- Oceanian Pain in the Nuclear Epoch, Or:How I Learned to Love Epeli Hau' of a's Kisses in the Nederends
If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it—Zora Neale Hurston
From Hau'ofa, with Love
Epeli Hau'ofa, the late writer and much beloved professor at The University of the South Pacific (USP), published his second novel, Kisses in the Nederends (1987), at a zenith point of the "nuclear-free and independent" movement in the South Pacific. Unlike his first novel Tales of the Tikongs (which took him four years to write), Hau'ofa wrote Kisses in the Nederends in six months, deciding to forego the additional six months he had originally allotted for revisions during a sabbatical year. Hau'ofa joked with his colleague Subramani in their interview, "A Promise of Renewal," published at the back of the second edition, that he did not want Nederends "to smell like a brand new hospital," stating that he preferred it remain "raw." It is little wonder then, that as a graduate student, I personally found Nederends difficult to swallow. It bothered me even more when, as a lecturer, I noticed my students had a similar reaction: they tended to gravitate towards (and valorize) Tales of the Tikongs, and, just like me, left Nederends undigested. Over time, I began to piece together a method for teaching how to love Nederends.
Nederends is a book that requires rather more work than usual, but it is very much worth it. Thirty years after its publication, the ongoing militarization in Oceania, particularly by the United States, casts a long, ominous shadow. Recently a false alarm was sent to cell phones across the archipelago of Hawai'i stating, "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL." Noelani Arista, a professor at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa wrote on Twitter shortly after: "people on the continent who imagine that Hawai'i is somewhere on the [End Page 125] margins—we are the tip of the American spear" (@noeolali 2018). Coupled with the real threats of climate change and ongoing resource extraction by foreign corporate entities, debt imperialism, and economic dependencies, it is more critical than ever to use Nederends as the cipher it was intended to be. For students, especially those from the Pacific region, Nederends has the potential to disrupt dogmatic thinking and generate critical thinking.
In my courses, Nederends is presented as a theoretical text which speaks to (neo)liberal consensus and modernization regimes as a chronic affliction affecting former and current colonies, states, and territories in the Pacific. Such pains are often concealed in our thinking, and class discussion centers on the collective body's (symbolized by the protagonist Oilei Bombaki's ailing body afflicted with a "pain in the arse") relationship to pain and suffering as we begin to talk through the metaphor of pain towards the search for relief and the lure of doping agents along the way. Class discussions also often move towards personal narrative that share the degree to which pain and suffering is socio-politically and culturally sublimated, rather than depositioned. Amongst Oceanian students, the conversations around sublimation run particularly deep. In particular, we draw a connection between the concept of the "nederends" as a stand-in for the decolonizing "third world" or, as the current President of the United States of America recently phrased it, "shithole countries" (Davis 2018), "nederend" and "shithole" being synonymous with "anus."
In our classes, we slow down a few absurd moments from Nederends to ascertain that directionality is often scrambled as a way to disorient and question the "order of things," notably in the extended passage on the "Uppertuks" and "Lowertuks," which is a rowdy but challenging interlude in which the "body worlds" of two mythical tribes are humorously represented as territorializing different bodily functions in a mad dash to secure power and privilege (i.e. the rational head versus the sensational body). This conversation links to learning world systems theory and disturbing thinking around mapping, in particular the Mercator map projection and North-South binaries. We also talk...