The Contemporary Pacific 14.1 (2002) 274-276
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Identity Work: Constructing Pacific Lives
Identity Work: Constructing Pacific Lives, edited by Pamela J Stewart and Andrew Strathern. ASAO Monograph Series. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. ISBN cloth, 0-8229-4115-5; paper, 0-8229-5716-7; x + 217 pages, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$45.00; paper, US$19.95.
The articles published in this book are the result of several sessions of the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO) entitled "History, Biography, and Person" which came to an end with a symposium in Florida in 1998. Regarding subject matter, the eight ethnographic chapters cover a large number of topics and issues; regarding geography, a broad spectrum of contemporary Pacific entities and societies: Irian Jaya, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Tonga, New Zealand, and the Northern Marianas (Saipan). This rather wide approach may at first strike the reader as a somewhat arbitrary, unrelated compilation of various papers; however, it was chosen on purpose by the editors, and on closer inspection the merit of the multiple approach to the subject of life history narratives becomes manifest. The reader cannot but agree with Geoffrey White, "it is just the diversity that is of value" (173).
In their lengthy and comprehensive introduction, Pamela Stewart and Andrew Strathern first very clearly list the most important studies on the concepts of self, individual, and person, and discuss their applicability to Melanesia. The eight subsequent ethnographic contributions are placed under three headings (with short introductory notes): Self Changes, Male Leaders, and Agencies. The first three narratives, by women, concern self changes.
Barbara Burns McGrath's contribution centers on Alisi, a Tongan woman; Alisi tries to escape the constraints of Tongan marriage and kinship obligations, starting with her wish to become a nun, moving to her love affairs, and finally to her marriage in the United States. In addition to the more casual conversation where she tells the anthropologist aspects of her life in a coffee shop in Seattle, two further versions of her life history are given: a recorded interview intended for Alisi's daughter and Alisi's private diary, which she does not share with anyone. McGrath subtly interprets the fragmented life history and the different versions of Alisi's account of herself. Stewart and Strathern analyze life history material from two women from Hagen, Papua New Guinea, who attempt to escape their situation or at least to improve it by turning to Christian sects. Basing her paper on the life history of Maria Baru, a healer from Irian Jaya, her traditional ritual initiation, and her training at a Catholic mission school, Louise Thoonen convincingly demonstrates how the biographical method may serve as a perfect means to gain an improved understanding of initiation--seen not as an isolated ritual but as part of a life experience.
The next two chapters are dedicated to male leaders. Stewart and Strathern compare the narratives of the well-known Hagen big men Ongka and Ru by relating local ideas about personhood and individuality to different life experiences and differing intentions in their self-representations. [End Page 274] By following their histories and the transformations of their lives through religious changes and imported knowledge in Kawelka society, as well as their personal decision making, the authors demonstrate the "conjunction of history, biography, and personhood" (98).
Karen Sinclair's biographical essay traces the life of the late Matiu Mareikura--a Maori with whom she has had a close relationship for more than twenty years and a "maker of history" (118)--and his transformation from a young, rugby-loving man to a highly respected Maori ritual leader. His development can only be understood against the background of renewed interest by numerous Maori in their language and their traditional knowledge. It becomes obvious from his life story how "history is... encapsulated in biography" (117).
Agencies are the subject of the last three contributions. The focus of the chapter by Richard Scaglion and Marie Norman is the narrative of an Abelam big man, Moll, and his colonial experience. As the authors explain, instead of using...