A Red Woman Was Crying is a work of fiction about an anthropologist living among a people called the Nagovisi. It includes seven linked stories. Six are told by Nagovisi narrators, and one, set three decades later, by the anthropologist. Transcriptions of traditional Nagovisi myths and legends punctuate the stories.
Although the voices are imaginary, the Nagovisi people are not. They live in West-central Bougainville Island, in the Southwestern Pacific. Bougainville is ethnically and culturally part of the Solomon Islands, but has been politically a part of Papua New Guinea since that country’s independence in 1975. Before that, it was Australia’s colonial possession (the Territory of Papua New Guinea) and before that, Germany’s.
Foreign-owned plantations were in place before World War I, as were foreign missionaries — overwhelmingly Roman Catholics of the Marist Order. Japanese, Americans, and Australians fought on Bougainville during World War II.
In the mid-1960s an enormous deposit of copper and gold was proven in the mountains north of Nagovisi, in the territory of the Nasioi people, at Panguna. Within a few years, Bougainville Copper established one of the world’s largest open-cut copper mines, displacing many Nasioi, destroying the second-largest river system on the island, and ultimately in the late 1980s (though in no simple manner) causing a bloody revolution and war of secession which left thousands of Bougainvilleans dead and the island’s infrastructure and political organization in ruins.
I worked among the Nagovisi as an anthropologist in 1969-70, 1971-1974, and briefly in 2001. Although the stories are set in the time and place of my fieldwork and are informed by it, they are not fictionalized field notes. They are not intended as ethnography, although Nagovisi culture (along with global politics and economics) forms a context for the stories.
There are living and dead Nagovisi with the same names as my characters. My use of a name does not imply that the character is based on an identically-named person. Even so, two narrators — Mesiamo and Lalaga — are meant to closely resemble the men whose names they bear. Both these men, now dead, were good friends and wonderful teachers, and I have chosen to honor them in this way.
The Nagovisi moiety, clan, and lineage names I use are not necessarily the kin group affiliations of particular characters.
I recorded and translated the seven Nagovisi legends and myths framing the stories. I’ve attributed each to the person who spoke it into my microphone.
Everything else is fiction.
The book-length ethnographic works about the Nagovisi are:
Mitchell, Donald D. 1976. Land and Agriculture in Nagovisi, Papua New Guinea. Institute for Applied Social and Economic Research, Monograph 3. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
Nash, Jill. 1974. Matriliny and Modernization: the Nagovisi of South Bougainville. New Guinea Research Bulletin No. 55. Port Moresby and Canberra: Australian National University Press.
Other useful articles include:
Kenema, Simon. 2010. An Analysis of Post-Conflict Explanations of Indigenous Dissent Relating to the Bougainville Copper Mining Conflict, Papua New Guinea. eJournal of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Pacific Studies Issues 1.2 and 2.1, April 2010
Mitchell, Donald D. “Frozen Assets in Nagovisi,” Oceania, v. 53 no. 1, 1982.
Oliver, Douglas L. 1993. “Rivers (W.H.R.) Revisited: Matriliny in Southern Bougainville. Part 1: Introduction, The Siwai, The Nagovisi.” Pacific Studies, v 16, No. 3.
Some general book-length publications:
Oliver, Douglas. 1991. Black Islanders: a personal perspective of Bougainville, 1937-1991. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Regan, Anthony and Helga-Marie Griffin, Eds. 2005. Bougainville Before the Conflict. Canberra: Pandanus Books. (The Regan-Griffin volume is a useful resource that includes the work of many authors, including Bougainvilleans such as James Tanis, a Nagovisi, who was for a time the President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. Click here for my review on Amazon, first published in Pacific Affairs, 2006.)
Novels that include Mesiamo as a character
Pinney, Peter. 1990. The Glass Cannon. Brisbane:University of Queensland Press
Hungerford, Thomas. 1952. The Ridge and the River. Sydney:Angus and Robertson.
In Pinney’s novel, Mesiamo bears his own name. In Hungerford’s, the character “Mummawa” is clearly Mesiamo.
There are many, and considerable caution is advised. Bougainville’s post-1988 history is contentious and highly-charged politically.
As for Nagovisi-related resources, beware the unwarranted characterization of the Nagovisi as “matriarchal.” Jill Nash and I are the only professional ethnographers to have done field research in Nagovisi. We are in complete agreement that the Nagovisi are not a “matriarchy,” unless the definition of a matriarchy is diluted so greatly as to mean only “women are respected and control important resources.”
Indeed they are respected and powerful, and it’s certainly true that women control land and many other assets, and it’s certainly true that if there ever was a society in which men and women have approximately equal power, it would be the Nagovisi. But for all that, they’re not a matriarchy.
An interested reader can view the setting of these stories, using Google Earth and these latitude/longitude pairs. Experiment with the “History” slider for best results.
Pomalate Village is at 6° 29.143’ S, 155° 23.269’ E*
Biroi Village: 6° 29.030’ S, 155° 23.454 E
Wapola: 6° 29.110’ S, 155° 23.461’ E
Sovele Mission: 6° 28.54’ S, 155° 23.20’ E
Bereteba was near 6° 28.56’ S, 155° 21.79’ E.
Lalaga’s Aid Post: 6° 28.80’ S, 155° 22.98’ E
Boku Patrol Post: 6° 33.984’ S, 155° 21.481’ E
Buin Town: 6° 44.82’ E, 155° 41.40’ E
Siuwako and Elliot’s garden: 6° 29.108’ S, 155° 22.060’ E
Polanara’s wife was killed near 6° 30.11’ S, 155° 21.47’ E**
The (abandoned) Panguna Copper Mine is centered around 6° 19.2’ S, 155° 29.3’ E
Topegina’s place is near 6° 28.86’ S, 155° 23.15’ E***
* The 2013 Pomalate Village is much larger than it was in 1969-70, when it had ten households. Some of the increase is because it was made into a “Care Center” during the fighting.
** The setting — Olapa Tavena — I chose for the story, that is. Although it’s true that a Nagovisi woman was killed by an American warplane in her garden in November 1943, the incidents in “Fireflies Killed Her” are entirely fictional.
*** The real demon Topegina lives near where “Fireflies Killed Her” is set. But so that Lunta and Elliot could meet in her territory (and Elliot read his mail there), I moved her.