Perhaps I’m just being fashionably late, but I’ve just read Drusilla Modjeska’s 2013 Seymour Biography Lecture and it’s brilliant.
Modjeska ponders her “defection from that borderline ground between the biographical and the fictive, my journey through the check-points into the land of the novel.” Her lecture takes us to the highlands of Papua New Guinea and into the art galleries of metropolitan Australia, exploring the limits of empathy when attempting to tell someone else’s story.
The barkcloth carried esoteric meanings for the Ömie; could its integrity survive sale and the temptation of commercialisation? Good questions, for sure, to which – as with more or less everything in this story – there is no one, clear answer. An anthropologist, or a philosopher might make something of it, but I was neither. Even if such a memoir steered off dangerously personal terrain, the same question arose: how could ‘our’ story be told without the view of the Ömie, let alone the view from the Ömie, becoming ever more occluded. What was their view, what did these great changes mean for them? How, on the basis of a month’s visit, was I to represent that without appropriating, or projecting, or sentimentalising, or mistranslating the un-translatable, even if there were the right to translate, even if I knew how, which I didn’t, and anyway couldn’t. The problem, I hope you are beginning to see, was the inequality between the white narrator and the post-colonial subject.
Modjeska cites Janet Malcolm and Inga Clendinnen; she speaks with writers from PNG; she examines the flaws in her own attempts; and she provides a fascinating insight into the difficulties of writing about a country that apparently no-one seems interested in. “It doesn’t sell,” Modjeska’s publisher told her.
Well into this new century, the pygmy and the naked tribesman still make their appearance in Australian fiction, and Highland girls, though no longer dressed in grass skirts, are as prey to the desires and fantasies of young white men as the fictional girls of the exotic south seas were nearly a hundred years ago. This despite the great post-colonial novels of world literature. It was a weird disjuncture I observed between the acute awareness of academia, and the remarkable obliviousness (it seemed to me) among our few novelists who ventured into PNG territory, sometimes without even going there, or, if they’d been there before, without returning. When a reason was given, it was that it was ‘too dangerous’; that or the wish to leave the imagination unencumbered as if there was something about Papua New Guinea that despite everything that had happened, could still offer a blank canvas to the outsider writer.
Despite the quotes I’ve chosen having a strong focus on Papua New Guinea, this is in fact very much a lecture about writing. About the pitfalls and the problems and the epiphanies. Grab yourself a cuppa, or pour yourself a glass, and read it. Listen to it. Get to it any way you can.
Many thanks (as always) to fellow blogger The Resident Judge of Port Phillip who blogged about this year’s Seymour lecture and kindly pointed her readers towards the National Library of Australia site where each year’s lecture is available. In print or via podcast. Wonderful.