Imagining the Other: The Representation of the Papua New Guinean Subject.
Pacific Islands Monograph Series 20, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu. 2007
Regis Tove Stella has written a challenging and thought-provoking critique of the 'Western' images of the people of Papua New Guinea. Stella writes from a deeply personal perspective, employing a post-colonial critique of literature both past and recent. For a 'first world' reader this text can make uncomfortable reading, at times, and is always capable of refreshing one's view of the representation and otherness. The scholarship of this text is challenging and at the same time engaging.
Imagining the Other decolonises place and space with respect to Papua New Guinea. The book addresses the PNG native in terms of legal discourse, as child and savage, the sexualised body and representation in Pre-Independence and Post-Independence literature.
Postcolonial representation is a site of continuing struggle between competing discourses grounded in different ideologies, preconceptions, and philosophies. Colonist discourse demonstrated its ubiquitous coercive power in all forms of representative practice, with the same tropes occurring in both fictional and 'factual' texts. (Stella, 2007, p.205)
Stella investigates the European literatures of and about PNG. While asserting that 'Early on indigenous literature was very much integral to British imperialism and included a political agenda that tended to valorize the assumed superiority of the Europeans' (Stella, 2007, p.59), there is little reference to the extensive literature of explorers and early colonial administrators like Monckton (1921). This reviewer finds it a bit surprising that the pre-WWI literature of administrators and explorers does not feature in this account. Bevan (1890), Cayley-Webster (1898), Meek (1913), Mackay (1909); amongst many others, wrote highly engaged and vivid accounts of 'south Pacific' adventure. Between the World Wars, 1919 to 1339, saw the growth of the English mandate, both absorbing the German north [New Guinea] and the exploration in the early 1930s of the Highlands in the search for gold and other minerals and hence discovered previously unknown fertile lands and large tribes of people. Hurly (1924), Hides (1935), Crandell (1931), Chessman (1935 and 1948), Bushell (1936), while not an exhaustive list, show that again the literature of exploration and adventure was well read in Europe if not represented in Stella's account. Of course, the administrators who wrote about their experiences might not have written unqualified and one-sided accounts. Such an even-handed approach is evidenced when a trouble-making man was imprisoned and punished for offences, and the next line in the account can read: 'Some time afterwards I made this individual a village constable, which position he filled in a very satisfactory manner' (Monckton, 1921, p.134).
Stella's account of the Papua New Guinean subject as child and as savage is on more firm ground. The range and details of the literature accessed are considerable and insightful. Strangely enough, this reviewer read the chapter 'The sexualised native body' with some sense that the discussion was a little coy or less than direct and also mostly uses literature of the modern era, from the 1970s onwards rather than the earlier texts that are available. Whether this lacuna is more due to a sense of discretion or simply a political correctness that does not want to speak too loudly in this matter, I found the text muted in this dimension that has engaged us from Gauguin onwards.
Stella's last two substantive chapters 'Writing Ourselves' focus on the literature of Papua New Guinea people. There is a useful discussion of the language of expression (pp.165-168) which is a dilemma that all authors in countries with multiple languages, but a public policy of being an English speaking country, must address. Even in this contested area of language policy, much is being done by local theatre groups, eg Raun Raun Theatre, using indigenous languages particularly to provide information and awareness on HIV/Aids and other social issues in rural areas of PNG.
Stella does not hide from the painful present-day realities of Papua New Guinea. 'Papua New Guinea is currently working through an extremely difficult period in its history' (p.195). Further on is as strong a judgement on PNG political affairs as one can read.
The county's political leadership and apparatus is dominated by immature politicking and a propensity for greed and corruption. Many leaders engage in defrauding and embezzling from state institutions and the national coffers. In the process they prevent equitable prosperity for all. In order to consolidate and strengthen their positions, politicians and the leadership hierarchy are involved in nepotism and cronyisms in the bureaucracy. (Stella, 2007, p.195)
In my view, Stella does not pass the final test of balance. Throughout this text runs the theme of postcolonial angst, that blames all upon one interpretation of history.
... despite political independence we Papua New Guineans are still under siege by the forces that began to suppress us for the time that Europeans first invaded our shores (Stella, 2007, p.197).
Such a postcolonial angst refuses to acknowledge that Independence came over 30 years ago, that huge amounts of aid support the country and that many of the forces that work for transparency, accountability and good governance are not local forces but overseas volunteer workers supported by aid agencies.
Papuan New Guinean writers have mostly represented the post-independence PNG landscape as brutalised, trapped in a cocoon of postcolonial tribulations, much of which is the work of Papua New Guinean leaders and elite (Stella, 2007, p.204).
The gloomy outlook that Stella reports in much literature of PNG today might in fact be a reflection of the growing concern that the attitude of 'blame it on the colonialists' is no longer satisfying, is certainly not healthy and needs to be replaced by an attitude of responsibility for the nation as it is and its future development.
This book by Stella is not without its own blind spots and shadows. It is, however, a work of scholarship at depth, and a serious exploration, admittedly with its own bias, of the nature and fabric of PNG society today. For the student of PNG, this book must be read and confronted as presenting an established view of PNG. Whether Stella's view and vision of PNG will prevail is another matter, and I for one would hope that a more reasoned, mutual and, ultimately, less blame-oriented approach may be possible. Such an outcome cannot be achieved by hiding from the opinions and the well grounded observations presented in this significant and informative text.
R. J. Vallance
Bevan, T.F. 1980, Toil, Travel and Discovery in British New Guinea, Kegan Paul Trench, Trubner. London.
Bushell, K. 1936, Papuan Epic, J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia.
Cayley-Webster, H. 1898, Through New Guinea and Other Cannibal Countries, T. Fisher Unwin, London.
Cheesman, E. 1935, The Two Roads of Papua, Jarrolds, London.
Cheesman, E. 1948, Camping Adventures in New Guinea, George G. Harrop & Co. London.
Crandell, L.S. 1931, Paradise Quest: A naturalist's experiences in New Guinea, Charles Scribner's Sons, London.
Hides, J.G. 1935, Through Wildest Papua, Blackie & Son, London.
Hurley, F. 1924, Pearls and Savages: Adventures in the Air, on Land and Sea in New Guinea, G.P. Putnams's Sons, London.
Mackay, K. 1909, Across Papua: Being an account of a voyage round, and a march across, the territory of Papua with the Royal Commission, Witherby & Co. London.
Meek, A.S. 1913, A Naturalist in Cannibal Land, T. Fisher Unwin, London.
Monckton, C.A. W. (1922) Some Experiences of a New Guinea Magistrate, John Lane Company, London.
Stella, R.T. 2007, Imagining the Other: The representation of the Papua New Guinean subject, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu.
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|Publication:||Contemporary PNG Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2008|
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