Part 1. Terms of Engagement

Deception and Loss

In his poem, ‘The Loneliness of Islands’, Satendra Nandan writes of a ‘yearning, this longing/for a place that is/ no more’ (2006: 74). He writes not so much of the post-coup Fijian landscape, though he does that too. Rather, he writes of a world that has, quite simply, vanished. It is a world in which the places he went as a child have changed, become unrecognisable, or even disappeared entirely. The adult perspective, though, is one that requires us to notice that the change is not simply some sort of natural process, but rather one that results from harsh interventions. Loss, deception, and division all play a role. And guiding the analysis is a deeply ethical conception of what the loss and subsequent deprivation actually means. The meaning in my view concerns both modernity and the Pacific. Hence I wish to speak of a Pacific modernity and to do so through the artworks of Fiji and of the Pacific on the one hand, and on the other, to open the terms of this engagement using the thought of a range of writers: Edmund Husserl (in Derrida 1978), Michel de Certeau (1988), Jacques Derrida (1976), and Charles Taylor (1989, 1992).

Nandan’s poem proffers a double scene of sorts – one concerns a scene remembered; the other, the diminished vision of the present. The gap between the two is what lends the poem its emotional force. In the poem, we see that modernity, loss, and deception are closely associated. Deception ghosts both the other two terms: a child’s belief in a world is betrayed by adulthood (first by other adults, then his own adulthood), and then, as Nandan’s verse frequently explores, a people’s aspirations are betrayed again by coup-makers. Such scenarios are replayed in different ways in many Pacific writings – with different analyses at times. For instance, some attribute such violent expropriation to earlier colonial structures. Beyond these questions, there are works that dwell on material hardship. Then there is an entire body of work that meditates on the relationship of village and city, especially the pain, promise, and trauma of moving from the rural world to the urban world. There are works that explore intercultural relationships, sometimes within families, and others that look at how the modern world has betrayed or eroded traditions and fractured long-established ways of knowing and doing things. All these, we might say, are part and parcel of a Pacific modernity; many of them concern loss and deception.

How might the artwork guide such an inquiry today? Art of the kind I am seeking to describe has a phenomenology that we can use to guide us. The writer, as much as any other kind of artist, seeks to describe and to evoke experience. If we keep this in mind, and turn back to modernity, we see something interesting. We see signs of a phenomenological encounter where an artwork describes a problem or issue in terms of being other to the experiencing consciousness. Whatever the art-work is, there is a sense of it coming to us from outside. The struggle with what is imposed could entail a technology, a system, or even a logic or set of ethical expectations. The suffering of Nandan’s persona concerns the non-correspondence of an interior phenomenological remembered world with the modern flattened out reality in which everything from development to military coups has taken away what was there before.

For some, of course, this would not be a phenomenology in the old sense of the term at all. Indeed, the variety of phenomenology that underpins this analysis is the version Jacques Derrida (1976, 1978) radicalised in his work on Edmund Husserl in his Origin of Geometry, and later, in his Of Grammatology. Taking the Husserlian ‘transcendental reduction’ to its limit, Derrida’s approach has been, in this kind of work, to trace the most irreducible aspect of a given political or philosophical position. In the Double Dialoguesconference, Lies: A Conference on Art held in Suva, Fiji in July 2007, a Derrida-inspired discussion of the phenomenology of the lie arose in at least three papers. The exploration by Sudesh Mishra in particular showed how an older, pre-Derridean phenomenology of the lie on its own is inadequate to the needs of a critical exploration of Pacific issues and writing. A Husserl-style exploration of the lie is grounded in intentionality – so if someone does not mean to tell a lie, one is not told. But this does not address the fact that lies are shared, partial, self-serving and often in such circumstances, self-deceptive, and the intuition in Mishra’s work involves pushing the inquiry in the direction of the politics of deception. We need to see how the unwitting lie is not just a feature of modernity, but one of its chief hallmarks, a notion that explains why even the beneficiaries of colonial deceit can, in their turn, not just feel detached from their roles in the deceit, but indeed also genuinely feel themselves to be victims of history or circumstance. A phenomenology of loss turns up the contours of postcolonial deception – and the intricate imbrications of both are the weave of modernity itself.

This essay is laid out in two broad parts. The first section seek to establish, in a preliminary way, the relationship between modernity, deception, and loss. The second part of the essay works first through epiphanies of modernity and then other orders of comment on modernity in the arts in order to grasp how lies, loss, and modernity interact in Pacific writing.

The West

Perhaps the strangest thing about Western modernity is the auto-critical impulse that governs its self-commentary. Self-denunciation, arising from older Judaeo-Christian varieties of history, was generalised across the system by the eighteenth century. So we find panegyrics from the philosophes who explicitly rejected the church. Today, as de Certeau remarks caustically, in many countries ‘American Indians or Chinese ‘Sages’ are granted the role of representing a truth’ (1988:136). This allows a denunciation of the ways by which such purities are ‘corrupted among the colonizers’ – in the dream of a return to pristine pre-colonial idylls (136). From the eighteenth century to the present, Voltaire’s furious denunciation of France is the archetype of intellectual commentary. Yet they – we – keep right on lying, invading, and falling short of the imagined ideals being set. Is such commentary hypocritical or pointless? The philosopher Charles Taylor sees in such denunciations a pattern of moral working out. Writing of the utilitarians, that least moral philosophy, he contends that we can find out their real moral preoccupations by seeing what it is they denounce (1989: 338). In the case of colonisation, the denunciations are even more intense, because the scale of wrong-doing was so much greater.

Part of the explanation for the inadequacy of response to such critique lies in the fact that modernity is a dispersed system – with no one place or site clearly experiencing itself as central. In this respect, we must ask about the location of modernity per se. The scene of modernity certainly appears to be Western. To be sure, the foundation of Western modernity lies in its self-experience as distinct through the process of colonisation. But this experience is itself deceptive, self-deceptive.

To start with, the West emerges as an epistemologically distinct entity only gradually, and as it colonised others. The experience of the encounter, in the discovery of non-Christian civilisations on the one hand, and of entirely unknown (to them) lands and peoples on the other supplied the shock of alterity that gave rise to an identity. Certeau (1988) argues that the very process of history-writing itself depended on a hermeneutics of the other (218). In the case of Jean de Léry, he contends, Christian orders of thinking become quasi-historical in nature so that ‘Ecclesial election is turned into a Western privilege; originary revelation into a scientific concern for the upholding of the truth of things; evangelization into an enterprise of expansion and return to one’s self. Writing designates an operation organized around a centre’ (217). In that writing process itself, we find a further staging operation that entailed the West construing itself relationally.

For Certeau (1988), as for Said (1985), the process of writing entails a ‘staging’ action, this time of a ‘primitive’ world, one which is not simply exterior (as in Said), but which is integral to the actual constitution of identity at home (219-220), in the complex revelation of the vision of an initial language (225), and ultimately, the very possibility of a world history (225-26). This picture is consistent with the writings of the period of the most intense ‘encounter’, namely the Renaissance in England. Those of us familiar with the panoply of English literature would, by dint of the fact that England’s finest works took place in the century after 1570, have encountered the visions of the delayed Renaissance that was taking place in that small country: in the recently rebuilt Globe theatre, for instance, playwrights like Shakespeare could stage plays in which the entire world was imagined as a stage – and we its players. The abundance of reference to the wonders of the world beyond Europe (from Shakespeare through to Donne) in literary texts of the time is just an echo of the power these encounters had.

And let us not forget the lies and the thefts. We know that the fabulous wealth that Europe acquired at this time came not just from its own industry, but from voyages of plunder and later of trade. These began with the explorers’ small lies – the glass beads and blankets offered in exchange for supplies. The loss that was to follow involved the very way of life of entire peoples, things not quantifiable in such terms. In such foundational ‘exchanges’, whether based on deception or not, lay the genesis of modernity – an originary transaction whose reverberations are still being felt today. Not only did modernity take the form it did because of all this, but this in turn explains the displaced nature of modernity itself – even for a European at the heart of imagined culture, modernity really did always happen at least partly somewhere else.

Hence, postcolonial structures of experience are frequently as definitional of modernity as the experience of those at the imagined centres. Even in historically foundational moments at such centres, I suggest, we find not just wonder at what happens in the sites colonised, but also, real rupture and displacement at both ends of the encounter. Hence, perhaps, it is certainly possible to speak of a Pacific modernity that is at once a structure of encounter with the logic of elsewhereness and is frequently at the same moment something local and unique. Modern Pacific modern writers explore what this feels like – creating logics that are at once at home and are other to oneself.

Diagnostics of Modernity: the Epiphany

In the trauma of colonial deceit and expropriation, no aspect is as acute as the disjunct that opens up between the modern moral value of Judaeo-Christian justice as taught, on the one hand, and the keen material sense of outright betrayal of that value and straightforward theft on the other. If the modern subject in any part of the world experienced epistemological shock with the onset of modernity, nowhere is this shock more keenly experienced than in those cutting edge sites of modernity – the colonial apartheids, and then the post-colonial relations of abandonment and convenience. These experiences are and were based on the events of material political and economic transformation – and their workings are revealed in the artworks of the Pacific.

We have all had the experience of being moved by an artwork in some way. Yet identifying aspects of artworks that perform certain kinds of transformation is far from easy. In one suggestive passage of Sources of the Self: the Making of Modern Identity, Taylor calls attention to the epiphany as a convenient way of grasping a key aspect of Western modernity and the role the arts play in making moral and ethical sense of the world. He writes:

There are strong continuities from the Romantic period…up to the present day. What remains central is the notion that the work of art as issuing from or realizing an ‘epiphany’, to use one of Joyce’s words in a somewhat looser sense than his. What I want to capture with this term is just this notion of a work of art as the locus of a manifestation which is otherwise inaccessible, and which is of the highest moral or spiritual significance; a manifestation, moreover, which also defines or completes something, even as it reveals (1989: 419).

He goes on to argue that there are artistic epiphanies of two kinds – epiphanies of being in the Romantic expressivist idiom (419), and epiphanies of artwork in which the artistry and the art is itself the ‘locus of revelation’ (420). I find this idea very suggestive, and will try to show how it works in the art of Albert Wendt and other Pacific artists shortly.

Why, though, would the epiphany be so characteristic of modernity? Taylor, moving from the time of Matthew Arnold to the present, suggests that epiphanies occur because most people cannot live the ‘moral sources of disengaged reason’ (1989: 424), in a world that gains moral affordances only through deepest alienation from the everyday life of instrumental rationality (421). Hence the role of the artist, colonised, marginalised or otherwise. In this respect, Taylor suggests that just as the arts are the privileged locus of ‘moral sources’, so is the epiphany the exemplary case of contact with such sources (425). Even anti-Romantic writing is part of what Taylor describes, and so too are the successor ironising idioms of our time. All such work suggests a deeper continuity – even if what is revealed in the moment of much more recent epiphany is a moment of utter nihilism or meaninglessness (431). In addition, in the vandalism that frequently accompanied the experience of colonial modernity, the epiphany serves as a mechanism for re-evoking and re-creating stolen worlds, albeit in compensation. Hence, I begin the second part of this essay with the epiphany, but later, I move to other, blunter orders of commentary.


Part 2. Pacific Writing (Epiphany, Lament, Comedy)

Deception: Agent-less and Otherwise

We begin, then, with loss – and we delay, as we do so, the handling of deception. I take up one of those lovely yet poignant lines in Albert Wendt’s verse, where he writes of histories within, and of loss. The poem’s title, “Inside us the dead”, opens with a brief passage in which we, the living, carry within us the legacy of who went before. This stanza opens with the words ‘Inside us the dead’. The phenomenology, the claim staked notwithstanding, is abstract, and ideational. The next four stanzas, though, shift the account to a more and more personal one. The first of these recalls is ‘Polynesians’: ‘Inside me the dead/woven into my flesh like the music/of bone flutes’ (2000: 35). The social cosmology of the opening prelude is subtly shifted into a personal voice – no longer inside ‘us’ but now inside ‘me’. For the history we are reading is not simply generalised, and the ‘I’ is the actual narrator of the poem, not just an everyman figure. The next two sections of the poem recall missionaries and traders, the former with their sexual fixations in which ‘all was in/The kingdom was come in/calico’ (38), and the latter in the whisky-soaked infidelity of another kind of Samoan ancestry ‘White-suited in a cane chair,/ the Kaiser – of whisky come-courting/the camera, in love with Bismarck/burdened with the failure of Europe,/ heir to the cold crystal eye’ (39).

Slowly the poem has been closing in, its field of vision inexorably drawing the reader to Wendt’s own narrative persona, his own experiential child-memory. The fourth stanza opens, as the first three did, with the legacy within, but see how intimate the picture has become:

My mother, dead since
I was twelve, spider-high.
Memories of her are flamboyant
blooms scattered across
pitted lava fields under
the moon’s scaffold… (2000: 39-40)

Note in this delicate picture a certain underlying ambivalence: the past is lost, yet the net of culture seems sometimes to hold it for the living, she lives on not just in poetic remembrance, but in the sense that ancestors are still with us.

But then the poem seems to change –and a different kind of encounter structure emerges. Under the heading ‘The Ball thrown up’, Wendt writes of an ambitious brother who, wanting to be an engineer, and placing trust in the wonders of technology, is not saved by a web of culture, but rather has ‘slipped off/an ordinary/highway built/for ordinary mortals,/car buckling in, like/a cannibal flower, to womb/him in/death’ (2000: 42). As the pastor uncle sagely notes, ‘The black dew…does not discriminate between jugglers and engineers’ (41). In this poem, we see experienced loss and epiphany mingled strangely. Nature and technology fold into each other; the encounter is one in which modernity cuts natural flesh, destroys history. Yet with loss there is also epiphany. Which is uppermost? It is not, surely, a matter of which one concludes the poem. We see in the finest varieties of art, indeed as Taylor contends we ought, an attempted realisation of vision through the artwork itself. After reading this poem, in other words, our view of life is altered slightly. Yet, to stay with Taylor’s contention, it is a synthesis that could only have been achieved in words. But once this is achieved, the achievement itself is all too real; we are ourselves changed when we are touched by the interconnected visions of this poem.

In some ways the dominant sense of this poem emerges from the dislocation of modernity-in-general. Its deepest ethical questioning lies in the way traditional life, like the family itself, has been carved into pieces – and this experience in a more general sense is what defines the encounter for readers whose experiences are different. This process is recognisable in its elsewhereness too, feeling like some kind of modern universal. Yet isn’t it just at the point of recognising this that we also see how modernity, for all the parallels of its ethical formations around the world, always transpires some-where, and some-when? It happened here, then, to that person, just there. In beginning with a poem that might be grasped by a reader anywhere, we find a certain locatedness that is itself irreducible.

Once we have seen the contours of loss, we see beneath them another pattern. This is the structure that led to the losses taking place. The poem gives a history not just of loss – but of a father figure whose Bismarckian dreams remind us of the colonial history of Samoa. If the stern figure is part of the very weft and weave of who Wendt himself was to become, it is at a terrible price. In seeking to hold on to traditions, we are reminded of how they were stripped away in the colonial times. And then, after independence, we see the deception, by material dreams, of a son – and his ultimate death. In the end the hard light of the poem works to let us know the cruellest deception of all – despite its apparent force, the Samoan cultural web cannot protect the children, and cannot maybe ultimately even protect itself.

Epiphanies of Deception

Lament, that powerful modern impulse, in the first instance concerns loss – but loss in its turn frequently has reasons that lie in expropriation, deceit, or at times, misunderstanding. In Wendt’s poem we saw not just loss, but lines about the ‘trader’ and the ‘missionary’. Active deceit and lies have been involved. In another quite different context, witness Sudesh Mishra’s prose poem, ‘Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying’, in which a history is traced of an ‘arkathi with a tongue sweeter than sucrose, who sold me a story as steep as the himalayas, and his images had the tang of lassi and his metaphors had the glint of rupees’ (2002: 73). The lies of the recruiters are effective precisely because they target human need and greed. The epiphany concerns ‘lies remembered’ – and somehow, by the poem’s end – overcome, in the imaginary at least. At the end of that work, a levitating illness lifts people from the ground in a resolution that shows the extent of loss resulting from the migration – notwithstanding the material success, the people feel psychically disconnected.

In the imagined world of this book of Mishra’s verse, culpability for failure is shared now by all parties – the foundational colonial breach, the greedy chief, and the opportunistic Fiji Indian trader. Lies prevail, no matter which corner of these islands one turns to. But they do not prevail entirely. Underlying it all is still another modern tone, one of recuperative lament: there is no going back. One poem surveys, apparently glibly, a drunken night out in Suva, then switches astonishingly to the sombre observation that ‘the surviving neurones confirm/the journey back to a land you’ll never call home’ (2002: 48). Such is the realisation – and the reader realises that at least part of the reason for the drunken binge lay in a need to obliterate the political realities of the new Fiji – even though no amount of alcohol suffices to remove that pain.

Recuperation and realisation, though, are powerful themes that emerge even as loss and deception are dwelt upon by many of the artists of these rich and contradictory island homes. One very lyrical text of this kind is Vilsoni Hereniko’s haunting filmic elegy to his Rotuman home. In much of Hereniko’s work, modernisation itself is the problem. But The Land Has Eyes (2004) is more complex than this. It opens with a cosmological tale of violent familial struggle. The struggle resonates through the ‘modern’ tale – modern in that it is set in a remembered past of the late 1960s and 1970s. Her father dying from a chain of lies and deceptions practised by the wrong kinds of chiefly and colonial interrelationship, the female heroine succeeds in winning a scholarship, but only after the cosmological originary scene that opens the film engulfs the ‘real’ modern world, revealing the lies, and allowing an imagined justice to prevail. The audience needs this moment, and it matters. The moment itself is restitutive, recuperative, and just – but again, it is only possible in film.

Epiphany to Lament: the Role of Deception

In works that explore loss on its own terms, we find even more complexities. In Mohit Prasad’s poetry, we see a number of different orders of epiphany at work. One that strikes me as particularly suggestive lies in the Indianness of Fiji-Indian experience. In ‘Lives from a Ghazal’, the motif of a line from a song that sticks in one’s mind is developed. The lines of the song ‘haunt me like a waterfall/like a woman from a past/ripping open saloon door’ (2006: 15). Then, more specifically, a single line ‘haunts me a refrain/from a bidesia sung by a river’ (15). The bidesia women working, presumably, by the river, are, in a sense, a set of lost voices, only to be recaptured in archive or invocation. The rhythmic working of a ‘coolie woman’ like a drum or tabla beat echoes down in what the poem turns into a lament for a lost past, a past in which ancestors never get to see the wealth and success of later generations. In drawing in this example, we see the workings of a characteristically modern lament for a lost past, but also, in a way that exceeds the reduction to formula, a citation of an originary Indianness that is itself ‘Fijian’ through the hinge of high modern colonial indenture. Here a tradition is indeed at stake, but it is one whose ground is at least partly Fijian. And the context that frames all of it is the poverty of those early girmit-descended workers – betrayed, as we saw in the previous section, by false promises.

Lest we consider this to be a matter only of lament for a Tönnies-style village community, or even an anthropologically reified earlier time, Prasad also offers a poem that laments the death of Guru Dutt. The film-maker’s Paper Flowers is invoked, as are characters from other films. The actress who formed the love object of the film-maker’s art was Waheda Rehman, and it is no longer possible to watch these films without thinking of the doomed romance, the doomed director, the unfortunate love object – her form, her face, and her gaze now forever immortalised in loving black and white. Guru Dutt’s films are played in India of course. But they are also played here in Fiji and by Fiji Indians in Australia. Once again, we see a recognisable modernist ethical contour, the encounter between the film camera and the village girl, a story told in India, but then, here in Fiji and in the streets of Liverpool in Sydney. But in the moment of seeing how this could be in any one of a number of places, we are forced also to see how it transpired here, there, then. And we are reminded that the Indian film industry has genres unique to it, not because these were adapted from Western originals, but because narrative film was adopted there, and new genres invented there, well ahead of many Western countries.

In that poem, we also see the structure of modernist lament. The lament, a distinct modern thing albeit with many ancient antecedents, captures and completes a vision of past, and can only be realised in art. In the context of the Pacific, we see in Prasad’s work as in Wendt’s, a merging of technology and the natural, and – again as with Wendt – we see foundational legacies bestowed from afar, whether by the logics of the diasporic move or by colonisation. The legacy came from afar, but it is now at home in its very distantiation. If in general terms such patterns might be said to be common to all postcolonial versions of modernity, yet surely we can also see that each particular rendering of it will be very distinct. In Wendt’s work, for instance, we saw the interplay of German and Samoan relationships. In the poem, the relationship is not abstract, but is internalised, a part of the physical and psychical history of a person. This lends an ambivalent quality to the experience, as something that in the very process of being criticised is revealed as now lying within.

Material Deceptions: the Social Critique

The dislocations of modernity have wrought great material change in the Pacific. The pictures of these, surely, are hardly epiphanies. I do not claim this – I am using the epiphany as an index or symptom of modernity, not as a cover-all category. While it is not hard to trace the ethical contours of social realist art, the fact that we need to do so is suggestive of what the postmodernist Jean-François Lyotard called differends – points of irreducible difference. These are node-like, and arise in always singular ways that are always strongly localisable. The social critique is not epiphany (although even here, as we will see in passing, there can be moments in such works).

Critiques of slums, poverty, and injustice are perhaps less prominent in Fiji than in certain other postcolonial contexts. But there is a specificity to these critiques that warrants attention. We have touched on some of them already, of course. Socially, for instance, women are in modern Fiji oppressed in traditional and diasporic societies alike; economically, the squatters Joseph Veramu describes in this novellas and short stories really are poor; and the coups Mishra deploys the destructive force of Tandavaagainst really did take place.

Mishra’s work combines lyric and satire, tradition and modernity in ways that are searching and profound. His Tandava had many moments of critique and denunciation. This is not simple denunciation of colonisation, though that is also to be found. On the contrary, we find a searching auto-critical eye which Mishra runs over the population of which he is himself a part. The myna that sits on the fence is denounced, but then, the entire action of Tandava is nevertheless framed by a coup in which guns and bullying prevailed:

The voices
of unreasonable men
Shall louder ring, till
Their hyena-hatred
Tames the spirit
Makes lambs of us all (1992: 14).

A fierce, almost quintessentially modern, ethical eye informs the analysis, something visible throughout the collection. Witness the role lies play in the way natural resources are plundered: ‘The Ratu is consigning/All wilderness to woodchips’ (48). Yet this poem is part of a carefully organised cycle that lies at the heart of Tandava, the very title of which enables mythic resolution – if not reconciliation – to take place.

Mishra’s work turns the tools of modernity back on themselves when the social realist message is carried by sonnets of a wide range of moods. Auto-critique is also visible in the grim palette of Larry Thomas, whose sketches of everyday life in Just Another Dayand Outcasts, are appeals for justice, just as the later plays (like In Search of a Smile) seek to retrieve worlds or at least characters lost to the modern eye. Becket thought it possible to forestall the effects of catharsis, but Taylor, with the benefit of hindsight even on that manoeuvre, knows better – the closure is itself the sacred object, the thing that lends art its almost redemptive force. Materiality matters in a quite gut-wrenching way to one who has grown up in a village and experienced the traumatic wrench of rural-urban migration, who has experienced rather than merely read about colonial expropriation giving way to independence, who has spent a life living the consequences of global centre-margin peripherality, wondering if everything from the foodstuffs being grown to the cultural practices of local everyday life would ever serve as more than fodder for tourists.

Social critique is here informed by a Tayloresque ethical basis of justice, of fairness, of equality, with all these things founded in the original revolutionary demand concerning the rights of man in 1789. The basis, in other words, is visionary – even if it is expressed through critique and negation. Yet in the knots of oppression that Fijian artists call into question, entire narratives are unfolded. At times, in their irreducibility, we know they could only have happened here. Sometimes, indeed, we know that we could, only by analogy and lengthy explanation, make sense of them to people further afield. Hence when we have been examining texts in terms of the Pacific’s version of a wider modernity, we have increasingly been noticing that even in texts that seem to be obviously ‘modern’ in the sense Taylor describes, there is something important about the fact that they happened here. And then as we reach more and more specifically Pacific dimensions of these issues, we have seen how their conception is, Janus-like, at once inconceivable anywhere else, yet still understandable by others. But now as we proceed down this continuum, we begin to encounter what might best be called nodes that are at least opaque to those without.


Laughter frequently offers a way into the most difficult kinds of experience of all – the irretrievable loss, the terrible deception. In this respect, Vilsoni Hereniko’s work on Rotuman clowning and Mohit Prasad’s work on the comic talent of John Mohammed are important. Hereniko shows how the clown figure in Rotuma inverts power relationships and raises questions about traditional social structures – while being a part of the Rotuman tradition. In his academic work as in his film The Land Has Eyes, Hereniko shows how, on a wedding day, the clown figure has the right to make chiefly figures perform ridiculous tasks. The chief that does not comply with the orders of the clown is shown to be both unworthy of respect, and not complying with the tradition that lends him his authority in the first place. Ridicule and outrageous laughter are the hallmarks of these events. Nor is such laughter not confined to Rotuma. Prasad shows how in the Fiji Indian community, Mohammed’s anecdotal style of comedy entails ‘an outline of setting, context and characters followed by a short build up to the punch line’ (1998: 79), and his shows are recorded live and are available as recordings (78). The humour itself, though, is described in an interview as ‘richly spiced with verbal insults, swear words, sexual jokes and innuendoes and the prevalence of double entendre’ (76). All these works poke fun at authority figures who do not do what they are supposed to do, and at the unfair conditions under which many people are forced to live.

Sometimes the humour is mixed with serious messages. Larry Thomas’s often serious plays nevertheless all have an undercurrent of dialogic humour of this kind. In the knockabout scenes of the play for which he is still rightly renowned, The Outcasts, dialogue between down and out characters is frequently leavened by banter. But the play concerns the misfortunes of the inhabitants of a squatter settlement, and the murder of one of the central characters, a young girl who has left home because she is pregnant. The humour in the play is not just light distraction, but is woven into the very image of daily life in the settlement.

Another writer whose comedy has a serious dimension is Epeli Hau’ofa. In an essay he wrote meditating on the writing of Kisses in the Nederends, remarked of his own work (which, in its concerns ranges from Tonga to Fiji itself) that

In an increasingly brutal age, we have ironically become more and more prurient, as if prurience would compensate for our cowardly compliance with the myriad gross inhumanities of our time…I emerged with a product I knew full well would thoroughly revolt and nauseate many sensitive and delicate souls. But beneath the obscenities and coarseness that may be found on every page, I have throughout tried to make pointed commentaries on important aspects of life in our part of the world. These, indeed, are not jokes (1990: 68).

They are not jokes, because they concern the betrayals, exploitations, and deceptions that happened once, and continue to happen today. Not all humour is as thoughtful as Hau’ofa’s of course. But the kind of humour is itself what is at stake. Rough banter, jokes about bodily functions, and political allegories might be formations that are found in other parts of the modern world, but the humour in these islands is instantly recognisable, and I believe, unique.


In exploring deception within Pacific modernity, I have developed five contentions. One concerns the fact that modernity has a moral quality that turns up in auto-critical analyses and in denunciatory rhetorics. The second is that modernity is something that happens everywhere – and is characterised by an experience of elsewhereness. The third concerns the possibility of making sense of modernity through experience – and through artworks, especially (but not only) the epiphany. The fourth group of questions concerns the self-deceiving nature of modernity, and this for sometimes innocent enough reasons – as a dispersed system, it is very difficult to form judgments about responsibility, benefit, and loss. It is at this point though, and this is the fifth contention, that the value of using the artwork emerges – through a phenomenology of loss and deception as realised in epiphanies and critiques in art, we find quite profound insights into the workings of the modern world. Some of these, as we have seen, have been astonishingly powerful, and transformative in themselves.

Perhaps the greatest deception I hold till last – and it concerns the very land on which we stand. It fell to Epeli Hau’ofa to contest the lie that the Pacific is small. He suggested that the Pacific is a vast structure of interlinkage, rather than a set of ports or small landmasses. I came to this idea not through his stories, but through his essays, ‘Sea of Islands’ (1993) and ‘The Ocean in Us’ (1997). It is not for nothing that people have found these works inspirational. I will not retrace my own previous attempts to plumb their depths; suffice perhaps to say that as well as questioning traditional economics, this essay reminds us of the need to question the lies embedded in received geographies. Hau’ofa himself cites an earlier essay by Albert Wendt in which he remarks

I belong to Oceania – or, at least, I am rooted in a fertile part of it-and it nourishes my spirit…So vast, so fabulously varied a scatter of islands, nations, cultures, mythologies and myths, so dazzling a creature, Oceania deserves more than an attempt at mundane fact (cited by Hau’ofa 1997: 145).

Hau’ofa has, I think, successfully made that attempt in his two celebrated essays. In both, the character of interlinkage is emphasised, and in both, the point that Wendt makes is renewed. In the first essay, he evokes the process by which it came to fruition, and how the lies of belittling neo-colonialism could be questioned:

But the faces of my students continued to haunt me mercilessly. I began asking questions of myself. What kind of teaching is it to stand in front of young people from your own region, people you claim as your own…and to tell them that their countries are hopeless? Is this not what neo-colonialism is all about? To make people believe they have no choice but to depend?…Then came the invitation to for me to speak at Kona and Hilo on the Big Island of Hawai‘i at the end of March, 1993. The lecture at Kona, to a meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists in Oceania, was written before I left Suva. The speech at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo was forming in my mind and was to be written when I got to Hawai‘i. I had decided to try out my new perspective although it had not been properly researched. I could hold back no more. The drive from Kona to Hilo was my ‘road to Damascus’. I saw such scenes of grandeur as I had not seen before: the eerie blackness of regions covered by recent volcanic eruptions; the remote majesty of Maunaloa, long and smooth, the world’s largest volcano; the awesome craters of Kilauea threatening to erupt at any moment; and the lava flow on the coast not far away. Under the aegis of Pele, and before my very eyes, the Big Island was growing, rising from the depths of a mighty sea. The world of Oceania is not small; it is huge and growing bigger every day (1993: 5-6).

Hau’ofa’s inspired description of the islands reveal the lie that far from being small, Oceania is vast, as big as anyone could ever dream it to be. Though not a novel or a poem, his essay is as grand an epiphany as has appeared in any of the other genres in the course of the twentieth century. As such, for all its traditional grounding, his epiphany takes its place among the outstanding and characteristically modernepiphanies of the twentieth century.



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