PORT MORESBY - The month of August is a significant month in Papua New Guinea for authors and schools.
It is during this month that schools celebrate Book Week, and this year I was privileged to launch the Book Week program at Kopkop College in Port Moresby.
I also participated in a virtual week-long writing workshop with the Higaturu International School in Oro Province.
In my speech at Kopkop I shared my writing journey with students and teachers in the hope they too can begin writing and find the courage to get into publishing.
Writing has always been my hobby. As a six-year old I would sitt in front of the TV screen watching Sesame Street and then retell every episode in my own words.
I did not own a smart phone or laptop, but I had television.
When I started school, I had an instant connection to reading and writing. Learning became fun and reading was so easy.
But school life didn’t go well for me. Just after I completed Grade 1 in 1996, my dad retired from his fulltime job to contest the national elections in 1997 and we had to relocate to our village in Oro.
Given the remoteness of the place, there were few schools and the only one nearby had just one class and one teacher who taught Grade 5.
I was supposed to be in Grade 2, but my dad convinced the teacher to enrol me.
On my first day, the teacher asked if I could read his handwriting and I said ‘no’. He then asked me if I could read and I said ‘yes’.
After learning that, he handed me a yellow card headed, ‘Reading and Comprehension’.
On the front of the card was a story for me to read and on the back was a list of questions to answer.
From reading and comprehension cards, I went on to practice handwriting using handwriting cards and before long I didn’t have to do card exercises anymore, because I could read the teacher’s handwriting and understand the lessons he was giving.
Everything was getting better but at term break the teacher flew out and never returned. I didn’t go to school again for five years.
My life continued as a village kid. I spent my days accompanying my parents to the garden or looking after my grandmother. Everything was OK but I did miss school, especially reading.
Whenever I stayed home with my grandmother, I’d take out an exercise book and write stories that I would read to myself.
Writing was also my only way of speaking English, because the longer I stayed in the village the more I spoke the local language.
Eventually I realised I was slowly forgetting how to speak and write in English. It was really then I developed a love for writing and began to question whether I would ever have the opportunity to return to school.
One night as we gathered around the fireplace for dinner, dad told us that he was going to be getting on a chartered plane the next day to go to Port Moresby.
He advised us to be obedient to mother and not to let her do all the hard work alone.
I don’t know how this news affected my siblings but for me it made up my mind - I would follow dad to Port Moresby.
Without consulting my parents, I packed a small bag and the next day, as dad was getting ready to leave, I told him I was going with him.
Although he resisted, I stood on the road with my bag and started to cry. The tears were of longing for a better education.
Suddenly my dad had a change of heart. He walked back, wiped away my tears, picked up my bag and said he would take me. Oh, the joy I had in my heart.
Dad was in the city for only a short time and had to return to the village, but I was left with my older siblings who took on the role of educating and raising me.
I had to repeat Grade 5 – which was dad’s advice. It was difficult as I had been away from school for so long, but I could read, write, and speak English made the transition easier.
Life was challenging living without mum and dad but going back to the village was not an option for me. I stuck to school whether I had enough money or a full stomach. I was determined to excel and make my dad proud of me.
I was motivated because in English lessons the teacher always read out my stories as an example of good writing.
Then, after Grade 8, I was selected to move to Grade 9 at Marianville Secondary School.
My passion for writing elevated even further when I started writing journal entries at Marianville. It was also then I started writing poetry.
Poetry became an easy genre for me because I could confide in it. I had lived far away from my parents for so long and found that writing became therapy.
I developed a relationship with my journal and would look forward to receiving it after it was marked. I celebrated every positive comment from the teacher and encouraged myself to write better.
One morning, my journal got rejected by my Language & Literature teacher, she was a tough one. She had us write five journal entries a week after giving us two topics, one for an essay and the other for a creative piece.
She also rejected every journal that came in late and refused to mark them. For someone like me who took my writing and her comments seriously, that my journal got rejected hurt me badly and I went to the restroom for a 10-minute cry.
After I walked out, I took the journal to another teacher and asked her to critique my work. She did an incredible job. And I found this is how it is with writing. Do not be limited by one critique, you’ll find more people who will appreciate and celebrate your style and guide you to write better. Cry if you must, but there are better ways.
Eventually I found the courage to share my writing with my peers. I also wrote two songs that were sung, one in school and one in church. Two plays of mine were staged, one in school and one in church.
I wrote poems for funerals, birthdays and weddings. My confidence was boosted as more people began to tell me they enjoyed my writing.
I took part in writing competitions and submitted poems to The National newspaper. Then in 2013, when I entered the Crocodile Prize, my perspective about writing transformed as I started receiving good critiques from writers in other parts of the world.
More often now I was connecting with other Papua New Guinean writers. In 2016, along with 44 other Papua New Guinean women, I contributed to the My Walk to Equality anthology, the first collection of PNG women’s writing.
After seeing other Papua New Guineans getting published, I became interested because I had a compiled a collection of poems but did not know how to publish them.
Then in 2018, I discovered that Library for All was collecting children’s stories from Papua New Guinean writers and I decided to write a few and send them. Zuki the Crocodile was my first children’s story that was accepted and published.
Motivated by this, I went on to write 27 more stories which have all been accepted and published. In 2019 I published my first book of poetry, ‘Nanu Sina: My Words’. It is a collection extracted from my journal when I was a student at Marianville.
In 2020 while locked down by Covid, three other Papua New Guinean writers and I launched the Ples Singing blog – a literary platform dedicated to promoting reading and writing in PNG.
In June this year, I released a children’s book, ‘When I grow up’, which I independently published through a collaboration with a female PNG artist and publisher.
As of today, I have written 29 children’s story books and a book of my poetry.
In a country like ours, where Western culture is taking over, there is a need for our stories to be captured in books for future generations.
PNG literature is a sleeping giant waiting to be woken by a generation of active minds ready to tell and record forever the diversity of this country so it is accurately represented to the outside world.
Read, because this is the way to open your mind to great ideas and, most importantly, write. Use your knowledge to create something beautiful. Something original. Something worth celebrating. Something you can give back to this country.