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.