- Movies and Pacific Modernities in Wendt and Subramani
Although there were important antecedents before 1900, and a proliferation of individual works in the first half of the twentieth century, it was the 1960s and 70s that saw the emergence of a self-defining Pacific Island literature. Facilitated by the establishment of two major universities (University of Papua New Guinea in 1966, University of the South Pacific in 1968), and finding new print opportunities in the many periodicals founded at this time (including Kovave: A Journal of New Guinea Literature in 1969 and Mana, which first appeared as a section of Pacific Islands Monthly in 1972), the new Pacific literature arose with the self-confidence of the independence movements driving decolonisation across much of Oceania (Samoa in 1962, Fiji in 1970, Papua New Guinea in 1975).
This literature was forged by a diverse group of writers, with many themes and styles, in a range of modes and genres, across various media. Albert Wendt and Subramani were instrumental in the growth of this movement, teaching and establishing creative writing workshops through the University of the South Pacific, guiding and editing later iterations of Mana, and fashioning a critical apparatus through which to frame and interpret the work now starting to appear. And both led the way with their own writing, producing texts that have achieved lasting critical recognition both within and outside of the region.
Wendt's first novel, Sons for the Return Home (1973), is substantially set in New Zealand, but his subsequent fiction in this decade—the short story collection Flying-Fox in a Freedom Tree (1974), and the novels Pouliuli (1977) and Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1979)—is set exclusively in his native Samoa, and negotiates the challenges of Samoan modernity: the effects of colonialism upon the faa-Samoa [Samoan way of life],1 the relationship between the urban centre Apia and the rural villages, and the compromises and frictions attending Christianity and consumerism. Subramani, meanwhile, set all of his fiction in Fiji, and while his great short stories of the decade—"Sautu" [End Page 109] (1974), "Groundlings" (1976), "Tropical Traumas" (1976), "No Man's Land" (1977), "Tell Me Where the Train Goes" (1977), "Dear Primitive" (1979) and "Marigolds" (1979)—treat characters from a range of ethnic backgrounds, they all reflect his sensitivity to the complexly multicultural situation of contemporary Fijian life. While the neighbouring Samoan and Fijian modernities the authors depict are in many ways intimately related, it is striking how different they appear to the reader, particularly one not already familiar with the variety of cultures that make up the contemporary Pacific Islands.
For all of their differences—and there are many, within the work and without—Wendt and Subramani were united in their general belief that literature could serve an important social role, both in coming to terms with the Oceanian modernities that already existed, and in imagining new possibilities for the modernities to follow. Such faith was very much in the sea air at this time. The first issue of Mana Review—which included both Wendt's manifesto, "Towards a New Oceania," and Subramani's critique of colonial representations of the Pacific Islands—also contains a lesser known essay from Pio Manoa, "Singing in their Genealogical Trees," in which the Fijian poet and critic surveys contemporary Pacific Island poetry, and finds three stages of artistic negotiation of the "culture clash" (1976, 62) brought by colonisation. The first stage is one of "anger and bitterness…towards the political circumstances and domination that deprived the people of their native voice" (62). The second stage involves the sense that "two cultures—the foreign and the native—are mixing in such a way that the native is gradually weakened" (64), and is expressed in terms of loss and mourning. The third, "more complex" stage, resolves these feelings of anger and loss through the recognition of agency in the creation of new cultures, capable "of forging a new way of life, of creating a new organism, of creating a new whole out of the various humanizing agents at our disposal—from both the old and the new" (65). Although Manoa has received little of the international...