Academic journal article Ethnology

Passion, Poetry, and Cultural Politics in the South Pacific

Academic journal article Ethnology

Passion, Poetry, and Cultural Politics in the South Pacific

Article excerpt

In the 1960s and 1970s, governments in many South Pacific countries educated elite classes of indigenous, mostly male, bureaucrats and professionals to replace departing colonial administrators and expatriate workers. As part of the decolonization process, institutional support was given to students (and a few village artists) to explore their experiences of change and to develop their political awareness in poetry, short stories, plays, and other art forms. In the late 1960s, for example, expatriate lecturer Ulli Beier started a creative writing course at the University of Papua New Guinea. In subsequent years, he and other teachers, expatriate and national, promoted young writers' national identity and contemporary PNG literature, publishing student works in Beier's Papua Pocket Poet Series, collections such as Beier's (1973) Black Writing From New Guinea and (1980) Voices of Independence, and local literary journals such as Kovave and The PNG Writer. In 1972, Papua New Guinea's minister of education established the Creative Arts Centre (which later became the National Arts School) for the purpose of fostering the growth of a national culture (for more on art and nationalism in PNG see Rosi 1991 and n.d.). Also in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and with similar intentions, Samoan writer Albert Wendt and other faculty at the University of the South Pacific in Suva and at USP extension centers encouraged and collected for publication the works of students from Fiji, the Solomons, Vanuatu, Samoa, and other Pacific Islands countries (e.g., Wendt 1974a, 1974b, 1975a, 1975b). During the United Nations' Decade for Women (1975-1985), parallel efforts were made (more often by outsiders and women than by local male leaders) to decolonize Pacific women's lives. Groups such as the Y.W.C.A., the Australian and World Councils of Churches, and Pacific regional and university associations promoted women's freedom of expression and growth in international conferences, writing groups, and publications such as Women Speak Out! (Griffen 1976), "Mi Mere": Poetry and Prose by Solomon Islands Women Writers (Billy, Lulei, and Sipolo 1983), and Pacific Women on the Move (South Pacific Social Sciences Association 1983). Somewhat less elitist, with more villagers and nonuniversity-educated women participating, and less focused on establishing nationalist identities, Pacific women writers and artists are concerned with the sexism that they see prevailing (or entering into) Pacific Islands societies and, in the case of educated women like poet Jully Sipolo, with defending themselves against accusations coming at them from every direction of being spoiled, self-indulgent, and inimical to their societies' well-being.

From the years preceding Independence to the postmodern era, the production of South Pacific writers, some of whom are now leading citizens in their home countries, has been important for what it reveals about its authors' politics and personal experiences. Also important are the ways in which its content agrees with or contests the cultural agenda and politics of others seeking to shape contemporary Pacific societies, others such as foreign and local educators, business, church, and government personnel, and local grassroots and international groups such as the East Sepik Women's Development Corporation and the Y.W.C.A. Focusing on poetry (an abundant source) and limiting my initial comparisons to poets from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, I explore differences in men's and women's poems on the themes of modernity, passion, and the opposite sex. Setting the analysis in the context of nations sharing recent pasts of racial and colonial oppression and remarkable for their predominantly small-scale rural village societies and cultural diversity, I trace connections between the elite sexual politics expressed in many of the poems and the broader concerns of nationalist politicians attempting to create unity out of disunity. …

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