Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

"Ghem Pona Wai?": Vernacular Imaginations in Contemporary Papua New Guinea Fiction *

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

"Ghem Pona Wai?": Vernacular Imaginations in Contemporary Papua New Guinea Fiction *

Article excerpt

ERNACULAR cosmopolitanism' has become a term popular among postcolonial critics for the appeal of its paradox to scholarly complexity and its implicit critique of the homogeneous liberal-humanist notion of the cosmopolitan associated with Kant, Goethe, and Europe's Enlightenment project that in many of its forms excluded half of the world.1 Postcolonial critique in general would assert that this other half of the world has always been cosmopolitan, but in ways that differ radically from the detached, individualized freedom of the First-World global flâneur. A literal example of the vernacular cosmopolitan would be Bomma, the 'house slave' (verna in Latin) of a Malabar merchant who traded for his master between cities in India and Egypt, and whose existence has been tracked by Amitav Ghosh in In an Antique Land2 Africans more brutally enslaved later in the West's trade with the New World acquired a 'cosmopolitan' awareness of the transnational by force, and developed vernaculars that were unique hybrids created to cope with and record their experience of de- and reterritorialization, de- and rehumanizing, as we can see in the writing of Kamau Brathwaite, for example.3 The present-day IT worker is also moved around the globe, possessed of difference degrees of choice and well-being, with something more akin to the ideal cosmopolitan outlook of the Enlightenment, but still subject to forces of the global corporate labour market, and with different strategies of constructing community and the language with which to maintain it.4

Across all these variants of history and individual experience, the connecting idea is that the cosmopolitan involves being able to shed parochial ties to clan, village, localized traditions, and idiom and move comfortably in urban spaces, liberal universalist mindsets and (whatever the actual language used) sharing a 'language' mutually comprehensible anywhere. It is an ideal that Paul Gilroy looks to in a decolonized world as "convivial culture."5 Postcolonial critique, however, also points to power-relations behind such a general ideal, noting how it serves the interests of global capital, how it sets up a binary that discriminates against rural life and threatens to leach out particular local markers of culture and identity. Malini Johar Schueller, for example, admits the positive "movement away from the quagmire of micropolitics of radical theory of the 1960s" and the "bold step beyond the negation of postmodernism" that a cosmopolitan, world-systems outlook represents, but warns that "global theories can operate as colonizing forces" in which Western culture parades as universal and political memory is expunged in an overall "erasure of unevenness."6 Emily Apter likens literary one-worldism (a particular kind of cosmopolitan vision) to a set of machinery for absorbing difference into (American) global monoculture.7

I want to draw attention to one literary site where the negotiations between vernacular and cosmopolitan, people and cities, tradition and modernity are of a uniquely 'uneven' kind. This is literary fiction produced in Papua New Guinea. Within the cosmopolitan space of Commonwealth Literature, where it first received critical attention, the production and study of Pacific writing have been varied and marginal activities, and within that small circle, PNG writing has in the last decade been a tiny and sporadic phenomenon. Moreover, the fiction of its most consistent authors reveals a local focus that, while acknowledging global forces of the colonial past and international present and reacting against them, is markedly vernacular in voice and outlook. This is, ironically, partly due to writers' engagement with postcolonial literary theory, otherwise a cosmopolitan formation that works with but also moves to supersede nationalist-vernacular boundaries.

Commonwealth Literature as a field of academic study and the promotion of writing outside of the Euro-American canons had its beginnings in the promotion of vernacular cultures under the global aegis of empire. …

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