Fresh voices raised in anger

Finds an en­cour­ag­ing bold­ness in new writ­ing from PNG

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE bet­ter part of a decade ago, Pa­pua New Guinean writer Regis Tove Stella said what his coun­try needed was writ­ers, far more of them than there were, to claim, or re­claim, the role of ‘‘vi­sion­ary’’ and wit­ness. He con­cluded his 2007 book Imag­in­ing the Other with an el­e­gant ar­gu­ment that it was only when the writ­ers and in­tel­lec­tu­als served as ‘‘watch­dogs’’ alert to the ‘‘bleak’’ po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties and spoke out against cor­rup­tion and greed — ‘‘the rape of a coun­try’’ — that change would be­gin where it mat­tered: in the minds and hearts of a peo­ple.

In 2007 in PNG, a time of lit­tle pub­lish­ing and all too few writ­ers, let alone read­ers, it seemed a frail hope.

But PNG’s peo­ple have al­ways been great storytellers and de­baters, and while there may not have been many nov­els pub­lished and read since in­de­pen­dence in 1975, there have con­sis­tently been a few noble souls who have taken the role of wit­ness and poet. Oral sto­ry­telling re­mains a re­al­ity for many, the sto­ries that are told fold­ing re­cent his­to­ries into those handed down from past gen­er­a­tions. And news­pa­pers do a busy trade in mar­kets across the coun­try. You see them read, and be­ing read to those who can­not read.

So maybe Regis Stella, who died in 2010, would not have been sur­prised had he lived to see pub­li­ca­tion of the fourth Crocodile Prize an­thol­ogy, a cel­e­bra­tion of PNG po­etry, fic­tion, es­says and her­itage writ­ing.

When I re­viewed the sec­ond an­thol­ogy, to­wards the end of 2012, I was cel­e­bra­tory, but also ten­ta­tive — as were many of the writ­ers. Two years later, in this an­thol­ogy with 66 writ­ers rep­re­sented — among them writ­ers from pre­vi­ous years and a heart­en­ing num­ber of new, young voices — much of this ten­ta­tive­ness has gone. A new gen­er­a­tion of Pa­pua New Guineans is claim­ing the writ­ten as part of their sto­ry­telling, de­bat­ing in­her­i­tance — theirs as surely as any tech­nol­ogy that comes with a post­colo­nial moder­nity. I write and write Like my fore­fa­thers be­fore me My blood is the ink on my pa­per … Blood­lines and dy­nas­ties Dis­re­spected and de­stroyed. Love, re­spect and hon­our Erased by the power of ri­fles.

Novem­ber 15-16, 2014

This, from Did­die Ki­na­mun Jack­son’s Crocodile Prize win­ning poem, As a writer, opens a med­i­ta­tion on Me­lane­sian ex­pres­sion that would have pleased Regis Stella.

But for the most part the mood of this an­thol­ogy is less med­i­ta­tive. Anger is a dom­i­nant emo­tion — anger and loss — which could hardly be oth­er­wise for a gen­er­a­tion liv­ing with high lev­els of ur­ban dys­func­tion, vi­o­lence and cor­rup­tion.

There are tough sto­ries to be told, and so we read short sto­ries about chil­dren find­ing neigh­bour­ing chil­dren shot dead; a girl killing her­self be­cause she’s preg­nant; a widow strug­gling to raise her chil­dren with no money for school fees; a girl in a green dress raped and dumped in a drain. The Crocodile Prize-win­ning story, Agnes Maineke’s While war raged in Bougainville there was a mir­a­cle at Haisi, is about a woman giv­ing birth in a re­mote hut dur­ing the civil war on Bougainville.

With th­ese lines, another Bougainville writer, Marlene Dee Gray Po­toura, be­gins her story of a lit­tle girl wo­ken at dawn dur­ing that vi­cious war. As men with guns sur­round the vil­lage she es­capes the car­nage that fol­lows by The Crocodile Prize An­thol­ogy 2014 Edited by Phil Fitzpatrick Pukpuk Pub­lish­ing, 512 pp, $15 Bro­kenville By Leonard Fong Roka Pukpuk Pub­lish­ing, 239pp, $10 run­ning into the for­est, the gun-tot­ing ers’’ in pur­suit.

‘‘The whole for­est was angry,’’ Po­toura writes, and in a smooth move­ment she takes us from the stark re­al­ism of the guns to a for­est in which trees think, feel and act in uni­son. And so a ‘‘grand­fa­ther tree’’ up­roots it­self ‘‘in seconds known only to the se­crets of the for­est’’ and its ‘‘hard old trunk’’ falls on the crawlers and kills them. As it falls, its branches lift the girl to safety. The tree as a tal­is­man for the power of an en­dan­gered in­her­i­tance.

‘‘Your guardian trees,’’ writes Michael Dom, a pre­vi­ous po­etry prize win­ner. ‘‘ No more you flame.’’

Gary Juffa’s poem on the ‘‘sup­posed con­cern’’ and ‘‘pock­ets filled’’ that ac­com­pany the wide­spread and of­ten il­le­gal felling of the forests, ends each stanza with the re­frain: ‘‘And the trees keep fall­ing.’’

It is in the es­says that the cor­rup­tion and greed un­der­ly­ing the vi­o­lence and the dis­pos­ses­sion are named. Where the es­says in the ear­lier an­tholo­gies hinted and ges­tured, here there’s a con­fi­dence, a re­fusal to col­lude or be si­lenced. Blog­ger and so­cial me­dia ac­tivist Mar­tyn Namorong writes of counter-cor­rup­tion, of cor­rupt­ing the cor­rupters. Bernard Ye­giora ques­tions the vot­ing sys­tem, the pork-barrelling, the ‘‘wari-vote’’ that can get a cor­rupt politi­cian back into power when the vot­ers want the hand­outs back. ‘‘The race within the race,’’ Bernard Witne calls it, as money out­strips pol­icy, and ev­ery­one, in large ways and small, is out to ‘‘thicken their purse’’.

Is a West­min­ster sys­tem de­vel­oped over cen­turies on the other side of the world the best model for a coun­try of 800 lan­guages and tribes? What would, or could, a Me­lane­sian

‘‘crawl- democ­racy look like? And so the ques­tion is re­opened, first raised in 1980, of whether there is, or can be, a ‘‘Me­lane­sian Way’’ out of this mess.

What sys­tem of gov­ern­ment would, or could, give back to its peo­ple the re­source-rich wealth of op­por­tu­nity? Is it neo-colo­nial­ism that rules, as Na­marong sug­gests? He ends one of his es­says with the hope that his col­league Nou Vada, who ap­peared in the ear­lier an­tholo­gies, will one day be prime min­is­ter. ‘‘The day a boy from Hanu­abada be­comes prime min­is­ter will be the end of coloni­sa­tion,’’ he writes. Another frail hope? There’s been many a lo­cal boy, though not from Hanu­abada, who have taken the role. Some of them did it well, but were too of­ten re­placed by those who fill their pock­ets from the cof­fers of state.

On the other hand, if any­one doubts change is pos­si­ble, con­tem­plate Gary Juffa, who has 10 pieces in this an­thol­ogy. His story of go­ing on a pic­nic as a child with a saved packet of noo­dles, pick­ing toma­toes and shal­lots in the gar­dens as the pic­nick­ers walked to the river, is one of the best in the col­lec­tion. The clouds come over and the group scram­bles up the rocks to the road. They make it home to dis­cover two chil­dren shot out­side their fa­ther’s trade­store.

Juffa is now a mem­ber of the PNG par­lia­ment and, since 2012, gov­er­nor of Oro Prov­ince that takes in Kokoda and its fa­mous track. One of his first acts as gov­er­nor of a once deeply cor­rupt prov­ince was to put a mora­to­rium on all land deals, log­ging and re­source ex­trac­tion pend­ing au­dit and re­view. ‘‘The days of watch­ing our re­sources be shipped out for what­ever scraps have been throw at us is over,’’ he said.

His es­says are tough and fear­less, im­pres­sive by any stan­dard and from a politi­cian re­mark­able. From a politi­cian in PNG, they could also be con­sid­ered fool­hardy. His first term in par­lia­ment showed him how re­luc­tant his fel­low mem­bers were to speak on na­tional is­sues for fear of los­ing ac­cess to gov­ern­ment fund­ing needed to keep their elec­torates happy. In Tribe Ver­sus Na­tion: Ob­ser­va­tions on PNG’s Core Chal­lenge, he writes of be­ing warned ‘‘by a par­tic­u­lar min­is­ter’’, and it in­deed proved the case that when this year’s bud­get was handed down, he saw that he and his prov­ince had been well and truly ‘‘pun­ished’’.

There are those who urge him to keep quiet, to think only of what he can do for Oro with the money si­lence buys, but he says he will not. While trib­al­ism ‘‘is nec­es­sary for the preser­va­tion of cul­ture, lan­guage, [our] unique iden­ti­ties’’, the fu­ture of PNG — the ‘‘core chal­lenge’’ if there is to be any pos­si­bil­ity of a bet­ter way, a Me­lane­sian way — de­pends on a lead­er­ship will­ing to re­nounce the power of play­ing tribe

The Crocodile Prize An­thol­ogy 2014 against tribe, and speak for the wider col­lec­tive con­scious­ness.

Even if it costs him the next elec­tion, he will con­tinue to speak out, he says, be­cause some­thing has be­gun, ‘‘the stir­rings of change’’ are afoot. ‘‘The con­cern is now a small seed, but it is grow­ing and grow­ing fast.’’

We can only hope he is right. Change will not come eas­ily, and it will not come fast. At the time of writ­ing Juffa, half­way through his, was fac­ing a vote of no-con­fi­dence, or­ches­trated, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports, by cor­po­rate in­ter­ests. ANOTHER sign of PNG’s lit­er­ary stir­rings is that this year there were two new cat­e­gories in the Crocodile Prize. One was for chil­dren’s writ­ing, spon­sored by Buk bi­long Pikinini, the chil­dren’s li­brary or­gan­i­sa­tion that is grow­ing apace, bring­ing books and sto­ries to chil­dren from im­pov­er­ished ur­ban set­tle­ments. The other was an over­all award for the book of the year, the in­au­gu­ral win­ner of which was Leonard Fong Roka for his mem­oir Bro­kenville, which brings a child’s eye view to the civil war on Bougainville.

The war, for him, be­gan in class 2A at Arawa Com­mu­nity School. There was a com­mo­tion along his row of desks: the son of a po­lice­man re­ported fight­ing in the moun­tains. There had been ru­mours and strange be­hav­iour among the adults, and this time even the teacher stopped to lis­ten. The di­vi­sion was right there in that class­room, be­tween the dark-skinned chil­dren of Bougainville and the ‘‘red­skin’’ chil­dren of par­ents from the main­land.

At first it is clear enough for the young Roka. It’s us against them. Our is­land. Their gov­ern­ment. Our land. Their mine. The re­al­ity, of course, proves less clear cut for a boy whose fa­ther was a ‘‘red­skin’’ from West New Bri­tain and whose mother is from Bougainville. He has rel­a­tives on all sides. There are those who de­pend on the econ­omy gen­er­ated by the mine; there is his un­cle, Joseph Kabui, a se­nior man in the mil­i­tant in­terim gov­ern­ment. Over the next years, be­fore he can re­turn to school, Roka will learn a great deal about war and trib­al­ism, the con­tra­dic­tions of a na­tion drawn from colo­nial bor­ders, about moral am­bi­gu­ity, about be­trayal and pos­si­bil­ity. ‘‘I owe much to [that] cri­sis,’’ he writes in his ac­knowl­edg­ments. ‘‘It made me who I am.’’

It is in such writ­ing from Bougainville, per­haps not para­dox­i­cally, that the pulse of change ticks most strongly.

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