Tears: A Novel by Francis Nii, Simbu Writer’s Association, Kundiawa, 122 pages, ISBN: 978-1544965291, US$7.00 plus postage from Amazon Books.
BACK in the 1960s, during a census patrol in the highlands, I called out a man’s name and watched him pull himself across the muddy ground to the table where I sat.
He looked up at me and grinned before affirming the details I had about him, including the cryptic observation in the notes column that he was, indeed, a ‘cripple’.
It wasn’t so much the fact of the man’s obvious and severely misshapen spine and useless legs that stayed with me but the look of fierce determination I saw in his eyes.
I encountered something similar just recently when three of Papua New Guinea’s writers travelled to Australia for the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. Among them was Francis Nii, a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair after a vehicle accident.
I was talking to Francis and drew his attention to something or someone across the room. Then, quite unconsciously, I grasped the handles of his wheelchair to push him over there.
To my surprise there was firm but gentle resistance. Francis was interested in the conversation where we were and he had grasped the wheels of the chair to stop it moving. We exchanged a friendly glance and I was reminded about something I’d forgotten from that long ago census patrol.
In a way, the need for strength and independence is the theme of Francis’ new short novel Tears.
Being disabled is a huge struggle and it takes an extraordinary amount of inner strength and character to cope and, importantly, to prove that a person with a disability cannot automatically be assumed to be helpless.
In Papua New Guinea this can be hard for such people. As Francis has attested previously in his writing, many disabled people eventually just give up and succumb.
Those born with a disability are especially stigmatised. In some cases they are killed or abandoned. To have a crippled child is for many people shameful, and a reflection upon themselves and their family.
This is what happens to the main character in the novel. As a new born child, Tears, as his adoptive mother names him, is left by his parents in a rubbish bin outside Kagamuga Airport.
A security guard, Joseph, finds him and takes him home to Maria, his apparently barren wife, before noticing the boy’s disability.
Maria represents another sort of strength that is crucial to many disabled people. While Joseph wants to take the baby back to the rubbish bin after seeing his misshapen legs Maria strenuously resists.
Without much assistance from her husband, Maria risks the destruction of her marriage to look after Tears and raise the child. Along the way they both encounter much resistance and prejudice.
Francis makes some telling points about growing up disabled in Papua New Guinea as well as observations about public attitudes and perceptions. He also makes clear that disabled people in Papua New Guinea have many friends, not least among officialdom.
The novel is quite short, only 122 pages. It is a bit rushed towards the end and there are a couple of apparent inconsistencies in the narrative that could have had wider exposition. Apart from that it is well-worth reading.
The short novel stands out as a particularly popular form among writers in Papua New Guinea. That’s not new. In 1976 Longman Cheshire published a volume called Three Short Novels from Papua New Guinea and Russell Soaba’s seminal 1977 novel, Wanpis, runs only to 175 pages.
Tears is also something of a mile stone for Francis and the Simbu Writer’s Association, of which he is a founding member since it is his first wholly independently produced book. He follows writers like Baka Bina, Jordan Dean and Michael Dom in this regard. Expect more books under the SWA banner in the near future.
Papua New Guineans can feel proud of all this: an independent national literary competition and an increasingly broad-based independent publishing effort. May it long continue.