Literature, self-belief and affluence

Stories celebrating capitalism, promoting persistence and countering adversity can be a great way to build ideas of wealth creation among the next generation of Pacific Islanders.

“There was nothing unusual about Rockefeller’s boyhood dreams,” writes John D. Rockefeller’s biographer Rob Chernow, “for the times were feeding avaricious fantasies in millions of susceptible schoolboys.” Having revolutionised the global petroleum industry in the late 1800s, and with an estimated net worth today of $US 330 billion, Rockefeller is one of the wealthiest individuals in history.

Despite Rockefeller’s unique success the ideas that fuelled his boyhood dreams are common. Generations of young boys and girls of all races and backgrounds in the US and other frontier societies have grown up on a diet of self-agency, persistence and the notion of pursuing a prosperous life.

Horatio Alger Junior’s bestselling rags-to-riches-style novels, for example, were eagerly digested by countless young Americans when Rockefeller propelled toward his fortune. Alger’s stories, the economist Luis Zingales explains, “recount their protagonists’ journeys from rags to respectability, celebrating American capitalism and suggesting that the American dream is within everyone’s reach.”

The message of these tales and others is that, through hard work and virtue, capitalism invites opportunities. Literature, therefore, can be an extremely effective tool in driving ideas of affluence and prosperity – essential ingredients for reducing poverty.

But such themes have been lacking in the South Pacific. Books, to begin with, are expensive and difficult to procure. Across the region illiteracy is high, while public readership is low. Stories that young Pacific Islanders may also find relevant, or that employ local characters or places, carry a general suspicion toward business and free market ideas of self-interest, wealth creation and profit.

Keith Dahlberg’s recent novel South Sea Gold, for example, set in Papua New Guinea and released for free online, taps into the common anti-resource theme that’s found not just in novels but blogs, articles, journals and in regional discussions over coffee and beer. Certainly, corruption and shady dealings – key themes in the story – should never be condoned. But care should be taken not to trample on the centrality of resources to economic growth and broader ideas of business and commerce.

Thumbing the pages of older South Pacific novels we find a deeper reaction to modernity which explains, in part, the absence of pro-capitalist themes. Vincent Eri’s The Crocodile, for example, published in 1970 and credited as PNG’s first novel, carries a suspicion of the “white man’s ways” and mocks the Australian cultural premium on individualism and professional obligation. Spoiler alert: Eri’s main character, Hoiri, meets a bitter end that’s hardly a template of practical success for modern Pacific Islanders.

It’s fairly clear that lobbing ideas of self-interest into the Pacific’s collectivist arena has been met by cultural indifference. Social expectations on obligation and sharing have, in the words of the American-New Zealand writer Christina Thomson, resulted in “a society in which everyone is cared for, but also one in which individual achievement is the exception rather than the norm.” Using New Zealand as an example she adds “that, from the Pakeha [European] point of view, Maoris often look unambitious, while Pakehas, seen from the Maori perspective, look ruthless, isolated, and cold.”

Therefore tales of entrepeneuring young protagonists charting individual success have, traditionally, not found wide reception in the islands. As the Papua New Guinean statesman and writer Paulias Matane starkly explains, “many of my people do not read at home because books are written by people whose background is not that of Papua New Guinea.”

But now is a time in the region where running from outside ideas will limit the unprecedented opportunities landing at the feet of young Pacific Islanders. PNG is on the cusp of a resources boom that will fundamentally alter the country’s economic trajectory, and other Pacific nations are notching-up their own levels of economic growth.

Will the dreams and ideas that animated history’s great economic titans drive young Pacific Islanders today? “The glittering success of Rockefeller makes him a power to the American nation; the success of Henry Ford suggests him as an object of universal respect,” said the Jamaican orator and political leader Marcus Garvey. “We must strike out for ourselves in the course of material achievement,” he adds, “and by our own effort and energy present to the world those forces by which the progress of man is judged.”

Stories are a great way to implant ideas of individual hard work, persistence and desire in the minds of young Pacific Islanders, which will be useful in a growing economic landscape. Literature that touches on these themes, regardless of where it’s ‘from’, should therefore become more relevant and find regional attraction in the coming years.

Stella Magazine, Issue 13, January 2015

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