I RECENTLY got hold of the 2012 UPNG reprint of Russell Soaba’s first novel Wanpis. The original was published by the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies and Kristen Press in 1977.
For those not familiar with Tok Pisin, the title refers to someone who is lonely or alone, like an orphan.
I lent my battered old copy of the original to someone years ago and they never returned it.
Mind you, I had to order a copy of the reprint from Masalai Press in the USA. My emails to the UPNG Bookshop went unanswered and the couple of times that I dropped in there I found the doors locked.
Bad timing on my part, perhaps, but discouraging, nevertheless.
I believe that people trying to get hold of Michael Dom’s new book of poetry are having similar problems. Amazon can’t seem to rouse anyone there either.
Anyway, back to Wanpis.
The thing that struck me about reading it for the second time was its timeless relevance. I could have been reading something written this year.
That, I suppose, is the sign of a great book. I’ve been wading through ancient Graham Greenes (a legacy from the late David Wall), Ernest Hemingways and John Le Carres lately and they have had the same effect.
The underlying story in Wanpis is very simple. A group of students graduate from high school. Some of them get jobs and others go to university. They graduate and marry. Idealism gives way to reality. Some of them sell out to the establishment. One of them gets beaten up by rascals and slowly dies in hospital. Nothing unusual about any of that.
What is unusual, and what makes this novel so interesting, is what is going on in the heads of the key characters. This is where the novel stands out from all the Papua New Guinean literature that preceded it.
The novel is also unashamedly aimed at Papua New Guinean readers. Something its predecessors were not. They were largely political and designed to upset expatriate sensibilities and provoke a reaction from fellow countrymen and women. In a sense Wanpis was the first novel written wholly for Papua New Guineans.
Wanpis is about identity, but there is also an angst that is quintessentially Papua New Guinean on display. The same sort of angst that existed in 1977 is recognisable in Papua New Guinea today. In short, the novel is what one might call “deep”.
It is also tentative. It reminded me of a shy animal waiting in the shadows. There are no solutions and there are no epiphanies as it threads its wary path. One is constantly wondering when someone will trip over and come crashing down. And this includes the author.
You can almost see Russell Soaba feeling his way through alien terrain, stumbling here, pulling himself up there and peeking behind corners everywhere.
Wanpis is replete with that strange grammar and confusion of tenses that disturbs the expatriate reader but which has become a hallmark of many modern Papua New Guinean writers. Perhaps the best most recent examples can be found in Leonard Fong Roka’s writing. I wonder if he has read Wanpis.
I don’t know how Russell Soaba regards Wanpis these days. I suspect he thinks of it as one would an early and unruly child – slightly embarrassing but overwhelmingly proud.
I also don’t know how the reprint was produced. It is littered with illogical typos that could probably have been removed with a little judicious editing. I guess it was retyped or scanned.
If you are going to be a serious university publisher UPNG Press you need to lift your game in this department.
That said it is a great book that reveals the Papua New Guinean soul. And I use the term ‘great’ unreservedly.
If you can lay your hands on a copy read it. If you’ve already read it, read it again.
Wanpis by Russell Soaba, UPNG Press/Anuki Country Press, 175pp, 2012. ISBN:9789980869593, K45.00 from the UPNG Bookshop. Amazon has used copies available from $US44.99 here