In July 2009, two artists from Ömie, high on the slopes of Mt Lamington in Papua New Guinea, were in Sydney for an exhibition of their barkcloth art. Early in their visit, their sponsor David Baker, then director of the now-defunct New Guinea Gallery, drove them and me, and Alban Sare, the Ömie man who’d come down with them, to a shopping mall to buy shoes and warm clothes. To Alban, who’d been to Sydney before and had spent time in Port Moresby, the mall was not so strange—just larger and shinier; he liked it. For Pauline Rose Hago, the younger of the two artists, familiar only with the town of Popondetta on the plain below Ömie, the cars in the car park were enough to give her a headache. But Dapene Jonevari, a senior artist and a duvahe (rather inaccurately translated as chief), went into a state of shock when bad spirits congregating on the escalators stole all her strength. I do not tell this as a comic story. I mightn’t believe in bad spirits on escalators, or not entirely, but I don’t doubt that Dapene, one of the strongest women I have encountered here or in PNG, was assaulted by the force of a world of which she’d never seen the like. What nature of beings were the new people she’d seen often enough down on the plain, and of whom she’d heard stories, though none to prepare her for this?
Back at my house later that day, Dapene was still limp, her expression glazed. Two cups of strong sugary tea didn’t seem to help. I looked to Pauline for guidance—as I had when I was in Ömie. She had been alongside me on every path, in every village, in the forests where Dapene led the women to cut the trees for their bast, in the houses where the women paint, in the rivers where we washed. Always Pauline; certain, strong-voiced Pauline. And here we were, in my place, in my house, and I was asking her for help.
‘Where is your ground?’ she asked. Where indeed? At the oval at the end of my street, they poked at the hard earth with toes in new shoes. Yes, they supposed it was ground, of a sort.
‘Your gardens?’ Pauline asked. ‘They are where?’ ‘In the cities we have no gardens; we have shops,’ I said, and Pauline translated for Dapene; a murmur, all I had to interpret was tone.
We walked along the edge of the inner harbour to a park on the next bay, and as we walked Dapene regained something of her stature; by the time we returned to the oval, she and Pauline were singing Ömie songs. It was dusk, joggers were jogging past, the lights were coming on, as they sang to a rhythm I’d heard every day of my stay in Ömie.
Back at my house, they wanted to sleep—while in the kitchen I brooded on Pauline’s question, and my inability to protect them here, as they had me when I was on their ground. When they came downstairs for dinner—sweet potato and pork that didn’t convince them as pig—I’m pleased to report that Dapene’s strength had returned. Pauline took my hand and leaned into my shoulder. ‘Sister friend,’ she said, the name she’d called me in Ömie. Sister friend. It was a kindness, and I liked it, but in truth was I, am I, sister and friend?
These were not academic questions. I was in the depths of yet another draft of The Mountain at the time, struggling with the postcolonial complexities of how to write as a white outsider of a country I first encountered in 1968 when I was twenty-one. After Dapene and Pauline returned to their mountain, I returned to my desk with Pauline’s question reverberating in me. Where was our ground: ours in the sense of a highly asphalted world, and ungrounded culture? Where was my ground? Mine in the sense of the book I was, or rather at that point was not, writing.
The ground I thought I had for the book that was not yet The Mountain was an approach to writing that had begun with Poppy, a fictive ‘biography’ of my mother. It had been there that I’d found a voice that felt authentically my own, and during the 1990s I had become an advocate for the first-person singular—the ‘I’, and the ‘eye’—as a way of uncovering, or recovering, occluded feminine experience. With Stravinsky’s Lunch, I articulated this use of the first person as a ‘method’—if that’s the word—that could draw together the imagined and the informed, the fictive and the researched. It was by bringing the imagining self to the gaps in the record that the writing self could reclaim the overlooked and under-recorded lives and work of women. Imagination—both imaginative embellishment and fictive methods—could thereby meld, as it were, with biographical and autobiographical writing to give shape to lives for whom the record was fractured and uncertain. The ‘informed imagination’ of the first person had become, in a sense, the ground of my writing and I took it unquestioned into writing about PNG. It was a while before I understood why that ground proved unstable.
The barkcloth artists of Ömie are now recognised, in the words of Nicholas Thomas, as ‘the most brilliant living exponents’ of a ‘great world art tradition’ that once stretched across the Pacific from New Guinea to Hawaii. But in 2004 the Ömie, a small group of less than 2000 people, were impoverished and demoralised; only the oldest women were still painting. I was there with David Baker, who had seen their art and had been invited by a small group of young men who wanted to start a business that would bring status and pride as well as cash to this depressed and marginalised group. David was there not as a small gallery owner, but as a sponsor—or potential sponsor—for he recognised that this was art that should be in major gallery collections. I was there, apart from my own interest which was considerable, so that I could write of what turned out to be a critical visit—which I did in a catalogue essay for The Wisdom of the Mountain, the major exhibition of Ömie art at the National Gallery of Victoria that opened in November 2009, four months after Dapene and Pauline’s visit to Sydney. By then Ömie Artists was a community business registered in PNG, money was returning to Ömie from sales, including to most of the major state galleries in Australia.
In the catalogue I described the long, steep walk up to Ömie; the ridges, the forests the gateways to the villages. I described the day I sat with my notebook while David Baker met, in formal meeting, with the duvahe. I wrote of the tension between the responsibility felt by the duvahe to safeguard their traditions and the community’s need for money for school fees, for lamps, tarpaulins and nails, maybe even a tin roof and a tank one day. I wrote of sitting with the women duvahe, Dapene among them, as they spoke of the young women who no longer saw the value of learning the exacting art of the cloth, of young men who needed purpose if they weren’t to drift into town and find trouble. Even through the processes of translation, I could understand that well enough. And I knew very well the onerous responsibility faced by David. Did he do nothing, in which case the young men would try selling the cloth to tourists on the Kokoda Track, and if that failed, would the art of this exceptional but marginalised group fade away as the art of so many neighbouring groups had done? Or did he step in as sponsor, another white ‘saviour’—there’s a long history to that particular trope. Could he/we avoid the sorry path too often trod by good intentions? Could we safeguard the art, and the interests of the Ömie, or was that, too, part of the whiteman fantasy?
A lot was at issue for the Ömie, for us outsiders, and—as it turned out—not only for the Ömie of the high villages who had maintained their art, but also for those lower down the mountain, who’d given up their cultural practices, including their art. Was this how they were to be rewarded for their move to the missions? We hadn’t even left the last village when trouble showed itself. Naivety and good intentions walked us slap into a ‘shake down’, a demand for money in the form of an arrest that stretched over two days.
Good material, you might say. An excellent predicament for someone wanting to give a lived shape to a postcolonial experience. But had I tried to write of these events by using my usual approach, was my imagination sufficiently informed to write of what any of this meant to the Ömie, to the duvahe, to the young men, indeed to those who felt slighted and aggrieved? The answer, obviously, is no. To write of it only from our perspective, would I not be falling into the worst trap of outsider writing about PNG—placing myself, or ‘us’ the white outsiders, in the centre of the frame? I’d read enough colonial memoir and fiction to know the dangers of that narrative—the white adventurers deep in the interior of Papua, suddenly endangered, rescued by their own resourcefulness and the good office of ‘natives’ who take their side to defeat, or outwit, angry tribesmen. It wouldn’t take much of a twist to have a story straight out of the NSW Bookstall melodramas and romances of the 1920s and 1930s that were among the first to commercialise the uninformed imaginations of Australian writers and their readers. Colonial memoir and fiction casts a long shadow.
In a catalogue essay I could distance myself—the narrating ‘I’—to a role of observer, reporting what had happened in a visible sense: the meetings, the tensions, the varying points of view as they were stated in relation to the matter of the cloth leaving the mountain, translated, and transcribed into my notebook. An inadequate research method, an anthropologist would say, but adequately observed (if not informed), I hoped, to the task of reporting the process that brought the cloth to the National Gallery of Victoria five years later. To attempt more than that, how could ‘our’ story—on the basis of a short visit—be told without the view of the Ömie, let alone the view from the Ömie, becoming ever more occluded? What was their view, what did these changes mean for them?
The problem, I was beginning to see, was the inequality between the white narrator and the postcolonial subject.
The first intimation that I was moving towards fiction came with the character of Milton, the young Papuan writer who appeared on the page with a raised fist and a gift for language. He took me by surprise. He arrived unheralded and sat uncomfortably with the imagining ‘I’ that was trying to wrest some control over the mess on my desk. I mightn’t have expected him, or known what to do with him, but I knew exactly where he came from: those early years at the University of Papua New Guinea before Independence, when, in the words of the great Samoan writer Albert Wendt, indigenous writing across the Pacific began, and ‘gained its first euphoric power and mana alongside the movements for political independence’.l
I had the good fortune to arrive there with my young anthropologist husband in 1968 as this surge of creative energy was beginning. While my husband tutored, I enrolled in classes with young men (mostly men) who knew that theirs would be the generation that would take this complex country of many languages into nationhood. For someone not long out of an English girls boarding school, that was extraordinary enough. More significantly for me, I found myself in classes with students who were writing. They were writing plays in which plantation labourers rose up, and Papuan girls ran from the altar of white betterment; poems in which copra workers threw down their sacks and kanakas spoke back; short stories that lampooned missionaries and traders; essays in the student newspaper that called administrators and colonists to account.
It may be in the nature of memory that experiences that come to us when we are very young, and not yet equipped to interrogate them, remain the most vivid. It is, I think, for this reason that Milton arrived on the page so readily. He is a student when we first meet him. A play he’s written is about to be performed at the university. Rika—the young white character onto which I could split some aspect of my learning and unlearning (though not my autobiography)—takes her camera to rehearsals. ‘Publicity shots’, they called them, a grand term for a play to be put on in the canteen, but why not? When the South Pacific Post censors the photos, she and Milton stand firm together. The old-timer whites might call the university a Mau Mau factory, and condemn girls like Rika as traitors to their race. But right then, at that moment, Rika and Milton are united in the belief that the radical changes that were coming—literature for him, love for her—would eliminate prejudice and—who knows—even render them the same people under the skin. There would be painful reckonings to come, of course, for them as characters, and for me, writing, trying to write them.
Over my desk I had these words from Albert Wendt: ‘The post in post-colonial does not just mean after; it also means around, through, out of, alongside and against.’2
Looking back, those years in PNG in 1968–71 changed almost everything about my life—and, because of that, I suppose, lived on in me as a core to the book I was to begin more than thirty years later. The impulse was frankly autobiographical, a vanity I admit, though it was also more, for there was something about that country and that time that had entered my blood and I wanted—vanity again—to bring PNG back into ‘our’ imaginative consciousness. For over the decades between the cultural surge of those years leading into political independence and the century’s end, it seemed to have seeped from fictional view. Once Australian journalists had flown up to investigate black writing; Australian publishers had published writers from there, and wanted writing from here about there. Randolph Stowe’s Visitants and Trevor Shearston’s Something in the Blood were both published in 1979, an outsider response, it could be said, to that powerful moment when alongside could join with against. Even these, our own writers, our own novels, have fallen from our collective memory. While more and more sophisticated work came from the pens of anthropologists and historians, fiction seemed to revert to old ways of seeing.
Well into this new century the pygmy and the naked tribesman still make their appearance in Australian fiction, and Highland girls, though no longer dressed in grass skirts, are as prey to the desires and fantasies of young white men as the fictional girls of the exotic south seas were nearly a hundred years ago. This despite the great postcolonial novels of world literature—of which Visitants is one. It was a weird disjuncture I observed between the acute awareness of academia and the remarkable obliviousness (it seemed to me) among our few novelists who ventured into PNG territory, sometimes without even going there, or, if they’d been there before, without returning. When a reason was given, it was that it was ‘too dangerous’; that, or the wish to leave the imagination unencumbered as if there was something about Papua New Guinea that despite everything that had happened, could still offer a blank canvas to the outsider writer.
Even the colonial novelist Beatrice Grimshaw, who did at least live in Papua for many years, complained of journalists who came up to Port Moresby, found a ‘cannibal queen’ within a mile of Government House, exchanged her story for a twist of tobacco, and caught the same boat home.
The persistence of the uninformed Australian imagination might have surprised me, but it didn’t surprise Regis Stella, the writer and critic teaching in the literature department of the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). When I went through Moresby, on subsequent visits after my return in 2004, I’d see him and his colleagues, now my friends, Russell Soaba and Steven Winduo. At first, on my returns, our conversations were not always easy. Regis, a stern critic, was suspicious, and why would he not be, this white woman reappearing after all these years, and with all the resources of an Australian research grant and a publisher, wanting to write about a time that had formed her, while they struggled with meagre resources to produce a literary magazine and publish small anthologies with no grants, no editors, no publishing industry, few bookshops. It would be a while before I felt he could consider me a colleague. He was writing Imagining the Other then—it was published in 2007, just five years before he died, much too young, at the beginning of 2012. In it, he argued that the first task of the postcolonial indigenous writer was to understand and refuse the projections that have accumulated over the history not only of colonial but also—too often—of postcolonial fiction and memoir. It was a distorting lens through which Papua New Guineans had come to see themselves, a distorting lens that perpetuated the misconceptions of others. He was not about to let me forget that ‘we’ outsider writers, especially of fiction, too often place ourselves as the point of reference to the known, unquestioning modern, leaving the equally unquestioned residues of the unknown and unknowable non-modern to the Papua New Guinean, especially those living in villages, or other situations ‘we’ do not recognise as modern. The uninformed imagination was a habit of mind, Regis pointed out, that was not confined to Australia’s writers.
He and Steven Winduo were part of the tiny group of second-generation writers; if anyone knows it’s tough, they do. PNG ‘has forgotten its early writers’, Winduo has written in a recent essay.3 Those one-time student writers had moved on to bigger and better things, and once in government, literature was not among their priorities. Perhaps they remembered how those student plays could be used against. Writing and publishing was not an easy path in the years after Independence, and certainly not profitable. Which was why, to Regis, Steven and Russell, it was all the more important that the flame be kept alive. A flame against the corruptions and inequities we hear a great deal about; a flame around, through, and out from the hard work and successes we don’t hear about: the conservation workers and environmental lawyers; the children’s libraries; adult literacy and water collection projects; the work that is containing the spread of HIV.
There was a role, I could see, for alongside, and it’s not as if there wasn’t rich material. But I was stuck somewhere between the failings of a method that had once served me well and the daunting land of fiction I was creeping towards. It’s a rigorous form, the novel, far from easy, and there are those who question the relevance for the Pacific of a European form in which Western ideas of subjectivity are deeply imbricated. Regis preferred the short story and the polemic as better suited to Melanesian forms of oral storytelling and rhetoric. But for Steve the novel is a flexible form, with its own language; look what they’ve done with it in Africa, in South America, in Samoa. Why shouldn’t the novel make the transition into Melanesia, isn’t it part of the inheritance of world literature? Hadn’t I heard of hybridity? And besides, he’d say, look at Russell Soaba, who’d be sitting there, inscrutable and benign, the one writer from those early days who has written his way through the intervening years, and is writing still. I salute him. His novels Wanpis and Maiba, two great post-Independence novels, should be on every postcolonial literature course in this country, but they are not even published here. Steve and Regis, fine writers both, have published out of Hawaii or University of South Pacific. Or they publish themselves. Australian publishers have long since lost interest in fiction from PNG. It doesn’t sell, my publisher told me when I told her I wanted to write the book that would become The Mountain.
‘Russell Soaba often reminds me’, Winduo says, ‘that the life of a Papua New Guinean writer is a difficult one because the society itself is a difficult one.’
By the time Dapene and Pauline visited Sydney in 2009 all I had was a shaky draft of a book without a title that was still teetering somewhere between an insistence that was autobiographical and a hope that was not yet fiction. What I was doing with this book didn’t strike me then as so different from anything else I’d written. Hadn’t I always worked in that contested zone between the fictive, the autobiographical and the historical? Was I not still exploring that rubbing point between the small experience of lived lives and the washing tide of events that catch us up in its momentum? All that was different, I thought, was that this time I was coming at it with characters that were fictional, whereas before I’d come from the other side, so to speak, with figures who had existed in history, or in family, and had left a paper trail, however fractured or incomplete.
‘It’s not working,’ my publisher said. I could tell by her face. My friend Hilary McPhee, who’d published Poppy, agreed. ‘You can’t shift it all onto a narrator twenty years older. She sounds like you trying not to be you.’
Around, through, out of, alongside and against. I was nowhere near, trapped in the outer reaches of my own vanities.
Philip Roth, a writer I greatly admire, has said that it takes a crisis for a novel to find its shape. For me with The Mountain that crisis began with Pauline’s question, where is your ground? Then, four months later, in November 2009, within days of the Ömie exhibition opening at the National Gallery of Victoria, their sponsor David Baker died suddenly—by which I mean overnight, without warning. As a result, his sponsorship of the Ömie ended, and students whose fees he was paying, not only there but across PNG, could no longer continue at school. This, to say the least, added to the destabilisation of my own sense of ground and changed a great deal about the way I continued my own relationships in PNG. Never again would I be the observer who could watch, make notes with her clean, writerly hands, then go home and fret about a novel. What was going to happen to Ömie Artists? That alone was a big enough question. What would become of the children whose school fees he was paying in the fjords of Cape Nelson? What would happen in those resilient, struggling villages if they could no longer get their students past year 8—when the fees are too high for village families—with the loggers already within sight in Collingwood Bay? I could speak for an hour about what was involved in all these questions, and what I learned of the politics of Aid and Development—and of the logging, much of it illegal, which now affects more than five million hectares of customary land.4 This is not incidental, nor a crude political plug. I had spent time with an elder at Uiaku, just along from the fjord villages, where the landowners had won a long court case against the loggers, only to have them return in another guise. I’ve been back since, and I know the cost, in every sense of the word, to that man, to that community.
It was not only in the villages that my relationships changed. In Port Moresby the talk with my writer colleagues at UPNG also changed as I struggled with these non-writerly questions. Russell and Steven and Regis were wise interlocutors, and I thank them for it, and for the comradeship that grew between us. Write that novel, was the message I took from them. Every voice is needed. Hybridity, Steve said again, aren’t we all, in our different ways, existential hapkas, and he gave me that enabling word from Tok Pisin, which has shrugged off its negative connotations of half-caste to embrace complex cultural identities. And all the while, there was Russell Soaba still writing, producing a blog, teaching students that their stories, and the stories of their place, and of events they see around them, matter, that poetry matters, and so does the novel. Witness was the word Regis Stella used, and I came to see it applied (in some small measure) to me as well as to the writers there whom he was addressing.
When Janet Malcolm, another writer I admire, faced a crisis of a very different kind in her writing life, she said that it took her ‘out of a sheltered place and threw [her] into bracingly icy water. What more could a writer want?’5 Icy is hardly the word for anything to do with PNG, and no writer would want the death of a friend. But she has a point.
I returned to my desk in the Australian winter of 2010 with very different mental settings. The memories to which my vanities had been in thrall slid back; the present had claimed me, and it mattered. The effect was indeed bracing. I sat down and rewrote in the third person the manuscript that was not yet called The Mountain. Martha, no longer narrator, lost a lot of her story, most of her point of view, dropped in age by twenty years and became a character in the ensemble of characters that at last found room to stretch and breathe—and, yes, to look at each other, and look back. Ensemble, that was the word that came to me: they, all of them, not me, not ‘I’. Milton sighed a sigh of relief.
As to the result, well, it’s out there in the world, and though I probably know its faults and failures better than anyone, it’s not my job to lay them out. What I will say is that out of that period of radical doubt, the ground of my writing changed. The Mountain is a novel—at last I can say that—a character-based novel that gives voice to the predicaments underlying all I’d experienced, or seen, or known in that magnificent, heartbreaking country. It is as personal as anything I have written since Poppy, but it is not autobiographical. The ghost of people I have known may hover above it, but it is not biographical. With The Mountain I crossed the borderline from a form that might be called literary nonfiction, or life-writing, into the terrain of the novel. While this move into ‘imagination’ did not disavow the ‘informed’—on the contrary, to write of the postcolonial without having trod the postcolonial ground strikes me as ever less defensible—it did shift and change my understanding of the relationship of the words that once went together so sonorously: ‘the informed imagination’.
Fiction writers often talk of empathy as the task, even the technique of fiction. Hilary Mantel talks of getting behind her characters’ eyes, and every writer who deals in lives and characters will know what she means. But Mantel also warns that we cannot proceed on the assumption that historical characters (in her case) are like ‘us’; we can’t hop behind ‘their’ eyes and look out with ‘our’ eyes. When she uses the term ‘informed imagination’ of her Thomas Cromwell novels, it is a way of saying that the research she must do as a novelist is no less onerous than the research a historian might do. While the formal demands of writing history or fiction can be, and are, very different, when it comes to writing lives, the writer of fiction and of nonfiction is faced with a similar paradox. If she is to bring life—lifeness—to the page, then she must, in a sense, get behind eyes that are radically different from hers, and that’s the paradox. She must do, or appear to do, what is not possible.
When it comes to the argument over history and fiction, the limits and nature of historical imagination that unfolded here while I was struggling with The Mountain, I don’t want to reprise a debate that has been divisive and painful, other than to say that through it I came to understand that the ‘informed imagination’ does not only mean qualifying ‘informed’ with ‘imagination’ as I had done; it also requires us to bring an informed intelligence to the nature—and limitation—of imagination itself. It would have been a grave error on my part to think that ‘I’ could sit in a village in PNG and ‘imagine’ myself into a village person. What would it be like for someone like me to be a village woman? Well if I were a village woman, I would not be the ‘I’ that writes this from the asphalted world of escalators. Even the briefest acquaintance with psychoanalysis alerts us to the deep structures of subjectivity laid down from infancy, so that while we might all bleed, our sense of ourselves and our understanding of self in relation to others and society can differ radically. This is a matter much debated by anthropologists.
My task, I came to see, was as a novelist, not as some kind of inadequate faux anthropologist. So it’s perhaps fitting that, for all my reading, the point made itself, and a certain emotional sense, when I first encountered in Ömie the image of the tree as a metaphor for the clan. Whereas in the anglophone West we draw a family tree from the top of the page with each individual marked along horizontal generational lines, the Ömie draw their tree upwards. The roots represent the Ancestors, the trunk the members of the clan, all in together, and the branches are symbolic of the duvahe who stretch the clan into the future. This does not mean that everyone in the trunk is the same—you only have to be an hour in a village to know that—or that they think of themselves as the same. But it does mean that their taken-for-granted sense of who they are in relation to each other and their society is markedly different from the way we in the West, each with our place on our horizontal lines, take for granted the nature of self.
That is what my character Rika, who wants only to be the same, has to learn. She has to learn it in her professional life with her camera, and that is hard enough. In her personal life, in her deep love for Aaron, it is harder still coming to understand how she is seen and, in a sense, can only be seen, especially by the older members of the fjord village where Aaron was born and grew up. She might be called sister friend by his young women kin, she might refuse all difference in the name of race equality; are we not all the same under the skin? She might wish to be the same, ache to be the same, but she is not. Her marriage to Aaron looks very different to the village than it does to the cosmopolitan young in Port Moresby celebrating the mixing of race and colour. To them their marriage can symbolise the changing tide of history, the new day coming, but to the older women in the village, the aya, whose task it is to hold the ground steady, it is a turbulence in the order of things. To the young women in the village, her sister friends who have a greater sense of the changes that are coming, Rika’s IUD—a piece of metal inside her to stop the making of babies—is as incomprehensible as it would be to a woman in contemporary Australia that there are certain springs where a woman should go if she wishes for a baby. The point here is that to dismantle the ‘other’ does not mean to replace ‘other’ with ‘same’. Like so much in life, movement between the two depends—to use the camera metaphor—on what lens you use, what focus and exposure, on who is behind the camera and which way it is turned.
It was only when I relinquished the epistemological grip of a first-person narrator that had, in my thinking until then, held the two parts of the ‘informed imagination’ together, that I (in my particularities and limitations as a writer) could bring a more polyphonic perspective to the moral predicaments in which this book had entangled me. I’m not saying it could only be done in fiction, but it was, for me, a kind of liberation to come to understand that fiction stands on different ground from history. There is scope for play along the borderlines, but there is also a ravine, to use Inga Clendinnen’s word for it, or at least a rocky valley, which we should respect. From the point of view of writing, there is, I think, an epistemological necessity for even the most literary of nonfiction writers to act as the lens through which we can trust, or evaluate, or revisit for ourselves the selection, presentation and interpretation of the lives and events put before us. The nonfiction writer might use the techniques of fiction to bring lifeness to her lives and to conjure the paradox of difference. But her pact with the reader, and her subject, returns always to the record, however patchy, however interrupted, from which she works. Fiction makes a different pact. It might contain argument, but it is not an argument; it involves interpretation, but to make it depends not on reference to the sources (important though they might be) but on perspective and patterning, voice and language, metaphor and image.
But there’s a rub. By crossing into the land of fiction, and by creating characters that do not equate in any simple way, or even at all, to myself or to the many lives I’ve bumped up against in my rich experience of PNG, I had confronted myself with a possibly greater challenge if I wanted The Mountain to be more than ‘set’ in that time, that place, that history.
For while the best of nonfiction writing also depends on the skill of the writer to conjure life on the page, and to use literary conventions without them appearing conventional, for the novelist who engages with history as more than a set, the stakes are higher. For a novel that gestures to history but cannot breathe life into that paradox of difference has nothing in the annals to fall back on. If its characters do not move us, if we do not believe in the world it creates, if difference is not rendered tangible, the writer cannot then fall back on biographical or historical veracity and say that there really was such a tide of events, and such people swept up by it. A poor history might still tell us something worthwhile, and hand the baton on. A bad novel tells us nothing, and if it does not allow us to glimpse ‘that blue river of truth, curling somewhere’, as the critic James Wood calls it, there is little left behind.
- Albert Wendt, Introduction to Nuanua: Pacific Writing in English since 1980, University of Hawai’i Press, 1995, p. 3.
- Wendt, Introduction to Nuanua, p. 3.
- Steven Winduo, Transitions and Transformations in Papua New Guinea Literature and Politics, UPNG Press and Bookshop, 2012, p. 41.
- Colin Filer, ‘The Political Construction of a Land Grab in Papua New Guinea’, Australian National University, Pacific Discussion Paper, September 2011.
- Janet Malcolm, Paris Review interview: The Art of Non Fiction No 4.