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Compte rendu de In Memory of Times to Come: Ironies of History in Southeastern Papua New Guinea, de Melissa Demian

David Lipset
p. 351-352
Référence(s) :

In Memory of Times to Come: Ironies of History in Southeastern Papua New Guinea, 2021, New York, Berghahn, 228 p., notes, references, index, de Melissa Demian.

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1The intellectual effort Melissa Demian has given over to the central analytic problem in her new ethnography is impressive. Drawing from the work of Marilyn Strathern, Nancy Munn as well as several other theorists and the cross-cultural record at large, she succeeds throughout her finely-crafted book to sort out how the Suau, who live in Milne Bay region of Papua New Guinea (png), assert ‘themselves’ amid pressures –Demian is reluctant to call them modern– that they have faced in the past and go on facing in the historical moment. But who are ‘they’? And what did ‘they’ do? And now, what do ‘they’ want?

2Upon her initial arrival in the mid 1990s, Suau people frustrated and annoyed Demian when they told her that they had “forgotten” all beliefs and practices related to kastom (p. 1) and worse, that they did not even have a name for themselves (thus ‘Suau’ is the author’s attribution). Impenetrable theoretical abstractions occasionally mar its narrative, but In Memory of Times to Come for the most part succeeds to render a complicated perspective of the agency the Suau brought to bear on this fundamental challenge faced by every community and person throughout the region.

“For the past 140 years, […] Suau participated in every single phase of European […] expansion into the Pacific, and they […] not only accommodated it, but also embraced it.” (p. 40)

3Now, a pall, a kind of collective mourning, hangs over the culture. A once vital, colonial world has disappeared leaving people with a pervasive sense of abandonment. Until wwii, the Suau Coast was a center of Protestant missionary activity. There were churches. There were schools. There was infrastructure. But it departed; no one, no foreigners, returned after the war, despite how “hospitable” the Suau had been (p. 8). So now, they were left with no outlet for the great social creativity they put into relationships with their guests.

4Despite their melancholy, lack of ethnonym and the sense that Western values had displaced kastom, the overall picture of contemporary Suau society Demian presents us is hardly strange or unique. Like so many Milne Bay, or Massim, groups, the Suau practice matriliny and speak an Austronesian dialect. Remittances from urban kin pour into the villages, death is caused by supernatural violence deriving from social conflict, and mortuary rites, which feature pig exchanges and are meant to make attendees “forget” the deceased (p. 52), remain central to the reproduction of moral order.

5Damien does well with the latter ritual, offering several telling cases in effective detail that plainly call into question the widespread lament that nobody is left who remembers anything about the ancestors or their practices. In one instance, for example, a middle-age woman with several children passed away. One of her sons placed divinatory leaves beneath his mother's pillow during her final illness by way of identifying the sorcerer who killed her. After she died, her husband called for his "broth," thus to acknowledge the loss of the woman who looked after and fed him throughout their marriage (p. 59). A stream of people then appeared to cry and show their grief so it could be recognized by others. An all-night vigil was then staged “to punish” (p. 59) guests to whom the woman had been generous while alive. The suspicion was that spells were cast to forestall the sunrise and extend the vigil. When taken in a canoe-coffin to the cemetery, the woman’s soul had to be persuaded to follow the burial party and a croton flower was placed by her head as a message to do so. A little house was erected as cover for her soul and a coconut was placed atop a post to sprout. Work then ceased in the village for several days and her husband went into seclusion. This interval was concluded by a funeral feast and party during which, amid the blowing of conch shell trumpets, matrikin exchanged pigs and garden produce with affines, who had provided ritual services. The grieving husband, who had been forbidden from eating “greasy” food, was released from his seclusion, came outside, and sat down next to a row of pigs. A string band show and dancing followed. Again, the Suau claim that kastom has been all but “forgotten,” seems belied here.

6For Demian, the central analytical project of the book is to tease out the Suau concept of time and history from ritual practice, social life and ethnohistory. Suffice it to say that time and history are viewed in multiple ways, as both divided into disjunctive epochs and as continuity. The past was an immoral time, one of cannibalism and violence, that missionary intervention transformed into an entirely new concept of a moral community linked to the wider world by regular shipping, plantation labor, sports and so forth. Then, people were left “stranded” (p. 112). Clanship had decayed. Overseas trade and ceremonial exchange had diminished but matrilineage identity did persist. Concretely, of course, lineage bound people to the land where they garden and plant coconut palms: the landscape remained divided up by labor and the ancestors.

7The relationship of disputed land claims to postcolonial law in png is another topic of particular interest to Demian. Population growth, cash-cropping, oil-palm plantation development, the presence of timber companies, even the construction of mobile phone towers, have all given rise to a proliferation of land disputes. Village courts assess sorcery allegations, property destruction, domestic violence, and so forth, but do not arbitrate land-disputes between matrilineages. They are rather mediated by senior men at the local-level who urge parties to come to a resolution by themselves, or may dismiss a claim altogether, if it is viewed as ridiculous, as when, for example, a man claimed land rights by virtue of an agnatic relationship. The goal of Suau conflict resolution is to “straighten” relationships in conflict that are regarded as “crooked” (p. 158). Meetings are staged for this purpose and compensation may be paid (in pigs).

8Demian insists that the Suau do not live in despair but rather expect new opportunities in the future, even though the present is so flawed and incomplete and the state is failing to deliver services. They do not stand by passively, but reach out to new possibilities, like redd+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and the new road to the provincial capital and reach back and renew name avoidance practices and pollution beliefs. Contemporary Suau agency, in other words, is neither traditional, nor modern. People go on as they have since the late 19th century, exploring new and old relationships with others.

9In Memory of Times to Come accomplishes three things: 1) by foregrounding longing for a colonial past, it complicates the problem of modernity and local agency, 2) it contributes to the literature on a foundational corner of Melanesian ethnography, and 3) Demian has also peppered her book with honest, first-person accounts of fieldwork experiences that lend the narrative an appealing intimacy. It would be a welcome addition to upper-level undergraduate and graduate syllabi.

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David Lipset, « Compte rendu de In Memory of Times to Come: Ironies of History in Southeastern Papua New Guinea, de Melissa Demian »Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 155 | 2022, 351-352.

Référence électronique

David Lipset, « Compte rendu de In Memory of Times to Come: Ironies of History in Southeastern Papua New Guinea, de Melissa Demian »Journal de la Société des Océanistes [En ligne], 155 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2022, consulté le 24 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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David Lipset

Professor of Anthropology, U. of Minnesota, Minneapolis

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