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.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

A delightful place to be

It’s over three years now since storyboard last taught Literature and Politics. When he did those three years ago, he was standing in for Dr. Steven Winduo who was on a semester’s visiting appointment at the University of Minnesota (US academic year 2007/08). This year, the arrangement is repeated with Winduo on yet another teaching appointment overseas, this time at the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii.

Every time storyboard takes up this course so many exciting things happen to student and lecturer alike. Both parties find themselves learning something new, something fresh.

But these new experiences happen to be history revisited once all over again. For example, when last storyboard took that course an assortment of recommended reading material from various literary journals revealed that criticisms levelled against Barrack Obama were heavy, that he might never have made it to the White House. But storyboard insisted there and then, in that course, that “Obama will make a fine President”, and this was printed in the pages of the National Weekender that very year (semester one, 2007). Today such criticisms against the US President remain just as heavy, mainly those stemming from the “deal to extend the Bush tax cuts” and the passing of health care laws – but what matter, if, in the final analysis, it is noted that the main purpose of courses such as these is to see the realities that surround the two different entities, namely literature and politics, in their peculiar moments of collaboration that enable men and women either gain power and control or lose them. 

Further, what seems so exciting about these literature courses is their inevitable venture into the territories of other courses and academic disciplines for no other purpose than to form alliances and partnerships with them in an endeavour to better explain the complex world that surrounds us. And that they do so quite often successfully.

But Obama and global politics aside, we come back home to our own environment, to the arena of the realization that our versions of the terms literature and politics do not differ in as much as retain their significance as worthy partners in achieving those goals that will remain unsurpassable. Was literature really responsible in Papua New Guinea’s fight for political independence from Australia? That question asked today remains as resoundingly significant as when it was first asked over forty years ago. Of course both teacher and student will agree that Papua New Guinea would be one of the few countries in the world that gained its political independence from a colonial power through the influence of the written word.

By the influence of the written word we mean those little things we call poems, plays, short stories, myths and legends, oral histories, proverbs, anecdotes, jokes and cartoons, and even novels, autobiographies/biographies and memoirs. Then of course there is the requirement of not dwelling so much on what the lecturer says in the classroom but also going out to see, to listen to, witness and record, then come back and talk about it all. These also form the main areas of enquiry in courses such as Literature and Politics.

That said, within a few weeks of familiarizations with this course, a second year major in Literature and English Communication had this to say by way of first impressions:

“Apart from books [and reading material prescribed and recommended for us we notice as a point of relevance that] the media also, especially Post Courier and National, [has] given space for writers to comment or criticise strategic people in the government to do the right thing. The whole point of this is because they know there is more to this land than what meets the eye. If PNG is an island floating on a sea of oil and yet the standard of living is not improved then there seriously needs to be some outcry; but the question is, can Literature and Politics really be a place of influence? Does it have the power and influence that is stronger than [anything else] in this twenty first century? If it is then it’s a delightful place to be.”

And so on, back and forth, in their first essay, trying to work out what the course is about. Towards the end of the semester it is envisaged that the student will have picked up enough material by way of knowledge that will enable him or her, upon graduation, to get a job in the outside world. But the emphasis to this course, as with the other literature courses, lies in the amount of written material read in a given semester.

Here, we turn to the availability or lack of reading material. Now the University of Papua New Guinea, with its limited resources, suffers enormously from lack of reading material. Part of the fault lies in the way the student population handles its own sense of privileges. Books borrowed from the library grow legs and walk off, and that sort of thing. The other and perhaps serious fault lies in the hands of the stakeholders. With the University itself being one of them it probably has some good excuses to offer; that it suffers immensely from severe budget cuts or not enough of it, year in year out. Or that it has so little of it not much is left to spare for the library’s acquisition department to send out orders for more books that are vital for the student population. A literature course usually needs 10 to 15 titles in a given semester to deal with. Those titles are given, certainly; but are there enough copies for ten or so students in a class?

So where or to whom do we turn regarding this particular lack that prevents courses such as Literature and Politics becoming the “delightful places to be”? Just the other day storyboard stood admiring a stone slab that was laid down some 46 years ago and serving as the foundation of the premier university. A few metres down from there is the Michael Somare Library, looking as grim and lonely as ever. Later, in the classroom, a couple of students remarked: “You know, the old man can well afford those expensive lawyers from overseas to take care of him at the court houses. What about us? When will he pay us a visit again?”

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Prospects of a high school for Tufi

A man who wants to see a high school established for the Tufi area is Max Forman, the current headmaster of Tufi Primary School. He’s is not quite a dream. It is a need that not only the Kotofu of that area but the education department of Papua New Guinea government must consider.

Tufi is conveniently located between Dogura in the Milne Bay Province and Popondetta in the Oro Province. We say conveniently because it lacks the influences of fringe ideals of modernity in lifestyle and creature comforts such as the two mentioned locations are used to. There, at those locations, the temptation for the young people to go astray is enormous. Access to drugs and manufacture of steam are cultural influences that a new generation can easily succumb to. And again both locations are too far for Tufi to send its children there in order for them to progress further to higher secondary and tertiary schools. Yet it has the potential in producing the best for future generations by way of manpower.

This has been Max Forman’s concern for many years. Tufi does need a high school. It has the population to warrant such an establishment and it proposes to answer the educational needs of itself and its immediate surroundings such as the Wanigela and Maisin areas further south and the Musa and Ewage areas of Oro Bay area, if need be. It has several well established primary schools strewn across and along its most enchanting fjords and idyllic coastline. Schools as much as Church stations remain as clean as when the Anglicans left the shores of Tufi at Independence. But its resort and guest house market for the tourist thrives. Only it sadly lacks a high school.

When a pupil passes primary school the prospects of progressing further to high school look grim and somewhat discouraging because the locations to which these children are required to go might not successfully answer their intellectual aspirations. They need better environment to work in. This, the parents are well aware of. Hence, the choice there often is when only a select few of their sons are given the liberty of going to Popondetta or the Milne Bay Province to pursue higher education while the girls are not.
Max Forman and John Wesley Vaso, along with a few of the pupils at Siu village, contemplating the need of a high school for Tufi.
Max Forman believes that that problem can be overcome. Almost all his colleagues at the surrounding primary and elementary schools and villages agree with him. There must be a high school for Tufi, they insist. His colleagues, both teachers and villagers, include John Wesley Vaso of Uiaku, Jackson Borime of Orotoaba village, Gladstone Javira and Gladstone Aguba of Siu village, Joe Daubi of Jebo E/School, and so on. Aside from talks on the need of a high school for the area, they also mull over a few obstacles that anyone anywhere, parent and pupil alike, would be well aware of. In the end, they conclude, a bargain has to be reached between parent and child: the parent keeps his end of the bargain by paying the school fees while the child agrees to attend to that by going to school.

But they are not alone, this little group of intellectual aspirants anxious to get things done for Tufi and more particularly the children. They have friends who visit them often; friends such as Drusilla Modjeska the writer and Hilary McPhee the publisher. These friends get together once in a while and actually plan the establishment of such an educational institution. They believe in doing things and watching them take shape, even if these will take the next one hundred years. But they are definite plans. Plans the parents of the area must be aware of. Plans the Kotofu of Tufi must agree to and approve of.

One of the positive strategies put forward by this group of friends is raising funds here and overseas which can cater for scholarships for children who pass primary or who are still at primary. With these opportunities made available the need for a high school closer to home becomes urgent. This also enables potential stakeholders to join in and participate. By stakeholders one would have in mind AusAID, the PNG Education Department, Oro Provincial Government and so on. Then of course an eye cast at the tourist presence for the region would not only appear enchanting but enlightening as well.

By way of an illustration: at the dinner table at Tufi resort one evening a young tourist, an Australian, became particularly vocal about his status as a real estate agent able to move anywhere in the world, and he could well afford to, snorkelling, scuba-diving, fishing, sun bathing, you name it. He’s just come in to Tufi from a brief stopover at the Kimbe resort, on his way home from Thailand and all the other places you name them wow!  Whether it’s Brazil or the Mediterranean he’s been everywhere. Again wow! Question: who pays for all that expensive trip year in year out? And who are the young man’s biggest clients if it is not the Government of Papua New Guinea? After all he’s the real estate agent, ain’t he?

Ever thought of helping people of your own age who are not as fortunate as you are? The tourist pauses, considers the question a bit, and realizes it makes sense. In a moment, and in the company at that table of friends like Modjeska, McPhee, Max Forman, storyboard and John Wesley Vaso he knows he has a certain sense of duty to attend to for places like Tufi. When storyboard along with Hilary McPhee (who has just come to Tufi from Egypt) point out the amount of money wasted in Egypt which should have gone to scholarships and not luxurious indoor swimming pools the young man realizes what is being asked of him: a sense of wisdom.

But you see the glint of hope. The young man might have been looking at the world from the other end of the periscope. When he looks again from our end things will turn out better. Especially for places like Tufi which need a high school.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The unwavering myth of continuity

Photo by Ketsin Robert
This came as suddenly as when storyboard felt he was dozing off. He had sat up almost all night reading the day before. He wanted to impress his students of literature that no matter what time and history dictate to us we are here to continue writing and will do so unhindered.

This article serves as a prelude to a review of a forthcoming novel, 

The Mountain 

by Drusilla Modjeska. 

And there it was, the whole concept of continuity, as deadly sure as Captain Moresby or Commodore Erskine each sailing into Fairfax Harbour for the first time. Or Trevor Shearston’s Merrie England repeating the journey in 1900. That literature, surely, and whoever writes it, will never cease. It will go on as Beatrice Grimshaw saw the port and the harbour once, some years later, from the cliff tops of the town’s high rise.

But did they, the colonial minds, so-called, start it all? Or was it really the Motuans and their uncanny, somewhat perilous idea of the Hiri trade against and within rough waters? Canoes would sail out and return, boats would come and go, in the same flow of random as the tides and the winds themselves changing direction, continuously, oblivious to what judgement would come upon them for such a habit of movement. But such a movement seemed intense, solemn and determined. So much so, says storyboard, so much so that even today we cannot stop moving and writing.

No, it was not the colonial minds only. It was ours as well. And that’s the point that storyboard is getting at here. We took up the writing habit and that’s that.

In fact, when we think of the work of Steven Winduo today, or Jeffery Febi’s, or Melissa Aigilo’s, or whoever it is that continues to write, we are at the same time mindful of those past and oft forgotten generation of writers. The Hannetts, the Tawalis, the Kasaipwalovas, the Waikos, the Jawodimbaris, the Namalieus, the Eris and the Kikis. Only one question comes to our minds about this. When the present generation writes does it have a definite sense of direction? The same also can be asked of the generation of writers now waning into history and human memory. Was there, or is there, any sense of direction at all for both parties?  

Now if we look at a character like James St Nativeson – you have read some of his poetry on these pages of the Weekender – or Milton in Drusilla Modjeska’s forthcoming novel, he would be one of those writers who would argue that yes, there had always been a sense of direction for all us, for the whole of Papua New Guinea. This character would be one that would eternally be unwavering in his decision to write, to faithfully chronicle all that went on and is going on. Even if a government which started off that movement forward towards Independence can waver along the way a character like St Nativeson cannot. Even if there is so much going astray involved, so much corruption and loss of faith in the human soul, St Nativeson cannot. And that is the sad and melancholy part of our lives, indeed our destiny as writers.

Our belief in that sense of self-hood, the sentiment which we have treasured for many years still lingers on, despite the number of logging companies cropping up here and there to change our topography and landscape, despite the number of mines that dig deep into the earth thereby attempting to deface us by way of geographical maps, the fact remains that our soul is still there, intact. That had been and will be our sense of direction, our beacon and our course to steer towards, our very destiny.

And here we come to that important point in our literature. Gone are the days when the early writer shouted out slogans of and for independence to Australia and the rest of the world. What we need to be mindful of here is that we have not wandered away from this very sentiment. There will creep in words such as betrayal, defection and so on but that does not strike us as a matter of importance attempting to abolish our belief in ourselves. Literature never strays, never betrays, never dupes or swindles – but it can be melancholy sometimes, it can be brooding and over-ruminant even the skies themselves will threaten to fall. The earth is such a nice place to behold – why so much poetry; why then, so much written beauty and splendor?

A clerk writes poems. A security officer expresses his or her love for the country through poetry and song. Was not that what we originally meant by the phrase “sense of direction”? Was that not what we really wanted in the first place? Of course, scholars and literary artists such as Winduo would talk about mapping out our sense of things, our sense of direction, our belief in actually seeing results at the end of such contour tracings and which would be there sure as tangible.

All this brings us back to one serious flaw that we have been overlooking for many years since independence; since Prince Charles walked out in the mud and saluted the new country. We forgot to cultivate. And yet cultivation has always been part of our lives. We forget the metaphors that we ourselves have invented; the metaphor of corn and peanuts strewn right across the hills of Port Moresby city, making it become quite unexpectedly the greenest of green cities. Was it always understood that Port Moresby would be one place that would remain semi-barren in its savannah climes as much as desolate and riddled with patches of charcoal after bush fires? Yet look at what our Highlands cultivators are doing to our landscape. Therein lies your answer. Cultivation. We are not doing it enough.

A government policy is indeed a seed that is meant to be distributed throughout the country, province by province, district by district. And whenever and wherever it is distributed there must be soil for it, and farmers to till and sew the seed. This is the metaphor that, our international donors and NGOs will concur, has been thrown at us over and over again. And still to this day we do not know how to till the soil, to sew the seed. We have become beggars more than choosers of seeds.

So then this is our story of continuity. If the writer cannot take up that metaphor then who else in our country can?