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Oceanian Literature

With fourteen countries spanning more than ten thousand islands, Oceania is a diverse region that remains relatively isolated from the rest of the world. Although the region boasts a long and rich history of oral storytelling, Oceania’s written literature traditions developed more recently, and few Oceanian authors are well-known worldwide. However, Oceanian literature is an essential and unique part of world literature with its lyrical depictions of the islands and oceans of the region and authentically portrayal of Oceanian identity.

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Oceanian Literature

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With fourteen countries spanning more than ten thousand islands, Oceania is a diverse region that remains relatively isolated from the rest of the world. Although the region boasts a long and rich history of oral storytelling, Oceania’s written literature traditions developed more recently, and few Oceanian authors are well-known worldwide. However, Oceanian literature is an essential and unique part of world literature with its lyrical depictions of the islands and oceans of the region and authentically portrayal of Oceanian identity.

Oceanian Literature: A Definition

The definition of Oceanian literature refers to the written and oral-literary traditions of the Pacific Islands, including Australia, New Zealand, and the surrounding island nations. This genre often explores themes of cultural identity, colonialism, and the relationship between indigenous communities and Western cultures. It includes literature from various countries and cultures, including Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Australia. Literature from Oceania includes a diverse range of styles and genres, from traditional myths and legends to contemporary novels and poetry. An example of Oceanian literature is the novel The Bone People (1984) by Keri Hulme, which tells the story of a Maori woman and her relationship with a mute boy and a reclusive artist, exploring issues of identity and cultural heritage.

Oceanian literature, map of Oceania, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Oceanian Literature comes from the oceanic region.

Oceanian Literature: A History

While little is known about the specific history of much of Oceanian literature, the majority developed through a strong oral storytelling tradition. Before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, an estimated 1,400 languages were spoken throughout the more than 10,000 islands that make up Oceania. These languages were divided into three distinct language families: Austronesian, Australian, and Papuan. The linguistic diversity and isolation of the region lead to a variety of distinct and unique literary traditions.

Oceanian literary traditions varied from region to region but were primarily oral in nature and generally included religious stories, myths, histories, and stories purely for entertainment.

Many oral literary traditions of Oceania are not well known to Western scholars because Oceanian cultures were changed and distorted by colonization and Western influence. Authentic texts and examples of oral literature were not collected before they vanished.

These early texts were generally committed to memory and related before an audience or individuals. Because stories were told aloud, they generally relied on typical conventions such as rhyming and repetition to make them easy to memorize.

Although many parts of Oceania did have written language, there was little written literature until the first universities were established in the region in the 1960s.

Oceanian Literature: Development of Written Traditions

The first examples of written Oceanian literature were primarily autobiographies. There were no published works of fiction until 1960 when Cook Islander Thomas Davis published Makutu, Oceania’s first novel.

In the 1960s, establishing the University of Papua New Guinea and the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, activated serious written literary production in the region for the first time. The University of the South Pacific developed a newspaper, Unispac, where indigenous student writers began to publish their work.

In 1973, a few years after the university was founded, a group of writers began the South Pacific Creative Arts Society and a literary magazine called Mana. Mana was followed by several other literary journals focusing on writing from various parts of Oceania.

By the 1970s, Oceanian writers began to speak out against the European portrayal of the region, and writers were inspired to create literature by and for the Oceanian people. Several key authors began publishing during this time, including the Samoan Albert Wendt (1939-present) and the Tongan-Fijian Epeli Hau’ofa (1939-2009). Writers like Wendt and Hau’ofa sought to bring an authentic representation of the Oceanian experience to the world stage and establish Oceanian identity through the creation of a thriving regional literature.

Most of Oceanian literature is written in English; however, there is an ever-increasing interest in local languages, and several literary journals are dedicated to publishing work in Samoan, Tongan, and more.

Technically speaking, the term Oceanian literature refers to the literature produced by indigenous Oceanian authors. However, countries in Oceanian with a strong colonial presence, such as Australia and New Zealand, have important literary histories that are usually kept separate from the study of Oceanian literature. They are more connected to the broader category of Western English literature and developed on a different trajectory.

Many European-born or European-descendent authors from countries such as New Zealand and Australia have received international recognition, won prestigious international literary awards, and had their work translated into many languages. These include Patrick White (1912-1990), Kathrine Mansfield (1888-1923), and Markus Zusak (1975).

Oceanian Literature: Significance in World Literature

Oceanian literature is significant in world literature because it remains relatively unknown. Very few authors from the region have gained international readership, and it is almost impossible to find published work from some island nations. Oceanian literature is also unique in that it has been relatively uninfluenced by larger global literature trends and movements. It represents a unique field of literature that explores themes specific to the Oceanian experience.

Oceanian Literature: Characteristics

Oceanian literature has several characteristics that set it apart from the literature pertaining to other parts of the world. A long and vital tradition of oral storytelling preceded written literature in Oceania. This history continues to influence the region’s literature as writers retell traditional myths and stories and explore the larger function of storytelling in the various Oceanian cultures. Oceanian literature is also endowed with a strong sense of place, including reoccurring imagery of the ocean and islands.

Finally, Oceanian literature is concerned with creating an authentic representation of Oceanian identity and rejecting a westernized, colonial depiction of the region.

The Influence of Oral Storytelling

The region’s longstanding oral storytelling traditions heavily influence much of Oceania’s written literature. Many writers, including Akanisi Sobusobu, Sitiveni Kalouniviti, and Epeli Hau’ofa, have used traditional stories such as myths and legends as a basis for written literature.

Furthermore, many works of Oceanian literature capture the importance of oral storytelling in society. The texts often contain colloquialisms and language particular to specific places and cultures.

A Strong Sense of Place

Oceanian literature is grounded in its sense of place.

Our islands are Tagaloaalagi’s stepping stones across Le Vasa Loloa

small and frail but courageous enough to bear his weight and Mana

high enough to keep us above the drowning and learning

how to navigate by the stars currents and the ferocity of storms

Point and sail in any direction as long as you know

how to return home” -“Stepping Stones” by Albert Wendt (2019)

Besides representing the cultures and communities of the Pacific, the region’s literature is rich with depictions of Oceania’s geography. The sea plays a key role, both in depicting the realities of island life and in its symbolic significance as something that unites and separates the island nations. Also important is the depiction of the indigenous flora and fauna of the islands, much of which carries cultural significance.

Oceanian literature, Pacific islands, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A sense of place and identity is important in Oceanian Litetature.

The sense of place in Oceanian literature is all the more significant as the effects of climate change become more apparent. A growing body of Oceanian eco-literature explores the interaction of the literature and environmental concerns in the region.

Eco-literature is a literary genre that explores environmental concerns and examines the relationship between humans and nature.

Authentic Depiction of Oceanian Identity

Like much post-colonial literature, Oceanian literature rejects a westernized, colonial viewpoint and instead creates an authentic representation of Oceanian identity and culture.

Oceania is vast, Oceania is expanding, Oceania is hospitable and generous, Oceania is humanity rising from the depths of brine and regions of fire deeper still, Oceania is us. We are the sea, we are the ocean, we must wake up to this ancient truth and together use it to overturn all hegemonic views that aim ultimately to confine us again, physically and psychologically, in the tiny spaces which we have resisted accepting as our sole appointed place, and from which we have recently liberated ourselves. We must not allow anyone to belittle us again, and take away our freedom.” -“Our Sea of Islands” by Epeli Hau’ofa (1993)

Writers like Epeli Hau’ofa use literature to assert independence and suss out the subtleties of Oceanian identity, challenging the homogeny and stereotypes of outside viewpoints. Much of the region’s literature is geographically specific, set in the towns and communities of the Pacific Islands, and draws on history and elements of cultural significance to create a rich and accurate representation of Oceanian identity.

Oceanian Literature - Key takeaways

  • Oceanian literature refers to the written and oral literary traditions pertaining to the indigenous people of Oceania.
  • Oceanian literature is grounded in a strong oral literary tradition that stretches back thousands of years.
  • In the 1960s, the establishment of the University of Papua New Guinea and the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, activated serious written literary production in the region for the first time.
  • Some key Oceanian authors are Albert Wendt and Epeli Hau’ofa.
  • The characteristics of Oceanian literature include the continued influence of oral literary traditions, a strong sense of place, and an authentic depiction of Oceanian identity.

Frequently Asked Questions about Oceanian Literature

Oceanian literature is literature written in Oceania by Oceanian authors. This genre often explores themes of cultural identity, colonialism, and the relationship between indigenous communities and Western cultures. 

Two universities that helped to establish the development of written literature in Oceania are the University of Papua New Guinea and the University of the South Pacific.

The natural environment plays a significant role in capturing the distinctive sense of place that grounds Oceanian literature.

Many Oceanian writers are members of indigenous communities who use their writing to explore the nuances of Oceanian identity and culture.

The transformation from oral to written literature has made Oceanian literature accessible to a wider readership and helped to establish Oceanian literature in the world literary stage.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What literary movement was Katherine Mansfield a part of?

Which of the following were major influences on Katherine Mansfield's writing?

True or false: before she decided to focus on writing, Katherine Mansfield wanted to be a professional musician.

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