In Memory of Times to Come: Ironies of History in Southeastern Papua New Guinea.

University of Hawai’i Press – in publication

Dr Melissa Demian

This book offers the proposition that some people no longer feel global, but wish they could. In some parts of the world, globalization is regarded as having been introduced decades ago, concluded, and left in its wake people who live in anticipation of a time when they might once again be connected up to the rest of the world in ways that they find productive and satisfying. Between the late nineteenth century and the end of World War II, Suau people on the coast of southeastern Papua New Guinea enjoyed educational, travel, and wage labor opportunities that were among the first of their kind available to a Melanesian population – and which no longer exist. In the decades following the war, the connections with Britain, Australia and the United States to which they had grown accustomed gradually disappeared, leaving them with a sense of isolation that, arguably, they had never experienced before.  In other words, Suau people briefly resided in a regional metropole within a global periphery, and furthermore, this occurred by means of their deliberate shedding of past practices and relationships that they felt would not lead to fruitful relationships with the new regional powers. Suau now say that they have lost or ‘forgotten’ their kastom, practices associated with a way of life people are imagined to have led before their encounters with Europeans. While the claim is a rhetorical one, it also points to a sophisticated and agentive positioning of themselves in history, in relation both to other Papua New Guineans and to foreigners. This is not a simple tale of an indigenous people who were overrun by forces beyond their control, but a nuanced consideration of how a people’s temporal sensibilities form the basis for their decisions to engage with foreign others in particular ways. These temporal sensibilities require them not only to memorialize a past that was seen as superior to the present dispensation, but to practice remembering, forgetting, and ironic reflection as techniques for creating a space in which they can exercise mastery over their own future.