Saturday, April 18, 2015

Four Months Reading Books Set in New Guinea

One of my goals this year is to read books from Oceania and Southeast Asia.  I started out in Papua New Guinea and never left! For the past four months, books from both sides of the island north of Australia, half in Indonesia and half independent, have sprinkled through my reading list.  I have decided to move on to another part of this region, perhaps Samoa. I forced myself to return the books I meant to read but hadn't started, and to officially abandon the one on my bedside table that I wasn't really into.

New Guinea is the island. Papua New Guinea is the country taking up the eastern half of the island, plus a bunch of tiny islands surrounding it.  West Papua is part of Indonesia, and has previously been known as Irian Jaya among other names.

Before this year, I had read three books set in New Guinea. One was the result of having a mother who was the missions chairperson for the church I grew up in (and we had a whole shelf of missionary narratives from people she had met over the years), two were from my research as an undergraduate in my world music class, and one was from my short-lived one-year stint in a PhD program for Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana, where we read a book on one group of islanders in my Readings in Ethnography class.

  1. Peace Child by Don Richardson
  2. Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression by Steven Feld
  3. To Sing with Pigs is Human: The Concept of Person in Papua New Guinea
  4. Argonauts of the Western Pacific by Bronislaw Malinowski
The group I joined in Goodreads that has prompted all of these years of focused reading on a country or region is "The World's Literature."  I started out the year reading about one woman's solo journey across New Guinea along with others in that group, and then stayed in the jungle while they moved on to a book from Australia.  I found a book about coffee production in Papua New Guinea that was fascinating, an econoethnography of sorts. I read it while I drank PNG coffee, just for authenticity. A recent book by a journalist about the Michael Rockefeller disappearance jumped me into several related reads. The Salak and Hoffman books had some similarities because neither were interested in becoming an insider the way an anthropologist would do, but still had to make significant adaptations to succeed during the time they spent. Both have rare, adventurous spirits, similar to Rockefeller, only they lived to tell their stories.

  1. Four Corners by Kira Salak
  2. From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea  by Paige West
  3. Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman 
  4. Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age by Robert Gardner
  5. Michael Rockefeller: New Guinea Photographs, 1961 by Kevin Brubriski
  6. The Asmat of New Guinea: the journal of Michael Clark Rockefeller, with his ethnographic notes and photos made among the Asmat people during two expeditions in 1961 by Michael C. Rockefeller
Feeling pretty saturated by non-fictional accounts and male authors, I realized I owned an eBook of a recent novel set in New Guinea, which ended up based on the early research trips of Margaret Mead. After reading that I took on two books by a man who fell in love with the people of New Guinea, perhaps more at home among them than his friends in New York. One very early anthropological study was followed by one written in the 21st century (also about other similar societies), and the last book I read from New Guinea was the story of a plane crash during World War II.

  1. Euphoria by Lily King
  2. Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea by Tobias Schneebaum 
  3. Where the Spirits Dwell: An Odyssey in the Jungle of New Guinea by Tobias Schneebaum
  4. Growing Up in New Guinea by Margaret Mead
  5. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond
  6. Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff
Along with the books I DID read are a bunch I didn't.  There are numerous missionary accounts, more books related to Margaret Mead's research and the Rockefeller story, and a novel about a teacher who saves a tribe with Dickens (I started it and it was pretty awful so I quit.)

What I never found - books about New Guinea written by New Guineans. Perhaps that will happen one day.

I also tried a few recipes that came from New Guinea, or attempted replicas thereof.  I believe in immersive reading! Adding the smells, the tastes, the sounds to a reading experience. This is harder to do with New Guinea since so many of the people there have diets composed of what they can grow and harvest. For West Papuans this is sago, harvested from trees and made into balls, supplemented by seafood or grubs depending on the location of the particular people group. For Papua New Guineans, the diet is largely sweet potato and banana, with protein added whenever possible, usually pork (a rare luxury.) The recipes I considered live on a Pinterest board, and some of those are still to come, from other regions of Oceania.

Here is a list of what I actually made:
  1. Banana pancakes (recipe; read more on JennyBakes)
  2. Baroida Coffee from Counter Culture (single origin beans from PNG)
  3. Saksak (tapioca banana dumplings, similar to a sweet sago ball) - recipe
  4. Autumnal Veggies in Spiced Coconut Milk (recipe)
Considering how many times fried bananas came up in the Salak (particularly in moments of stress), I am surprised I never made any. 


  1. An interesting list that I hope to delve into more closely. My husband and I became interested in New Guinea most recently because his uncle, who was a WWII pilot, crashed a mile off the northern coast. There is a distinctive peninsula where his plane went down. We considered the prospect of traveling to look for the wreckage, but that was really unfeasible. So instead, I hope to read about how New Guinea factored into WWII. I read "Lost in Shangri-La". Had not heard that story before and found it interesting.
    Thanks for sharing your list.

    1. I find New Guinea endlessly fascinating, so many differences between tribes and places that still feel unknown to the outside world.

  2. Do you have any recommendations of books by people who are From Papua New Guinea?


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