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From Speaking to Writing in Oceanic Literature

ENG 716D: Techniques in Creative Writing

Fall 2001


Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard
KUY 426, 808-956-3046
University of Hawai‘i at Manoa

“Orality is a common feature of Tongan poetry where every poem was ultimately meant to be chanted, sung and/or performed. When I am in Tonga watching a dance performance, I am often reminded that Europeans did not discover poetry!" (Konai Helu Thaman, "Of Daffodils and Heilala: Understanding (Cultural) Context in Pacific Literature," 1999)

"The tatau and malu [ceremonial tatoo of Samoan tradition] are not just beautiful decoration, they are scripts-texts-testimonies to do with relationships, order, form...." In a deeply symbolic way, " tatauing is the act of printing or scripting a genealogical-spiritual-philosophical text on the blood..." (Albert Wendt, "Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body", 1998).

This course will explore contemporary fiction, drama and poetry by indigenous writers of Oceania, in particular, those works grounded in or explicitly informed by oratures and/or performance arts of the region.

Course goals include, (1) acquainting students with a substantial range of literary works whose texts work to "translate" oral forms of Oceanic verbal arts into writing; (2) identifying and applying indigenous theories and emergent narratives of critical discourse to the reading of these texts; (3) developing more complex understandings of the dynamics of cultural translation between the practices and aesthetic concerns of Oceanic orature and those of Western literature.

As Pacific literature in English continues to blossom with increasing vitality in both regional and international arenas, questions common to emergent literatures elsewhere will provide a working conceptual framework for exploration and discussion in the course. Readings and assignments will cluster around a set of  critical issues and questions.  For example, (1) How are traditional aesthetics of orature, with its emphasis on performance, memory, improvisation and communal ethos translated into a written literature based on a different set of epistemological assumptions about the nature of "art"? (2) How is the orature of Oceania being culturally translated in form and content into various Western genres of literature? (3) What are some likely criteria, aesthetic and otherwise, for critical and/or theoretical frameworks of Oceanic literary arts? (4) What is the role of oral forms like legend, mythology and chant in the formation of Oceanic literatures?

Methods and procedures:

In addition to reading and discussion of the primary texts, we will also consider recent research pointing to parallel concerns with those of Oceanic writers--comparative developments and perspectives, for example, from Native American, African and Afro-Caribbean literatures.  While the focus of study and discussion will revolve around the primary texts by Oceanic writers, we will also look at selected critical work which can illuminate by comparison similar processes underway in the cultural translation of emerging literatures elsewhere.


Students will be required to present to the class a two-person panel discussion of one comparative model, for example, work along the lines of those listed in the secondary reading list, like that of Goody on the interface between writing and orality; Arthur on Native writing from Canada and Australia; Hochbruck on "fictional orality" in Native American fiction; Nnaemeka on orality, writing and the reinscription of gender among African women; Praeger on the "literature of orality" in Guadeloupe and Martinique, and Sanders on issues of "collaborative" selfhood in the dictated autobiography, and so on.

Students with a creative writing concentration will be expected to write and submit one short story or a short collection of poetry that is informed in some way by some tradition of orature of their own choosing.

Students from concentrations other than creative writing will be expected to write a full thematic analysis of an approved work by a writer from our list of course texts.  Focus here should be on the writer's strategies of translation from orature to literature in the selected work.

Overall, students will be expected to submit written material totaling approximately 30-35 pages, to include write-ups of their panel reports, creative work and attached self-interpretation, or analytical papers.

Provisional Reading List:

Primary Texts


Frisbie, Johnnie. Miss Ulysses of Pukapuka, 1948.

Grace, Patricia.  Potiki, 1986.

Kame‘eleihiwa, Lilikala, trans. A Legendary Tradition of Kamapua‘a, the Hawaiian Pig God, 1996

*Kneubuhl, Victoria Nalani.  "Manowai", 1997, & Ho‘o‘oulu Lahui", 1998

Pule, John.  The Shark that Ate the Sun, 1992.

Wendt, Albert.  Leaves of the Banyan Tree,


*Kneubuhl, John A.  A Play A Play, 1991.


Sullivan, Robert.  Star Waka, 1990.

*selections from--

Sinavaiana-Gabbard, Caroline.  Alchemies of Distance, 2001

Taylor, Apirana.  He Tangi Aroha, 1993.

Teaiwa, Teresia.  Searching for Nei Nim‘anoa, 1996.

Trask, Haunani-Kay.  Light in a Crevice Never Seen, 1994.


Ong, Walter J.  Orality & Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word, 1982

Havelock, Eric.  The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to Present, 1988.

*Course Reader

Additional references:  (selected essays from this list to be included in

Course Reader)

Arthur, Katerina Olijnyk.  "Beyond Orality: Canada and Australia" (Native people publish stories in English).  Ariel, July 1990, v21, n3, p.23 (14).

Brady, Margaret K.  "Problematizing the Great Divide: Teaching Orality/Literature," Journal of Folklore Research, Jan.-April 1996, v33, n1, p.41 (7).

Calinescu, Matei.  "Orality in Literacy: Some Historical Paradoxes of Reading." Yale Journal of Criticism, Fall 1993, v6, n2, p. 175 (16).

Donoghue, Denis.  "Orality, Literacy and Their Discontents," New Literary History, Wntr.1996, v27, n1, p.145 (15).

Goody, Jack.  The Interface Between the Written and the Oral (Studies in Literacy, Culture and the State), 1987.

Grace, Patricia.  interview (Vilsoni Hereniko), The Contemporary Pacific, Spring 1998, v10, n3, p.153 (11).

Hochbruck, Wolfgang.  "`I Have Spoken': Fictional `Orality' in Indigenous Fiction," College Literature, June 1996, v23, n2, p.132 (11).

Nnaemeka, Obioma. "From Orality to Writing: African Women Writers and the (Re)inscription of Womanhood," Research in African Literatures, Wntr.1994, v25, n4, p.137 (21).

Praeger, Michele.  "Edouard Glissant: Towards a Literature of Orality" (Guadeloupe and Martinique).  Callaloo, Wntr.  1992, v15, n1, p.41(8).

Sanders, Mark A.  "Theorizing the Collaborative Self: the Dynamics of Contour and Content in the Dictated Autobiography," New Literary History, Spr.1994, v25, n2, p.445 (14).

Subramani, South Pacific Literature: from Myth to Fabulation, 1992.

Sykes, Roberta B., "Do Caged Kookaburras Still Laugh?  Humour in Aboriginal Writing."

Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor, 1989, 10 (2):45-48.

Thaman, Konai Helu.  "Of Daffodils and Heilala: Understanding Cultural Contexts in PacificLiterature," 1998.

Wendt, Albert.  "Techniques of Storytelling", interview (J.  Ellis), Ariel, July 1997, v28,n3, p79 (16).

----------.  "Tatauing the Postcolonial Body," SPAN 42/43, 1996:15-29.


Graduate standing or consent of instructor.

[Subject: Literature and Theater; Pacific/Comparative]

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