The residues of war that linger to this day
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John Kasaipwalova, poet & radical, dies at 74

John & Keith
John Kasaipwalova and Keith Jackson back together at UPNG in 2017


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


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Michael Dom

Vale, hero.

Joseph Kaidoga

For those close to him professionally and friends at a more personal level, John's funeral service will be held at Sioni Kami Memorial Church on Friday 12 May, 2023.

Feel free to come to have a glimpse of your friend and colleague before his body departs for Trobriand Islands on Saturday 13 May.

Imelda Griffin

Thank you Chief John Kasaipwalova for pouring into my life.

I will miss our long chats over coffee or dinner and your random texts cajoling me to give some thought to a matter beyond the few grey streaks along my hairline or life experiences.

What a treasure we have lost! A truly extraordinary mind.

Bamahuta Raobada! I will treasure you always.

Keith Jackson

A further remark on Chief John Kasaipwalova. There is no doubt he was a radical and anti-colonialist in his youth. So was I. And there is no doubt that he was capable of outspoken contempt for whites at this time. Furthermore, I believe there were many expatriates deserving of contempt during those years. There was racism and there was exploitation of the Indigenous population.

But, as with most of us, time and circumstance had mellowed John and I would not want to depart this obituary without remarking that our conversations of 2017 were pleasant, friendly and comfortable. Indeed, he was an enthusiastic and indulgent host to me and my family. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm did not help develop UPNG Press in the way he wished. But John wasn't the only one who failed with literary endeavours in PNG. However, I must emphasise, he was not a bitter man.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Interesting comments Ed and Chips.

I don't think John ever mellowed, like most of his prickly counterparts from the 1970s did eventually, but maybe he did become a bit more circumspect in the way he expressed himself.

You've got to respect him for maintaining the rage for so long I reckon.

Maebh Long

Such a sad loss. His was such a strong poetic voice. He will be missed.

Daniel Kumbon

Sad to hear of your passing, Chief. I had heard about you long before I met you in person at the UPNG Bookshop as manager after Evans had retired to the UK.

You were kind to continue to sell my books at the bookshop, demonstrating how committed you were to support homegrown literature in PNG.

The next time I came around, you had left, to where nobody told me. And now this. Farewell Chief and rest easy.

Malcolm Mackellar

I knew John in his early days. He was a member of my staff when I was Assistant District Commissioner at Esa'ala in Milne Bay Province.

He was an ardent nationalist, but as far as the colonial administration was concerned, he was a troublemaker. He accused me of being a white supremacist, racist, bigot and all the other buzz words he could think of.

It was all a bit too much for staid old Esa'ala and fortunately he was transferred out.

I later met him again when I was ADC in the Trobriand Islands. He was a bit more subdued then, more interested in Trobriand affairs.

Later we met again at Queensland University. His radical interests then were more directed with other student radicals against the Vietnam War, although he was then quite friendly towards me.

Years later, in Port Moresby, when I was the District Court Magistrate at Ela Beach, he publicly criticised a court decision of mine. He proclaimed, "Mackellar is the greatest colonialist that ever set foot in Papua New Guinea."

My court house staff were horrified. But feeling a great surge of pride that John still remembered me, I went to the Royal Papua Yacht Club and sat on the poop deck with a gin and tonic while I watched the sun set on the old Empire.

Rest in peace John. Papua New Guinea will miss you.

Ed Brumby

Sad news indeed, Keith. I always had the highest regard for John, and for his poetry especially.

That said, the regard was not reciprocated. He 'called me out' at a presentation I made on the School Paper character, Yokomo, at a literary event at UPNG in 1972 - calling me (and the Yokomo character) 'racist'....

A distressing memory about a remark both boorish and discourteous, Ed. It was the case that over many years in the 1960s Frank Hiob, you and I wrote the stories and John Lucas, Hal Holman and Peter Lucas illustrated them. That we were all white men drew some unpleasant criticism at the time, in my experience mostly from UPNG academics. The word 'disingenuous' was coined to describe such people, and what they thought they were criticising now has its own name - cultural appropriation. In most cases this term is erringly and improperly applied to acts of innocent endeavour. But the young Kasaipwalova always took his six-guns to town - KJ

Philip Fitzpatrick

What a sad thing to hear on a cold winter's day in Tumby Bay.

I first met John when I was working with Sinaka Goava's Commission of Enquiry Into Land Matters in 1972.

We visited his village where he was waiting for a group of tourists to arrive. They never showed up so he asked us if we'd like to partake of the feast and festivities, which we duly did.

That's when I first talked literature with him. That discussion stayed with me right up until Keith and I created the Crocodile Prize.

I kept in touch with him off and on afterwards. I can't remember where or when I last saw him.

And now he's gone.

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