BEN JACKSON & REBEKAH FINZEL | The Crocodile Prize
PORT MORESBY - In a misconstrued punishment from her father, Tess Gizoria chewed up pieces of her journal entries - and ate them.
As an adolescent Tess had a fractious relationship with her dad. Then as now, she was articulate, direct and determined.
“We’d always argue – maybe it’s because we’re so much alike,” she reflects.
“He found what I’d written – I can’t remember exactly what it was – but he was so mad at me!”
Ironically, it was her father who first encouraged Tess to start writing.
“Inspiring me to write? It was my dad, because I needed a way to vent,” Tess says, just barely holding back laughter. “We were always arguing about things and I felt so strongly about them.
“My dad always told me I talked too much and to put my energy in to more useful things – one of them was writing.
“I was a child and supposed to respect my dad and not speak against him – all of that – I put it all down on paper.”
The frustrated teenager grew up and her writing practice, which began as a way to process a challenging patriarchal relationship, became a way to intellectualise the complexities of culture and gender in modern Papua New Guinea.
“There’s such a big responsibility on a Papua New Guinean woman to be a daughter and a sister – a partner and a wife – a mother and a provider,” Tess says.
“We don’t necessarily have the space to embrace ourselves and find out who we are.
“Wanting to know who I am as a person has challenged me to reach out and find what I can offer as a person – not just somebody that represents something to someone else.
“Who is Tess? What does she like? What does she do? Being connected to me – a me who is not a daughter, a sister, a mum, a provider. Just me.”
To answer these questions about the present and future, Tess decided she needed to look to the past.
“Whether I’m conscious of it or not, the cultures and customs of my people play a huge role in my identity,” she says.
“It’s about finding things that resonate with ourselves – they could be our customs of old or the new ones we’re creating now.”
Tess wrote predominately in her journal for herself but, as her passion for social change grew, she began sharing her work in online activist communities.
It was in these Facebook forums that she first heard of the Crocodile Prize – the national literary awards of Papua New Guinea – which provides recognition for writers and a platform to publish their work.
“Initially I didn’t think to share my stories,” Tess says, “I didn’t think anyone would want to read them or that they were worth reading.
“I sent my piece on the deadline day for the Crocodile Prize – I just wanted to be critiqued.”
She entered her piece in the Cleland Award for Heritage Literature, which is given for writing that delves into traditional customs, beliefs and stories.
Tess wrote about the traditions of her father’s Goilala people and how they relate to the present existence of her family.
“My story wasn’t just about culture and traditions,” she says, “it was about a lack of connection.
“It asked, ‘Why don’t I know my traditional boundaries, cousins and people? Why don’t I know my forests and my rivers?’”
The impact of heritage – both positive and negative – is important to Tess.
“The Goilala people are known around Port Moresby for being raskols,” she says.
“It has really impacted how we see ourselves and our identity as young Papua New Guineans.
“Writing is about finding my space and wanting to show a different view of what a Goilala woman is and what a Goilala woman can contribute to society.”
Her last minute entry was a resounding success and within the space of two weeks Tess was a Crocodile Prize winner.
It was a huge surprise for Tess and her family – a literary triumph – and she took the opportunity for some well-deserved gloating.
“Dad was just as shocked as I was that my writing would get to this stage,” she says.
“I teased him, ‘Dad, you should have made me eat more pages, because I would have won a lot more awards’.”
One of her younger sisters also writes and Tess reckons she’s an even bigger talent, demonstrating incredible maturity for her age.
“She’s really, really good,” Tess says, “she’s somebody I like to bounce ideas off.
“There was this piece she wrote that really challenged the way I saw who I was as a Goilala woman.”
Tess, who will turn 30 at the end of the year, knows that writing is vital to document heritage and process the relevance of kastom in contemporary society – particularly for women.
“There’s a huge appetite for Papua New Guinean stories because we’ve come to the stage where we want to figure out who are,” she continues.
“We’re already good storytellers – writing shouldn’t be hard, it should be easy.
“The world already sees Papua New Guinean women – but we don’t hear them enough.
“Our voices are so different and complex – you won’t find two stories that are the same.
“I want to see a lot more Papua New Guinean women write,” Tess says.
“We need to tell our stories and we need to listen to each other’s stories if we are to connect with each other and raise each other up – as sisters, as daughters of this land and as women supporting other women.”
Tess’ message is clear - words are to be shared, not swallowed.