A Faraway, Familiar Place: An Anthropologist Returns to Papua New Guinea

University of Hawai’i Press, 2013

In 2008 and 2011, I went back to a village in Papua New Guinea where I’d first lived in 1975-76, but which I hadn’t seen since 1998. I went partly to visit people I’d known for over thirty years and partly to see if the urge to go back was more than just an itch to get away from both the comforts and the aggravations of Western urban life and the stale air and sealed windows of the largely-indoor job I held at the time. I got the change I wanted, from the tall cumulus clouds floating on the horizon, the laments chanted by firelight to the beat of a lizard-skin drum, and the smoky taste of marsupial meat I remembered so well, to the stifling heat, the wet tropical sores, the sometimes excruciating intensity of village social life, and the smoky taste of marsupial meat that I had somehow managed to forget. Through practicing Taoist “not doing” I also continued to learn about villagers’ difficult transition from a way of life based on giving to a world in which money rules, and of the potent mix of devotion and innovation that constantly stirs Kragur’s pervasive religious life. Becoming entangled in local political events, I got a closer look at both the dark and the bright sides of Papua New Guinea’s famously tumultuous elections. In turn, Kragur people practiced their own form of anthropology on me, questioning me about American work, family, religion, and politics, including Barack Obama’s campaign for president. A Faraway, Familiar Place is for readers seeking an excursion deep into little-known terrain but allergic to the wide-eyed superficiality of ordinary travel literature. It provides practical wisdom for anyone leaving well-traveled roads for muddy forest tracks and landings on obscure beaches, as well as asking important questions about wealth and poverty, democracy, and being “modern.”

Early Praise

“As a professor whose specialty is the people and cultures of Papua New Guinea (PNG), I’m often asked what visitors to PNG for reading recommendations. In the past, I’ve recommended Sean Dorney’s “Papua New Guinea: People, Politics, and History Since 1975”. Having just finished “A Faraway, Familiar Place” I now think that this is the one book you should read before visiting the country. Smith’s book is a rare achievement: a readable, personal memoir that also provides a picture of Papua New Guinea that is accurate, nuanced, up to date, and a joy to read. Don’t be fooled by the fact that this book was published by a university press — it can (and ought) to be read by everyone.

On the surface, the book tells of the story of Smith’s trip to Kragur village, which Smith has been visiting since the 1970s. But really the book is about his decades-long relationship with that village: how it has grown and changed, and how he has aged and become more frail over the years that he has visited it. Because he has a lifetime of experience visiting the village, Smith can take us beneath the surface of daily life to explore the deeper realms of kinship and mythology that more novice researchers would miss. The picture we get of Kragur is everything an anthropologist could want it to be: historically informed, deeply contextualized, and holistic.

What is really important about the book is the way that Smith uses Kragur to explain Papua New Guinea as a whole. Anthropologists like myself often end up answering the same questions about PNG over and over again: Are they poor? Are they really Christian? Are they backwards or modern? Smith’s book moves systematically through the ‘PNG FAQ’, explaining for readers the truth about this remarkable country. You get religion, politics, mobile phones — the mix of customary beliefs and modern lifestyle that is typical of PNG, all explained with a clarity and precision that no other author has managed, at least for the past decade. This is for me the most valuable part of the book, and the reason I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn what PNG is like today.”

Best of all, the book is easy to read and is well written, full of wonderful one-liners (“nostalgia is delicious, but it is a meal, not a snack”). Smith keeps the tone light and isn’t afraid to make fun of himself. In sum, Smith has succeeded in writing a wonderfully accessible and deeply accurate depiction of Papua New Guinea today. This book deserves to be read widely by students, by people travelling to Papua New Guinea, and by Papua New Guineans themselves. I can only hope there is a kindle version coming soon, since this would make a perfect book for any college course on Pacific island cultures.

Alex Golub,, January 13, 2014

 “Smith returned to Kragur…in 2008 and 2011 and his personal stories of these visits frame descriptions of contemporary village life….Smith is an academic grandchild of Margaret Mead – a student of her student Theodore Schwartzand he emulates Mead’s skills in writing well for general readers. Anyone interested in … faraway places grappling with global modernity will find the book both readable and interesting.” Choice, December 2013

If only all social scientists could write this clearly! This account of a return visit to a village in Papua New Guinea reads like a memoir, but through it you gain a vivid and affectionate picture of a way of life and the changes that have occurred over half a century. I really enjoyed it.” Mary Catherine Bateson, cultural anthropologist and author of Peripheral Visions: Learning along the Way, Composing a Life, and With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson

“In a fascinating and entertaining account, anthropologist Michael French Smith unpacks the meanings and riddles of village life on the Papua New Guinea island of Kairiru. His story telling is compelling, his insights profound and frequent.” Rowan McKinnon, writer and editor of the Lonely Planet guides to Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, South Pacific, Australia, Colorado, and others.

From the Pre-Publication Reviews

“…lively…straightforward…written especially for the non-professional….there is nothing quite like it on the market.” Richard Scaglion, Research Professor, University Center for International Studies,, University of Pittsburgh

“..a very thorough example of what it means to do anthropology….the scholarship is excellent…the work is original”  Jack Weatherford, cultural anthropologist, author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, The History of Money, and other works


Village on the Edge: Changing Times in Papua New Guinea

University of Hawai’i Press, 2002

After writing Hard Times on Kairiru Island, based on research conducted in 1975-76 and 1981, I went back to Kragur several more times. Village on the Edge is the story of what I saw on those visits, especially during my stay in Kragur in 1998. The village looked much the same as it had in the 1970s and 1980s, but changing circumstances were shaking things up considerably. The book weaves together the story of Kragur villagers’ struggle to find their own path toward the future with the story of their country’s travails in the post-independence era. It is also the story of my further experiences living and working in Papua New Guinea and trying to understand the complexities of village life. All this requires delving into ghosts, magic, myths, ancestors, bookkeeping, tourism, the World Bank, and the Holy Spirit.

From the Reviews

“In essence, although this book concerns the people of Kragur Village, it tells the story of all of contemporary Melanesia. It is a unique work, elucidating a unique period of change among an extraordinary people.” Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers: The History and Future of Climate Change; The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples; Mammals of New Guinea; and other works (pre-publication review, 2002)

“something rare and precious, a humane and sharply insightful view into the rich local world of a village in Papua New Guinea.” Bruce Beehler, author of Lost Worlds: Adventures in the Tropical Rainforest; A Naturalist in New Guinea; Birds of New Guinea; and other works (pre-publication review, 2002)

“unobtrusively profound” Journal of the Polynesian Society “A second tour de force of ethnographic analysis” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“More anthropologists should …write, as Michael French Smith has, ethnographies that can be understood by the general public who pay our bills, and for the people whose lives, cultures, and societies, are the focus of our study…The easier it is to read the book, the more difficult it is to write.” Anthropos

“If we need a contemporary exemplar for how to write an ethnography that can engage a readership beyond the halls of academe, then this is it.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkunkunde (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies)

“…this text does not obey the laws of the genre.” L’homme: Review Francaise d’Anthropologie

“if you have ever been curious about the working methods of cultural anthropologists, this is the book for you…Could be a model etiquette guide for any traveler – or modern tourists – exploring any off-the-beaten track… [Smith] writes simply and plainly – none of academia’s woolly prose for him.” The Washington Times

Village on the Edge is among the five books listed as “Best Books about Papua New Guinea” in June 2011 on the website Wanderlust and Lipstick: Your Destination for Women’s Travel: “There aren’t a whole lot of books out there about Papua New Guinea. Much of the material written about the country has been heavy textbook-like volumes that are, while I’m sure quite valuable, very boring. Ironically, there’s no other country that I think is more important to educate yourself about prior to a trip there….Despite the lack of books, I’ve discovered a handful in the last year that I find to be completely captivating, If you have even and inkling of interest in this half-island nation, I bet you’ll enjoy these…!”

The 2008 edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands recommends Village on the Edge to travelers to Papua New Guinea. Longitude Books, which specializes in books for travelers, also recommends Village on the Edge to people planning trips to PNG, calling the author “an anthropologist by trade (and a fine writer),” and noting that “[h]is unusual book…combines clear prose with insight and affection for the people.”

Hard Times on Kairiru Island: Poverty Development and Morality in a Papua New Guinea Village

University of Hawai’i Press, 1994

Hard Times is based on research I conducted in Papua New Guinea in 1975-76 and 1981. It is a detailed account of how the people of Kragur – a village on Kairiru Island, in the East Sepik Province – coped with the coming of modern political and economic forces and, a month before I first arrived in the village, the coming of national independence. Although I began my research focusing on how villagers were adapting to a growing cash economy and the novel experience of working for money, I soon found that I couldn’t begin to understand these issues without also understanding traditional religion, the Catholicism brought by Christian missionaries, and how Kragur people understood the moral dilemmas of the modern world.

From the Reviews

“The significance of this book for the ethnography of the region is great.” Time & Society, 1998

“the most telling account of local level change that has yet been written about any society in the Sepik region.” Pacific Studies, 1996

“leaves the reader with a genuine appreciation of the complexities of change in Papua New Guinea…a gracefully written, subtle analysis of a kind that…has been too rare in Papua New Guinea ethnography.” Reviews in Anthropology, 1996

“The struggle with ‘development’ is nearly ubiquitous. Yet it is a rare pleasure to read an account of its local manifestations written with such a sensitivity toward, and understanding of, the human costs of becoming ‘modern’ …Anthropologists seeking to explain…complex ‘development issues’ will do well to recommend this volume.”

The Contemporary Pacific, 1995 “This is a vital study for anyone engaged in understanding contemporary life in the Pacific in all its complexity.” Andrew Strathern, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh (pre-publication review, 1994)