nevertheless according to storyboard’s own way of thinking and viewing the world.
 We remember Kirsty Powell today for the good friend she was: as one with a witty sense of humour and as a great lover of words. But she is best remembered by the work she has done in the form of a thesis that remains unsurpassable. The University of Papua New Guinea published that work, “The First Papua New Guinean Playwrights and Their Plays” in 1976, thus earning her posthumously the degree of doctor of philosophy in literature. She died tragically in a car accident at Wardstrip on the night of 15th September 1975.                                


Luddy said...

The second semester of 2010 I am teaching a unit on PNG Literatue @ DWU. I really am excited by this new initiative. Its already a resource site I can't wait to let my students in on.

BTW the lines of the poem above, The Four Quartets, I remember, as I also teach Western English Literature to a fourth year class, so closely resemble lines spoken by Caleb the vicar to Mark Brian, the newly ordained, as he prepares him for his parish work in an Indian tribe in one of my all time favourite novels: "I Heard the Owl Call My Name" by Margaret Craven. Mark and the Caleb were Anglican for what it is worth.


The Anuki Country Press said...

Thanks, Luddy.

So nice to see good responses from DWU. Actually, yours would be the school I would be referring to as those with "paperless students of literature." You are all welcome to the blogs from there!