Q&A: Don Kulick – A Death in the Rainforest

by Travel Writing World
Don Kulick Death in the Rainforest

As part of our ongoing author Q&As, Don Kulick drops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his book A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea (Algonquin 2020, pbk). Don is professor of anthropology at Uppsala University in Sweden and has carried out fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Italy, and Sweden.


As someone who studies culture and languages, what drew you to Papua New Guinea in general and specifically the village of Gapun?

One might say that I didn’t choose Gapun – Gapun chose me. I wanted to study how a language dies, and Papua New Guinea seemed the perfect place to do that, given that there are more languages spoken there than anywhere else on the planet. I ended up in Gapun through luck and happenstance, and a few weeks after I first arrived in the mid-1980s, villagers revealed to me that I was a dead villager who had returned to them. This perception of me has continued, and the book recounts some of the repercussions it has had over the years. 

You went to study a dying language, which meant you had to learn and document it. Can you explain the process by which you learned a dying language spoken by only several hundred people?

It wasn’t easy. The indigenous language that the villagers are giving up is called “Tayap”. Tayap has been spoken in Gapun for uncounted years (after all, it is a language as fully developed as English or Zulu). 

But by the 1980s, for the first time ever, children were not learning it as their first language. Instead, the kids were growing up speaking Tok Pisin, which is an English-based creole language that is the most widely spoken of Papua New Guinea’s national languages. I started my work in the village in the mid-1980s right when this was happening, and I was able to document the process through which parents encouraged their babies to not speak Tayap. They did this without realizing it, which made everything really fascinating.

Like most of the over 700 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea, Tayap was unwritten and undocumented. The language was always tiny; it seemingly never had more than perhaps just over one hundred speakers. Today, though, fewer than forty people speak it actively, out of a village population of over two hundred people. So I set myself the task of documenting it – mostly so that any villager in the future who wondered about it would find a record of the by-that-time probably dead language that his or her ancestors once spoke. 

To document Tayap, I worked with people – mostly old men, who had a lot of time to sit and chew the linguistic cud – by eliciting first sounds, then words, then sentences, and finally stories. Luckily, I was able to work through Tok Pisin, which I learned relatively quickly once I arrived in the Gapun. So I could ask people in Tok Pisin things like, ”Does ”pat” mean anything in Tayap?” ““Pad”? “Pap”? “Pan”?”; or ”How do you say ”she ate” in Tayap? ”She will eat?””. 

As one might imagine, that was extremely tedious work, and only a few villagers could manage to sit through more than a few minutes of that kind of elicitation without becoming absolutely narcoleptic. I also recorded conversations and transcribed them with at least one of the people who participated in them. That gave me a solid sense of how Tayap was used in the village. 

I have a chapter in the book that discusses this, and it includes a portrait of my main language teacher, a stern, toothless, phlegmatic old man named Raia. Raia and I became quite close over time, but he never really understood why I asked the kinds of questions I did about the language. 

Eliza Griswold wrote that “the act of looking is an act of self-regard.” Your book A Death in the Rainforest is a reflection of nearly 30 years working in and thinking about Gapun, its people, and its languages, but what did you learn about your own culture and language by studying that of the Gapuners?

One thing I learned was that people in my own culture generally have deeply misguided views about people who live in rainforests. Gapuners, for example, are not beaming natives who live as one with the biosphere and share everything magnanimously in a kind of socialist ecological bliss. They are hard-working agriculturalists and hunters who own nothing communally. Everything is owned individually, and I really mean everything: every area of land, every coconut palm, every mango tree, every pot, plate, axe, discarded spear shaft, broken kerosene lamp, and anything else one might think of, including the right to bestow names and the knowledge of myths, songs, curing chants and artistic patterns. Furthermore, people defend their ownership rights with intensity and vigor.

I also learned that the commonplace Western view of rainforest-dwelling people as pretty much all the same is absolutely misguided. I was surprised to learn the extent to which villagers tolerated and even fostered idiosyncrasy. Villagers differed dramatically in terms of their tastes, behaviors, and demeanors, and this was always accommodated. 

For example, my neighbor, a flamboyant woman named Ndamor, liked to hunt with a spear. This was highly gender-atypical – only men are supposed to hunt in Gapun — and I assumed that villagers would be scandalized. But when I asked them what they thought about it, they shrugged their shoulders. “It’s her way”, they said, reasonably. 

I saw this time and time again. Violent behavior was dealt with in a non-stigmatizing way. Various forms of disability were accepted and accommodated. I frequently found myself wishing my own society was as encouraging of diversity as Gapun was.

The book is in part a travel memoir of time during which you engaged in anthropological work. However, there are some critical voices in travel writing studies like Bani Amor who caution against the “anthropological gaze” and the “entitlement of going to the Other and explaining them to a more ‘civilized’ audience.” What are your thoughts on this?

Amor is indeed talking about travel writing, which I agree is deeply implicated in colonialist tropes and colonialist desire. But when Amor dismisses “the anthropological gaze”, I think that Amor is either using the term very loosely, or else Amor has misconstrued what professional anthropologists like me strive to do. I don’t know a single anthropologist who doesn’t readily acknowledge that the discipline of anthropology was born during the colonial period and was facilitated by the colonialism (this kind of information is usually conveyed already in the first lecture in any undergraduate anthro class, and discussed in some form in every single class after that). 

But what people who stop there miss is that the major point of anthropological work has always been precisely to de-exoticize non-Western societies. Before anthropologists began writing about so-called “primitive” people and showing that they, in fact, had complex languages, rituals, cosmological systems and social arrangements, common beliefs in the West held that such people were barely human beings at all. Anthropologists writing in the early 1900s, like Franz Boas, Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski, eloquently challenged those prejudices by demonstrating the complexity of all human societies, not just white ones. That may seem like an obvious fact today, but it was anything but obvious a century ago, and the reason it is taken by granted by so many people today is partly because of anthropologists like Mead and Malinowski.

Where traditional anthropological writing is similar to a lot of travel writing is in its emphasis on “tradition” and dis-connection. Early anthropology likes to pretend that the societies anthropologists described somehow were all but untouched by the very forces (colonialism, capitalism, Christianity) that made it possible for the anthropologists to be there and study them in the first place. But that all changed by the 1960s and 1970s. 

I wrote A Death in the Rainforest not to “explain” villagers to a Western audience. As I say in the book, I don’t think that villagers have any obligation whatsoever to explain anything at all to privileged people. I do feel strongly, though, that privileged people have a responsibility to inform themselves about the perspectives of others who are very unlike themselves, and whose lives have been irrevocably affected by the societies where those more privileged people reside. 

So I wrote the book to inform anyone who might be interested that there are people who live far away from whatever we think of when we say “the West”, who have been deeply, and painfully, affected by that “West”, in the form of the triple whammy of colonialism, Christianity, and capitalism. These phenomena have manifested in specific ways in Gapun, and the book tells the story of how they, in convoluted and frequently surprising ways, have resulted in a group of villagers in an isolated swamp giving up the language that has been spoken there for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. 

I see the book as being just as much about “us” and it is about “them”. In fact, it is really about “their” perspective on “us”; a perspective that I suspect many people would rather not hear about because hearing it might easily (and justifiably) provoke feelings of responsibility and shame. But it is a perspective that is not primarily accusatory. It is more bewildered: why won’t white people share? is really what villagers are trying to figure out. And they do so with insight and humor that I hope I have managed to convey engagingly.

How might a younger generation of Western anthropologists and writers approach the thorny subjects of “orientalism” and “engaging with difference” in their own travels, research, and writing?

Precisely by taking the critique developed by people like Edward Said, Toni Morrison, Iris Marion Young, Bani Amor and many others (including many – most – anthropologists) to heart and using it not to stay at home and not engage with people who are different from themselves, but, on the contrary, to get out and engage more with people who are different from oneself: to engage better, to engage with empathy and humility, and to engage with genuine curiosity and a warm, open heart. 


Don Kulick’s book A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea will be published in paperback on August 18, 2020 on Algonquin.

Last Updated on 20 September 2020 by Travel Writing World

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