Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The uses of culture

Moment 'Lord of the Flies' castaway returned to island 50 years ...

The world is buzzing over the story of the Tongan teens wrecked on 'Ata Island in the mid-'60s. I've written for Newsroom about the fascination that the castaway has cast for many Westerners, and the reasons Tongans are able to survive spells on desert islands.

My original piece was a rambling blues jam; the adroit Steve Braunias has edited it into a pop song. But nuances have been lost. In the Newsroom text I talk about how Tongan castaways of the '60s were sustained by their willingness to obey leaders, their religiosity, their extreme collectivism, & their habit of sharing. But the relentlessly social & hierarchical nature of Tongan culture can exact a price.

In a passage cut by Newsroom, I talked about the mental illness known to Tongans as 'avanga, which makes sufferers flee to isolated places, like the bush or the seashore, & neglect family duties. The educationalist & dissident Futa Helu was one of the first to study 'avanga.

Helu noted that many of those struck down by 'avanga were young women, & argued that the disease was their subconscious response to the repression of sexuality & individuality. Overburdened by society, oppressed by the Tongan superego, 'avanga sufferers broke free.

To read a Tongan account of the teens on 'Ata & their legacy, check out this piece at The Spinoff.

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