NOOSA – I spent the weekend reading through the archives of PNG Attitude between 2010 and now, extracting the writing by and about the late Francis Nii and, occasionally distracted by some other old article or incident it evoked, wandering along the trail of my own memories about this remarkable website.
Yes, in its 15th year, I think PNG Attitude is entitled to the honorific ‘remarkable’. I began publishing the blog when I was 59. I’m now 75. It has occupied a considerable chunk of my life and has been published almost each day – whether I was in Papua New Guinea’s remote highlands, in the middle of some ocean, even in hospital, where I have been too often these years.
The most pleasing year for me was 2016: a halcyon time when the Crocodile Prize flourished, when scores of new writers emerged and when the blog was a vibrant and exciting marketplace of ideas, argument and innovation.
It was a period book-ended by a strange happening and a fantastic event. In late 2015 Ingrid and I went on a long sea trip around Africa to see if I could shake off the chronic fatigue syndrome that had dogging me for many years.
Instead I returned home in worse condition augmented by a painful back problem. I didn’t know it then, but my vertebrae were gradually eroding and I was facing five years in which I would have four spinal operations, two of them very difficult.
Hoping a quieter life might help, I decided to cut my extra-curricular activities back to the minimum. PNG Attitude, after 10 years, would have to join the queue.
This I announced on the blog in December 2015, drawing a response so huge, emotional and compelling that I felt I could not proceed with that plan.
And so PNG Attitude continued into 2016 and beyond - saved by its readers and writers. A strange happening, indeed. A fine example of ‘by popular acclaim….’
There were other highlights of that period. The Crocodile Prize Anthology of 2015, edited by Phil Fitzpatrick, was a majestic volume. And Phil’s book, Fighting for a Voice, published in 2016, remains a well-told and still relevant history of PNG Attitude and the Crocodile Prize.
It turned out that many other good things were to happen in 2016 – and one of them was a truly fantastic event.
Thanks to the efforts of Bob Cleland, Papua New Guinean authors had been invited to present a symposium at the Brisbane Writers Festival.
PNG Attitude undertook a major fund-raiser to get three PNG writers to Brisbane, and it was inspirational how readers came to the party, enabling Francis Nii – wheelchair and all – to make his first and only trip overseas.
He was joined by Daniel Kumbon, Martyn Namorong and Rashmii Amoah Bell, whose epic My Walk to Equality was conceived at this time.
A reminder here, before I continue, that we are marking the career of the late Francis Nii, an extraordinary writer and literary figure, by seeking donations to publish The Francis Nii Collection - a major book on his writing, his extraordinary life and his contribution to the development of literature in PNG.
The Francis Nii Collection will be his legacy. The volume, now being compiled by a number of his colleagues, will include his best writing, his life story and his ideas for the effective development of a home-grown literature in Papua New Guinea.
This is likely to be the last of PNG Attitude’s many projects, but before expanding on that let me review some of the insights I gleaned from my weekend’s work amongst the PNG Attitude archives.
First of all, it can be seen clearly how the blog and the Crocodile Prize worked so effectively together to facilitate and encourage Papua New Guineans to bring their writing out into the open and deliver it to an audience. And what wonderful writing so much of it is. And from scores and scores of writers.
Second, it can be seen how the demise of the Crocodile Prize has led to a decline in Papua New Guinean writing. Not even the continuing presence of PNG Attitude has been enough to sustain that literary revival – PNG’s third after 1972-75 and 1984-86 – that reached a peak in 2015-16.
Of course, writers will continue to write but the effervescence and drive brought by the Crocodile Prize has been lost. The high level recognition and support required could not be sustained from a voluntary organisation on the basis of enthusiasm alone.
The recent death of Francis Nii, who had also, amongst many other initiatives, developed his own publishing imprint, is a tragic moment marking the end of a wonderful era.
So those archives showed a great project with a lot happening. And they showed the huge latent literary talent within PNG. The grand all-round creativity of Melanesia.
But the archives also showed the scarcity of administrative capability – the planning, networking and managerial capacity to keep major projects moving forward. This is what we also lost when we lost Francis Nii.
Although Francis was permanently physically constrained and suffered recurring bouts of ill health – some of it very serious – 10 year period I reviewed in the archives made it crystal clear that he understood better than most what was required to provide PNG with a sustainable home-grown literature.
In case you don’t know it, or are only vaguely familiar with it, I should relate the Francis Nii story.
After a vehicle crash in 1999, Francis spent the 20 years before his death a week ago as a paraplegic confined to a ward in the Kundiawa Hospital. Over those years he experienced multiple surgeries and a number of brushes with death.
His eventual passing on Sunday 2 August aged 57 was an event of great consequence to Papua New Guinea’s literary community and its continuing struggle to gain recognition and support.
Educated as an economist, Francis was a banker until his mid-thirties when he found himself stripped of a normal life and meaningful work. In his hospital bed, he began to write, using a mobile phone as his keyboard until PNG Attitude readers were able to better equip him with word processors.
He wrote poetry, essays, articles and full length books and the establishment of the Crocodile Prize in 2010 enabled him to join the national network of writers that the awards encouraged.
This opened up a new world for Francis. He began to write for a larger audience in PNG Attitude and when won the Crocodile Prize for Essays and Journalism in 2013 it brought him to greater public attention and encouraged him to mentor other writers.
In the same year he established the Simbu Writers Association, which among other activities initiated an inter-school writing contest and began to produce anthologies of student writing.
He also was appointed administrator of the Simbu Children Foundation and was a chief organiser of the Crocodile Prize awards held in Kundiawa in 2015 - a complex logistical exercise.
When at about this time, he became very ill, as a result of Robin Lillicrap’s efforts a public subscription in Australia purchased him a new wheelchair, a water bed to ease his bedsores and a supply of appropriate drugs to assist his condition.
Meanwhile Francis continued to contribute prolifically to PNG Attitude, mainly through social and political commentaries. His presence at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016 was a life-changing event.
Around this time he teamed up with PNG entrepreneur Terry Shelley and senior Queensland Rotarian Murray Bladwell, both of who have recently since died, to initiate a project to supply Simbu schools with books and library equipment. Under this massive project all 400 primary schools in the province were equipped with micro-libraries.
Francis taught himself the techniques of digital publishing and began to edit and publish the work of new writers through his Francis Nii Publications operation. His final project, completed just before his death, was to publish, Flight of Eagle, the autobiography of PNG’s community development minister, Wake Goi.
Despite increasing frailty over the last couple of years Francis turned his attention to seeking greater national recognition and support for home-grown literature and remained a strong advocate for government support until his death.
He was a one man tour de force with few resources. Nothing represented this more than his tapping out a novel on a mobile phone while lying on a rough hospital bed surrounded by the noise and emotion of sickness and death.
Our project, The Francis Nii Collection, will publish an edited volume of Francis’s most significant essays, articles, poetry and commentary as well as colleagues’ accounts of his work and life and his aspirations for PNG literature.
Francis understood clearly that the grand enterprise of creating a national literature required more than writers. It needed publishers, mentors, advocates, marketers, teachers, petitioners, international contacts and, arguably most important of all, administrators – the planners, organisers and negotiators who had the skills to bring everything together.
If PNG literature is to thrive, the intelligence, wisdom and creative energy Francis Nii possessed and which drove his ragged body to great heights of achievement now must be harnessed by others. What Francis knew and what he did must not be lost but be built on.
That’s why we are asking seeking financial support to produce The Francis Nii Collection – a project that will ensure that Francis’s work, character and knowledge will not be lost even though the man himself is not with us.
We need people who value PNG literature, or who value literature in general, to ensure that the words and deeds of Francis Nii endure and that he leaves behind a legacy not just a reputation.
The Francis Nii Collection honours Francis’s writing and other good works and provides a platform to continue his advocacy for the proper recognition and support of a flourishing home-grown Papua New Guinean literature.
I wrote earlier that this is likely to be PNG Attitude’s last big project. It was always going to happen that Phil Fitzpatrick and I would age and gradually run out of steam. Well, that point is arriving.
As I struggle to walk painlessly and fluently again after major surgery two months ago, and continue to deal with the chronic fatigue syndrome which randomly chooses to lay me low, and as I watch this blog slowly subside, I know that the remarkable era of resurgence for PNG literature is waning.
The Francis Nii Collection is a legacy volume which, together with Fighting for a Voice, will offer a valuable roadmap to the next generation of Papua New Guinean literary administrators and entrepreneurs who, when they arrive, and let us hope it is soon, will take the huge creative impulse of Papua New Guinea into its next era.
Readers, this is your opportunity to try to ensure that this will happen.
THE FRANCIS NII COLLECTION
Australian residents can donate to this bank account:
NAME Keith Jackson
BANK National Australia Bank