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Reviewed by:
  • Pacific Lives, Pacific Places: Bursting Boundaries in Pacific History
  • Paul D'Arcy
Pacific Lives, Pacific Places: Bursting Boundaries in Pacific History, edited by Brij V Lal and Peter Hempenstall. Canberra: Journal of Pacific History, 2001. ISBN 0-9585-8631-4; v + 190 pages, map, notes, bibliography, index. A$22.50 + $6.00 postage.

Conference papers are often unruly creatures that are notoriously difficult to harness and corral into edited collections of conference proceedings. As Brij V Lal notes in the preface, the millennial conference of the Pacific History Association in Canberra in June 2000 was even more eclectic than usual, as suggested by its expansive title, "Bursting Boundaries: Places, Persons, Gender and Disciplines." Therefore Lal and fellow editor Peter Hempenstall had to be selective, and they chose to focus on works they considered reflective and autobiographical. Why? Hempenstall suggests that the uncertainty and turmoil of civil war on Guadalcanal and the overthrow of another elected government in Fiji, which preceded the conference, were echoed by the [End Page 462] breakdown of former certainties of affiliation within Pacific history and beyond to its subject matter. Such instability prompted the editors to dedicate the volume "to mark a moment of recognition and personal re-examination by individuals, about the boundaries that have dominated their scholarly lives" (2 ). The writings of both editors have increasingly moved in this direction over the last decade. They are both comfortable with the genre and are skilful practitioners of it. It is perhaps natural that they should gravitate toward this theme in such troubled and uncertain times. While the volume presents only a narrow vision of the intellectual ferment that characterized the conference, it is still a valuable addition to Pacific historiography. However, the best papers, delivered by Bill Gammage and Vicki Lukere, were excluded by this proscription.

The collection opens with Donald Denoon's "How Not to Write Biography," a typically understated title that masks one of the best essays in the collection. In recounting his attempts to write a biography of Ulli Beier (an academic who comfortably spanned the divide between expatriates and locals in Papua New Guinea in his drive to nurture local artistic flair, long repressed by colonial structures), Denoon reveals as much about himself, and the times and places he discusses, as he does about Beier. Denoon writes beautifully and can conjure up a world in a sentence. Take his description of university life in Ibadan, for example: "Sometimes the city broke in—police killed a student; cholera lapped the ivory tower; Wole Soyinka imported controversy to the stage—but rarely did academics break out. Rumour had it that someone called Beier had 'gone bush,' maybe even 'gone native'" (9 ). Denoon notes the particular difficulty of separating man from myth and otherwise distancing himself from his subject. Then Hank Nelson reflects on his long association with Port Moresby as a lecturer, researcher, and commentator from 1966 until 2000. He explores how memories always inform analysis of the present and demonstrates how past and present become blurred by recalling day-to-day incidents like new roads disrupting his old mental maps of driving routes. Other personal recollections illuminate bigger themes and give a human face to times and events.

Hempenstall's chapter reviews the history and methodology of biography in the Pacific. He argues for the need to reach across cultures into the personal worlds of Islanders to write effective Pacific biography. While the extensiveness of Munro's accompanying bibliography of Pacific biography will surprise many, it also shows that most biography continues to be written by Europeans—indeed, Lal is the only non-European contributor to this volume. Perhaps we must ask not only how to encourage Islanders to write their life stories, but also why it is not a more common form of expression for them. Hempenstall argues against Alan Ward's comment that this type of history is a rather self-indulgent sideshow by asserting that the increasing number of reflective autobiographical submissions to journals such as Conversations indicates its increasing popularity (5 ).

John Spurway's essay on Ma'afu [End Page 463] is valuable as one of the few focused on a Pacific Islander and on someone...


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