New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 13(1), 2011: 119-21

Anthony R. Walker, ed., Pika Pika: The Flashing Firefly. Essays for Pauline Walker by her friends in the Arts and Social Sciences, New Delhi: Hindustan Publishing Corporation, 2009, xv + 489pp. ISBN 8170750873 (hbk.)

An eclectic collection of essays, Pika Pika does not fall easily into the usual categories of scholarly literature. It is not constrained by a particular regional focus, or a particular field of study. Instead it includes essays that dart around the globe almost indiscriminately, discussing a wide range of topics from the intricacies of ritual practice, to female circumcision, to jazz, to Indonesian mythology, to the nature of theatre in 17th century London. It is a collection that defies classification, and will be a challenge to any library cataloguing system. Pika Pika is a collection compiled by anthropologist Anthony R. Walker to honour and celebrate the life of his late wife, Pauline Walker, who passed away in 2005. It is a touching tribute, and the range of topics and regions thus reflects the breadth of interests that Pauline acquired through her lifetime of expatriate living in Kenya, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Brunei, and travel to many more places besides. The contributors wrote essays for Pauline on topics that she took an interest in, issues they thought she would have been fascinated by, ideas that she would have wanted to debate, and places, peoples and objects that she had loved. The contributions are divided into seven parts, grouped around themes of music, song and dance; literature, poetry and the stage; ceramics; traditional craftsmanship; women’s issues; healing practices; and finally, religion myth and ritual.

     The title, the Japanese onomatopoeic expression for the flashing of fireflies, is an apt metaphor for a collection that is a series of short illuminations on disparate topics. Written by anthropologists, linguists, sociologists, historians, theatre and literature specialists, and geographers the tone and language of each essay is distinct. Not all authors have been adept at writing for a readership outside their own discipline and the quality of the writing varies greatly, some essays are fluid and captivating and would appeal to a wide readership while others are somewhat drier and too embedded in the author’s own disciplinary speciality. Peter Hyland’s piece on the theatrical culture of the Elizabethan and early Stuart period in England, for example, is a nicely argued piece that would interest anyone with a passing interest in Shakespeare. In contrast James Matisoff’s piece on Lahu religious poetry contains some lovely examples of that poetry but the discussion is in a language foreign to anyone without a background in linguistics. For many authors the volume seems to have provided an excuse to write about pet topics. Some of these might have interested Pauline but perhaps would not have found publication elsewhere. Bill Egan’s reflections on the ‘one degree of separation’ that he formed between Pauline and the famous jazz musician Percy Heath is one example. Alongside these more idiosyncratic essays are works of a more scholarly merit—Paul Cohen’s piece on the politics of Buddhist pilgrimage, Kim Myung-hye’s essay on Korean sex slaves in World War II; or Mary Howard’s discussion of body modification in Africa and America which provides a fascinating account of how female circumcision once played an important role in traditional family planning practices that protected the health of women and children in Tanzania.

     Who is the readership for such a broad range of contributions? Aside from those who knew Pauline Walker and who thus have a personal connection to this work in her memory, it is very hard to say. The volume is like an especially large and in-depth issue of The New York Review of Books, it is a volume for anyone who shares the diverse fascinations and interests of Pauline Walker: anyone who is educated, interested in the arts, in material culture, in women of the world, in traditional cultures of Africa, Asia, America. There are essays in the volume that I learned a great deal from reading, others I would like to get my students to read, and others that I doubt I will ever read again. It is a book characterised by diversity and suitable then for the reader with diverse interests.

     That extreme diversity is the strength and value of the volume as a whole. Unlike edited collections shaped by discipline, or area, or theme, there is no privileging of one issue or one way of seeing the world. In its broad range and sometimes jarring juxtapositions of theme and geography, reading Pika Pika made me think of the Musée du Quay Branly, the museum of ‘primitive art’ that opened in Paris in 2006. The Quay Branly was intended as a showcase for indigenous arts from around the world. The collection, honoured by careful and beautiful presentation within a grand brand new Parisian building, was supposed to counteract past designations of these objects and mere artefacts, pieces of material culture, and instead present them to visitors as true works of fine art. By placing artworks from different cultures alongside one another (the prow of a Maori waka alongside the prow of an Orang Asli dugout canoe for example), the curators aimed to highlight shared motifs and aesthetics that characterised connection and exchange across Africa, Asia, America and Oceania. What the museum succeeded in doing, however, was, as Herman Lebovics aptly described, to create an elevated journey into the Heart of Darkness. The gloomy lighting, intended to evoke “the mystery and spirituality, of the worlds of the pieces on display”.8 I came away from my visit to the Quay Branly disappointed, with the impression that the museum fails to present the merits of the collection as works of art no less sophisticated than the collections housed in the Louvre or the Dorsey. Instead the Quay Branly segregates these pieces, stereotypes them with primitive mystique, and renders them all equivalent by placing like objects with like, as if there were not important depths of artistic and cultural expression and signification to be valued and understood.

     If only the editorial logic of Pika Pika could somehow be translated into museum curatorship then the Musée du Quay Branly might have a hope of achieving what it set out to do. Unlike the Musée du Quay Branly there is no distinction made in Pika Pika between regions or cultures—an essay on jazz sits alongside and essay on the sacred music of the Karen, an essay on Shakespearean theatre sits alongside a discussion of contemporary forms of Wayang Kulit. The refusal to classify or categorise in any traditional way beyond the broad themes that group each section of the book have created a volume that is more than interdisciplinary—it creates parity across disciplines, across regions, and across cultures without ever engaging in the kind of patronising equivalences of the Quay Branly.

     The key to this achievement is the figure of Pauline Walker as she is remembered and honoured in the pages of this book. The remembered ‘Pauline’ emerges from this volume acting as a kind of avatar through whom we are able to gaze at a world of diversity through a stunning diversity of views. This Pauline, remembered and written for, does not ask for mysterious mood lighting, she does not privilege one view above another (unless it is to privilege a scholarly voice above an indigenous voice, but that is a matter for separate debate), she does not consider the intricacies of an embroidery tradition to be any less worthy of consideration than the political implications of cross border pilgrimage, she makes no distinction between the artistic traditions of the Orient and the Occident, she maintains loving friendships and close working relationships without any remnant of an imperial paternalism. For her the voices of the Lahu poets are no different to the voice of Shakespeare. The remembered Pauline may not be quite the same as the real Pauline who lived and breathed, but she has left a worthwhile legacy in this eclectic collection of illuminations and ruminations.
Macquarie University

8  H. Lebovics, “The Musée Du Quai Branly: Art? Artifact? Spectacle!”, French Politics, Culture & Society, 24.3 (2006): 97.