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Marlene Potoura & the state of society & writing in PNG

Rashmii & KeithRASHMII BELL talks with KEITH JACKSON

BRISBANE - I was saddened to read of the recent robbery of Marlene Potoura’s possessions at her home in Lae.

This incident was just the latest of a series of burglaries – and worse - going back some years, which have placed Marlene and her children in heartbreaking circumstances.

Yet in my online interactions with Marlene, she is by no measure a victim but always future-oriented, persevering to find an effective solution as issues arise.

These personal traits encapsulate how and why Marlene is like many of those people who make up the PNG Attitude virtual family. 

Being invited to connect with Marlene was to share her lived experience as a Papua New Guinean women living in present day PNG society. It is a privilege I do not take for granted. It takes courage to put your experiences and feelings into writing when challenges become overwhelming.

And I note that Marlene never asked for help. Her only response to another serious assault on her well-being was a cry of frustration. That’s why Marlene is an inspiration to so many of us.

This blog and its virtual family have been instrumental for nearly 13 years advocating for PNG women (domestic and in the diaspora) so I thought I’d ask the publisher and editor, Keith Jackson AM, a few questions to highlight the importance of the appeal currently underway to assist Marlene and her children.

RASHMII BELL: The first piece of writing I sent you in 2014 was drawn from a few posts I’d written for a blog I’d begun. They were me having a rant about motherhood including the outrageous contradictions and challenges faced by women raising children in PNG. In that, I’ve a few things in common with Marlene. How often do you receive contributions from PNG women who are raising children? Are there any recurring themes and issues?

KEITH JACKSON: I think the field on that particular topic has been limited to you and Marlene, who have drawn from your personal experiences to offer more general lessons about the terrible predicament of many, if not most, Papua New Guinean women.

RB: Marlene has been a contributor to PNG Attitude for many years, has authored several titles and been included in the Crocodile Prize Anthology volumes. Her writing also appears in ‘My Walk to Equality. How would you describe Marlene’s writing? What have been her standout pieces for you?

KJ: Marlene is an accomplished writer and, in a country that valued its writers more than PNG – and that’s most countries, would be a successful journalist and author of children’s books. In her essays, she has a wonderful ability to use personal experience to develop some embracing themes. She has a great sense of humour and a soaring imagination which is at its most vivid in her children’s stories. I enjoy all Marlene’s writing and, for a fine example, I suggest reading this essay, very relevant to our appeal, ‘PNG Dystopia: The perils of life as a single mother. And for something very different, this delightful piece, ‘Deeply, Madly.

RB: Included in My Walk to Equality is an account Marlene wrote about a devastating fire that devoured her Lae lodgings in 2016. That disaster left her and her children with no home and few possessions. It was an important inclusion in the anthology to highlight the inhumanity that exacerbated Marlene’s adversity. Each of us needs to pause and understand the challenges faced by her and others like her. It’s a universal dilemma, of course, but in PNG there is an unrelenting tendency to exploit single parents, especially women. Have you seen this demonstrated in writing by Papua New Guineans on issues outside of parenthood?

KJ: I have read much from Papua New Guinean writers on the subject of exploitation. It’s not an unusual topic in PNG: exploitation by greedy politicians, by foreign companies and by fellow Papua New Guineans who also live impoverished lives. The latter is the hardest to accept because it departs so much from the traditional hospitable and fair-minded Melanesian society. It is symbolic of how, in creating a country of 800 tribes, the politicians have failed to create a fair society.

RB: PNG Attitude has been key in how I’ve developed my writing and it has supported and created opportunities for including my voice in addressing PNG’s social issues. What I think is special about the PNG Attitude community is that we are a virtual family; everyone is made to feel welcome, to participate and to form genuine connections. So when people talk about ‘strengthening bilateral relations’ between PNG and Australia, other than the carriers of the Kokoda Trail, Attitude is the only place where I see a genuine effort being made. Can you tell us of other occasions where the PNG Attitude community has banded together to help other Papua New Guineans, especially girls and women?

Be strong  I was toldKJ: Over the years, there have been many projects to assist PNG people either as individual or collectively. I try not to burden our readers too often with appeals for money and support but it happens occasionally when there is great need. It happened with ‘My Walk to Equality’, with establishing the Crocodile Prize and with supporting Francis Nii through a period of great personal challenge. There are too many other cases to itemise here. As I wrote in a recent piece in Attitude: “And so it has been that readers have assisted people in PNG who required hospital treatment and medical support, they sponsored PNG writers through travel, fellowships, mentoring, awards and publishing, they provided the means to stock schools with books and equipment, they were front and centre in supporting Papua New Guineans in their quest to root out corruption, facilitate equality and bring honesty to the relationship between our countries. And more.” That sure sounds like a caring community to me.

RB: It upset me reading Marlene’s recent post where she described losing 20 years’ worth of writing as a result of a robbery earlier this year and how she dealt with that. She truly is a remarkable individual with incredible spirit and commitment - to spend months handwriting her stories, and to type them again when she was able to purchase a desktop. What are your suggestions for Papua New Guineans who would like to contribute writing to PNG Attitude, but do not have a computer? Are their individuals in PNG who are currently acting as conduits for the blog who would assist?

KJ: Find a friend who has a computer. I don’t want to sound harsh but we do not have the resources to transcribe writing, nor to translate from the many languages of PNG, although from time to time we do this. PNG Attitude is one man and a computer supported by hundreds of people and their computers. There is no big, wealthy hierarchical organisation. Self-help in all aspects of our activity is essential.

RB: PNG Attitude reaches a globally wide and demographically diverse audience. I didn’t truly understand this until the MWTE project began in 2016. Always impressive is that PNG Attitude operates with virtually no public funding. This year, the blog marked 10 years as an archived resource of the National Library of Australia. Could you explain what this means for Papua New Guineans who write for the blog?

KJ: It means that their writing will be retained for posterity, long after PNG Attitude has ceased to exist. The NLA archive is permanent and accessible. Not online yet but perhaps that will happen as digital society matures.

RB: This year’s PHDC Writer Fellowship enabled me to focus clearly on the effects of the absence of government and major corporate support for PNG writers. Like other authors, Marlene has published several titles but she is unable to even afford to buy copies of her own work. Can you suggest some ways that PNG authors like Marlene can be assisted to have copies of their books purchased and distributed?

KJ: In a country where the government does not respect its writers nor the content they produce, and where people are generally too impoverished to purchase books, no substantial solution presents itself. That is the gloomy truth.

RB: My final thought and question; We’ve seen with many PNG writers how an association with the blog has helped us in many ways. For me, I have been impacted significantly by an increase in self-confidence and in connecting with amazingly compassionate and deep thinking people. How can Papua New Guinean girls and women become involved with PNG Attitude, whether as readers or contributors from now and into 2019?

KJ: It just requires engaging with the blog by commenting on articles, contributing material, following it on Twitter or on Facebook. We welcome participation and encourage all forms of writing. As a first step people can contact me here and I can point them in the right direction


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Over the years of my involvement in the Crocodile Prize and running Pukpuk Publishing one of the most frustrating aspects has been my limited ability to help talented PNG writers.

This is one reason I get angry with the PNG government. Their total lack of interest in literature has been criminal.

The Australian government has not been much better. It has helped here and there but has never set up anything permanent. They are in a good position to help many writers but consistently fail to do so.

So for me Marlene is more than just one struggling writer. She is a symbol of many great talents, both male and female, rejected by ignorant and uncaring governments.

Added to this is the fact that she is a single mother.

Single mothers in PNG are a significant demographic and yet their needs are ignored.

It is not as though they deserve the position in which they find themselves. Unlike Australia there are no supposedly attractive welfare benefits to encourage single women to have children.

In PNG the women who find themselves in this position are usually fleeing abusive relationships or some other sort of exploitation by PNG men. None of them chose to be in that position.

Marlene, therefore, represents both the plight of talented PNG writers and the plight of PNG single mothers. That's one heavy burden.

Fortunately the good readers of PNG Attitude can help Marlene but when you do please think of all those other women in her position and all those other talented writers, both men and women, who cannot get any help at all.

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