MELBOURNE - It is 52 years since I attended Ulli Beier’s classes in African literature at the University of Papua New Guinea.
Now as then, and like many others, my view of him remains conflicted.
Maebh Long has laid bare, eloquently, his hypocrisy and deceit which, back then, was a matter of considerable gossip, on and off campus.
She has also rightly acknowledged his almost single-handed role as midwife in the nascence of modern Papua New Guinean literature (albeit only in English).
The Ulli Beier I knew was a quietly spoken, reserved man, his reticence tinged with a certain haughtiness.
As a teacher he instilled in me a deep appreciation of the writings of Soyinka, Achebe, Senghor and other important African writers.
But he was only a mediocre pedagogue, relying constantly on references to how and when he taught Wole Soyinka (and others) how to write. There was minimal attention to literary theory per se.
Ulli certainly lacked the charisma and motivational charm of his confreres – the likes of Elton Brash, Nigel Krauth and Nick Wilkinson, who all had a far greater impact on my literary understanding and whom I remember far more fondly.
Even the somewhat dour Prithvindra Chakravarti (with whom I collaborated in translating the poems of Bengali poet, Jibanananda Das) managed to ignite greater passion in me, in his case for modern Indian literature.
Being the only non-Papua New Guinean in classes of no more than a dozen at a time (including people like Meg Taylor, Renagi Renagi Lohia and John Waiko), I was always mindful of being in the minority.
Given the context of the times, where a dependent colony was on the verge of sovereign independence, such mindfulness - both on and off campus - was a salutary.
Ulli made it clear to me early on, albeit with some subtlety, that he would have preferred classes of Papua New Guineans only, in keeping with his mission of fostering an Indigenous literary culture.
Given his attitude, I did not attempt to enroll in his creative writing classes – not that I had the necessary talent. (But he did pump my ego by awarding grades of A or B+ for my written assignments.)
I was grateful, nevertheless, for his subtlety regarding my presence in his classes, contrasting as it did with the visit and seminar by his ‘friend’, the Australian Aboriginal poet, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (aka Kath Walker).
I admired her works greatly, but she did complain publicly that she had not come all the way to Port Moresby to talk to white Australians.
Ulli was far from subtle, however, in propagating his anti-colonial agenda.
Understandable as it was given the times, it nevertheless rankled me.
Like my school teacher colleagues, I did not see myself as a ‘coloniser’, even though I was certainly part of a colonial system.
It rankled me further that a Caucasian from Germany, which Ulli was, a country with its own sorry history of colonisation, chose by inference to denigrate what my colleagues and I were trying to do in classrooms throughout Papua New Guinea.
Perhaps the truth hurt…..
As it turned out, it certainly did not hurt me to try to see the world through the eyes of the colonised, and I am, in retrospect, grateful to Ulli for opening me to that alternative view.
It has been rightly acknowledged that Ulli was far more successful as a mentor and entrepreneur than he was as a teacher.
He instigated, as Michael Dom would put it, that initial wavelet of published Papua New Guinean writers and poets, establishing such vehicles as Kovave and the Papua Pocket Poets series.
And he mentored and encouraged students and others to tell their stories, traditional and contemporary.
I admired him then for his enterprise and his enormous gift to Papua New Guinea, and, in most respects, still do.
It is most regrettable, shameful even, that his hoaxes and associated unethical behaviour sullied this achievement and his reputation and his legacy.
It was fairly common knowledge on the Waigani campus and elsewhere that the playwright, M. Lovori was, in fact, Ulli Beier – if only because no-one ever managed to meet this Lovori person.
And while Maebh Long describes Ulli’s involvement with Albert Maori Kiki and Vincent Eri as ‘working with’, I doubt I am alone in suspecting his involvement was far more than this.
I didn’t know Albert Maori Kiki, however Vincent was one of my ‘bosses’ in the Education Department and I knew him reasonably well professionally and socially.
There is a certain irony in all this. For all of Ulli’s anti-colonial convictions, was he not guilty of ‘colonising’ his students and mentees?
Guilty, perhaps, of occupying their minds, cultivating their talents and ideas, and appropriating and disseminating their works, albeit for some semblance of mutual benefit.
It was Oscar Wilde who noted, “I quite agree with Dr Nordau’s assertion that all men of genius are insane, but Dr Nordau forgets that all sane people are idiots.”
For me, the ultimate question concerns how to reconcile Ulli’s unethical behaviour with his undoubted achievements?
I have chosen to acknowledge and applaud the latter, and condemn the former – and to relish the ‘warts and all’ experience of having known him.