Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Well Done! Nora

Melanesian writers: Regis Tove Stella (PNG), Nora Vagi Brash (PNG),
Sam Alasia (Solomon Islands), USP Fiji campus, 1999.

  One of the outstanding playwright and poet to emerge in Papua New Guinea is Nora Vagi Brash. She remains the foremost and the only Papua New Guinean female playwright. Nora was involved with acting in amateur theatre, radio plays, and street theatre in early 1970s.

Her exposure to the world of theatre in England inspired her to write her own plays on her return to Papua New Guinea. The National Arts School employed Nora as an assistant lecturer in puppetry, dance, and drama. She then moved on to become one of the two artistic directors with the National Theatre Company. Nora wrote her own scripts for the puppets using tradional stories of Papua New Guinea.

The National Theatre Company toured local villages and performed in the streets. They went to the Pacific Arts Festival in Rotorua and Wellington, New Zealand. They also danced in Point Venus in Tahiti and a small group went to the Black Arts Festival in Nigeria.

In 1978 Nora resigned from the National Theatre Company to take up studies for her BA degree at the University of Papua New Guinea. She maintained her interests in theatre and wrote several of plays. Nora joined the National Broadcasting Commission in 1980. She also became the deputy chairperson of the National Cultural Council and a member of the Board of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies.

Two of Nora’s plays that I admire so much and read many times are Taurama and Which Way Big Man? Both are important plays depicting the post-independence experiences of Papua New Guineans.

Taurama is based on an actual historical event that occurred in a Motuan society about five centuries ago. The cultural hero is Kevau Dagora, the only survivor of the terrible Taurama Massacre revenges on the Lakwaharus (Tubuserea) who caused the massacre. Kevau Dagora grows up in exile at Badihagwa, under the protection of an old couple. He is treated as an outsider, but through courage and the process of reconciliation gains confidence of the Motu people. He marries the daughter of the woman who caused the massacre. In a twist of fate he releases the haunting spirits of Taurama to establish peace among the Motu people through a marriage feast. The play gave Nora the opportunity to use oral history of her own people to tell a contemporary history unfolding in the postcolonial Papua New Guinea.

Nora Vagi Brash’s aim is to conserve the oral traditions of the Motuan society. The publication and performance of Taurama is a landmark in modern history of drama in Papua New Guinea. Through stage art and careful usage of written historical records and oral versions of the Taurama massacre, Nora reconstructed a local history of her society on stage.

The Taurama massacre in Motuan history remains important to its people. Nora assumes the traditional role of individual storyteller by telling the story of Taurama using the genre of drama. As a result of her western knowledge and her inheritance of the finest oratory skills learned from her traditional culture Nora has re-enacted the story of Taurama in a medium many people saw and appreciated. She is an artist with remarkable artistic skills, able to fuse two cultures—her own culture and the written Western culture to create a new perspective and vision of the society she inhabits as well.

Taurama epitomizes the art of retelling historical accounts in a new way. The play was intended at the time of its performance for the celebration of Papua New Guinea’s Ten Anniversary of Independence. The play was a success in many ways. It carried the message of peace, reconciliation, and unity among tribes and different groups of people in Papua New Guinea. Its performance was the highlight of the Independence week. Several performances were held. The play contributed in a significant way to the written culture of Papua New Guinea.

Nora Brash’s understanding of her society’s history and the dilemma it faces in the changing times of Papua New Guinea are transmitted through her plays. All her plays address a particular dilemma in contemporary Papua New Guinea. Nora Brash satirizes Papua New Guinea in her other plays, but in Taurama she veers from the hilarious, comical, and satirical tone.

Her plays Which Way Big Man, High Cost of Living Differently, and Black Market Buai reflect Nora’s preoccupation with poking fun at, rebuking, or shaming Papua New Guineans steering off the course in their lives in contemporary times. The characters in these plays are modern educated Papua New Guineans with manners that are at odds with traditional values and ways of doing things. Nora picks on their attitudes, behaviours, mannerisms, and affluent styles that are pretentious and hypocritcal.

The message Nora Vagi Brash wants to covey to Papua New Guineans is that a conscious re-evaluation of the new values inherited through the process of change is needed. Without doing so, as Nora thinks, PNG is on the road to abandonment of important traditional values for the false masquerade of postmodern superficial values.

Nora is about to launch her new book of poems co-published by the UPNG Press and Bookshop and Tanorama. The book is part of a new series called Buai (Books, Useful Articles and Information) Series, aimed at promoting new writings by Papua New Guineans. This is a second book by Nora Vagi Brash in addition to her popular plays. Her book is the first in the Buai Series.

Intriquing is the poem: “Power Poles”:

Candidate posted on power poles
Greasy poles
Slippery slogan
Campaigning balloons
Catchy T-shirts
Knockout competition
It’s on again
This four yearly
For really
Political play
With PPP versus PAP
And Pangu up PB
Guess how many peas in a battle
In the scrabble scramble for power
This passing paper chases
It’s on again
The winner takes all.

Nora Brash had published some of these poems in literary journals here and overseas. I first heard Nora read some of these poems at the Port Moresby Arts Theatre in 2010. Well done, Nora!

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Second PNG Writer: Ahuia Ova

Ahuia in later years at Kilakila
 (courtesy of Eric Johns, PNG History Through Stories Vol.2)

The emergence of indigenous literary traditions across Oceania goes far back to the early introduction of European technologies, ideas, writing instruments, literacy, and print media in the 1880s. Reverend W. G. Lawes, who settled with his family in Hanuabada in 1874 translated the four gospels in Motu. The translation of the gospels was completed in 1885. Lawes held the view that to establish the Christian church it was important to develop the abilities of people to read Christian literature.

By 1920s a reasonable number of Motu Koitabuans knew enough English to communicate with the missionaries and the administration officials. Many Papuans, however, were uninterested in using English to capture their experiences or to express themselves in writing.

The English language was viewed as an uncultured language with the power to corrupt the cultural and social fabric of the Papuan society. According to Nigel Oram “the Hanuabada Council deplored the education of women because it enabled them to arrange their own marriages through correspondence and it also enabled married women, to write to men not their husbands.”

The Papuans were suspicious of the power of the Western language and cultural tool as an instrument of cultural obliteration. Learning to read and write in English or vernacular was considered dangerous to society. The Hanuabada Council held the view that women with the knowledge of writing were dangerous to the continuity of the Koita traditions. The fear was that the new tool and language would undermine tradition, traditional authority, family values, social cultural morals, and time tested indigenous values of their societies.

Against this backdrop, Ahuia Ova, a Koita man wrote his memoirs in Motu. A Hanuabada clerk, Igo Erua, translated the memoirs into English. The memoirs were published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1939 as “The Reminiscence of Ahua Ova.”

The Ahuia Ova episode set in motion a series of interesting relationships between the Papuans and the colonial administration. Ahuia Ova had acquired quite a reputation as the friend of Lieutenant Governor Murray and a host of other Europeans. Among the Motu and Koitabuans, he was feared, revered, and disliked because of his negative actions and attitudes to other Papuans.

“His early knowledge of the taubada’s [European’s] language,” according to contemporary Hanuabadan writer, Lahui Ako, “was due largely to his daily association with the Catholic mission that set up base next door to Hohodae. In his early years, his errand running for the fathers and nuns, and the odd jobs here and there with the mission enabled him to get a head start in learning English from the Catholic taubadas [Europeans]” Fellow Papuans saw Ahuia as a spoilt ‘native’, a betrayer, untrusted, double-tongued, and as someone who did not belong to the Motu Koitabuan societies.

Ahuia Ova maintained a close relationship with the Europeans. He spoke English with ease and comfort. In return the administration appointed him as the village constable, court interpreter, and village councilor. Ahuia was a very close friend of the Lieutenant Governor that at Murray’s funeral Ahuia took the honor of reading Murray’s eulogy.

Ahuia in traditional dressing, which he burnt later.
(courtesy of Eric Johns, PNG History Through Stories Vol.2)

Whether Papuans read what Ahuia wrote remains to be seen. Following the publication of Ahuia Ova’s memoirs: “a great deal of biographical material [was] published about him.” Ahuia’s story is one that is a reflection of the kind of Papuan, the colonizers wanted to churn out from instituting the learning of English to absorb the cultures of the Europeans at the expanse of forsaking the indigenous cultures and political structures.

Ahuia Ova’s act of writing memoirs can teach us about writing under difficult conditions in the colonial period. Ahuia’s close association with the European officials could have also exposed him to reading the official government newspaper. A close friend of Murray and by proxy to F. E. Williams, the founder and editor of The Papuan Villager, Ahuia must have read the newspaper. Williams also had access to The Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute and could have helped in getting Ahuia’s memoires published there.

In 1929, South Australian Rhodes Scholar, F. (Francis) E. (Edgar) Williams, the government anthropologist founded The Papuan Villager (1929-1942), a monthly newspaper in simple English. According to Michael Young and Julia Clark in their book Anthropologist in Papua: The Photography of F. E.Williams, 1922-1939: “The idea was to publish reading matter for adult Papuans that was interesting and informative. He envisaged that eventually it would be written entirely by Papuans, but to his continual frustration he and a small group of regular contributors, mainly government clerks and mission teachers, had to write it. The [Papuan] Villager was distributed free to schools, but the majority of subscribers were Europeans (230 of a total of 307 in 1931, for instance).” Williams felt The Papuan Villager would help increase the knowledge and understanding of the English language, a process that would eventually bring the Papuans to participate in a meaningful way in the colonial environment.

We do know now that the “Papuan Experiment” had failed, especially F. E. Williams’s project to inspire Papuans to write in The Papuan Villager. The only contributions Papua New Guineans made were imprecise 2-3 lines of folktales, which must have been written in sloppy English and provided smug amusement for the European readers.

It took another 29 years before Papua New Guineans saw Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime, the autobiography of Albert Maori Kiki published by Cheshire in Melbourne in 1968. This autobiography ignited in other Papua New Guineans the burning desire to use writing as a political tool to speak against the colonisers. Thus began the famous, literary renaissance of the later 1960s and 1970s, leading to the Independence of Papua New Guinea.

It took almost 68 years since Ahuia Ova’s memoirs before fellow Hanuabadan, Lahui Ako, published his autobiography: Upstream Through Endless Sands of Blessings (2007) and a unique photographic account of A Logohu in China (2007).

Word is that Lahui Ako has written the biography of Ben Moide, which should be published by the UPNG Press and Bookshop this year.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The first PNG Writer: Hosea Linge

With so much going on around us we tend to forget about important foundations of our history. I could not get out of my mind the much neglected discussion on the first Papua New Guinean writer. Every now and then we need to acknowledge the important parts of our history as we move forward.

I would like to acknowledge the first Papua New Guinean to write a book in the 1930s. A New Irelander by name of Ligeremaluoga wrote and published his book under the title The Erstwhile Savage: An Account of the Life of Ligeremaluoga in 1932. Ligeremaluoga is from Kono village in New Ireland Province.

Ligeremaluoga’s book is by all accounts the first written account by a South Pacific Islander. Most of what we know as Pacific writing is dated to the 1960s and 1970s. Last month I presented a paper at the University of Hawaii to discuss another early Papua New Guinean writer by name of Ahuia Ova of Hanuabada, who published his memoirs in 1939, six years after Ligeremaluoga’s autobiography.

Both writers wrote their books in the lingua franca rather than in English. Ligeremaluoga wrote his book in Kuanua and Ahuia Ova wrote in Motu. Ligeremaluoga’s book was translated into English by Ella Collins, an Australian missionary teacher. In Ahuia Ova’s case a Hanuabadan clerk, Igo Arua, translated the memoires, which were published in The Journal of Royal Anthropoiogical Institute in 1939. Both men were influenced by the early missionaries in their education.

This week I talk about Ligeremaluoga’s extraordinary life and books. Next week I will look at Ahuia Ova’s life and memoirs.

Without the availability of the original books I had to rely on secondary sources to paint a picture of these early PNG writers. For my discussion of Ligeremaluoga I draw from a beautiful little book: Ligeremaluga of Kono (Hosea Linge) by Eric Johns.

Ligeremaluoga was born around the 1890s. He was destined to be a chief of his tribe. With the arrival of the Methodists missionaries, led by Reverend George Brown, at Port Hunter in the Duke of York Islands in 1875, Ligeremaluoga’s life soon took on a dramatic change. Ligeremaluoga became one of the early converts and follower. He attended the school village school at Pinikidu on the east coast.

According to Eric Johns, Ligeremaluoga “was baptised in September 1911 by the Methodist, and given a new name, Osea, in memory of his Fijian teacher, Osea Naivalu, who had recently died. From then on, Ligeremaluoga was known as Osea or Hosea Linge.”

Hosea attended the George Brown College in the Duke of York Islands for another five years after passing through Pinikidu school. George Brown College began in 1900 and by 1927 it moved to Vunairima on New Britain.

Hosea became a teacher after graduation from George Brown College. He was posted to Omo where he met his first wife, Anasain Pisig, whom he married in 1921. After several years as a teacher Hosea returned to George Brown College at Watnabara as an instructor.

Hosea lost his beloved wife, Anasain, in 1930 when she died in the new Methodist Hospital during an operation. Anasain’s death forced Hosea into a deep depression. To deal with it he took advice from an Australian missionary, Ella Collins, and began writing as a therapy. In his autobiography he wrote about his life in Kono and mission experience. Most of all he wrote about himself as a villager, student, and teacher. Within one and a half year Hosea’s autobiography was translated and published as Erstwhile Savage: An Account of the Life of Ligeremaluoga in 1932.

The book was published in Melbourne by F. E. Cheshire—the same publisher that would publish Albert Maori Kiki’s autobiography, Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime in 1968.

From what we know Hosea Linge lived his life, committed to the church and education, until his death in 1975. He had lived through the Rabaul volcanic eruption of 29th May 1937 and the war years between 1942 and 1945. He survived through these difficult times and wrote about those experiences in his second book, An Offering Fit for a King, translated by N. Trelfall and published in 1978 by Toksave Buk of Rabaul. The second book was written three years before Hosea’s passing.

Hosea remarried his second wife, Rodi Mangin, in 1938. The couple lived together for the rest of their lives. Hosea had reached the second highest position as second-in-charge at the George Brown College in October 1946. In January 1957 a new head station church in Kimadan was officially named as the Reverend Hosea Linge Church. In 1961 Hosea Linge retired from his full time duties and left a large footprint on the sand for his children and others to follow.

Ligeremaluoga’s legacy lives on through his son, David Linge, who took the challenge to go further from where his father left off. David Linge entered the University of Papua New Guinea when it was established in 1965. David Linge studied Biology and became the first Papua New Guinean to earn a PhD in Biological sciences. After several years of teaching Biology at the University of Papua New Guinea, Dr. Linge decided to pursue a career in Medicine. He returned to the classroom as a student at the Medical School, graduating years later with a Bachelor degree, a Masters degree, and PhD in Medicine. Dr. Linge now teaches medicine sciences at the Medical School of UPNG.

Autobiograhical writings leave footprints for others to follow. Such writings have valuable lessons for everyone who cares to read. I am sure the leadership and strength of character Hosea Linge provided to his people and family are qualities and values others could learn from. History is like a flowing river. We can never step in it twice, but we can learn how to cross the river by reading what others have written before us.

I do hope that Ligeremaluoga or Hosea Linge’s two books are reprinted and made available for others to read.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Freedom From Oppression

The threat of international intervention and involvement of Sandline mercenaries in the Bougainville Crisis was sabotaged by a military faction. On the economic front the Papua New Guinea Kina was devalued, government’s external reserve was depleted, and a slow decline in economic growth began. Social conditions and lifestyles of people changed: increased rural urban drift, overcrowding and overpopulation in urban centres, increased law and order challenges, uneven development between major centres and districts, and the increased number of young people out of school without formal employment.

This social political canvas served as the context for my colleague, Dr. Regis Stella, a Bougainvillean, to write Gutsini Posa or Rough Seas, his first novel.

Dr. Regis Stella completed the book through a writer’s fellowship at the famous University of Iowa Writing School in USA. The Institute of Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji, published the book in 1999. Since its publication few people have access to this wonderful novel with many lessons on contemporary undercurrents in PNG.

Gutsini Posa in the Banoni language of Bougainville means rough seas. Far from its existential value, Gutsini Posa is a novel that has two achievements: First, Gutsini Posa is an important literary representation of the struggle of the Bougainville people to come to terms with the crisis that had completely devastated their moral and physical strength. The backdrop of the book is the Bougainville conflict between the state of Papua New Guinea and one of its provinces, the then North Solomons province. Many lives were sacrificed on both sides of the conflict.

Though peace had settled the conflict continues to haunt everyone involved directly or indirectly with the conflict. The crippling condition of a society is a sadness that cannot be washed away by tears or with organized guerrilla resistance, but with strategic negotiations. Rape, senseless killing, and torture are not only violence on human rights but mark the wounds of conflict in the lives of those who have to live through crisis.

The reminder is that with divine intervention hope comes after a people prove that collectively their spirit has not been broken, but is consolidated. Stella represents precisely this experience by the use of a volcano metaphor, a force mightier and devastating to both the oppressed and the oppressor. The relationship between human’s ability to destroy themselves and yet can also be destroyed by a force greater, in the form of natural disasters, is an inevitable reality that Stella impresses upon the reader of Gutsini Posa.

Second, despite the differences in the characters of the book, they all have ideological strengths, which keep them intact from fragmentation. As the colonel of the Southern Command on Torogegai reminds Jamila and her response indicates, there is a deep-rooted sense of belonging to place that is seen as an ideology.

An important inference made by Stella in Gutsini Posa is to highlight the novelistic discourse enabling the author to address a number of issues. First, the heterogeneity in which the lives of Papua New Guineans are constructed allows dialogics to feature as a prominent factor in recognizing a common destiny. The destiny is freedom from all kinds of oppressive conditions, be it state sponsored or epistemologically instituted. Second, in the fight to liberate oneself from the onslaught of negative influences one must be willing to insert oneself in the mental construct and structures of the oppressor.

In Gutsini Posa we see this clearly represented by Captain Gawi and Jamila, who are willing to fight for a cause that they believe in, no matter where and how it is staged. Captain Gawi, together with a few loyal soldiers plot a coup code named “Operation Electric Shock” against the government. In his support for the resistance he recruits Jamila, a native daughter of Torogegai. Jamila in her own right is boldly radical, but through a misunderstood personal relationship with Penagi to playing a leading role in the struggle of liberation on Torogegai she earns her reputation of being a “Tsinara”.

These two characters are willing to forgo even the personal relationships for the sake of a collective struggle. Jamila becomes the heroine of the resistance and Captain Gawi becomes the sacrificial lamp—an interplay of the onto-theological conclusions, realized only in the climax of the crisis. Perhaps also in that expression peace comes at a price, attained through both strategic negotiations and consensus. Gutsini Posa is a novel of hope within a society bend on destabilizing itself: “Fine, people can be defeated but not conquered.” (95)

Stella’s exploration of the theme of journey is consistent with other Papua New Guinea writings. The journeys out and of return to the village, old ways and customs are in both spiritual and physical terms. The factors that drive such peregrination have to do with cultures and roots---the birthplace always remains the point of return.

In Gutsini Posa both Penagi and Jamila must return in order for them to find each other, a strategic ploy suggested by the author. Strategic it is since the reclaiming of what is lost is only possible when individuals pursue such commitments. Stella is perhaps suggesting that the only way to secure lost identity is to retrace the journey to the beginning where it all began.

I read Gutsini Posa as a metaphor of a society fragmented by its own internal conflicts, torn by its own differences in the use of economic resources, democratic governance and social equality and on which is a need of ideological repair since nationalism has demised itself as exaggerated sentiments and political fleecing by its constitutionally elected representatives.

The metaphor of the rough seas is to me a representation of the times of turmoil, conflict and contradictions in a Pacific nation’s status where full-blown conflicts are the result of lack of consultation, consensus and negotiations. Stella observes: “Greed, dishonesty and hypocrisy by leaders are suffocating the nation.” (94).

Stella’s voice is stunning, yet controlled by the demands of the book to be as readable, enjoyed, and provocative.