I’ve worked as a writer with some justly well-known and extraordinary people, like ophthalmologist Fred Hollows, feisty euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke and larrikin actor Bill Hunter. Much less well-known but equally extraordinary was anthropologist Roger Keesing.
Roger’s father was Felix Keesing, also an anthropologist, who was born in Malaya, educated in New Zealand and became a professor at Stanford University. Roger attended Stanford and Harvard and gained a doctorate for his work on the Kwaio people of Malaita in the Solomon Islands. When I was doing my PhD on the Solomon Islands labour trade I read articles Roger had written and corresponded with him.
When I did my fieldwork on Malaita I found that he was a legend. Not especially popular among the Australian administrators for his forthright views on colonialism, he was a hero to the islanders. I once came close to total collapse after walking no more than a quarter of the way across Malaita, carrying nothing. Roger, I learned, had regularly walked right across the island and back carrying everything he needed.
We met when I was on a travelling post-doctoral fellowship and Roger was a professor at UC Santa Cruz He took me to the student and faculty bar at the university where we drank long-neck Fosters. Roger had an Australasian connection through his father and was related to Australian literary figure Nancy Keesing.
We got on well. I learned that he had done his obligatory military service in the US air force and had been stationed in the Middle East, where he learned Arabic. That was Roger – learning Arabic was nothing to him, as learning the Kwaio language became in his fieldwork. The Solomons pidgin I occasionally heard him speak was indistinguishable from that of Solomon Islanders.
I picnicked with the Keesings, including his wife and a couple of kids, on a block of land he had in the hills above the Californian coast. He had plans to build a house there and we did some clearing. He pointed out eucalyptus trees planted, he said, by Australians who had mined for gold in the area in the nineteenth century. We made vague plans to collaborate on a book on Solomons history.
These plans came to fruition some years later when Roger took up a chair of Anthropology in the School of Pacific Studies at the ANU where I held a research job. My partner Jean Bedford and I socialised a little with Roger, although it was hard to cope with the American idea of eating dinner at 6pm and having no more than one or two drinks to wash it down.
I must have mentioned to Roger that I used to play a fair bit of tennis and we arranged a game. I couldn’t touch his kicking service, match his ground strokes or deal with his volleys. Seeing my ineptitude, he eased up and allowed me to win a few points, but no games.
We worked together on a book about the massacre of a District Officer, his cadet and native police on Malaita in 1927. I researched and wrote chapters on the colonial aspect – the administrative problems that led to the attack, the massive and disastrous Australian naval response. Roger knew intimately the stories of the Solomon Islanders involved on both sides. The result was Lightning Meets the West Wind: The Malaita Massacre, published by Oxford University Press in 1980, by which time I’d left academia. It’s my most prestigious publication and is respectably regarded by historians and anthropologists. Roger wrote most of it.
He came to Sydney a few times during this collaboration and stayed with us once. In American parlance he was a left liberal. Jean, a slow starter in the mornings, was alarmed to find Roger up and about at 6.30am wanting to discuss feminism. Energy should have been his middle name.
We stayed loosely in touch over the years that followed when Roger moved to McGill University in Canada and published extensively on cultural anthropology. In 1993 I learned to my distress that he had died of a heart attack on the dance floor at an anthropology conference. He was fifty-eight. His father had died at a similarly early age. I suspect Roger knew that his time would be short and he packed as much into it as he could.