A great deal of Western thought and writing has to do with “the other,” but overwhelmingly that “other” is a non-Western, often “tribal” person.
In my story collection A Red Woman Was Crying, it’s the anthropologist who’s the other. Rather than being in his head as he encounters unfamiliar people and an unfamiliar culture — seeing the other through his eyes — I wrote the stories through the eyes of a people called the Nagovisi. They, as narrators, tell the reader how it was when a young American anthropologist came and asked to live among them and learn their language and their ways.
The Nagovisi live in West-Central Bougainville island, politically part of Papua New Guinea, but geographically and culturally part of the Solomon Islands. I first came to them in 1968, lived among them in 1969-70, and then again in 1971-73, and made a brief visit in 2001, after Bougainville’s bloody secessionist war wound down.
In this blog I’ll talk about how I wrote those stories, but also what it felt like to realize that I was someone else’s other — how I handled that and how they did.
What’s “Mono Kakata?” In the Nagovisi language it literally means “body white,” and is used to refer to white people generally. Over time, although many Nagovisi used my first name, Mono Kakata (sometimes just “Kakata”) became my name. Being named “White Man” never troubled me in the way that being called masta, in the Melanesian trade language tok pisin, did.
The header image is a composite — 1973 and 2013. It shouldn’t be hard to figure out which is which. But sometimes I have trouble figuring out which skin of mine I’m inhabiting: the 29 year old or the 71 year old. When I write about Nagovisi, these days, it’s usually the old me trying to inhabit not only the young me but the young (and old) Nagovisi I lived with.
And yes, that’s the same theodolite, and the same tripod. The theodolite is only four years younger than I am. In Nagovisi I used it to study land use. In 2004 and again in 2012 I used it to observe the transit of Venus.