The next prompt on the 2023 Pop Sugar Reading challenge was for a book that features two languages, and while many of the books I’ve read so far would qualify here, I like having a new book for each category, so I poked through my TBR and found A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019). I have a map on the wall where I keep track of all the places I’ve ‘traveled’ to in my reading throughout the year, so I was happy to be able to put a pin in Papua New Guinea!
Don Kulick is a renowned anthropologist and linguist who has spent a good portion of his career living and working in Gapun, an extremely remote village in Papua New Guinea, studying the demise of Tayap, their native language. Why was it being abandoned in favor of Tok Pisin, and what did it look like when a language was voluntarily left behind? What would the community lose, and how would it be affected? Over several decades, Don Kulick lived with the villagers of Gapun, getting to know them and their lives and working hard to compile what he could of the Tayap language before it disappeared completely.
But this book isn’t solely about language. Mr. Kulick’s time among the people of Gapun is fascinating and eye-opening. While their remote lives in a village that lacks even the basics of what Westerners would consider technology look extremely different from ours, at heart, the people are extremely similar to us. They gossip about each other. They desire more for their lives. They raise children, they fall in love, they grieve losses and try to find meaning when someone dies. And, increasingly, violence between the people of Gapun and outsiders becomes a part of everyday life.
There’s so much to consider in this book that I think it’s going to stick with me forever. The demise of the Tayap language is, from a linguistic standpoint, tragic; we lose so much knowledge, history, and culture when a language disappears, especially one not completely documented (something Mr. Kulick laments, especially the knowledge of the names and uses of the rainforest plants that the villagers knew and that he could never make heads or tails of. Solidarity, Mr. Kulick; I stink at identifying plants even as I live very close to where I grew up!). The culture in Gapun is obviously different from anything I’m familiar with, and reading about his experiences there and his struggles to fit in and understand their ways of life was absolutely an adventure. The life of a traveling linguist definitely isn’t for me, but this makes for an intriguing read. There are some scary parts; an attack on the village while Mr. Kulick is there leaves a man dying in front of him (Mr. Kulick got extremely lucky that he wasn’t harmed), and at one point, he uses his satellite phone to charter a helicopter out of the village on an emergency basis. The food he describes…doesn’t exactly sound palatable to my Western tastes, and the remote living (even the most basic medical care is hours away) and the illnesses and conditions he suffered from while there (and I’m sure the villagers suffered from as well) sounded deeply uncomfortable and debilitating. Not only did I feel a lot of sympathy for the villagers, I’m even more impressed at what it takes to do the work Don Kulick and other anthropologists like him do.
There are also some really painful parts of the book where the villagers’ attitudes towards themselves and the way they live show how racism and colonialist attitudes have penetrated their remote society so deeply. The villagers are convinced that their skin will turn white after death, and they desperately wish to live more like the examples of white folks that they’ve seen pictures of. Those parts hurt to read, and I’m so sorry for how deeply Western culture and Christianity has wounded these folks’ sense of self. It’s all so unnecessary.
This was a really fascinating book about a way of life that has undergone a lot of change in a very short period of time, and I’m glad I got the chance to journey there via Don Kulick’s research and writing.
3 thoughts on “Book Review: A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea by Don Kulick”
This definitely sounds like a highly fascinating read. It’s really sad when languages or cultures disappear. It’s also really sad like you said that the villagers want to live more like white people and that even racism can reach them so deeply. 😦
Those parts of the book just kind of broke me, where the villagers were talking about how their skin would turn white after they die, and they’d live like white people, and I just… 😦 Like, what have we done? 😦