Adam Vai Delaney was born in 1966 in Hanuabada, in the National Capital District of Papua New Guinea. He graduated from the University of PNG with a Bachelor of Journalism degree in 1988, and is currently working for the PNG Foreign Affairs Department.
Adam's writing has won several prizes. In 1983 his script "Ruatoka"1 won the radio drama section of PNG's National Literature Competition. In 1987 he won the short story section with "Sad Curtains."2 His drama, "When Two Tribes Go to War,"3 won the stage play section in 1988. His musical drama, "Chant of the Witchdoctor,"4 appeared in 1991.
He has spent time in the USA with the Youth Exchange Programme for International Playwrights, sponsored by the US Government.
GG: Adam, what are you writing at the moment?
AD: I'm working on a new play about a person who's been away for a long time and he comes back, maybe in 1970, and finds he no longer owns the land because it's under the colonial administration. He also finds that his village is now an urban settlement: Bomana Prison Camp.
I've also written another play, a good satire about bureaucracy. It's called "The Concrete Aeroplane."
GG: When was it written?
AD: It was mentally written about four years ago and physically written on a piece of paper about two and a half months ago. It's a satire, a good send-up.
GG: Has it been published anywhere?
AD: I published it on my Macintosh, my own publication system, but it hasn't been put out. It's only had a play reading, which we did here one night with William [Takaku]5 and John Kasaipwalova.6 Everybody could identify with all the red tape and all the bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. We're trying to do it next year with the National Theatre Company.
It's about the Department of Possible Development which is going to develop a concrete aeroplane. They go through the whole system of committees, and who's going to implement it and spearhead it, and they have all these foreign advisers coming in, and the foreign advisers want to rip the entire country up.
And the immediate one I'm writing, which is also quite a problem, is the life of Sir Percy Chatterton, based on his book Day That I Have Loved.7
That's all that I'm working on at the moment.
GG: Tell me your views about social change, and whether you regard the changes in society as positive or not.
AD: My view of any change, whether in this country or anywhere else, is that as long as there's a cross-cultural balance within a society, change is inevitable.
What's happening now in the Western world is that they're looking back at all the "third world" nations and saying, "Let's start learning from them." In America there are massive movements, and all the black Americans are calling themselves Afro-americans. And these "where did we come from?" philosophies are starting to come up again.
But unfortunately in Papua New Guinea we're trying to imitate the West. People say, "But in Australia this happens," or "In America this happens." In that sense you can see where change does annoy a lot of our grassroots people, because they aren't getting the right sort of information as to how they can balance these changes. This is one thing I always try and emphasize to people.
GG: The importance of balance.
AD: Yes. Change is beneficial, definitely. But it's also destructive. The environmental impact which change is bringing . . . William [Takaku] and I have the same philosophy, that people should really listen to the ground. You see, there's a national Government philosophy, to always have dialogue with the people on the land, and if it's what they want, then give it to them. That's all very well, but at the end of the day if the rural people say "We don't want the mining companies or the timber companies," the National Government then turns around and say, "Well, we won't listen to that anymore." Which is unfortunate because they're contradicting their entire philosophy. So those are areas where change is definitely destructive.
GG: Where there isn't that balance and dialogue.
AD: There isn't that much rural participation in the development of the country as a whole, and I think one thing Wingti8 is trying to do now (certainly in words and philosophy) is to bring about more rural participation to people. It's so timely that we're talking about this, because if you see the sentiments now being echoed by all the Provincial Governments which are being threatened, they are exactly the same sentiments that were echoed way back in 1971 when Sir Percy [Chatterton] was alive.
These were all the things discussed in Parliament. Now all of a sudden the tide is changing, and they're saying exactly the same things that were said back in '73.
GG: It's interesting, isn't it - almost as if they'd come full circle.
AD: Mm. And now the debate on Provincial Governments. You can read so much in newspapers and talk to so many business houses in the urban areas, but the bottom line again is to go back to the guy up in the middle of Tari or Myola9 and ask him: "What do you want? Have you really benefited?" And they should really answer those questions. That's how a referendum works.
GG: What purpose do you feel writers have in society? Where do you see them fitting in?
AD: Firstly, maybe I should emphasize my style of writing, my format, which is theatre. Any form of writing is educational, and writing does have a great purpose in Papua New Guinea, because of . . . the lack of written materials. There's a tendency even in history for things to be lost and to fade away.
[The colonial impact was such that people] stopped talking, and started reading and writing. Again, this comes back to the cross-cultural imbalances, of people not understanding, and putting onto them a Western philosophy. What they should have realized is that maybe these people didn't need to stop talking. Children became knowledgeable not because their grandfathers had written everything, but because they talked to them, and told them things. This oral history was killed by the education system.
Writing does have its relevance in society, but on the other hand, the Melanesian style is not writing.
GG: Do you feel that as a dramatist, your style of writing may be more suitable to an audience here?
AD: This is exactly why I chose theatre. The National Theatre Company has got the best philosophy and the best principle: for any Government awareness material, you don't go and advertise on television with a voice-over, or print a mass of leaflets and pamphlets, because they won't work. The rural audience don't care. But if you take them a great short play, a dramatized version, and you perform it in front of them, you have a far wider audience. You can only have 40 people in front of a TV box, but you can have 4,000 people watching a play. And again, because of the action and the talking in their own language . . .
Coming back to my role in writing, in Two Tribes . . . for example, I pinpoint a lot of the defects in society. Matter of fact, one of the ones that I pinpoint in that book is that people forget the issue of wife-bashing.
Lots of Papua New Guineans (and foreign advisers too, from Michigan or Canada or wherever) write booklets and make videos, and they focus on the husband always being in the wrong. When a husband arrives home drunk and abusive and wanting to punch up his wife, their solution is for him to open the door and have a 15-minute walk, cool down and then come back.
I used to have arguments about this with the Law Reform Commission. I'd say, "Maybe you've forgotten that the first thing about society and change is that what's happening now with wife-bashing is the reverse." Most females now are challenging their husbands. Maybe not directly but indirectly: they're dressing up a lot more, they're probably earning more money (or similar money), they're feeling more independent. These are the effects that are happening, and the husband feels that he's losing his traditional role as the big man, as the giver of bread and butter, and then he takes it out on his wife.
GG: You're saying that it's a much more complex issue than people seem to realize.
AD: Yes, especially when they've just arrived in the country and they think this country is so easy to understand and they can just apply the things that are happening abroad. We've got hundreds of languages here. There've got to be some problems somewhere. Again, my role in society is so limited if I choose one language. But that shouldn't become a barrier or an obstacle.
I think what's happened with me, especially, is I'm becoming more influenced by social impact. I'm becoming more objective, too, about things. Whereas the first writers (Nora Vagi Brash,10 John Kasaipwalova) as a group - like in every developing nation - stemmed from political change. The country was going through turmoil, everybody wanted Independence, there were all the racial overtones. So all the writings were about this. I'm shying away from that: I'm interested more in what people can relate to now. Trying to be less political at the same time.
GG: So do you see yourself as providing social commentary, perhaps, rather than being directly political?
AD: Social commentary is political commentary, as I see it. You can't give any social commentary without making a political statement. Politics is commentary between two parties, two groups, whatever. Two Tribes . . . is political: two people killing each other mentally.
GG: Do you write in other languages as well as English?
AD: I was a desktop publisher for the Government magazine, Hiri, and I did all the editing and writing for it. We had English, Motu and Tok Pisin.11 I wouldn't say I'm fluent, but I would be able to translate something for you, definitely in Motu and English. Tok Pisin would depend on the subject.
GG: But as far as your drama writing goes, you write in English.
AD: Yes. I try to translate it into Motu whenever possible. I haven't always done this, but "The Sun is Setting" has to be a Motuan play. It's for the Motuan audience.
GG: Do you feel that a writer's choice of language is a political issue?
AD: Not really. Westerners seem to feel we have to decide. But I don't see it as a big deal. We've survived for thousands of years using the languages that we've had. It's never been an issue. I think the mentality's got to go away from people . . . It's not a political issue. I think the only reason it's political is that Parliament wants it that way. Parliament has decided that we'll have the three languages,12 and the people who have the tools and the power to speak in those languages now use it as a political tool.
GG: If you could choose, what language would you write in?
AD: Depends on who my audience is. With Two Tribes . . . my audience was middle class, the elite.
GG: So English was OK for that.
AD: Yes, everyone could understand that. But with "The Sun is Setting," I'm going to get a Motuan translator. And for Sir Percy's thing also, because I'm trying to educate the Motuans in Hanuabada13 who do things but don't know why they're doing them. A classic example: my uncle. He felt so small the other day. He's 50 years old now. I went to his house and I said: "Uncle, tell me. Tell me why every New Year's Eve people walk around and throw each other into the sea."
GG (laughing): Is that really what happens?
AD: Yes. It's a big thing. If you're drunk and you don't know what's happening, you might end up in the water. It's just a big fun thing. If people oversleep, or . . .
GG: Does everyone know how to swim?
AD: Oh yeah, you learn how to swim as soon as you come out of the womb. But the thing is, even my uncle didn't know why we throw people into the sea, and give them big kisses and rub charcoal onto their faces, "Oh, Happy New Year, Happy New Year." And all the other people around, my aunties and the others, nobody knew why. "Oh, we don't know. We just do it. It's a practice that's been handed down. You just do it when you're a child," and so on.
And I told them that in the olden days, when people went dugong hunting,14 the village men would all gather round and select a leader to be in charge of the sewing of the net, and he would get his daughter to sit in there as part of the sacred ritual. From the moment that they started that net and went out fishing, she would not have a bath. So it could be 4 or 5 weeks without a bath.
When they were hunting, if they caught a dugong they would put a palm frond on the mast to show people they'd had a successful trip. But if they weren't successful, there'd be no frond. This could go on for months and the poor girl didn't have a shower. So of course she was looking forward to the day when the palm frond would show.
When they came back, it was traditional that all the village people would go in the water, grab the fishermen and give them a good scrub. They'd grab the girl and throw her in. So it was the cleansing period, you see.
With New Year's Eve, Christianity taught the Motu people that we're now leaving the old year behind: this is a cleansing period with new ideas and new resolutions. The old Motuans decided, "Well, this is good fun. We'll do what we used to do in dugong season, but we'll do it in New Year's season." So there you are.
GG: Adam, it's been good to talk to you. Thank you very much.
Pacific Adventist College
Papua New Guinea
1 Adam Vai Delaney, "Ruatoka: A Play for Radio," Bikmaus 5.3 (1984): 62-81.
2 Adam Vai Delaney, "Sad Curtains," Sope, ed. J. Lahui and J. Sinet (Boroko: Institute of PNG Studies) 1987, 3-12.
3 Adam Vai Delaney, When Two Tribes Go to War (Waigani: PNG Dept of Education, 1991).
4 Adam Vai Delaney, "Chant of the Witchdoctor: A Dance, Drama Tribal Musical!" Originally entitled "Vailala Madness" (Port Moresby: n.p., 1991).
5 William Takaku, playwright, conservationist, and Director of PNG's National Theatre Company.
6 John Kasaipwalova, prominent among Papua New Guinea's "first wave" writers in the 1970s, now combines writing with various business ventures.
7 Percy Chatterton came to Papua in 1924 as a teacher with the London Missionary Society, and spent the rest of his life there. As a member of Papua New Guinea's first House of Assembly, he gained a reputation for championing the rights of the individual.
8 Paias Wingti, at that time newly elected as Prime Minister of PNG.
9 Two remote spots: Tari is in the Southern Highlands of PNG, while Myola is a small village in the Owen Stanley Mountains, between Port Moresby and Popondetta.
10 Nora Vagi Brash, Papua New Guinean poet and dramatic satirist, now writes from Canberra, Australia.
11 Also known as "Pidgin English" or simply "Pidgin."
12 PNG's three official languages of government are Motu, English and Tok Pisin.
13 A village situated across the bay from Port Moresby's Central Business District.
14 A dugong is a large sea-dwelling mammal, also known as a sea cow.
New: 7 January, 1997 | Now: 20 April, 2015