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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 163-168

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David and Goliath: A Response to "The Oceanic Imaginary"

Vilsoni Hereniko

Subramani asserts that the forces of globalism must be resisted by Pacific intellectuals and writers. He says they can do this primarily by using vernacular languages and epistemologies, the result of which is a change in the locus of power, from without to within. The emergence of a new language of critique that does not mimic that of the west, an integrated approach to the pursuit of knowledge, the refusal to treat literature as a commodity, and the empowerment of the marginalized (what Subramani calls the "subaltern"), are some of the benefits that will arise when Pacific intellectuals and writers realize that where they are should be the center of their universe.

According to Subramani, there are three variables--the nation-state, diasporic communities, and the global paradigm--that stand in the way of realizing the agenda he has outlined. To overcome these obstacles to the production of new epistemologies, Subramani provides examples of how intellectuals and writers can deal with opposing forces so that they become allies in the struggle. For example, he cites the contributions of intellectuals to constitutional reform in the aftermath of Fiji's first and second military coups in 1987 (since then there has been another in 2000), the ways in which several Pacific writers explore the experiences of displaced Pacific Islanders in their fiction, and the role of the University of the South Pacific in the creation and promotion of Pacific literature, the teaching of Pacific languages, and the promotion of the visual and theater arts.

Essentially, Subramani proposes the construction of a body of knowledge rooted in and about Oceania that encompasses its "philosophies, cartographies, languages, genealogies, and repressed knowledges." This idea is not new. Albert Wendt's 1975 essay "Toward a New Oceania," early writings in the journal Mana by Marjorie Crocombe and others, and more recently Epeli Hau'ofa's essay "Our Sea of Islands" (1994) speak of the same concerns. Two other articles in this issue (by Gegeo and Meyer) have similar themes. According to Subramani, the greatest threat to such [End Page 163] a Pacific-based epistemology is the global paradigm. It is a great threat, although other factors may be just as important, if not more so.

Colonization of the mind is the biggest obstacle to a Pacific-based archive of knowledges and epistemologies that are not dominated by outside influences. The historical fact is that Pacific nations have modeled themselves on their colonizers, even though many have been independent for decades. Education, religion, politics, economics, health, and even fashion, are oriented toward the foreign. Pacific lifestyles are so dependent on foreign goods and services that even in remote Rotuma, where there is no tourism industry, the local inhabitants expect to be paid in monetary terms when they assist their neighbors in house-building or garden work. The Islanders are now so dependent on western goods such as sugar, flour, salt, soap, and kerosene that whenever supplies run out, complaints can be heard all around, as though life is impossible without these foreign items.

The production of non-Eurocentric espistemologies remains a dream for intellectuals and writers. The words "intellectual" and "writer" had no equivalents in the Rotuman vocabulary until after contact, a fact that underlines their foreign origins and the difficulties inherent in trying to capture traditional systems of thought in English. It is easier to be Pacific-based when dealing with ancient practices that are being revived. The more alien these practices are to the western frame of mind, the more likely they will be Pacific-centered. The traditional farming systems or the voyaging traditions of the Hokule'a are more likely to be deeply rooted in Pacific epistemologies than the fictional worlds created by recent newcomers to the literary scene in the Pacific--not only because such postmodern fictions are written in English, but because they are grappling with contemporary issues that are informed by global trends, systems, and knowledges. Further, the fictions of older writers such as Epeli Hau'ofa, Albert...