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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 149-162

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The Oceanic Imaginary


This essay is an edited version of the keynote address Subramani gave to the Eight Conference of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, held at the University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji, 6-8 July 1999.

[I]f we can imagine nothing else, then obviously we have nothing to warn other cultures about either.


I am a writer. I do not accept my condition. I will strive to change it: but I inhabit it. I am trying to learn from it.


Writing from Oceania came into focus as Pacific literature at the first conference of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (SPACIALS), held at the University of Queensland in 1977. For Pacific writers it was a historically important gathering; many were invited to attend, and for some it was their first international conference. Writers they had wanted to meet were present, including Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace, and Maurice Gee from New Zealand; Kath Walker, Frank Moorhouse, Tom Shapcott, Rodney Hall, and others from Australia. Most important were the writers from Northern Oceania--John Kaniku, Kumalau Tawali, Bernard Minol, Taban Lo Liyang, and Benjamin Umba. The first SPACIALS conference displayed a robust energy that promised much in terms of future cross-border networking, dialogue, and a wider readership for Pacific writing (the organization has languished recently and is in much need of reenergizing). The prominence given to Pacific literature owed something to its newness and a great deal to the organizers' interest in postcolonial literatures.

I began working on this address with nostalgia. I thought it would be interesting to relive that first conference and write about the formal and [End Page 149] informal happenings there. But I realized that, in his own way, Chris Tiffin had already reprised it with his selection of conference papers, South Pacific Images (1978). His introduction to the volume provided a useful starting point for this address. Tiffin incorporated Pacific literature, with the briefest history, into the larger corpus of written literatures from Australia and New Zealand. He systematically charted the links between the literatures by referring to the common colonial experience, the emancipa-tory ideals in their discourses, and saw "forging relevant, satisfying, and sustaining images" as one of the functions of art. In one of the papers, Satendra Nandan described the role of the writer as a healer of wounds inflicted by colonialism, echoing an older preoccupation within what was then called "commonwealth literature."

There were similarities to "commonwealth literature," but also significant differences. For instance, Pacific literature was imagined as a regional literature and had a different genesis; its authors wrote from very different cultural and political circumstances. Nonetheless, like the other literatures represented at the conference, Pacific literature had incorporated the imperial language, together with its critical canons and discursive practice. There wasn't much in the papers themselves that questioned the assumptions and attitudes in western aesthetics; for instance, the distinction between orature and written texts that might have vastly changed the audience of Pacific literature. Pacific writers first imagined Oceania against the historical background of colonialism and independence, and from the perspective of the South Pacific Creative Arts Society. Mana journal and articles and manifestos by Albert Wendt and Marjorie Crocombe on artistic and cultural revival were all part of a growing regional consciousness linked to an Oceanic literary and cultural formation opposed to colonial impositions. Although the conference papers did not adequately articulate alternative literary or artistic claims, there were hints of new or different initiatives. At this conference, Vijay Mishra first problematized the relationship between literature and locality, preparing the ground for him and others to more fully conceptualize the cultural politics of displacement (Tiffin 1978). Mishra's concern was with the girmit experience and the Indo-Fijian diaspora (1992). Subsequently, Teresia Teaiwa's probing into the pathways imagined by the ancestral peoples of Oceania and the trajectories of their travel (1995), and Epeli Hau'ofa's reflections on a larger Oceania brought the partly articulated experience of other...