MAEBH LONG – posted on PNG Attitude Blog
This article offers edited extracts from ‘Being Obotunde Ijimere and M. Lovori: Mapping Ulli Beier’s intercultural hoaxes from Nigeria to Papua New Guinea’. The complete essay by Dr Long was published in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 11 October 2020
HAMILTON, NZ – Ulli Beier was a hugely influential figure in Nigerian and Papua New Guinean literature from the 1950s to the 1970s.
He founded and edited numerous literary magazines, including Black Orpheus and Kovave, fostered unappreciated talent, and provided publication opportunities when few were available.
The story of his dedication to nascent literary scenes in Africa and the Pacific is, however, marred by appropriation.
Beier was to introduce ‘fraud’ into the literature of both countries.
Writing under various Nigerian and Niuginian names, Beier conducted a series of literary hoaxes whose racial and cultural deceptions smuggled a white author into Indigenous literary histories, and exemplified the permissibility that even anti-colonial white men granted themselves.
In the article from which these extracts are drawn, I explore Beier’s main racial alter egos – Obotunde Ijimere and M. Lovori – with an emphasis on his position as a lecturer and magazine editor at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG).
In 1967 Beier and his wife Georgina moved to Papua New Guinea, where Beier taught literature and creative writing at UPNG and became, in author and academic Steven Winduo’s words, “the patron of creative literature in Papua New Guinea”.
There he galvanised the literary, dramatic and, alongside Georgina, artistic scenes with the same enthusiasm he showed in Nigeria.
He founded the ‘Papua Pocket Poets’ series, which published 25 volumes between 1968 and 1970, as well as Kovave, Papua New Guinea’s first literary magazine, and he later established and edited Gigibori: A Magazine of Papua New Guinea Cultures.
He worked with Albert Maori Kiki on ‘Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime’ and with Vincent Eri on ‘The Crocodile’, Papua New Guinea’s first novel by an Indigenous author.
He helped organise and judge writers’ awards and became the first director of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies.
As Rabbie Namaliu, one of Beier’s students, describes him, Beier was an empowering “pioneer” who “shattered the old shibboleth that Niuginians can only be evoked as objects, but that they can’t write”.
Kirsty Powell observed in Pacific Islands Monthly that Beier saw “potential, he encouraged our talents, and over a period of four years, Niugini had its own literature written by its own artists”.
For many who worked with him in PNG and Nigeria, Beier was a “wanderer who came, saw, and was conquered.”
So wrote Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Soyinka continued that Beier’s “approach to life rescued the word ‘expatriate’ from its usual negative connotations — privileged, alienated, presumptuous and condescending”.
In his reflections on his time at UPNG, Beier presented himself as strongly invested in anti-colonial ideologies, with a deep commitment to a literary education not bound by an anxious adherence to the Western canon.
Earlier, in Nigeria, he had felt constrained by the University of Ibadan’s emphasis on British literary traditions and standards.
When he saw that UPNG was looking for someone to teach a course on ‘New English Literature from Developing Countries’ he eagerly applied.
Elton Brash argued that, prior to Beier’s arrival, the major features of the literary scene in PNG were bleak, as they emphasised the “disruption and decay of Traditional forms of Oral Literature”.
Brash also mourned the “understandable reluctance of New Guineans to express themselves through English or English Literary forms” and he lamented the “exploitation of the New Guinea scene by foreign writers in search of romantic and exotic material for popular literature”.
For Brash, in a paper ‘The Role of the Student in Niugini Politics’, the “most significant direct encouragement of creative writing in New Guinea” came from Beier as he quickly discovered potential writers and artists, opened channels for the publications of their works, and established creative writing courses.”
Yet, there is a problematic side to Beier’s engagement with the literary scenes of both Nigeria and PNG.
In 1966, ‘The Imprisonment of Obatala and Other Plays’ by a Yoruba playwright, Obotunde Ijimere, was published by Heinemann.
The biographical notes to the Heinemann edition said that Ijimere began writing plays while attending Beier’s writers’ workshop in Osogbo.
However, far from Beier simply influencing or encouraging Ijimere, Beier was Ijimere.
Between 1965 and 1967 Beier as Ijimere wrote ‘The Fall of Man’, ‘The Bed: A Farce’, ‘The Suitcase’ and ‘Born with a Fire in his Head’.
Under this name, he also wrote the three plays in the Heinemann edition: ‘The Imprisonment of Obatala’, ‘Woyengi’, and ‘Everyman’.
Nor were these plays the first time Beier had impersonated a Nigerian writer: the critical articles and reviews in the early issues of Black Orpheus were dominated by his writings under names such as Sangodare Akanji.
When Beier moved to PNG, he continued this trend of hiding his work under local names.
He wrote two plays, ‘Alive’ and ‘They Never Return’, under the name M. Lovori.
He had these plays performed in Australia and PNG and published ‘Alive’ in the work ‘Five New Guinea Plays’.
Writing under various Nigerian and Niuginian names, Beier conducted a series of literary hoaxes whose racial and cultural deceptions smuggle a white author into Indigenous literary histories, and exemplify the permissibility that even anti-colonial white men granted themselves.
As a teacher, editor, reviewer and publisher, Beier is a hugely important figure in the literary histories of Papua New Guinea and Nigeria.
He recognised talent where it had been ignored and provided publication opportunities when few were available.
He insisted on the aesthetic value of Indigenous forms, and he advocated loudly and repeatedly for authenticity in the voices of emerging literary traditions.
And yet he is also responsible for writing fraud into the early literature of both countries.
How can we respond to Beier’s introduction of counterfeit texts into the literatures he was nurturing?
It is difficult, particularly in light of growing research on cultural appropriation and racial hoaxes, not to see Beier’s pseudonymous excursions as predicated on the arrogant adoption of identities Beier felt entitled to possess.
It is especially hard to deny egotistical involvement on Beier’s part, as Beier centres himself in his displacements.
Both Lovori and Ijimere are presented as students he was instrumental in encouraging.
Creative writing is always embroiled in ventriloquising, and the theatre is always about impersonation.
The history of pseudonymous writing is as long as the history of literature.
A hoax, however, is not designed simply to bring a new character to life, nor purely to conceal the identity of the writer, but to deceive, and to deceive about the deception.
As imprecise as the lines between pseudonym and hoax might be, there is an important difference between an alias that conceals the author’s name and that which deliberately impersonates a wholly different identity.
Beier is a troubling representation of the white lecturer involved in decolonising academic spaces — one whose apparently genuine ideological commitments to Indigenous independence are counterbalanced by his belief in his position of intellectual leadership and his right to speak knowledgeably on behalf of Indigenous communities.
Beier’s writings and his classes show he wanted no part in daffodils or Shakespeare.
He worked hard to encourage African and Pacific voices of protest and sovereignty.
But he also saw this position as permitting him to appropriate, impersonate and direct.
I take no issue with a man who the late Wole Ogundele, executive director of the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding in Osogbo, Nigeria, repeatedly described as a “German-born Yoruba”, writing creatively or academically about a community of which he is part.
Nevertheless, identity matters, and names matter.
Beier was Jewish. In the 1930s his father’s money was confiscated by the Nazis, and in the 1940s Beier was interned by the British as an enemy alien.
His privilege is mitigated by his experiences of persecution.
When home is rendered precarious, it is easy to understand why one would seek belonging elsewhere.
However, one can belong without impersonating.
Dr Maebh Long is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Waikato at Hamilton in New Zealand. She was previously Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head of School at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji, and Visiting Associate Professor at New York University, USA.
Maebh is co-editor of The Parish Review: International Journal of Flann O’Brien Studies, editor of ‘Flann O’Brien, The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien (Victoria, TX: Dalkey Archive Press, 2018) and editor with Matthew Hayward of New Oceania: Modernisms and Modernities in the Pacific (London: Routledge, 2019)