NOOSA – The death of Chief John Kasaipwalova at the age of 74 on Tuesday night has robbed Papua New Guinea of one of its outstanding literary figures.
John was born in Okaikoda village on Kiriwina Island in 1949 and later proved to be a bright and outstanding student, receiving a scholarship to St Brendan's College at Yeppoon in Queensland and from there an Australian Commonwealth scholarship to attend the University of Queensland to study arts and law.
His strongly nationalist politics and writing proved to be more important to John than his studies and he supported radical groups, including the Revolutionary Socialist Students Alliance. He duly failed his first-year examinations, losing both his scholarship and his visa.
John was in luck, however, as the University of Papua New Guinea had recently been established and there he was able to continue his studies, his writing and his radical politics unencumbered.
With national independence just around the corner, John was active in the decolonisation movement.
Radical politics greatly influenced his writing which emphasised the denunciation of racism and colonialism. This period of his life was one of intense creativity with a substantial output of poetry, drama and stories
He soon became a significant figure in student and national politics and one of PNG’s most noted poets and playwrights, publishing the notable collections of poetry, Reluctant Flame and Hanuabada, and a number of plays.
In 1972, in a sudden and surprising move, the student radical and prominent poet and playwright returned to Kiriwina Island.
His uncle had told him that, upon his graduation from university, it was time to return to the Kwenama clan, become educated in its ways and ascend to a chieftainship that would ensure the people’s prosperity and well-being.
John heard the call and realising it took precedence, responded to it and returned to Kiriwina.
Back home, John continued to write sporadically. In 1980 he co-authored the folk play, Sail the Midnight Sun, and in 1998, co-authored the book, Kula: Myth and Magic in the Trobriand Islands.
He also leaves behind an unfinished novel, Bomana Kalabus O Sori O, excerpts of which appeared in the 1980 anthology, Voices of Independence.
After many years in local government and business with the Milne Bay Area Authority and the Kiriwina Council of Chiefs, John accepted roles on the board of the National Cultural Commission and the Council of UPNG.
For a while, he also became the university’s writer in residence. But he had always returned to Kiriwina.
I last met John early in February 2017 as l was wandering nostalgically around the UPNG campus dreaming of the past.
Strolling by the bookshop, I spotted a man a foot shorter than I with a straggly grey beard who looked just like an ageing John Kasaipwalova.
And, after 40 years, we embraced.
John was back on that campus; having answered the call to manage an ailing UPNG Press and Bookshop.
“Until November, when I arrived, I had not used a computer or emails – and now I love them,” John exclaimed.
But UPNG Press had suffered a terrible calamity a few months before John arrived to take over.
The old printery building housing the priceless PNG-Pacific collection of books had been torched during student unrest.
“The building was burned down on Friday 24 June between 4pm and 6am,” Gregory Bablis later wrote for PNG Attitude. “The PNG-Pacific collection is now just a pile of ashes.”
John told me he was intent not only on rebuilding but on greatly expanding the impact of UPNG Press.
This goal, of course, was of great interest to me at the time as, with Phil Fitzpatrick and others associated with PNG Attitude and the Crocodile Prize, we were seeking to ensure that PNG could sustain a robust literary culture.
John had many ideas about this – and believed he had the network and resources to do so.
But his enthusiasm was never matched by support from government or development aid organisations, entities that never understood the importance of literature and the arts in nation building.
So John’s dreams, along with our own, have so far not been realised. And our generation is almost extinct, and the next has yet to reveal what it can do.
Chief John Kasaipwalova, poet and playwright, was admitted to Port Moresby General Hospital on Sunday, diagnosed with kidney failure .
He had been suffering from Covid for some months. He died at midnight on Tuesday.
And another prominent figure from the independence era is lost to us. These are sad times