Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Irony in Preserving Tradition

It seems to me that the essence of oral tradition is in its form of transmission; by physically telling a story the orator is able to change the pitch and inflection of the characters’ voices, include body language to illuminate a point, and infuse any given version of the story with little exaggerations, or half-truths as Hau’ofa might say, that elevate the meaning of the tale. In “The Glorious Pacific Way”, the last story of Hau’ofa’s collection of tales in his book, Tales of the Tikongs, Ole Pasifikiwei is on a mission to collect and record the oral traditions of his “island country”. “It’s about time someone started recording and preserving them before they are lost forever”, is the response to his plight made by Mr. Minte, a somewhat disagreeable and condescending diplomat who eventually grants Ole extra funding for his project.
Although it is certainly important to continue to pass on the traditions of a culture, I have to wonder what is lost when they are written down on paper, and thus preserved in a singular form forever, no longer to be infused by the unique qualities each separate story-teller brings to the tradition, Hau’ofa, through subtle language and strategic satire, points out the downfalls of such a project. Ole attends a seminar(on the proper methods of collecting oral tradition—an irony in itself) in Manila, suggested to him by Mr. Minte, and asks his Great-aunt to watch his home while he is gone. He returns to find it very tidy, and asks at once where she has placed his ratty composition books that are filled with the seven years worth of recorded oral traditions from various parts of the islands. Her reply is that since he had left her no money for food and to keep clean, “I used some and sold the rest cheaply to neighbors. They’re poor, Ole, but they also have to be hygienic.”(91)
The irony in the fact that Ole’s years of work were used for toilet paper is a shining example of the role of the human body and humor that Hau’ofa employs throughout Tales of the Tikongs. It cannot be argued that the use of toilet paper is a necessity if one wishes to practice proper hygiene; and yet, the discussion of such a necessity, and its insinuation of bodily functions, has become somewhat taboo, at least in Western culture—it just makes people uncomfortable. Who’s to say that talking about bodily functions is in bad taste, when it is a fact of human nature and subsequently a trait we all share? I cannot pretend that I am completely comfortable discussing it as a topic-- as I have been raised with Western ideals that discourage it--but Hau’ofa’s playful tone and attitude towards it makes it a bit more approachable as a subject.
It also seems extremely ironic, and therefore most definitely strategic, that it is the Great Aunt who lived in the time of oral tradition, that rids Ole of his textual artifacts of stories that are meant to be transmitted orally from generation to generation. Those very stories actually help his relative and fellow villagers by providing them with a basic human need: it is a clear testament to their importance, though it may not be what Ole had in mind. Hau’ofa’s references to the body, as well as his subtle humor, pointed at both his own culture and the Imperialist ideals, allow him to make siginificant points so subtly.

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