The cover of Papua New Guinean author Russell Soaba’s 1979 novel Maiba shows the nude, ebony silhouette of a young woman. She wears her hair in a full, shaped afro reminiscent of the hairstyles of the Black Power Movement. And yet, it is evident that this character will not be found in the United States–she is flanked by strong, thick rooted trees and a clear blue ocean. This is a woman living in postcolonial Papua New Guinea.
She is called Maiba, which according to the novel’s acknowledgments, is “the common form of Anuki communication which expresses truths only through parables and riddles.” Her late father was the last chief of Makawana Village, which is a remote agrarian area that has largely been untouched by development.
Soaba describes a lush paradise complete with “[coral] reefs, the long stretches of yellowish beaches, [and] golden sunsets behind purplish swaying palms.” And yet, this blissful image is quickly shattered a few pages into the novel.
From a young age Maiba is an outcast due to her reticence to clothing and ever present runny nose. Her community sees her as unattractive, diseased, and an “ill omen.” Both the villagers and the local Anglican priest believe that Maiba is a product of her father’s sins–a living embodiment of the concept of ancestral sin, in which “the iniquities of the fathers are visited upon the sons and daughters…” (Exodus 20:5).
At first it is unclear what the sin is, but it becomes evident that it is simply indigenous, traditional rule that the locals and the misinares (missionaries) hate.
“The village, under the leadership of Maiba’s ancestors, certainly had been rich and powerful. Then had come the Anglicans…and slowly the villagers turned away from their chiefs. The death of Maiba’s father meant that there was nothing left of the ‘dark’ to fear.”
And yet, the village is filled with darkness even after the chief’s passing. The titular character, then nothing but a young girl, is personally confronted with difficulties including orphancy, infant paralysis, attempted molestation, physical and emotional abuse from the aunt who raises her, and the suicide of her classmate.
Due to this treatment, “Maiba could actually and physically feel that loneliness tearing mercilessly at the tissues of her heart.”
Her only source of light is her male cousin Siril, who serves as her companion and protector.
They spend their time together, going for ocean swims, eating pawpaw (papaya) and roasted bandicoots on the veranda, tending the family garden, and sharing traditional songs and parables.
And yet, this fragile bliss does not last for long. Maiba’s hardwon, youthful joys are soon interrupted as the village’s story takes a dark, savage turn–one so unexpected and twisted that it took my breath away.
Inter-community trust is betrayed in ways “far more cunning than even a notorious dimdim [white person] you would read about in history books.” It is evident that some of the villagers have discarded more than their chieftaincy in favor of European ways; they have abandoned their dignity.
There is no longer a need for foreign invasion or oppression. A rogue group has now become the conspirators, the tricksters–the capitalist savages. They are everything they feared Maiba and the traditionalism she represents to be.
The question is, can their sins be forgiven?
Maiba, A Papuan Novel by Russell Soaba (Three Continents Press, 1985)