STRANGELY, the recent availability of my early book, Bamahuta: Leaving Papua, as a downloadable PDF from the Australian National University has prompted a range of questions I thought had been retired to bed years ago.
Of all the characters and the events in the book, the one people mostly ask about is Ihini, the young journalist in the narrative.
Some people say, “I knew you in Papua New Guinea before independence but I never met Ihini, who was she?”
Others make the assumption that Ihini was actually a young Ikini Yaboyang, who went on to marry Barry Holloway.
I tried to make it clear in the introduction to the book that it had been necessary to rearrange some events for narrative purposes and to change the names and identifying features of real people to avoid, as my publisher advised, possibilities for litigation.
To make it all work I also had to invent, or at least stretch the truth about, some events.
That’s why the book was published as fiction, even though it was 95% fact. Or, at least fact as I perceived it. I believed then as I believe now that facts often get in the way of truth.
Ihini was two things. First of all, she was an amalgam of three different people I knew at various times in those early days. All have now sadly passed on.
Secondly, she was a clumsy attempt on my part to create a metaphor for Papua, a place I grew to love. In those days I had pretensions to literary writing.
In my mind, then and now, Papua reflects the feminine side of Papua New Guinea; the gentleness of these coastal people.
There’s nothing sinister or deeply psychological in this, it’s just the way my mind works.
I did know Ikini Yaboyang when she was a young journalist. I first met her at Olsobip, when the exploration for Ok Tedi was gearing up, and I spent time with her in Port Moresby and elsewhere.
It was a largely platonic relationship because we simply enjoyed each other’s company. Ikini wasn’t anywhere near as feisty in those days as she later became. And, of course, she wasn’t a Papuan; she came from Finschhafen.
The other parts of the Ihini character, the two other people, I will keep to myself. Neither of them had high profiles and you wouldn’t recognise them.
Let me explain what I tried to do with Ihini as a metaphor.
There is an early scene in Bamahuta where I go searching for Ihini because I’m afraid she has met with some sort of accident at a bathing place. When I find her, she reveals herself in all her glory.
Quite a few people scoff at this event but what I was trying to convey was the point in my life when the true sense and spirit of Papua was revealed to me.
Following from that, I portray the metaphorical character as a young woman striving to find her place in the world, just as Papua was then doing.
To do this Ihini/Papua adopted all the modern western trends of the time in the way she spoke, thought, dressed and adopted causes like feminism.
It is a theme I attempted to pursue through the rest of the book.
Towards the end, however, Ihini comes to re-evaluate her motives. She departs in a lakatoi on a modern and untraditional version of a Hiri voyage and eventually marries the man her parents had chosen for her and to whom she had been promised as a child.
That was the point when I realised that, although I had come to love Papua, my future didn’t lie there and I had to let it go and return to Australia. Many Australians did otherwise, of course, and remained in this new homeland. I admire their courage and commitment, it was no small thing.
In some ways I think my re-engagement with Papua New Guinea many years later was some sort of atonement for not staying.
Not that I’ve regretted in any way my subsequent life and the many different worlds I have inhabited.
What I don’t do now, however, is try to create complicated metaphors in my writing, I’ll leave that to the literary crowd.
Among other things it raises too many questions that are hard to answer. It is a lesson now well-learnt and one, I hope, I have left far behind.