IT’S 18 January 1915 and Virginia Woolf is 33 years old. She is being monitored by nurses and guards after a suicide attempt six months earlier following a severe bout of depression.
In this, the dawn of the second year of the World War I, Woolf takes to her journal and writes “the future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think”.
She may have been writing about the world’s fate, as much as her own.
Seventy years later, two women sit in a top-floor New York apartment. One sips dandelion-root tea as both pore over fragments of a developing speech.
The speech is to be presented by one of the women – cultural critic and essayist, Susan Sontag. Her companion is Rebecca Solnit, writer of Men Explain Things to Me. Virginia Woolf’s journal entry anchors their discussion.
Both women have had publications influenced by that desolate single sentence penned by Woolf, one of the most prominent of 20th century English writers.
Both agree that this ‘darkness’ of the future ought to be embraced. Individuals must be willing to venture towards the unknown in spite of uncertainty of the outcome.
Sontag presents her interpretation in a book on empathy and photography, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Her argument is that people ought to look, look again and keep looking at images of the atrocities of war.
We must look; not to numb ourselves from the suffering or to pretend that we understand the magnitude of how the subjects have experienced war. However futile, we must keep looking to explore within ourselves the possibility that we care.
Solnit’s interpretation demands the use of hope in writing. Solnit argues that no action is futile. Why? Because individuals have no memory of the future. There is no guarantee of what is going to happen next. And in that future the unlikely and the unimaginable often transpires.
Solnit is adamant that writers are a key group of dedicated individuals who comprise a popular movement that has shaped history by acting in the ‘dark’.
Think of the words that resonate long after the death of many writers. This, Soltin argues, is why a ‘dark’ future is the best thing it could be. “It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open,” she writes.
After recently reading Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinean Journals, I wrote to author Trish Nicholson to share my thoughts. The memoir is an account of the five years (1987-1991) Nicholson spent as an aid development worker in West Sepik (Sandaun) Province.
I found the book thoroughly engaging, informative (yes, I learnt so much about my country) and entertaining.
But the main reason for the correspondence was to thank her for a particular act.
Of the multitude of experiences she recounted, Nicholson chose to include a demonstration of “about 200 women, some bare breasted in traditional bilas of grass skirts and shell pendants, their faces and bodies smeared with ash”.
It was a protest by Papua New Guineans against the development of a road between Vanimo and Jayapura.
The protest, driven by women’s concern about social problems, made its way to the Premier’s office; the eventual outcome being proof that Papua New Guinean women can have a significant role in decision-making.
In moving prose, Nicholson recorded a significant moment in Papua New Guinea’s history. Our women can and will exercise their right to social and political activism. Our female population know how to be present in the conversation. We demand that our voices are heard. We will not be silenced.
Last week, a group of Papua New Guinean female students from the University of Papua New Guinea, like the “bilased mothers” some 25 years before, embraced the ‘dark’ of the future, Papua New Guinea’s future.
Accompanying my commentary, PNG Attitude republishes an image of that day. Does it, as urged by Sontag, stir an emotion within? Why and how much do you care about the stance our young women took that day? We all must care.
We also see Michael Dom and Phil Fitzpatrick venture into the ‘dark’ to offer hope to Papua New Guineans. They have, as Solnit’s advocates, seen more in the image and the young women’s actions and recorded their impressions and interpretations.
But we need many more Papua New Guineans to embrace the ‘dark’ by acknowledging, understanding, supporting and recording instances of political and social activism by the women (young and old) of PNG.
It just might be what encourages current and future generations of Papua New Guineans to care and hope enough so as to do their part to propel positive change in our nation.