NOOSA – Francis Sina Nii, the author, publisher, mentor and literary innovator, whose promising career as a banker was cut short in a vehicle accident that rendered him a paraplegic but who became a towering figure in Papua New Guinea literature, died yesterday afternoon at the age of 57.
Francis had been in ill health for some months but surviving crises was not new to him as he had fought many battles in his three decades in his bed in the critical care ward of Kundiawa General Hospital.
From this unlikely location he wrote articles, and a novel, often with no technical assistance other than a mobile phone.
It was in 2011 that his literary career flourished when he encountered the unlikely couple of Phil Fitzpatrick and Keith Jackson who had determined upon securing a literary revival in PNG and found an enthusiastic and talented accomplice in Francis.
In the last 10 years of his life, Francis wrote much – and he was an excellent and perceptive writer.
But he probably achieved more as a literary mentor and administrator, inspiring others to write, founding the Simbu Writers Association, publishing home grown PNG writing, working with his Australian colleagues Terry Shelley and Murray Bladwell, both of whom predeceased him in recent times, to equip Simbu schools with books and equipment, initiating writing projects in secondary school and constantly urging PNG to take seriously a commitment to its own literature.
That he and others never fully succeeded in establishing a sound literary culture in PNG was not due to lack of nurture and hard work, but to Francis must go great credit in driving its pursuit to a point where it is taken seriously in PNG and overseas.
Amongst his peers and those who knew him, Francis was much loved and greatly respected and hundreds of Papua New Guineans and Australians this day grieve his death.
Like all these people, I am distraught that Francis has left us. He was a very special man. A bright star who never let his serious handicaps and brushes with death interfere with his achievements - and which were so considerable.
The Simbu people have given much to PNG and the world and Francis was an icon of their grit, commitment, passion and friendship.
Many people will miss Francis in many ways but especially as a courageous and wise man and a true leader.
We offer our great sadness to Maggie Francis Nii and Sharon Nii and to all of Francis’s other family, friends and colleagues and fellow staff and patients at Kundiawa General Hospital.
There is a haus krai at the gate of the hospital until Wednesday and Francis will be buried on Thursday.
In 2014, Phil Fitzpatrick wrote this tribute to Francis which sums up the man, his character and achievements – and there was much more to come over the ensuing five years.
IN 2010 Keith Jackson and I established the Crocodile Prize to help rejuvenate the flagging literary scene in Papua New Guinea.
At the first writers’ workshop at the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby in 2011, we and the writers endeavoured to plot a road ahead for the competition.
In the second row there was a gentleman sitting in an old wheelchair listening intently to what everyone had to say. Now and again he joined in the conversation.
At first I didn’t make the connection. In his submissions to the Crocodile Prize competition and his contributions to PNG Attitude, which is the central support agent for our endeavours, Francis Nii had not once mentioned that he was a paraplegic.
I was later to learn that this was typical of Francis. His focus was on writing, not on himself, and he certainly wasn’t looking for sympathy or special treatment.
When we read those entries in the initial competition in 2011, we had noted Francis as a talent to keep an eye on and, as the years went by, he didn’t disappoint.
I was to learn that he had already published a book and a few years later I had the great pleasure of helping with editing and publishing a new edition.
Fitman, Raitman and Cooks: Paradise in Peril is a ground-breaking novel in its portrayal of modern life in the Papua New Guinea highlands.
It pulls no punches and is ruthless in describing the ills that beset this region, particularly for its socially disconnected young men.
At the same time it is inspirational, setting out what is good in highlands society and how this can be harnessed to forge a way forward - all packaged in a highly readable and enjoyable narrative.
He is not a populist and doesn’t engage in hyperbole; nor does he preach. His essays uphold those classic traditions of humour and subtlety, a more lethal combination. In 2013 he won the essay prize, much to the delight of his many fans.
But this indefatigable man hadn’t finished yet. In late 2014, at the Crocodile Prize Awards ceremony in Port Moresby, along with his good friend, prize winning poet Jimmy Drekore, he announced that they had set up the Simbu Writer’s Association.
And if that wasn’t enough, they also declared that the association intended to host the Crocodile Prize awards ceremony and writers’ workshop in Kundiawa in 2015.
The Simbu Province has been a fertile breeding ground for Papua New Guinean writers. They have consistently produced the most entries and the most winners in the Crocodile Prize and have probably produced more published works than any other province in recent times. Only Bougainville snaps closely on their heels.
Francis has since been trekking around the schools in Simbu, which is no mean feat for a man in a wheelchair, encouraging young people to put pen to paper.
The Simbu Writers Association program in the schools has produced the first in a planned series of anthologies. The Ku High School Anthology 2014, edited by Francis, has been distributed throughout schools in the province and has inspired the provincial governor to commit to a substantial contribution for the future.
It seems that nothing will keep this man down and nothing is too hard for him.
In a country renowned for its public ennui he stands out as a shining beacon of hope.
If it was possible to package his indomitability and humanity and sell it in the stores, Papua New Guinea would forge ahead in leaps and bounds.
Not bad for a humble writer in a wheelchair.