Friday, June 11, 2010

Book 5, Papua New Guinea: "Two Plays from New Guinea: Cry of the Cassowary by John Wills Kaniku and Kulubob by Turuk Wabei"

It must have been amazing to have been young in the sixties. Never mind the Beatles and Woodstock and Stonewall and the Pill: I’m talking about decolonization.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

“Cry of the Cassowary” and “Kulubob” were both performed on the evening of 14 August 1969 in Goroka, Papua New Guinea, at Goroka Teachers College, by the College Players. They’re both works created and presented by young Anglophone Papuan intellectuals, caught between the worlds of native heritage and the wealthy, civilizing West.

“Cry of the Cassowary” describes a family in which educated children are alienated from adults – Sela, the mother, threatens her crippled son Pima with superstitions about shape-shifting lizards and skulls and witches, while her daughter Mebo retorts that she can wear her skirts as short as she likes and choose to marry whatever man she loves, white or black.

Then at night – a night of darkness so threatening that Wasa brings his knife out to guard against the evil – the cry of the cassowary is heard, and Pima dies. It’s unclear whose fault this is – that of angry, fable-spouting parents for ignoring him or for the young rebels for bringing about the wind of change. In a time like this, something has to be sacrificed.

“Kulubob” retells a Papua myth of the creator god – but is he a creator god? – Kulubob, arriving in the village with gifts of rain and sun and meat and galip nuts and breadfruit and mangoes. He leaves his younger brother, Manub, to take care of the land, and one day he returns, announcing that he’s found a bride (taken from a faraway tribe, as per tradition). Manub publicly denounces his brother, revealing that the bride is none other than his daughter Sagila – and Kulubob emigrates in shame.

The colonial element only pops up in an optional Scene V: centuries later,
a missionary appears in the same spot, his canoe laden with mirrors, axes, knives, cloth, bibles. The villagers herald him as Kulubob, and cry out for gifts – the founding of the cargo cult.

Implication: the colonists are a double-edged sword: one day, they will also try to steal your children. And one day, exile?

I’m being rather generous, really: both of these pieces end rather suddenly, without that clean feeling of satisfaction you get from a well-made play. In “Cry of the Cassowary”, there’s all this social commentary that suddenly gets cut short by the arrival of ominous night omens and death – no clear connections. In “Kulubob”, there’s no character development: a huge elaborate scene to illustrate Kulubob’s arrival and then some makeshift bits that lay down the plot of his Oedipus-esque epiphany (or did he know she was his niece all along? It’s unclear).

Still, I love the earnestness of the ideas being thrown around, and the celebration of what’s Papuan amidst the impeccable English – pidgin terms like kaikai (food) and maski (never mind); old wives’ tales of fireflies hovering over doorways. I’ve read plays like this in Singapore, like “The Moon Is Less Bright” by Goh Poh Seng and “A White Rose at Midnight” by Lim Chor Pee, works by young amateurs who're nonetheless intellectual pioneers of their people, bravely reclaiming colonial language to celebrate their own cultures.

Representative quote:
You are lost. Stolen by the whiteman. You are not our children anymore.

Next book: James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”, from… well, let’s say Vanuatu. But in fact it’s the New Hebrides: the area covered today belongs to a pretty wide range of nations and protectorates.

No comments: