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Baka Bina shortlisted for major literary prize

Baka Bina photo topKEITH JACKSON

NOOSA – Baka Bina has become the first author from Papua New Guinea to be shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

The Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from any of the Commonwealth’s 54 member states.

Baka’s story, ‘Wonem Samting Kamap Long Mama’ (‘What Happened To Ma?’) was written in Tok Pisin and translated into English by the author.

It’s one of 26 stories shortlisted from 6,730 entries by an international judging panel that will now choose a winner from each of the five regions: Pacific; Africa; Asia; Caribbean; and Europe/Canada.

The five regional winners will be announced on Monday 23 May and the overall winner in June.

The other Pacific regional finalists are ‘Sarah Walker (Australia), Eleanor Kirk (Australia), Mary Rokonadravu (Fiji) and Shelley Burne-Field (New Zealand). Mary was a regional winner in 2015.

Baka's wall
Baka's literary wall - designed for motivation and inspiration

Baka’s is one of two stories written in a language other than English; the other being written in Bangla, the national language of Bangladesh.

All the regional finalists’ stories will be published in adda, the online magazine of the Commonwealth Foundation, which features new writing from around the globe.

Baka Barakove Bina, 60, was born in Goroka and is the Assistant Registrar in Common Law working for the National Judiciary.

He is a Bachelor of Laws from the University of PNG and has a Diploma in Secondary Teaching (majoring in English) from Goroka Teachers College.

Baka is also a prolific author. His first short story was published by Oxford University Press and he has self-published a number of works on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.

“Bang, dammit!” Baka exclaimed when he opened the email and read that he’d been short listed.

“I was about to do my whoop,” he told me, “but I couldn't because the missus supposed to do the accompaniment wasn't there.

“And the girls in the outside office would have no idea of why Highlanders do whoops.

I was glad he didn't whoop, I'd previously been a victim of the whoop.

“But it would have been nice to rattle some of the many papers strewn around the office."

Rattle. I doubted rattle. It would have sent them flying - writs, subpoenas, summons, disclosures, judgements - as if swept along by the laurabada.

“I settled for a cup of coffee to fill up the bladder bag.”

Having recovered from that question, I asked Baka whether his story was related to a real life experience. I’ll let him take up the narrative.

Baka Bina on the art & toil of writing

Baka and jordan
Baka Bina and publisher Jordan Dean. Two of the anchors of PNG literature - snubbed by government, no money in it except your own but productive nonetheless

There is a backstory. As a child it never occurred to me why my mother would sometimes go away to live on her own at either the garden house or the pig's house.

Our garden at Sogopex is only a 10 minutes breezy walk away from the village and yet she would regularly stay a week or two away living in the garden house while Dad and we children would stay in the village house.

As kids, my sisters and I took it for granted that Ma would stay and at times sleep there so we organised our afternoons around that. It was just normal.”

It was only much later I realised what had been happening.

Ma stayed away from the village and away from people so she could manage her menstrual cycle.

The pads that we now know were non-existent in her time. Tradition dictated Ma self-isolate, self-quarantine, and live by herself for a few days.

So I thought, ‘What if she was not there in the garden?’ Is that a story?

I sat down to write and tried to infuse conjecture and imagination and came up with some scenarios I was able to capture in the story. This is how it went:

The kaukau in the fire hearth, that happens plenty of times as Ma knows we would visit her for our share of 'hauslain kaukau'

She would have cooked and roasted the kaukau ready for us when we visited her in the afternoons to pick a bilum of kaukau and firewood for the village.

The burnt-to-cinders kaukau and that there were no recently harvested kaukau for us were reasons enough to be worried.

Pigs on tethered leash were normal for us as we raised 'free ranging' pigs. However they were not tethered to be left out in the heat of the day so, if they had not moved, where was Ma?

The bloodied cloth was something a boy was never schooled in and that was a bit strange and confronting, although the shock to my sister-girl would have been less as she was being schooled in village biology lessons about women.

Aagh, the consequent upturned earth meant something was buried there….

Gosh, I'm telling a complete story to the back story – don’t want to do that!

I write a lot and always have plenty of ideas, drafts, storylines and even planned sequels to my novel ‘Sweet Garaiina Apo’ and second and third volumes of ‘Antics of Alonaa’.

I’ll still be writing for evermore in the future, if I can find the time.

Currently I am toying around with three works and they have been on the books since last year but I cannot find enough time to complete them.

I’ll tell you something about them:

A Farmer Buys a Wife’. I have a manuscript of 184 000 words and this story is epic, detailing the traditional process of parents’ involvement in finding a bride for their son - the Goroka way. 

It is a narration rather than an anthropological study and the aim is to take the reader for a walk through the process from start to finish when the bride is installed as a wife.

I wrote it - hand scribbled in four diary-type note books, snapped each page and sent it to my friend, Ed Brumby, in Melbourne who typed it for me.

Now I’m going over each page and rewriting it as a self-edit. It is sheer hard work when your vocabulary is limited.

How have I progressed on the self-edit bit?  At this time, only 20 out of 502 A4 pages so I'm not sure if I can ever complete this to send to my editor for his final look see before I decide to publish.

Tasol mi traim. It is eight years in the making and still going on.

Baka Bina hs
Baka Bina yesterday - excited, exhilarated, a bit tired, and seeking more time to write

Jumo Jama Jumae Zymur’. This is the complete and unedited version of ‘Zymur’ - my first published work from Oxford University Press some 25 years ago.

This new version is print ready, waiting for drawings to be inserted before I publish it hopefully this year.

The Kutubu Run’.  A modern short story of misplaced scientific exploratory zeal in a dark traditional world where superstitions of 'sanguma' and 'stonmahn' reign. This I also hope to publish later this year.

Next: Baka’s shortlisted story, ‘Wonem Samting Kamap Long Mama’ (‘What Happened To Ma?’) and more on the Commonwealth Short Story Prize


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Baka Bina

Congratulations to Dennis Kikira who has made the 2023 Pacific shortlist of the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

I wish him every success to win the Pacific list and also hope he wins the ultimate prize.

The Pacific shortlist this year:

Dennis Kikira (PNG) for When this island disappears

Himali McInnes (New Zealand) for Kilinochchi

Jean Flynn (Australia) for Sauce

Janeen Samuel (Australia) for Catching Up

Emma Sloley (Australia) for Sugartown


Last year, Baka Bina became the first writer from Papua New Guinea to be shortlisted for the Prize - KJ

Keith Jackson

Baka Bina became the first Papua New Guinean to be shortlisted for this prestigious literary award. I do not know of any other Papua New Guinean writer to achieve such an accolade.

He became the first Papua New Guinean to have a story originally written in Tok Pisin recognised for high literary honour. This itself was a significant event for PNG, for one of its national languages and for the world of literature.

Baka joins a small group of Papua New Guinean writers to have achieved international recognition for his work.

His achievement is substantial. It was earned only after many years of developing his craft. It is such as to ensure that, when PNG literature begins to be treated seriously within PNG, the name 'Baka Bina' will be remembered with honour and respect.

Michael Dom

Well done on making the breakthrough Bak, and it's even more pleasing that you made iit with a story that was in Tok Pisin and Tok Ples with an English translation.

Baka Bina

The winner of the regional winner will be announced tomorrow. I was informed yesterday that I was not selected. We had two Australians, one New Zealand and one Fiji in the mix for the regional winners. It is a daunting task to be pitted against writers from Australia and New Zealand.
I pass my congratulations to the winner who will go on to have a chance at the competition winner for 2022.
We try again in the September of 2023 and would like to encourage all aspiring PNG writers to submit to the competition.


Philip Fitzpatrick

This compulsion to write is a real mystery Baka. It has all the hallmarks of an incurable psychological disorder.

Or, if you are that way inclined and superstitious, a veritable curse.

Neither the failure to find a publisher nor the lack of commercial success, if you are lucky enough to get that far, seems to matter.

And it gets worse as you get older. I’ve got three books on the go, two on my computer and one still in my head.

Anything that interferes with their progress is hugely resented.

When I had to work to make a living I resented the fact. Now that I’m retired with more free time I still resent any intrusion.

Even something as satisfying as running Pukpuk Publications and helping Papua New Guinean writers eventually turned into a burden that took me away from my own writing.

I read a lot of autobiographies by successful writers but none of them have ever satisfactorily explained what drove them to write.

Many of them suffered financial penury for years before they saw success. And when that success came they were at odds to explain why that particular first bestselling book struck a chord with the reading public.

Tracking down the point when the disorder first manifests itself is an interesting exercise. It doesn’t necessarily start when you first put pen to paper.

I recall that when I was about five years old I concocted a yarn about my impending birthday and the party my mother had planned. My birthday is in June but this was sometime in December.

My elaborations were quite imaginative and I developed them over several days among my school friends.

Imagine my surprise when on the day I had nominated several of those friends turned up on our doorstep bearing gifts and primed to party.

Fortunately my mother played along with it and hastily conjured up the makings of a party, nowhere near as fantastic as I had elaborated but close enough to suffice.

It was a most uncomfortable experience and I waited in dread for when the boom would drop after my friends had left.

The lecture I received and the forfeiture of my pocket money for a month curtailed my imagination for a while but the urge to dress up the banal experiences of life eventually resurfaced with resolute inevitability.

Fortunately, by then I had fully mastered the art of putting ideas onto paper and thinking twice about the possible ramifications of what I said or wrote.

Curiously, in old age, those ramifications seem to matter less and less and I say and write what I feel and to hell with the consequences.

Also, in old age, while both my physical and mental capacities have degenerated, the imaginative world in my head seems wholly unimpeded and has, in fact, broadened considerably. I have some fantastic dreams.

I can’t remember what I did ten minutes ago and I forget people’s names almost instantaneously but my imagination is as subtle and alive as it was when I was five years old.

The only infuriating aspect nowadays is my inability to remember key words when I need them. The old hard drive in my head is so chockers with stuff it sometimes takes it an hour to rummage through the detritus for what it needs.

That other world that lives in your head and insists upon being heard is a powerful thing that has intrigued philosophers, psychoanalysts and psychologists since forever and none of them have come up with a satisfactory answer.

Not that it really bothers me. Some things you just have to accept and live with and enjoy.

When I’m close to putting a book to bed I’m already thinking about the next one. And I’ve never re-read a book I’ve written. When it’s done it’s done.

Dr Momia Teariki-Tautea

Congratulations Mr Baka Bina, a prolific and important writer for PNG’s aspiring writers.
I look forward to getting copies of your books for my collection for my Australian bred children and grandchildren. I have a collection of books by PNG authors as well as non-fiction on PNG.
It’s my way of ensuring my family maintain a connection with my place of birth.
Dr Momia Teariki-Tautea

Philip Fitzpatrick

184,000 words - you're going for the PNG world record I reckon.

But congratulations on the short story, it's a winner.

Ed Brumby

As a sometime companion and guide on Apo Baka's extraordinary literary journey, I am not at all surprised that his talents have been recognised by those who conduct the the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

And, biased as I am, I would be similarly unsurprised if he won it (as he probably should).

(I can also imagine the kilometre-wide grin on Dr Dom's visage as he learnt that a tale written in Tok Pisin has been afforded such international recognition - more welcome grist for the vernacular literature mill.)

I have had the utmost privilege and pleasure of collaborating with Apo Baka for nigh on nine years now and still recall his response to my initial question: 'Why do you write?'

"Because I have too. I cannot stop writing," was his answer (or words to that effect).

And his dedication to the writing craft has barely faltered during all the time I have known him.

Apo Baka would, I know, acknowledge wholeheartedly the support, encouragement and inspiration provided by his muse and kindly critic, his wife, Emily.

Emily, for family reasons, has returned to their Eastern Highlands village, leaving Apo Baka to toil on without her presence and immediate support.

I know that I am far from alone in hoping that Apo Baka receives the recognition that he so rightly deserves - and which, through him, will be a welcome testament to PNG writers and literature in general.

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