Sunday, March 31, 2013

Power of Reading

UPNG Bookshop and Press is active in publishing PNG authors.
The Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler said in From Where You Dream (2005) that one must never under estimate the powers inside of oneself that would have one flinch and convince oneself that one is doing the right thing. His reference is to the powers of reading a good book.

“Now, of course you must read in order to be a writer, and read ravenously. But there are points in your writing day, and even in your life, when you run the danger of hiding in somebody else’s voice, somebody’s else’s vision and sensibility. A moment comes when it’s time to find your own artistic identity and find a way into your unconscious. And then you will need to manage your reading carefully,” are the wise words of Robert Olen Butler that had me thinking about what to write this week.

I have to write three or four articles for this column a month ahead. After that I follow the tradition of leaving the journalistic field to fallow for weeks before I come back to cultivate the creative, serious, and sometimes anecdotal experiences of people I encounter in life. These become the foundations of the kind of writing I do in this column every Friday. I sometimes do not understand where such inspirations come from, but what I do know is that writing is something I do for a living and that I take everything that I write with sincerity, honesty, and to me writing is a passion that I have a limitless supply of.

To write well I have to read more and widely.  I know that as a writer because I have read that many times. Without reading the kind of writing I do comes out as dry and unconvincing to the reader. Yet it is the reader in me that leads to me think about what to write.

The point to stress here is that whether the reading I am doing for leisure, pleasure, academic, spiritual, or for enlightenment I have to learn something new from it. I have to gain something out of what I am reading. I have to use the information, knowledge, ideas, and story to create my own stories, to write my own works, and to inspire others with the stories I read.

I have for a while now been inundated with several books to read for the purposes of reviewing them for this column as well as to write academic reviews on them. Books on history, politics, anthropology, literature reprinted by the UPNG Press for the UPNG Bookshop are on my desk waiting for me to plough through them. Books on jurisprudence, land tenure, and commercial law are filling my shelves; they too have to be read.

Recently I purchased Jared Diamond’s latest book. The new book written by this Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author of Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel, has already attracted controversy in the academic world. The World Until Yesterday, is Diamond’s latest book, which I have been asked to comment on, especially its representation of Papua New Guinean societies and people.  I had avoided knowing too much about the controversy surrounding the book until I have read it myself.

I could already sense, from reading the first 10 pages, the controversy sucking me into the book. I have no sense of what my response is, but I do know one thing that I can say now. Whatever Jared Diamond writes will always attract controversy. I remember purchasing the book Guns, Germs, and Steel at Sydney airport when it first came out. I read the book on the long flight from Sydney to Los Angeles and then to Minneapolis. By the time I arrived in Minnesota I had finished reading the book. Instead of flaunting the book I ended up citing it in my PhD dissertation as an inspiring book. I wonder what I will think after I have read through Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday.

The challenge now is to organize the way I read all the books I am supposed to read now. The issue now is about having the time to read all these books. Do I have the time to sit down and read all the books waiting for me to read them? I admit I don’t have the luxury of time to read all of them, but at least I will read the ones that I need to read because I have no choice not to do so.

Reading books is to me the life-blood of knowledge in the modern sense of it. Without reading one is left behind to catch up with those having the advantage of acquired knowledge on the back of reading habit developed over time. It surprises me little to witness demonstration of such refined habit at work in our midst sometimes.

People who read come out more enlightened and informed about what to say, write, and do in life to make everything look so simple, easy, and plain.  Without reading one can remain in permanent ignorance and exhibit resistance to and develop a psychology of rejection of new ideas that can change one’s life or society. It is important to make reading a developmental tool in one’s life and that society itself can depend on to take it to the next level of its progress.

It seems to me some people are writing their works without reading what others have written. People who are writing about their life stories should read the autobiographies of others, what makes good autobiographies, and whether their life stories are the valuable lessons readers will gain from investing their time in reading such books.

The importance of reading is something I can never understate. It is important to me as much as it is to many other people. Those who read are those who succeed in writing and in life. Those who have developed the habit of reading are those who will deal with the mysteries of life with more certainty.

Monday, March 25, 2013

PNG Writing Lessons

Presenting my books to Founder and Principal of PNG Paradise High School
during the National Book Week 2012.
What you throw away can become someone else’s treasure. In the year 1988 I was working as a trainee librarian at the then Goroka Campus of UPNG. It was the first job I had had after graduating with a BA degree with majors in Literature and Philosophy. I was a library fellow in the Michael Somare Library of UPNG at that time.

During one of my trip every morning to the Goroka dumpsite to discard all the rubbish I picked up a book that the library had thrown away. It had no cover. The rest of the book remained intact. I took the book with me with the intention to read and keep it.

It turned out years later that the book served the basis of one of the chapters in my study of Papua New Guinea writing. The book, Three Short Novels of Papua New Guinea (1974) was written by August Kituai, Jim Baital, and Benjamin Umba. The study of this book was done during my Masters degree in English literature at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand in 1991.

Part of this research is now published in my latest book Transitions and Transformations: Literature, Culture, and Politics in Papua New Guinea (2013).  The specific study of The Three Short Novels of Papua New Guinea is given in chapter 8 of the book, which I am happy to introduce as part of the narratives that this column concerns itself with.

The very act of writing is a challenge many Papua New Guinean writers consider as a serious preoccupation. This is exemplified in Kituai’s The Flight of a Villager, where Iso shows the letter of reference to the young Australian to get a job as a houseboy. This is a classic representation of writing as an important instrument of negotiation between the colonizer and the colonized. In Kituai’s story the signature of the referee and the written aspect of the reference are more important than the person who uses the reference.

Benjamin Umba’s The Fires of Dawn starts with the first contact in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The period is one full of serious confrontations between the Highlanders and the Europeans and their coastal policemen and carriers. This led to a society disturbed and fragmented as in August Kituai’s The Flight of a Villager, where the village youth attracted by the seductive city life escapes from the rigid rules of the village. The Flight of a Villager is a story about the first experiences of contact societies and the illusions that follow such exposures to the outside world.

Tali, Jim Baital’s story is about the great return to the village. The story is about villagers alienated as a result of long years of service in the colonial work force. The great return, however, is hardly an easy transition. It is the most difficult thing for someone who has been alienated from the village. The village becomes more negative to those who went away to work in outside in coastal towns. The villagers disapprove new ideas and values. Baital goes further to show how damaging this attitude is for future generations of Papua New Guineans. Individuals become bearers of the residual guilt of their colonial past. Baital embraces possibilities of a nationalist’s concern here. He highlights some of the individual guilt and shame in a changing cultural system.

The main characters in Three Short Novels from Papua New Guinea are single characters. Each character follows a line of experience, perhaps, parallel to the experience of the three authors. The individual characters are often rebellious youths who are forced to leave the village in search of other possibilities in towns. The qualities of the characters are first judged against the society’s view of what are considered good qualities against bad qualities. Good qualities involve respect of customs, elders, observation of village rules, hard work, proper marriage, courting, courage, and strength to fight for the society in times of invasion. These qualities are absent.

All main characters in these novellas, in many ways, accepted their condition as village outcasts and rebels. For instance, Anglum’s son Tanawa, in The Fires of Dawn, is murdered for betraying the village and tribe. He is portrayed as an element of betrayal. His own society must eliminate him. The Fires of Dawn highlights the contact with the first missionary at Denglagu, the traditional land of the Kukane, which was resented by the Kukane tribe. As we discover later in the story, Tanawa, Aglum’s son, accepts the mission’s word and works on the mission station. The other Kukane tribesmen take this as a betrayal of trust.

Iso in Kituai’s The Flight of the Villager runs away from his village with a friend to Goroka. Goroka with its hordes of problems, crimes, and seductiveness displeases Iso. He lives a vagrant’s life with someone from his own village. They live on leftovers brought by his friend. He eventually gets a job as a house servant (house boy) with a young Australian officer in Goroka. The difficult, often-irresistible, modern life always allures the rebellious youth into voluntary isolation, alienation, and separation from the village. Iso achieves personal freedom as well as personal liberation. He escapes from the village punishment and the tax law of the council. This escape makes it possible for Iso to reflect on the two different worlds in a conscious way.

The Three Short Novels from Papua New Guinea were written based on the experiences of the authors. These writers occupy themselves with conflict of cultures, escape from these conflicts, and confrontations with more complicated problems in towns. The village conflicts result from breaking of rules, disobeying elders’ commands, forced marriages, or sex related conflicts. External forces augment internal conflicts and tensions of one particular society. Individuals caught up in these tensions and conflicts reject such conditions. New laws, politics, religion, administration, and education are the basis of a new social order and power.

These stories emphasize the moments of transitions and transformations in Papua New Guinea.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Loniu Cultural Centre

I first came to know him as a reliable physician that my family went to for all our medical problems. His medical clinic was based at the Waigani shopping centre, opposite the PNG Bible Translation centre.  My family and I depended on this man for all our health problems.

Dr. Powesiu Lawes is the person I am referring. He hails form Loniu Village, located on the beautiful Island of Manus Province.

I came to know Dr. Lawes as a friend as well. For some years I had not seen him after he had closed his clinic and moved on in life. It was many years later I would meet him again in Port Moresby. This time it was for a different reason.

I met him at the National Museum and Arts Gallery for a symposium on arts and culture in development organized by the National Cultural Commission. Of all the people in the world I had not expected Dr. Lawes to attend this kind of meeting.

Dr. Lawes told me he was into arts exhibitions.  I must admit that took me off guard a bit, until I realized that my good physician is telling me the truth.

He promised to send me more information if I give him my email address. Sure enough he did send me further information through email describing more than what he had told me.

The information was not about Dr. Lawes himself, but about his move to encourage the development of arts and culture as a way of promoting tourism and sustainable living in his village.

“We have embarked on rehabilitating our society’s culture with the aim of reviving many traits that have either been eroded or lost. Unfortunately, lack of cooperation from certain individuals forced us to shelve this idea for a while,” Dr. Lawes says.

He soon discovered that there were more challenges and difficulties to deal with when it came to promoting arts and culture at the village level.

“When this was seen to be prolonged, another idea surfaced. This was to establish a Cultural Centre to go in line with the formation of a Village Art Gallery, which will portray a lot of my contemporary artwork and promote village arts and crafts.”  

In his trained eyes he saw that many of these skills and tradition knowledge are disappearing as faster than imagined in our changing society.

“The Village Art Gallery should not only display my work, but also those produced by villagers, both men and women. Advertisement through internet and print media should attract tourist at regular intervals, to Loniu Village.”

In the grand vision of things Dr. Lawes wanted to make the cultural centre a place where members of the community: men, women, youth, young girls and school children can convene at regular interval to learn from the elders and knowledgeable people, the Loniu Society’s culture and traditional knowledge, beliefs and skills that are needed for both livelihood and  survival of the Loniu Society.

Many of us continue to talk and advocate for the importance of arts and culture in our communities.
In Loniu Village through the leadership of this Dr. Lawes, the villagers are forging ahead with this project. It is also an ideal opportunity for elders to pass on information and knowledge of their own society to their children. 

A cultural centre can also exist as a repository of the finite expressions of a people. Through such an institution a whole world of intertwining experiences and cultural fusion of knowledge from the past and the present are at work. The surprising result is the positive power it has in generating the collective memory of a people.

There is also the economic sense of establishing a village cultural centre.  

“Attracting foreign currency into the community will be a flow-on effect of establishing the art gallery and cultural centre, if they are managed well,” a confident Dr. Lawes explains to me.

The good Doctor is making sense. I immediately recalled an experience I once had when I was lecturing on board the cruise ship, Oceanic Discoverer. In Malaita Province of the Solomon Islands is the village of Busu, built on reclaimed land and ideally located in the Langalanga Lagoon. The villagers built a cultural centre, specifically to entertain and sell their cultural artifacts, shells, and to show how shell money is manufactured and some of their unique cultural knowledge and dances.

The villagers in the Busu Cultural Centre did not have to travel to Honiara to make money. Money came to their doorsteps, to their village, to their world via the tourists on board the Oceanic Discoverer.
With that flashback I was convinced that Loniu Village was taking the right approach to sustainable living.

Dr. Lawes is a man of conviction. He says: “Established and managed well, we believe this will undoubtedly influence the emergence of other allied ideas and activities.”

What he meant was if “everything goes as planned the Loniu Community should benefit greatly from reviving our cultural knowledge and skills or our customs and forms which we can market our knowledge in arts and crafts. The greatest beneficiaries will be our children (those in school and drop outs).”

“I believe, by now, you would have realized that I am doing this without asking for funds from government or private organizations. I believe in forging ahead individually to establish something before the government or organizations can be enticed for assistance.”

I am happy to know this side of my family physician. What I did not know at that time was that when Dr. Powesiu Lawes was a student at Sogeri National High School in the 1970s he had developed a strong passion for the arts.

Obviously he had not pursued that at UPNG, but kept it to himself until he had the opportunity to pursue it later in life.

In sharing this experience in my column I am hoping Dr. Lawes and the Loniu Villagers will get the support and assistance they need to realize their collective dreams.