IN THE early 1990s, the head of a co-ed residential college at the University of Melbourne faced two allegations of indecent assault.
Dr Colin Shepherd was accused by a student of having put his hand on her breast while they were dancing at a party. The second complaint (also by a female student) alleged that Dr Shepherd did the same, this time in his office when the doors were locked.
The events unfolding from these allegations form the basis of Helen Garner’s critique of society’s unbalanced relationship of gender and power in her non-fiction work, The First Stone.
Garner asks why, in such instances where women are subjected to unwanted and offensive behaviour by men, the first reaction is often silence and inaction rather than immediately verbalising rage or fear to the perpetrator.
Hovering around students’ initial response was the notion of ‘mysterious passivity’.
Garner believes that, had the female students spoken directly to Shepherd, asking for both acknowledgement and apology, a resolution satisfactory to both sides may have been achieved immediately.
Garner expressed astonishment that the female students had, eventually, gone to the police.
Turning the first pages of First Stone, my own reaction was of confusion and disgust. In 2016, Garner’s passive view was far removed from what I embrace as one of society’s mechanisms to enable women to achieve equal footing with men.
This initial response of mine paralleled my reaction to readers’ comments on my essay, ‘Caught somewhere between mansplaining and neo-colonialism’, in PNG Attitude nearly a year ago.
That article featured energetic chatter about the idiosyncrasies of a set of expatriates I’ve observed living in Papua New Guinea: some 800 words of pent-up frustration penned with facetious intent.
It illustrated the frequent unacceptable power-plays, and ended with a statement that “PNG is a country in dire of need practical action to produce narrow inequality amongst all its peoples – citizens and expatriates alike”.
Some readers felt there was a “dire need” on my part, suggesting that my frustrations were borne out of a level of self-confidence and a need for higher awareness of the environment in which these actions were effected.
Ed Brumby said that “confronting the perpetrator directly and explaining how their behaviour is hurtful and unacceptable” is an effective action to achieve change. Reflecting on First Stone and on my experience throughout the week of the recent Brisbane Writers Festival got me thinking more about that view.
At Keith Jackson’s invitation, I was thrilled to be a fellow panellist with the McKinnon-Paga Hill Fellowship trio of Martyn Namorong, Francis Nii and Daniel Kumbon. The article, ‘PNG writers’ spectacular international debut at Brisbane festival’ details what transpired in that hour-long conversation, helped along by an interested and inquisitive audience.
Included in the audience were the morale-boosting members of the of the PNG Attitude family as well as Maggie Moi-he, Papua New Guinea’s Consul-General in Brisbane. Among the other audience members was a similar mood of support and openness to dialogue with four PNG writers.
Among much else, we discussed freely how PNG as well as Australia might improve current efforts towards the development of literature in PNG.
This atmosphere of pleasant discussion and respectful debate has, I believe, enabled me to overcome the ‘mysterious passivity’ that, in hindsight, has hindered my self-assertion in bygone moments such as I have described. Perhaps this the combinatory response that Helen Garner envisioned for the two female students.
I have much gratitude for Bob Cleland for initiating and facilitating the PNG writers session at the Brisbane Writers Festival. And I am thankful to Keith Jackson, the PNG Attitude family, the Paga Hill Development Company and Professor Ken McKinnon for the inclusion of a Papua New Guinean woman to network and present alongside three leading male writers at a renowned literary event.
In this forum, affecting an unfelt calm and a genuine spirit of diplomacy, my feelings of frustration and fear were verbalised across the breadth of topics I write about in my PNG Attitude articles.
The continued development and promotion of Papua New Guinean authored and published literature is imperative to the preservation of our nation’s history and progress.
The Papua New Guinean perspective is important, not only in our country but internationally, and must be present across all genres for all ages to read.
Aside from the PNG government, private corporations and foreign aid donors including Australia, New Zealand and United States have a key role to play.
It is imperative that they commission, publish, purchase and distribute literature authored by Papua New Guineans. Keith Jackson has proposed, and I agree with him, that the purchase and distribution of PNG-authored books should be part of every aid project. They should be in every educational institution, library, public building and official office in the land.
The annual Crocodile Prize Anthology, published by Pukpuk Publications since 2011, contain exemplary written expression in a range of genres to foster imagination, creativity, critical thinking, discussion and debate among high school and university students and others.
The support and willingness to foster the writing, publication, distribution and reading of PNG literature is vital for enriching and preservation of skills and knowledge of the our people.
And an added and crucial benefit is that it will be a mode of self-assertion and a mechanism for achieving gender equality for the girls and women of Papua New Guinea.