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Retelling old stories – tales that keep alive great traditions


Viviwava: Tales from the Islands by Jordan Dean (illustrations by Tamara Jenkinson), JDT Publications, Port Moresby, 2018. ISBN: 9789980901705, PGK20, US$5, available from Amazon

TUMBY BAY - For people attuned to western traditions of storytelling the legends and folktales of pre-literate societies can often seem confusing.

Quite often these old stories mix reality and the supernatural in unfamiliar ways and make the underlying narratives elusive for western readers.

Re-interpreting these stories for popular consumption without losing their essential meaning and flavour requires great care and skill.

It is not just a case of translating the original language but also fitting the stories into a modern reading context so that people schooled in that style can understand and relate to them.

Literal translations, such as those undertaken by anthropologists, often fail to spark the interests of modern readers.

To prepare a legend or folktale for a modern audience requires someone talented in story telling in their own right.

In short, it requires someone who can grasp the original intent of the story and render it faithfully in written form.

This may sound simple enough but there are many traps. These can range from the temptation to unnecessarily embellish the original story to overreaching so that the story does not accurately reflect the original version.

One of the ways many writers fall into this trap is to introduce inappropriate terminologies from the western tradition.

In the case of traditional legends and folktales you often come across terminologies more appropriate to western fairy tales; chiefs become kings and children become princes and princesses for instance. This sort of thing can have a terrible jarring effect and ruin a good traditional story.

Another example is beginning a story with the age-old fairy tale beginning ‘once upon a time’. This really detracts from the essential nature of the traditional story.

A reading of the children’s stories submitted to the Crocodile Prize over the years illustrates this unfortunate proclivity of many Papua New Guinean writers.

Jordan has managed to avoid most of these pitfalls, although there is a king and princesses in one of his stories.

The stories in his collection are mostly rendered in a fashion that retains the original flavour and avoids contamination of that kind. This is a measure, I think, of his skill as a writer.

Being from the area in which the stories are set has also helped a lot. He knows which way the wind blows in that part of the world and he has been able to utilise this knowledge to provide a skilful and authentic interpretation of his people’s legends and folktales.

The stories in the collection admirably reflect their original source and there are a range of unique features, including imagery and language that makes them delightful reading.

‘Viviwava: Tales from the Islands’ joins a growing number of children’s books being produced by Papua New Guinean writers but it is different in the essential manner in which it retells old stories rather than invent new ones.

New stories are great but the old stories have the added value of recording and maintaining old traditions for the future. Jordan acknowledges this in his preamble and it was one of the main reasons for putting the collection together.

It would be wonderful if there were more books like this available for Papua New Guinean children. I’m sure there is a vast resource out there that could be tapped into. It would be a shame if the old stories were left to be forgotten.

As always, the book is beautifully presented and edited.

I would urge teachers and parents to buy the book. Their children will be forever grateful.  


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Jordan Dean

Thanks Jimmy. I am pretty sure you have plenty tumbuna stories from your end. Please record, translate and publish them. That's the only way to preserve them.

I screen foreign research applications for research visas on a daily basis. There are so many linguists and anthropologists coming to PNG to study our languages and cultures for their Masters and PhDs.

PNG is a linguistic heaven for them. Foreign researchers and academics document, record, transcribe and compile our languages and traditional knowledge. They publish academic papers and books.

As learned PNGians, we can help preserve some of our own stories and traditional knowledge for future generations.

Jordan Dean

Thanks Helen. Email me: and I'll assist you.

Jimmy Awagl

Congrats Jordan for the effort that is remarkable and self sufficient and of educational value.

Helen Isin

This looks amazing. Would love to buy for my kids and the school I work at in POM. How do I do this?

Jordan Dean

Thanks Phil for the review. I was concerned that my people's stories would be gone when the old people passed on. I wanted to preserve the stories for future generations to read and appreciate our unique culture and traditions.

So I started recording the stories during my Christmas vacation in 2016 and 2017. It took a while to translate them to English. Some words in my native language are difficult to translate.

In any case I hope I’ve been able to do the translations reasonable justice and to provide stories in English – with illustrations from Tamara – which readers will find enjoyable and perhaps challenging.

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