The issues stifling PNG literature: shame, division & segregation
22 September 2017
RASHMII AMOAH BELL
BRISBANE – “Hilary Clinton is finally expressing some righteous anger: Why does that make everyone else so mad?” is the title of an op-ed piece capturing the often hostile reaction to the recent release of Hilary Clinton’s post-election memoir ‘What Happened’.
The article’s author, Rebecca Traister, opens by referring to Clinton’s speech to the 2017 graduating class of Wellesley College, the Massachusetts liberal arts college for women established in 1870 and Clinton’s alma mater.
Wellesley was also the setting of the 2003 film, ‘Mona Lisa Smile’, in which a star-studded cast of Hollywood’s leading women deliver an important message about the life choices women should have the right to determine irrespective of peer, family and societal pressures.
In the movie, the brilliant, unattached and ambitious teacher Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) is told by her equally brilliant andambitious student Joan (Julia Stiles) that being married and a primary caregiver is more important than applying to Yale Law School.
Fast forward to Wellesley College, 2017.
“Don’t be afraid of your ambition, your dreams or even your anger” Clinton urges graduands.
Ambition. Dreams. Two words I explored when I chaired the My Walk to Equality session at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival.
I sought the panel’s view on prevailing Papua New Guinean male attitudes towards women of our generation having equal access to education, career building - and ambition.
Film maker and poet Vanessa Gordon identified a key factor stalling the ability of Papua New Guinean women to amplify their voices….
Vanessa’s words articulated similar sentiments voiced by American actress, author, poet and film director Amber Tamblyn in a New York Times article, ‘I’m Done With Not Being Believed’.
Tamblyn shone a spotlight on her experiences of sexual harassment in Hollywood and in doing so stated what multitudes of women often deliberate on before speaking out: a consideration of “the scrutiny and repercussions she’ll be subjected to by sharing her side”.
Tamblyn coined a term for this process - ‘risk consideration’.
Vanessa explained this as PNG women weighing their desire to speak out against anxiety about vilification centring on their gender, weight, dress, age or professional status.
So what is the position of PNG women who speak out about instances where they have experienced unfair or unjust treatment and in some cases been subjected to criminal behaviour?
I sought dialogue on this question when I penned my July 2016 essay, ‘PNG’s violated women do not deserve to be treated as Cassandras’
Recently, in comments on PNG Attitude, I have aired my flaccid relationship with members of Papua New Guinea’s Crocodile Prize Committee which led to my eventual departure from the group.
I’ve also shed light on the vitriolic attacks I’ve been subjected to from fellow Papua New Guinean writers, male and female, throughout the first phase of the My Walk to Equality project.
I waited until pilot phase ended to articulate my disquiet at this behaviour, mirroring the ‘risk consideration’ that Amber Tamblyn and Vanessa Gordon saw as cause for pause and deliberation before enjoining debate.
But, as a writer who utilises literature as a mechanism for social activism, for me to fear assertiveness or even anger in my writing would be a missed opportunity to highlight injustice and inspire social change, especially as a voice advocating the collective position of Papua New Guinean women.
The reception that met my public disclosure of my own case was captured succinctly in Rebecca Traister’s commentary on the Clinton memoir: “Censorious anger from women is a liability; from men, it is often, simply, speech.”
A glimpse at any PNG-focused Facebook pages is evidence enough that, when men express anger, the overwhelming reaction is a raucous cheer. The impulse to adopt the male gaze of conversations led by women seems irresistible.
Such gaslighting through coded language reinforces shame, misogyny, double standards and gender inequality. Papua New Guinean women are continually subjected to this and it is unacceptable.
At the core of my comments, I have expressed rage at the absence of mutual respect and any reciprocal relationship in my interactions with a number of people within the Crocodile Prize organising group.
This is interfering with this group’s ability to develop a sustainable contemporary literature for all Papua New Guinean writers.
All Papua New Guineans writers - living in-country or abroad.
Attempts to pit one person against another on the basis of location are destructive, non-pragmatic and stifling of writing ambitions. It is a twisted dialogue that must be rejected and muted by all.
Engaging in such speech is a major liability to the development of a nation-driven, thriving, sustainable literary culture in Papua New Guinea.
Thank you for the feedback and comments for this piece.
Now on break from MWTE acitivity, it's good to be back into writing and lots of reading.
Posted by: Rashmii Bell | 30 September 2017 at 03:08 PM
Rashmi, this is again a well written article highlighting in part I believe are unfair treatment the women in PNG are made to or allowed in culture to go through.
Another issue I picked up in your lines is about your working relationships with others in the Crocodile Prize organising committee. I hope we will not hear of this again.
My daughter Noglai, a high school girl, nearly gave up on writing after the Crocodile Prize event in Kundiawa in 2015. After a lot of convincing she writes again but for herself. She is into poetry mostly now.
Here is an insignificant high school student from a nothing background whose writing I thought was good enough so I encouraged her and many others to write and take part in the national CP competition.
Then gradually that fire is getting dimmer after it started so bright. Fifty percent of these writers at that time, and some of the more wonderful writers were girls like Noglai.
I am a bit disappointed and am hoping we can find our way again and go rural again to those hidden talents in those bush schools and especially our girl students who I believe with early mentoring will become good writers in their future lives and the issues of gender in PNG can be addressed well like yourself, Rashmi.
Posted by: Mathias Kin | 22 September 2017 at 04:20 PM
Dear Rashmii - Never give up. You remind me of Emma Goldman, who said: "If voting changed anything they would make it illegal."
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 22 September 2017 at 03:42 PM
Duelling scars once “were popular amongst upper-class Austrians and Germans involved in academic fencing,” and that was contagion among males.
Duelling skilled infliction at societal cost, eventually made redundant by legislation in affected nations.
In 1824, said Wellington to Stockdale, ‘Publish and be damned’, not a duel but fending no less. The scarring might be of a duke but the affected dudes were those who read and smirked.
Titillation at expense of others is an expectancy of most human societies, and of PNG, one recent example vied on aspects of tomato. Societal resilience is fostered from writers’ exposure of injustice and results from those who inspire social change as where written so well by Rashmii.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 22 September 2017 at 10:56 AM
Good reading on gaslighting http://soulspottv.com/blog/victim-of-gaslighting/
Posted by: Michael Dom | 22 September 2017 at 09:35 AM
Sorry to hear of your troubles Rashmii. I hope you will be able to help all the women of PNG by your stand. It is sad that there are no women in the present parliament.
I'm hope that one day all the people of PNG will realize that women need a voice, in a marriage,in the world of literature and in the parliament.
Posted by: Barbara Short | 22 September 2017 at 08:32 AM
Fair assessment. Reminds me of how Gorethy Kenneth from the Post Courier seems to cop a lot of criticism unlike many male journalists/commentators.
I also reckon Tanya Zeriga-Alone's blog There is a great blog out there by Tanya Zeriga-Alone which I think many of you will benefit from reading
https://emnaupng.wordpress.com/author/tanyazeriga/ hasnt received the kind of promjnence it deserves
Posted by: Martyn Namorong | 22 September 2017 at 07:56 AM
Nicely expressed, Rashmii. Your realisations, hopefully, will translate in the minds of your readers as a definition of opportunity in which the national conscience is stirred by the debate.
Although you have been hurt personally in the process, it is likely that your responses will provoke a clamour from the ranks: profitable in the longer term.
A conscience awakened will be a fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of endeavour by a new crop of writers.
Posted by: Robin Lillicrapp | 22 September 2017 at 06:59 AM