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  • Towards an Oceanian Modernism
  • Matthew Hayward (bio) and Maebh Long (bio)

In an essay on Herman Melville, D. H. Lawrence describes the Pacific Islands as "a vast vacuum, in which, mirage-like, continues the life of myriads of ages back."1 Modernist studies has yet to awaken from this dream of Oceania as the hazy antithesis of modernity, a place "not come to any modern consciousness": although the tide is turning, the Pacific has typically been treated not as an active site of cultural production, but as a tropical backdrop for the adventures of the likes of Gauguin, Stevenson, and Melville (Lawrence, "Herman Melville," 114).2 Uncalculated as this scholarly exclusion may be, it cannot but reinforce the sense that modernism and modernity demand an unmodern Other, figuring Pacific peoples in binaries that the new modernist studies has worked to undermine. Yet Pacific Islanders have long been actively involved in writing their modernities, both with the oral and other narrative forms developed across generations, and with the written religious, mythical, historical, and autobiographical texts published from the nineteenth century, in Indigenous and introduced languages. By the mid-twentieth century, adapting to the modes taught through colonial education systems, more Oceanians began to write poems and short stories in English, and in the 1960s and 70s a surge of anthologies, collections, series, and little magazines turned relatively isolated literary endeavors into a movement. Literature in the decolonizing Pacific was both an outpouring of expressive traditions in a new media, and the precipitation of new traditions—what the Samoan author Albert Wendt described as "the creation of new cultures which are free of the taint of colonialism and based firmly on our own pasts."3 Literature became part of a decolonizing voyage of exploration, a "quest … for a new Oceania" (Wendt, "Towards a New Oceania," 58). [End Page 209]

If, as we claim here, this writing constitutes an identifiably modernist movement, the literature of the 1960s and 70s cannot be reduced to a set of stylistic commitments or strict formal concerns. It is a movement at a grassroots, sea routes level; the aesthetic movement of transnational communities separated by dramatic linguistic diversity, vastly different socioeconomic positions, and deeply varied access to education, but unified by the desire to write into being new local and regional identities. Writers whose works would dominate the literary scene were joined by contributors whose names are less well known, men and women inspired to join the currents of literature flowing through the Pacific. Their contributions vary widely in style, form, theme, and complexity, from direct transcriptions of oral legends to works of erudite allusion and intricate imagery. "Self-expression," writes Wendt, "is a prerequisite of self-respect," and from urban university graduates to villagers in their first writing workshops, Pacific Islanders found new ways of prioritizing self-expression in a region awash with foreign ink (Wendt, "Towards a New Oceania," 53).

Modernism as a field has grown immeasurably over the last forty years, as scholars from postcolonial, feminist, queer, Marxist, transnational, historicist, cultural studies, and interdisciplinary backgrounds have worked to revise its borders and its terrain. With modernity understood to manifest in a variety of ways depending on location and time, modernism—imbricated in modernity—has come to be seen as multiple, fluid, and diverse. Pacific writing from the 1960s is a writing of modernity, and we argue for the value of reading it not as a modernist satellite, but as a modernism in its own right. Yet how do we grapple with the oceanic range this modernism is to include? Is every post-1960 Pacific text modernist, or just those which employ a particular style or explore a specific theme? Might the impetus to publish a book of Solomon Islands poets, who wrote for the first time in a poetry workshop, be modernist, but the poems themselves not? Can the movement as a whole be modernist even if the literary output is not always as such? Similarly, should we distinguish between the political, ideological, and aesthetic dimensions of modernism? Can a work have a modernist ideology but no identifiably modernist aesthetic characteristics, whatever these might be? Or is a work only modernist when the political/ideological...


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pp. 209-228
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