While Francis fellow writers may wish to pay him good tributes, we should more so uphold his highest ideals and brightest dreams.
On 15 September 2011, the eve of Papua Niugini’s 36th independence anniversary, I attended incognito the inaugural Crocodile Prize ceremony, after having flown into the capital city Port Moresby (National Capital District) from Lae (Morobe Province) for work duties the day before. I was excited and eager to meet my fellow writers, essayists and poets at this unexpected and un-hoped for event.
The Crocodile Prize National Literary Awards was established in 2010 by Australians Keith Jackson AM and Philip Fitzpatrick (Fighting for a voice) “to encourage creative and critical writing in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and to provide Papua New Guineans with access to home-grown literature”.
In June this year the Crocodile Prize, our beloved Pukpuk, was pronounced dead in the water. But now we can make some leather goods (and hopefully we can sell a few items) which are intrinsically valuable and certainly more useful than a sukundumi’s decaying carcass.
When I look back on that starting event it strikes me as being a sad indictment on our nation that we ourselves had not dared to dream of this possibility as our writer-leader forbearers had done in decades past; “It was not so long ago / less even than a lifetime or so / when our nation was so young / and our history had just begun…/ Did then we dare to dream / and transcend as one?” (O Arise!).
Our literary pioneers, Albert Maori Kiki (Ten Thousand years in a Lifetime), Vincent Eri (The Crocodile), John Kasaipwalova (The Reluctant Flame), Kumalau Tawali (The Bush Kanaka Speaks), Nora Vagi Brash (Which Way Big Man), Russell Soaba (Wanpis), Rabbie Namaliu (The Good Woman of Konedobu), Bernard Narokobi (The Melanesian Way), Michael Somare (Sana) and Ignatius Kilagi (My Mother Calls Me Yaltep), had all written about their lives and of aspirations and dreams, before becoming politicians, administrators, dramatists and philosophers but only one novelist.
They may have tried to make their dreams of the future nation become our reality but a recent PNG prime minister’s autobiography was titled His dream is our dream and it seems, more often than not, that we live in the nightmares which he created.
More than three decades after the flourishing of literature in PNG there was a deathly silence. It was difficult to fathom that it was ‘all quiet on the Western front’ in “the land of a thousand tongues”, or, as our Tourism Promotion Authority proudly boasts, “the land of a million different journeys”.
So, where were all the stories?
It was a dead literary garden that Keith and Phil found and, in trutru pasin bilong ol kiap, decided to do something with what they had available to them right then and there, laka.
They started off with tentative steps, Keith and Phil playing mid-wives to the pikinini pukpuks emerging from their kiau. Some writers stepped out bravely whist others and I in particular were more reluctantly drawn out into the light of day.
At the time it was my proclivity to use the pen name Icarus, by which I had become well known for writing political poems such as Yesterday we dreamed, Oh my Penge and The Aspiring Politicians 36 Winning Ways for Making Monkeys. Keith was willing to let me gradually wean myself off the pseudonym use.
Nevertheless, it was Icarus, a foreign idiom, which provided some interest when I met Francis Nii, of the PNG Writer Ondobondo era, after the awards ceremony at the Australian High Commission on Wards Strip Road.
It seemed somehow fitting to me that a wartime airstrip should be the launching site for the soon to be national literary awards.
“While PNG's situation may not justify 'bloody' warfare, we are at war. We are at war against corruption in government and throughout the public service system, the very architects and mechanisms that should make our state function. But it is the State versus the People every day. And clearly the other side has no rules of engagement” (At war against a dysfunctional state, The Crocodile Prize Anthology 2011).
It also seemed auspicious that the high commission building bordered upon the sprawling grounds of the Department of Education Teachers In-service College, responsible for managing appropriate teaching skills and knowledge, and designing school curriculum.
I had assumed that writing was still one of those skills included in school curriculum, although there seemed little evidence of this in the 1990’s when I was a sumatin reader looking for PNG authored books at the National Library just down the road.
I recall the late Francis Nii listening intently to the talks by Russell Soaba and Philip Fitzpatrick during the writers’ workshop prior to the awards ceremony. I could feel him paying them attention with a kind of contained energy like the pressure of Wara Singar breaking at Sigewagl, bursting the rocks on its banks – his eyes were hurling boulders across the room.
Francis and I were competing writers, and there were no holds barred in the ensuing days of the Crocodile Prize fights, which were very well refereed by Keith and Phil. We had sparring sessions of which I am proud because we each stuck to our guns: honest and forthright disagreement, in mutual respect. (God knows the world needs more of that.)
The more I read from Francis it dawned on me that his writing was much like our Wara Simbu; broad and powerful, the current fresh with cold and sometimes rudely awakening thoughts, always dirty-brown with the earthiness of the land from which it springs and seeps.
In some places Wara Simbu undercurrents will move even football-sized rocks as you wade into the water, and this is the potentially hazardous but life giving, grinding and gritty nature with which my fellow writers Francis Nii, Jimmy Drekore (A Bush Poet’s Poetical Blossom) and Mathias Kin (My Chimbu) approach our art, for our people.
We are Simbu warrior-poets. And Simbu will always speak up for the ‘unheard voices’.
Simbu are also great advocates of the ‘fair fight’ – rulim lain na bai yumi stretim long namel (“rule a line and we will sort it out in the middle”).
These are worthy pasin that we Simbu share and which I believe are well recognized by our fellow Papua Niuginians. Michael Somare recognized this when he chose a Simbu, Iambakey Okuk, as his campaign leader in 1974. Their story is now PNG history and mystery, knighthoods, empty coffins, sukundumi and all.
In 2015 Simbu spoke up for hosting the Crocodile Prize in Kundiawa, the first and only time the awards was fully run nationally and held outside of Port Moresby. The hosting team went on to initiate the Simbu Writers Association and promote reading and writing to schools all around the province.
However, the Crocodile Prize eventually floundered to its death despite the valiant efforts by other writers, particularly Emmanuel Peni (Sibona), Betty Wakia and Caroline Evari (Nanu Sina), as well as Ben Jackson, husait i givim bel gut na karim pasin bilong papa b’long em Keith Jackson.
Various business houses had supported the prize awards and initially there was acknowledgement from the PNG government, apart from recognition and facilities provided by the Australian High Commission.
But a failure to communicate, cooperate, coordinate and provide cohesive leadership amongst nationals on the literary scene has meant that while the soil and seeds are fertile there is no one willing to till the land and water the garden. Government support, like elsewhere, was non-existent.
Last year PNG writers initiated a petition to Prime Minister James Marape “to commit his government and future governments to providing the support our writers, our literature and our nation deserve”. I chose to lampoon him in poem.
Supporting the petition late Francis Nii expressed that; “Writing and publishing our own Papua New Guinean stories in the absence of government or donor agency support is a daunting and painful experience. But we write because stories are part of our culture and books are repositories of our culture. What is it the authorities don’t understand?”
Keith Jackson wrote that; “It is a home-grown literature that will amplify the creativity, culture and spirit of Papua New Guineans. But, lacking the required support, literature has not emerged in PNG as an influence capable of playing its vital role in education, in nation building or in people’s lives.”
Francis had seen very clearly the real effect of the lack of support; “No one even knows or cares to how many national authors there are in the country. Nor what kind of books they produce. Nor what their books look like. Nor how good their stories are. They don’t know and they don’t care to know the importance and value of the books that have been written”.
On his hospital bed earlier this year Francis Nii’s last project was to raise K400,000 to help Australia’s bushfire victims. "When we Papua New Guineans face natural disasters, Australians are the first with support," he said, “this is the time to show our solidarity.”
Francis later published my poetry collection, dried grass over rough cut logs, for which he boasted, “Mike is truly a gifted poet and I had the pleasure of publishing his latest anthology”. I imagine him stoically texting this comment with his weak and trembling hands by shear will power.
A warrior has fallen in the battlefield. I weep for our loss. And I will not give up his good fight.
In modern day Papua Niugini writers are not offered a ‘fair fight’ and the ‘unheard voices’ of our people have far too often and for far too long remained as muffled whispers behind the security enforced doors of our political leaders offices at Waigani.
When invited to present the petition at the Manasupe Haus our team leaders were instead told that the Prime Minister was unavailable – at the Waigani golf course across the road.
It was towards such leadership that I had penned the following poetic epistle in 2010, before ever imagining a literary future for myself or for my country.
Dear Honorable Sirs
We are your loyal supporters, remember us
Your fellow Papua New Guineans
The honored rabble that raised you up to lofty heights
We drink your poisoned brew
While we suffer your misspent fortunes
Watch our heritage squandered
And our independence scorned
In our national parliament
Where once walked wise men, proud and true
Where once were just laws, written and defended
Foolishness now rules that house
Where the Honorable vie for their-own (rabble)
With their educated rhetoric, regurgitated oratory
Sanctimonious as wallowing sows and as smelly
In our nation’s capital
Beggars loiter while wealthy loaded landowners’ loaf
Pickpockets, thieves and informal street sellers roam
As mountains crumble and trees topple
Littering our rivers and seas
Our ancestral lands and siblings are divided over riches
Money for dishonorable dignity in Port Moresby
There Honorable Sirs you dwell
And celebrate our nation’s prosperity
Which we apparently are yet to receive
There Honorable Sirs you play pernicious politics
You and your rabble, squabble, dribble, grapple
For position, power and prestige, PNG big man policies
Your slightest glance is our grace, dear Honorable Sirs
In our towns and villagers
Far, far from freeways, Fairfax and Finance Ministry
We hear tales of civilization, rumors of development
Our aging fathers idly reminisce
While their beloved sons seek other forms of bliss
Mothers and matriarchs do what their daughters should do
Excuse what their children have done, and for you
We are the commoners from rural towns and villages
Those hamlets not seen on Falcons flight
Distant, and remote, you’ve forgotten our vote
Our sweat feeds this nation
Our land; fills your coffers
Our blood bathes your altars
Our tears are granted no remittance
Our fates are in your hands
We are the unheard voices
Disenchanted, disowned and denied
How long lived is your deception
Schemes and dreams and fantasies
Where are the promised fruits?
Your majestic visions
Leave us in dearth and doom
We are your people
We gave, glorified and groveled for you
Now disrespected, deceived and destitute
We are the infants you suckle on a flimsy future
The unborn cheated, betrayed and bartered
As your virulent greed robs our womb
God save Papua New Guinea!