Posted by: koolwine | June 6, 2010

Papua New Guinea: Mister Pip

Country: Papua New Guinea (PNG)

Local Name: Papuaniugini (in Tok Pisin, a pidgin language); over 850 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea

PNG is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. The 6.5 million people inhabiting PNG belong to several thousand different cultural groups, many of them out of touch with the modern world.

Upon independence from Australia in 1973, PNG’s new leader Chief Minister Michael Somare said to reporters:  “We are civilized in our own way.  We are a people with our own pride and culture. Are we primitive because our women don’t cover their breasts and our men don’t wear trousers? This is our way. This is our society.”

Title: Mister Pip

Author: Lloyd Jones  (New Zealander)

Published: 2006   Pages: 256

Acclaim: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; Winner of the 2008 Kiriyama Prize; An American Library Association Notable Book; Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best Book Award)

Time Period: 1991-1993, as Bougainville Island fights for independence from Papua New Guinea (Bougainville eventually gained autonomy but not independence)

Summary: A young girl becomes enamored with Charles Dickens’ England when her teacher reads Great Expectations aloud to the class.  The power of words becomes evident when the novel and its famous protagonist, Pip, endanger the lives of the community.

My opinion: Jones delves into some fascinating literary topics: the ability of a novel to transport the reader to another place – especially as it benefits someone living in a chaotic and frightening environment; the question of how alive a fictional character can become; and the power a story can hold, particularly when there is little access to books.

In my book (or how Papua New Guinea has affected me and maybe you, too)

Papua New Guinea Pigs
My first pet was “Peanut” – a guinea pig with fur the color of peanut butter.  Although they share the name “guinea”,  Peanut’s ancestors did not hail from the PNG; guinea pigs originally came from the Andes of South America.  However, ham-and-bacon-style pigs are the major livestock of PNG, so technically there are Guinea “pigs”.

Tastes like chicken?
When I was a kid, cannibals were a staple of the cartoon diet; the hero was inevitably threatened with being boiled alive in the huge iron cauldron that sat waiting ominously in the center of the native village.

Since the late 1800s, the Fore peoples of PNG ritually fed on their deceased relatives but the ruling Australian government outlawed cannibalism in the 1950s when it was discovered that the mortuary feasts were spreading an incurable brain disease called kuru.

Off with their heads!
I probably first heard of  head hunting – the practice of taking someone’s head after killing them – from Ripley’s Believe It or Not! (Back in the early 80s, I was a hardcore fan of both the newspaper comic and the TV show.  It should also be mentioned that my friends and I visited the RBION Museum in Myrtle Beach on our senior spring break trip after going clubbing and dancing to MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” – Believe that or not!)

Anyway, not to be outdone by the aforementioned Fore tribe, the Sepik people of PNG would behead their enemies (one of the rites of manhood) or dig up the skulls of long-buried ancestors (for communion with powerful relatives).  The skulls would be displayed prominently and used in rituals.  Horrified missionaries put a  stop to the Sepik’s head hunting; now only wealthy Europeans, Americans and Asians are actively seeking heads – collectors will pay up to several thousand dollars for an authentic skull.



  1. Wow, this book sounds fascinating! I teach “Great Expectations” to my sophomore honors class, and this sounds like it’d be a great text to pair with it. Papua New Guinea is certainly not a part of the world the students (or I) am familiar with, and I love exposing them to new cultures.


    • I imagine you’d be hard-pressed to link Great Expectations and Papua New Guinea in any other way! If you end up assigning Mr. Pip to your class, I’d be interested in hearing how it turns out. Good luck!


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