Dr. Maebh Long on Pacific Modernisms

Pictured: Dr. Maebh Long

FM: I’m so excited about this interview and to learn more about Pacific Modernisms, a sub-genre of Modernist literature that I embarrassingly don’t know much about. But, you’ve co-edited, with Matthew Hayward, New Oceania: Modernisms and Modernities in the Pacific, an incredible text that focuses on what’s left out when “the repeated elision of Oceanian literature, art, music, dance, and theatre” occurs. Can you speak to Pacific Modernism, along with which writers, works, and ideas comprise it?
MLThank you so much for your kind words! I’m delighted that you enjoyed New Oceania – Matthew and I were extremely lucky to be able to collaborate with so many fine scholars on such a rich body of work.

Questions about what lies within and outside the purview of any version of modernism are tricky. Matthew and I have an article, “Towards an Oceanian Modernism,” coming out soon with Modernism/modernity, and in this piece we spend a little time considering what, within the Pacific context, constitutes a modernist work. I realise that these problems, these boundary disputes, are growing wearisome for some modernist scholars, but the more critical texts on modernism I read from the 1930s, the 1960s, the 1980s, the more I am aware that modernist studies has rarely been free of questions about the nature and time-frame of modernism. I will overstate the case if I insist that to grow tired of these questions is to grow tired of modernism, but I do, at least, gesture towards their persistence. That said, recent frames such as weak theory mean that we can be less concerned about policing the borders of modernism, and focus instead on what is to be gained when we examine literary and cultural products through modernist studies’ lenses.

Matthew and I have been most focused on what is often referred to as the “first wave” of Pacific literature, and our work considers what is illuminated when we regard the creative works produced during this period as a modernist movement. This means that we primarily engage with the literature published in the Pacific during the 1960s and 1970s. In Oceania, this period was one of great change – in many countries in the region independence was being reclaimed, education systems were decolonising, universities were being founded, and identities, traditions, and cultures were being questioned. There was increased urbanisation, growth in infrastructure, increased mobility, and, of course, a burst of literary and artistic creativity. The majority of the short stories, novels, poetry, and dramatic works of this period explore recognisably modern concerns, and the writers make innovative creative use of a number of sources, but engage particularly clearly and boldly with European, American, and African modernist works. For Matthew and I, then, this creates a double pull – we are intrigued with these Pacific texts as writings of modernity, and we are fascinated by their conversations with the modernisms of London, New York, and Ibadan.

There are so many writers to mention, and in naming those who wrote regularly and became established, we should not forget the large body of work created by those who wrote just once, but the major authors include Witi Ihimaera, Hone Tuwhare, and Patricia Grace in Aotearoa/New Zealand; Vincent Eri, Russell Soaba and John Kasaipwalova in Papua New Guinea; Subramani, Vanessa Griffen, Jo Nacola, and Satendra Nandan in Fiji; Marjorie Crocombe and Makiuti Tongia in the Cook Islands; Albert Wendt and Sano Malifa in Samoa; John Dominis Holt in Hawai‘i; Konai Helu Thaman and Epeli Hau‘ofa in Tonga; John Saunana and Celo Kulagoe in the Solomon Islands.

New Oceania: Modernisms and Modernities in the Pacific Edited by Matthew Hayward and Maebh Long

I should note that the interest that Matthew and I take in the strong literary movement of the 1960s and 1970s should not imply that it took until the middle of the twentieth century for Pacific writers to pick up the pen. Alice Te Punga Somerville, a contributor to New Oceania, has been leading a team of researchers focused on uncovering more Indigenous writing from the Pacific from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The results of her research in archives and on periodicals are still coming, but you can listen to the podcast she has produced with Wanda Ieremia-Allan by searching for “Writing the New World” from your preferred podcast provider.

FM: In which ways do you find the absence of Pacific Modernisms – in classrooms, studies, and so forth – most harmful to scholars? 
MLModernism has long been associated with narratives of exile and alienation, and on the rare occasions that the Pacific was considered within modernist studies, it was most commonly presented on these terms: as a place travelled to by the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, Paul Gauguin, and Herman Melville, and in which they experienced displacement and radical difference. The very real exile and alienation caused by modernity and colonisation in the Pacific, which impacted the lives of people across Oceania, was made secondary to the dispersion and rupture narrated by displaced Westerners, who usually depicted the Pacific as a place “thousands of miles from civilisation,” and who frequently wrote of the “depravity of the natives […] with a vehemently unctuous horror.”[1] There are less offensive portrayals of the Pacific than these lines from Somerset Maugham, and there were more nuanced foreign travellers, but the issue remains that the dominant portrayals of the Pacific, when it is thought of within modernist studies at all, have been by people for whom the region signified otherness. If I might be trite, then, for too long the Pacific was marked by either silence or exile, with very little cunning. If the only view of the Pacific that students and scholars in the West or in Oceania receive is through the eyes of these Western authors, the Pacific becomes a place calcified within their biases, expectations and misapprehensions. In engaging instead with writings on Oceania by Pacific authors, we undercut the depiction of Oceania as the non-modern other that “proves” by comparison the modernity of the West. We reflect on how modernity is portrayed by people for whom the Pacific marks home, albeit a home fragmented by foreign incursions. We thus begin to experience new versions of the Pacific, of modernity, and of modernism.

‘For I have fed on foreign bread’: Modernism, Colonial Education and Fijian Literature Maebh Long and Matthew Hayward in Volume 15, Issue 3 of Modernist Cultures (August 2020)

FM: What differentiates Pacific Modernism from European and American Modernism? How and where do we see these divergences? But, where do we see convergences, too?
: This is a particularly big question, and my answer is going to have to generalise rather broadly. As a decolonising region, Oceania in the 1960s and 1970s shared political problems and educational history with many postcolonial nations, and had similar reflections on identity, language use and culture, as well as a general ambivalence about modernity. There are thus important connections between Oceanian modernism and the modernisms of Africa, the Caribbean, and India. But in addition to many connections born of shared colonial experiences are interests, vocabularies, structures, and anxieties that we also find in the modernisms of Europe and America. Across the modernist works of London, Paris and New York, as well as Dublin, Lagos and Suva, we can see overlapping and interconnecting themes, such as relationships with the city, with technology, with language, with identity, with diasporic movement, and with tradition. As European and American modernists borrowed from and were inspired by Africa, India and the Pacific, so too did writers in these regions find creative influences in western texts.

One difference I could note is that we often group European and American modernists according to styles and cliques, frequently based on the fierce aesthetic and ideological principles that many modernist and avant-garde writers espoused. The movement we see in Oceania, which at the moment Matthew and I are exploring as the difference between an expatriate-influenced movement at the University of Papua New Guinea and a local-led movement at the regional University of the South Pacific, is not quite as driven by focused questions of style, but, like many of the postcolonial modernisms of Africa and the Caribbean, by the more politically-driven questions of self-realisation through self-expression – art for man’s sake, as Wendt says, rather than art for art’s sake. This is not, by any means, to say that questions of form were ignored by Oceanian writers, but that they do not appear to be the primary points around which groups coalesced. That said, there will be scholars, particularly those whose knowledge of Pacific languages exceeds ours, who notice rhythms and references that we have missed. We are excited to read their work.

A further point of difference between European and Oceanian modernisms is that many postcolonial modernists, like those in the Pacific, encountered European and American modernism in school or in university, where it was simultaneously radical, as it was so different to much of the canonical literature included in education systems, and institutional, as it was included within and legitimised by formal classroom engagement. I raise this point to stress that this doesn’t render work by postcolonial modernists belated or less radical, however – To the Lighthouse featured on undergraduate examinations in Cambridge in the 1920s, and modernist texts can be found on university curricula during this period in America too, yet the 1920s and 1930s are rarely discussed as a time of late or derivative modernism. Considering the ways in which modernist writers, like those in the Pacific, encountered other modernists texts, be it in cafés, via little magazines, in lectures or in classrooms, enables us better to understand national and transnational modernist networks.

FM: Which Pacific Modernist writers and works would you recommend to those, like me, who want to be more acquainted with Oceanian literature?
MLAlbert Wendt is a wonderful writer, and his books are often more readily acquirable than many others from this period. Pouliuli and Leaves of the Banyan Tree are brilliant works. Russell Soaba is a Papua New Guinean writer whose novel Wanpis is a fascinating example of Pacific existentialism. It’s also an excellent example of a modernist campus novel, but it can be rather hard to track down.  Subramani – this is his name in full – is an Indo-Fijian writer of great skill, and his short story collection The Fantasy Eaters has been reissued as Wild Flowers by the University of the South Pacific Press. If you can get your hands on work by Vanessa Griffen and Pio Manoa, both from Fiji, I highly recommend their writings too. The idea of “lost modernists” can take on a difficult, unintended aspect when considered in relation to the Pacific, as it has been so troubled by Western ideas of discovering “uncharted” and “forgotten” regions, but if we think in terms of the losses we suffer when books are given limited print runs, and how likely the literature of different areas or communities is to be allowed to fall out of print, the phrase “lost modernists” becomes a necessary warning – let’s not let these authors become lost to interested readers.

If you’re interested in periodicals, Mana, one of the most important literary magazines in the Anglophone literary history of the Pacific, has its roots in Pacific Islands Monthly from 1973. PIM has been digitised, and can be found here: https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-310385031. You can find the Mana pages from 1973 to 1976, at which point Mana magazine begins its solo print run. Alternatively, Kovave, a PNG literary journal associated with the University of Papua New Guinea in the late 1960s and 1970s, can be found here: http://png.athabascau.ca/Kovave.php. This website, the work of Evelyn Ellerman, is a great resource, and has scans of a wide range of PNG work.

FM: Favorite Modernist writer and favorite Modernist text?
ML: I do find these kinds of questions difficult! I’ve already mentioned some of my favourite Pacific modernists, so I’m going to pick European modernists. I’ll name the brilliantly bleak Jean Rhys as my favourite writer, and Flann O’Brien’s disturbing, comic The Third Policeman (1939, published 1967) as my favourite work.

[1] W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence (1919; New York: Dover, 2006), 145; The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (1921; New York: Mondial, 2008), 244.




About Dr. Maebh Long
Maebh Long is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Waikato, Aotearoa/New Zealand. Her research interests include modernist and contemporary literature in Ireland, Britain, and Oceania. She has published widely on the Irish author Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien and is the author of Assembling Flann O’Brien (Bloomsbury, 2014), as well as the editor of The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien (Dalkey Archive Press, 2018).

Maebh is a co-investigator of the Oceanian Modernism project, which brings together modernist studies and post-1960s independence and Indigenous rights literature from the Pacific. Among her publications on Pacific literature is New Oceania: Modernisms and Modernities in the Pacific (Routledge, 2019), which she co-edited with Matthew Hayward. She is currently working with Matthew on a co-authored monograph on Pacific literature, Pacific universities, and modernism. She is also in the early stages of a monograph tentatively entitled The Poetics of Immunity. This project, which is supported by the Marsden fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand, examines the ways “immunity,” as a heightened desire for bodily and political security and exemption, became a contagious metaphor for modernist writers.

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