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Heroes of modern PNG literature


TUMBY BAY - I’ve been ruminating about the successes and failures of Papua New Guinean literature since Keith Jackson and I kicked off the Crocodile Prize in 2010.

In the scheme of things, the prize and what spun out of it was really the only game in town for quite a while. Things were happening elsewhere but not on the same scale.

Many names of people who floated in and out of the old Croc’s orbit come to mind. Some had a fluttering acquaintance and others stayed the course. A few tried to exploit us.

The private sponsors of the prize, with much cajoling and caressing, provided a wobbly and rickety base. Some of them also came from unlikely and unexpected places.

We are eternally grateful to them all, even the fickle ones, but it is the individuals that bring back the best memories.

Who could forget the unflappable and indefatigable Ruth Moiam and her organisational skills, firstly through the Australian High Commission and then international organisations, where she really made her mark.

Or Jimmy Drekore, whose prodigious energy was brought to bear on several occasions, most notably in 2014 and 2015. Jimmy is a poet in his own right but more than that he is an organiser and motivator.

He rescued everyone during the 2014 workshop at the National Library when our catering plans failed by simply going out and buying everyone hamburgers, chips and Coke.

And, of greater significance, he was instrumental in setting up the Simbu Children Foundation and, later, the Simbu Writers’ Association which, ably assisted by people like Francis Nii, Jimmy Awagl and Mathias Kin, encouraged Simbu school children to read and write and even publish.

The contributions of Francis Nii probably deserve a special prize on their own and are far too numerous to mention. He pioneered the resurgence of PNG literature with his novel ‘Paradise in Peril’, not to mention his erudite essays which matched paragraph by paragraph the spectacular output of social commentator Martyn Namorong. But more than that Francis has been a solid rock in the literature stream – mentoring, motivating, organising, editing, publishing.

Mathias Kin was one of the first Papua New Guinean writers to have the courage to take on the established view of PNG history by writing stories from ‘the other side’ – the side of the colonised people themselves. Among other things he had to challenge the kiaps’ world view in his quest for balance and a voice of his people.

Writers like Daniel Kumbon joined him in this healthy revisionism, following from pioneers like Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin, who wrote the stories his forebears told so they would never be lost to time.

And then there’s Captain Bougainville, aka Leonard Fong Roka, who virtually pioneered a new form of PNG literature that was at once visceral and raw. Later on Baka Bina and others joined him in a quest for authenticity no matter how harshly its screech as it cut across the grain of good manners.

In seeking out these heroes, I should not omit retired naval captain (a Colonel in PNG parlance) Reg Renagi who, at a time when it was considered risky to put one’s head above the parapet by adding your name to what you wrote, did so – and in doing so encouraged so many others to do likewise.

In those early days of the Crocodile Prize we struggled to gain traction within the academic world. The unstated view seemed to be that we were upstarts and populists who wouldn’t last long.

Only Russell Soaba, the old man of PNG Literature, saw merit in what we were doing and extended his hand of friendship by participating as a key speaker in our writers’ workshops.

Another good friend was the prolific writer Marlene Dee Gray Potoura, who set us straight about the importance of literature for children.

And while Marlene was busy doing that, scientist Michael Dom set his sights on uplifting the standards of poetry in PNG. And through his own inspirational work, lauded not just in PNG but internationally, he encouraged other innovative poets, not least Wardley Barry.

In the realm of women’s writing Rashmii Bell stands out for special mention, particularly for her editing of the ground breaking anthology, ‘My Walk to Equality’.

The anthology has been a constant seller and copies of it have gone all over the world, not only bringing PNG women’s writing but also PNG literature in general to the attention of international audiences.

When the Crocodile Prize was flagging after it was taken over by a Papua New Guinean association several individuals worked hard to keep it on track, among them Emanuel Peni, author of the innovative novel ‘Sibona’.

Another significant arrival at this time was Jordan Dean. He was an early master of CreateSpace and digital publishing who, like Francis Nii, became a publisher of many other PNG writers’ works

Over the many years since 2010 numerous efforts have been made to interest the PNG government in literature but, to this day, it has resolutely maintained the deafest of ears to all these entreaties.

Among those who keep banging on the prime ministerial door are Caroline Evari, Betty Wakia and Daniel Kumbon. Perhaps the government is hoping they will go away if they are ignored long enough. It is unlikely that will happen.

There are many more people I could add to this esteemed list. In ways, large and small, they have all contributed to the renaissance of PNG literature.

Names like Philip Kai Morre, James Thomas, Samantha Kusari, Winterford Toreas, Diddie Kinamun Jackson, Arnold Mundua, Jeffrey Febi and Bomai Wine all come to mind.

One day, when all the names of the politicians have vanished from PNG’s collective memory, those people mentioned above, and many more, will still be remembered.

And their words will still be read.


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Francis Nii

Thank you Phil for this wonderful and elating tribute. Yes, when political heroes of today are gone tomorrow and forgotten forever, "writers will live on beyond the grave" and that's the beauty about writing even though there is no money in it.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think I made a similar point about the enriching quality of working with PNG writers in a previous article and therefore agree completely with Ed's comment.

From the day we set about organising the Crocodile Prize those of us helping from Australia began a steep learning curve that persists to the present.

I would be dishonest if I didn't say we gained plenty from the experience. Not least are the friendships we established but also the knowledge we gained about the writers, their culture and their nation.

This knowledge easily eclipses my previous experiences in the country as a kiap and social mapper.

Sometimes those experiences took my breath away. Reading the stories, poetry and essays of the writers often made me sit up and shake my head in wonder.

It's been a two way exchange in every way and a wonderful example of cultural interaction between two seemingly disparate nations.

Ed Brumby

I've been blessed to have had the great privilege of working closely variously as editor, advisor and critical friend with several of the PNG literary pathfinders and heroes/heroines mentioned by Phil - all of whom I admire greatly and regard as good friends.

While each brings their own intellect, experiences and insights to their writing, they all share one thing in common: an inner 'need' and determination (if not compulsion) to 'write', to document and to weave stories about their observations of, experiences in, and responses to PNG's rich culture.

Each, in their own way, has had to struggle with particular personal circumstances, challenges and hardships in order to find and/or create the time and space to 'write ' - and perhaps it is these struggles that have provided impetus to, and reinforce their inner drive to tell their stories.

Marlene Dee Gray Potoura, for instance, has had to endure and deal with a seemingly endless series of tragedies and challenges and yet continues to draw strength and inspiration from her inner spirituality and the spirit world to craft ingenious and imaginative tales for her students and her own and other children, as well as acute insights into contemporary life in Lae

Manu Peni has had to deal with particular personal challenges and dangers but managed to shrug these off to create 'Sibona' which will long have a place in PNG literature – and, with enormous courage, is playing a leading role in the fight to prevent miners destroying the precious environmental surrounds of the mighty Sepik River.

My Apo, Baka Bina's challenges are, in some respects, more mundane: mastering the keyboard, for one - which means he drafts his excellent novellas (including the Crocodile Prize-winning 'Man of Calibre') and stories for children in longhand and then has to find someone to enter the manuscript into his computer - or undertake that arduous task himself.

But he does have the added benefit of his highly supportive wife, Emily as muse and informant for his highly filmic stories of village (and city) life and culture - which will provide valuable documents of that life and culture for generations to come and which, as suggested, would provide the basis for some valuable (and entertaining) films or television programs.

Then there’s the formidable, feisty and highly-principled Rashmii Bell who, while living at some remove from the land of her birth, still managed to provide a voice for and to Papua New Guinean women and their struggles which, as Phil points out, is being heard well beyond PNG.

Some seven or eight years back I accepted Keith’s invitation to engage with and assist these and other PNG writers, figuring that it was one small way of giving back to a country and people who gave so much to me.

It’s fair to say that I have received much much more from them than I have given – and that, as Phil said, they and their writings will endure and enrich PNG for some considerable time.

Dominica Are

The sweetest reward of writing - our words live on.

And Dominica is another wonderful writer, whose words will live on. To be read and appreciated by generations we'll never know, but who will be grateful for what these literary pioneers did in the most difficult of circumstances - KJ

Daniel Kumbon

Today I will go there again and see the same man. I have seen him three times in the last two weeks.

The first time we met, I sat beside him and took a photo of us just studying each other. We didn’t greet each other like when you are with a newfound friend. But he seemed to know me.

Perhaps his son told him about me. We had met five years ago in Brisbane at a venue like this.

I ducked my head when the PMV drove past the Pineapple Building. I didn’t want people up in that great building to stare down at me. I am easy to spot in my Highlands cap.

Of, course they couldn’t because I was inside Bus No 7 which drives past every day. But I couldn’t force myself to see it. I can’t explain because it’s a trivial matter.

In a minute or two, I will reach the grounds of the National Library and Archives where my man sits waiting to greet me.

I wish I grew up in his time. He used to hold high office in Papua New Guinea you know. Perhaps he would have said: ‘Hey Daniel, I can see you in your bilum cap. Come and sit beside me and tell me how Wabag is.’

The man is Brigadier Sir Donald Cleland CBE who was the Administrator of PNG from January 1953 to January 1967. He died in August 1976.

The names of great men live on.

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