In some cultures May Day is “traditionally a celebration (or festival) of spring and the resurrection of nature after the winter months”. It has been many years since Papua New Guinea had a writer’s magazine.
Ples Singsing has decided to address that lack.
In some countries May Day, the first day in May, is recognized as International Labour Day, “a celebration of labourers and the working classes. This publication is a ‘labour of love’ and is meant to be shared to all Papua Niuginians, from the working classes to the market sellers, from sumatin in schools to youth outside of school.
Ples Singsing is a space for Papua Niuginian creativity.
Despite the setbacks and difficulties, sparkling embers still burn in the fireplace of Papua New Guinean literature. Rait ples, rait papagraun, rait pipol. Right place, right heritage, right people. In Tok Pisin rait is also ‘write’ – Keith Jackson
MICHAEL DOM – posted on PNG Attitude blog
LAE – Around the middle of June, Ples Singsing Writers & Associates held its first writers kivung, Kirapim Paia Long Ples Singsing – Create the Passion of Ples Singsing.
Ples Singsing is, of course, the Papua New Guinea writers’ blog, the spirited lovechild of me and a number of colleagues whose turn it was to seize the waning fire of PNG literature.
The kivung (standard translation = official meeting) was held at the University of Papua New Guinea in the apposite surrounds of Language Laboratory L241 of the Kuri Dom Building, long ago known as the Arts 1 Building.
Apposite because, as poet and Grand Old Man of PNG letters Russell Soaba has written, “it was once a literary hub and “host to many a linguistic debate on power, hegemony and post-colonial discourse”.
On this occasion the building named for my own father was to be the scene of intense discussion and about the state, issues and prognosis of PNG literature.
We were hosted by Sakarepe Kamene, senior lecturer in the university’s Language & Literature Strand and president of the PNG Linguistic Society.
Among the participants were Emmanuel (Manu) Peni, author of Sibona, Imelda Griffin, co-founder of Eve PNG magazine and Baka Bina, prolific author who this year broke new ground for PNG writing by being the first from our country to be shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize.
Getting down to business, I observed for those present that it would be entirely appropriate to respond to prime minister James Marape’s statement of some time ago that he would help PNG writers to write.
On the eve of a visit to China, Marape had said as much to author Daniel Kumbon who the prime minister had invited to meet with him in his Port Moresby office.
After his return from China, Marape had vouched, he would make an announcement to reveal how established PNG writers could be assisted and encouraged to write about the diversity of PNG.
Were such assistance forthcoming, we would say that what PNG writers really need is the facilitation of better editing, proofreading and publication processes.
Or, on a somewhat higher plane, the fostering of a small print-on-demand industry to supply a local market which we know exists but has yet to be fully explored.
I also reflected on the idea of a public-private partnership, perhaps in a small-to-medium sized enterprise.
Despite the setbacks and difficulties, the embers still burn in the fireplace of PNG literature.
Rait ples, rait papagraun, rait pipol. Right place, right heritage, right people.
At the kivung, we spent time discussing the first issue of seeking to facilitate better editing, proofreading and publication processes.
Long namba tu wari, bai yumi noken weitim gavaman, em ol bisi man meri tumas laka. And on the second concern, we can’t wait for the government. They’re busy men and women.
Kam sindaun arere long paia na sikirapim wanpela kaukau. Ino long taim bai pik igo insait long mumu. Let’s sit near the fire and peel a sweet potato. It won’t be long before the pig is placed in the cooking pit.
We’ll soon be providing more information on action by Ples Singsing Writers & Associates on behalf of PNG’s writers.
Em nau mi tanim Tok Pisin long dispela poem long em iken karai olsem tok-singsing long nek bilong yumi iet. Na yu pilim tu o? But now, I translated into Tok Pisin a poem which sounds like the sweet poetry of our shared voices. See if you feel it too
There is a theory, rather complex, that proposes that poetry can evoke sensations and emotions that bring the reader one with the words, or more adventurously, make the reader become the words.
Meanwhile I’ll continue with my sonnet. See if you can feel it.
Anutu i dai, tok tru blong yu iet
[Translated by the poet in Lae, 5 June 2022]
Tok tru em ino blong yu wan, poro Em stap insait long yumi olgeta Na yu laik strongim tingting blong yu iet Antap long mipela, em bai sotwin Long kamapim mak stret, na stap wankain Long as tru blong laip, we olgeta bai Pilim pen. Sapos tok tru em istap Yumi wanwan baimbai karim hevi. Stretim toktok blong yu, em bai tok aut Long asua blong yu iet long ples graun. Tasol saveman itok, tok tru long laik
Blong yu iet, bai yumi sutim igo. Anutu i dai. Laik blong yu i tru. Tok tru blong yumi inogat wari.
The god of truth is dead so speak your own
[The original sonnet in English, published on PNG Attitude, 11 January 2022]
The truth does not belong to you, my dear, It lives and breathes inside us all. And what You say is yours to speak, for which you dare Force us to share, when a fraction of it Does not compute the sum of nor compare To the fullness of life, where each remits The pain of being. If truth exists, we bear The weight, we each, so if each one is fit Be wary of your words, your vice declares Itself in the nature of being. Know that.
But say the wise, just speak your truth, no fear, We shall force the mathematics to fit. God is dead. Truth is whatever you care, The truth we speak need not care about that.
A note from the editor
Keen-eyed readers may have noted that the writers’ kivung was held in the Kuri Dom Building of the University of PNG, a building named in honour of Michael’s late father. In preparing Michael’s piece for publication, I came upon this report in the Pacific Islands Monthly of March 1987. It tells of Kuri Dom’s tragically young death and also evidences his great scholarship. That his name lives on within UPNG is a great tribute to him and the enduring effect of his ethos. Lest We Forget – KJ
MAYNOOTH, IRELAND – Sir Peter Barter, 82, who passed away in Cairns after a short illness on Wednesday 22 June, was well known and respected as a politician and businessman.
It is widely acknowledged that he achieved much in his time especially for both Madang Town and Madang Province.
Certainly the Peter Barter I knew was a good man.
Sir Peter Leslie Charles Barter GCL OBE was born in Australia but later became a naturalised Papua New Guinean citizen.
He attended Newington College in Sydney before training as a pilot and flying for Qantas Airways.
He established, owned and operated the popular Madang Resort and, as early as 1980, created the Melanesian Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation which invested in remote communities that had shown great hospitality to tourists and other visitors.
Sir Peter was elected Governor of Madang Province in 1997, serving a five year term.
In 2001, he was knighted for his services to PNG and the tourism industry.
While in parliament he also served as Minister for Health and Minister for Bougainville Affairs.
In this latter role, he played an active and fruitful part in the process of reconciliation following the Bougainville civil war of the 1990s. He was highly regarded and trusted by both sides.
In addition to his political and business activities, Sir Peter was a long-serving member of the Governing Council of Divine Word University (DWU) in Madang.
It was through my own involvement over many years on the University Council that I got to know him.
About four times each year between 1998 and 2013, I travelled from Mt Hagen to Madang for meetings of the Council, and was pleased to associate with Sir Peter at these meetings.
Quite often, if there was no accommodation available on the university campus, several of us Council members would be lodged at Sir Peter’s Madang Resort.
I only have good memories of those times.
Peter BarterSir Peter rarely missed a Council meeting and he genuinely seemed to enjoy the opportunity of mixing with people from different backgrounds and discussing matters relating to education and the university itself.
The Council included people from industry and the academic world, and from different faith backgrounds, not only Catholic but also from the Lutheran, Anglican and United churches.
Sir Peter participated in Council meetings in a polite and serious way and his contributions were always worthwhile.
He never tried to browbeat or be officious. I would describe him as being genuinely humble in his contributions to our meetings.
So I only have very good memories of Sir Peter.
My condolence goes to his family members.
You can all be so very proud of the late Sir Peter Barter.
This poem is about the motivation I sought when writing. Sometimes words don’t come easily, other times they just flow in the mind, like wave ripples; single words, dancing letters, phrase, etc. And all It takes is to capture the first wave of letters before the next can be revealed.
When letters dance to your graphite spill you’d know there is more your pen can spell
I’ve had mine on a morning of July like a dog turning around to lie been awake doodling seen them letters shy
Walked my fingers across flat paper white In between nigh lines and night dimmer light
Dare to dance? the letters charged Scared to write? the twenty six marched up and down the stairs of pearl paper lines
My fingers that doodle now write as if they had a mind to mingle like wave ripples, aye
Sound of their tiptoe of rhythm and rhymes in the silence echo that spell themselves Twenty Six Letters
Sipikriva Girl, despite not entirely embracing poetry, had the opportunity to speak to 34-year old writer, poet and accountant, Dominica Are, who recently published her first collection of poetry, Prized Possessions.
Hailing from the highlands of Papua New Guinea, Dominica works full time as an accountant with PNG Coffee Exports Ltd in Goroka.
She spent almost all of her formative years in Mt Hagen attending schools there and then moving to Madang to attend Divine Word University.
Dominica has been writing for almost 20 years, mostly poetry and short stories. As with a lot of art, often powerful emotions are the triggers of works of great beauty.
When her parents separated in 1998, she took to scribbling in her notebook about the hurt and pain she felt, and the hopes and wishes she had.
“I find solace in spilling out my thoughts and emotions. It has been quite a long journey but I haven’t given up on documenting what I go through,” Dominica says.
She religiously makes daily journal entries and it was these that form the basis of her book, which has been in the pipeline for a quite a while.
“I keep a collection of all that I’ve written over the years,” Dominica says.
“I have been keeping notebooks and newspaper cuttings of published work. When I got my first laptop at university, I started keeping e-copies.”
Initially Dominica wasn’t very keen on publishing. However her collection kept growing.
“I was only writing for myself.
“When I started seeing my entries published in the annual Crocodile Prize anthologies (and in My Walk to Equality), I experienced a different outlook in approaching my writing.”
Dominica decided to give publishing a shot after encouragement from people close to her.
“In 2019, I decided I must do it! I started pulling out my work from here and there.
“Seeing that all my writings were about personal experiences, I decided to have my first publication about that.”
Putting a collection of her poems together for publication was not easy for Dominica, who struggled to fight off the negative feelings of exposing her very personal experiences.
“The thought of dying with these beautiful stories within saddened me. I care about my stories. I care about my writing,” she says.
In the end, she found courage enough to tell her story through poetry.
In early 2020, Dominica contacted the late Francis Nii who helped edit and publish Prized Possessions.
Dominica likes freestyle poetry best and believes it to be her strength.
She has also dabbled in more technical styles including ballad, sonnet, ode, rondeau, kyrielle, haiku, limerick and tanka.
Prized Possessions contains 90 poems in its 116 pages.
“I want my readers to be inspired to write their own story,” Dominica says.
“No matter how ugly it may seem, your children need to hear your story.
“You might not be around long enough to relay these stories to them. Your writings can give them an important insight into your life.”
Dominica believes that our experiences, written down and read by others, might help readers who feel downtrodden and lost.
Prized Possessions was published by Francis Nii Publications through CreateSpace. Francis also played a part in editing the book.
Working with Francis, who died in August, Dominica described him as open and a straight shooter.
“I truly appreciate his honest critique on my work. There were a few pieces whose meanings were quite ambiguous so he asked me to look at them again.
“I read over and over again and found that it was true so I had to rewrite.”
Francis emphasised that writers have to think of the average Papua New Guinean reader when publishing.
At the time of publishing, Francis was very ill, but pressed on to help make Prized Possessions a reality.
Dominica faced some hurdles in getting hardcopies of her book. Amazon had stopped shipping to PNG so it was difficult to get copies.
Dominica had to buy copies of her book and have them shipped to people in Australia who shipped them to PNG.
Dominica believes government support is the way to go.
“Support should be given through the initiation of writing competitions, reviving, building libraries and supporting local authors in purchasing and distributing their books,” she says.
“The environment must be so ideal that local authors and publishers can produce well and profitably too.”
Dominica has a few words of wisdom for other writers as a parting remark.
“You don’t have to be an expert or have a background in creative writing in order to write.
“You have to make it happen. Be persistent and you’ll get better eventually.
“The most important thing is to read. Reading and writing go hand in hand. The more you read, the better your writing will be.”
Sipikriva Girl wishes Dominica only the best in her endeavours, writing or otherwise
A fellow Papua New Guinean author once told me, “I gave up drinking when I got the response from my fellow Papua New Guinean menfolk that my K50 book was too expensive. A carton of beer seemed more affordable than a reading book”
How many of us have picked up a PNG authored book and gave the exact response?
I have watched people debate all over social media about the “price tags” that are associated to certain products, be it shoes, bags, perfumes, clothing, or gadgets. The same product being charged a little higher by another while being charged a little lower by the other. The most common responses to these are freight costs, customs clearance, labor, markup, transport etc. I’ve even seen entrepreneurs explain some of the lengthy and costly process they must go through with just to bring in or create their products I think to myself, “I hear you and I feel you”.
Just like every entrepreneur, an author invests their time and resource to create a product to sell. The one difference that sets a book apart from other products is value it carries within its content. One book can impact an individual, a family, a community, a village, or a country. If you have ten people in your home, you don’t necessarily have to buy 10 books because that one book can be read by 10 people. It does not matter what the size, shape or color of the book is, it serves its purpose. If you buy a size 16 meri blouse of K50, it can only be worn by a woman who can fit into it. It complements the customers look and size, puts money into the seller’s pocket to help her grow her business or support her household. That meri blouse loses its value overtime, the book does not. The color may fade, the pages may tear, it could get burnt and disappear but it’s content – the words, memories, emotions, and story lives within those who have held it.
With the 2022 national elections coming up, I’d like to see a political party with a policy aimed at improving the country’s literacy rate and Human Development Index. A policy that is specific to prioritizing libraries and books. Bringing back into society what use to be the norm. Reading in public places – in the bus, in the long queues, at the marketplaces, bus stops etc. We say that PNG’s official language is English, yet the standard of English today is below average and is evident particularly on most social media platforms.
To be able to speak better English one must read. To be able to write better English one must read. Having access to books makes these possible.
When you spend K50 on a PNG authored book, you are:
1. Buying knowledge.
2. Making an investment – One book priced at K50 educates 10 people at value of K500 or 20 people at a value of K1,000.
3. Preserving and promoting local knowledge and literature. In the same way as promoting a local SME
4. Creating a chain reaction. Tapping into that space of inspiring more Papua New Guineans to get into the habit of reading and writing.
So you see, buying a PNG authored book goes beyond supporting a local author. If you would like to get into this space, you can start by purchasing a book authored by a Papua New Guinean today.
To get a copy of my children’s story book, send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org.
29-year-old newcomer makes history as first winner from Eswatini
Kota’s story ‘and the earth drank deep’ depicts a group of hunter-gatherers encountering threats from wild animals, disease and unexpected death
Winning story praised for ‘putting “evil” on display without interrogation or judgement’
Twenty-nine-year-old Ntsika Kota has today been announced as the overall winner of the world’s most global literature prize. In another record year for entries, Kota beat off competition from 6,729 entrants worldwide to take the £5,000 prize.
The Commonwealth Foundation announced Kota’s win in an online ceremony, in which he and the four regional winners read extracts from their stories. He was presented with the award by performance poet Mr Gee.
Kota is the first writer from Eswatini to win the prize. He is also the first writer from that country to be shortlisted.
Kota’s winning story, ‘and the earth drank deep‘ centres around a group of villagers in a hunter-gatherer society set in the ‘distant past of our species’. As they encounter threats from wild animals, disease, and unexpected death, the story tells of a day when ‘cold blood flowed for the first time, and the earth drank deep’. Some aspects of the social hierarchy of the village were very loosely based upon Nguni cultures from Southern Africa, Kota says, but the society he depicts is imaginary.
The judge representing the African region, Rwandan publisher Louise Umutoni-Bower, praised it as a story that ‘uses African folktale in a way that remains true to form but is also accessible. It is a reminder of a time when storytelling had a prized place in social gatherings.’ She comments, ‘I was personally transported back to the floor by my mother’s feet where I quietly listened to tales of Rwandan folk heroes and villains.’
Chair of the Judges, Guyanese writer Fred D’Aguiar, says, ‘This year’s winner is an instant classic: a linear narrative in the tradition of the realist short story. The events unfold around a central ethical conceit with tension that accumulates, and a surprise ending leaves the reader with many questions and in a state of provocation. The deceitfully simple and straightforward style rubs against an artful orchestration of tension. The writer controls elements of character and plot to captivate the most sceptical of readers. The reader inherits a host of hot topics for discussion at the end of the story all of which shine back at the reader’s world. Like the best parables the result is an interplay between story and reality, invention and the quotidian, the writer’s imagination and the world of the reader.’
Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO, Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation, the intergovernmental organisation that administers the prize, says: ‘Ntsika’s wonderful success is a reminder of what makes the prize unique. It is an opportunity for writers from across the Commonwealth to express themselves, regardless of where they live or their previous writing experience. How fitting that Ntsika – a self-taught writer, hailing from one of the smallest Commonwealth countries – should triumph. His success is a reminder of the universality of writing and storytelling. We all have that special power for storytelling within us, if we can only find a platform to unleash it. And, once again, the prize has confirmed its uncanny ability to unearth new talent that, in this and future work, will no doubt take the world by storm!’
Ntsika Kota says, ‘There are not many literature prizes more global in scale or inclusive in scope than the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I submitted my story more out of pride than expectation. I was aware of the calibre of writing and adjudication so I was under no illusions about my chances. However, against all odds, my story was shortlisted. It was just the endorsement I had hoped for. It meant that the pride I felt in what I had put to page was justified. It was everything I had hoped for. I expected no more. Although, that being said, I couldn’t help but daydream about winning the Prize. I never let myself actually hope to win, though, let alone expect to. After all, that would be ridiculous! A rank amateur? In such distinguished company? Fantasise if you will, I told myself, but for goodness sake, be realistic. Imagine my surprise, then, when I got that call.’
Born in Mbabane, Eswatini, Ntsika Kota is a chemist by training. A self-taught writer, he was originally inspired by a high school writing assignment. Ntsika’s work is a reflection of his thoughts and feelings, and he enjoys creating that reflection.
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is free to enter and is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from the Commonwealth. It is the only prize in the world where entries can be submitted in Bengali, Chinese, Creole, French, Greek, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Tamil, and Turkish as well as English.
The 2022 prize was judged by an international panel of writers, each representing one of the five regions of the Commonwealth, chaired by Guyanese writer Fred D’Aguiar. His fellow judges, drawn from the five regions of the Commonwealth, are Rwandan publisher Louise Umutoni-Bower (Africa), Indian short story writer and novelist Jahnavi Barua (Asia), Cypriot writer and academic Stephanos Stephanides(Canada and Europe), Trinidadian novelist and former winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize Kevin Jared Hosein (Caribbean), and Australian Wiradjuri writer, poet and academic Jeanine Leane (Pacific).
They chose the overall winner from the line up of regional winners: Asia winner Sofia Mariah Ma (Singapore); Canada and Europe winner Cecil Browne (United Kingdom/St Vincent and the Grenadines); Caribbean winner Diana McCaulay (Jamaica); and Pacific winner Mary Rokonadravu (Fiji). Overall, there were 6,730 entries from 52 Commonwealth countries.
As part of the Commonwealth Foundation’s partnership with The London Library, the overall winner receives a two years’ Full Membership to the Library and the regional winners receive a year’s Full Membership.
The literary magazine Granta has published all of the regional winning stories of the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, including ‘and the earth drank deep’.
The five stories are also available in a special print collection from Paper + Ink (www.paperand.ink).
Global impact on writers’ careers Last year’s winner, Kanya D’Almeida, says, ‘I continue to be overwhelmed and humbled by the opportunities that this prize has laid before me.’ Kanya has signed with an agent, has almost completed her debut short story collection, and won the ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2022 this year.The careers of other previous winners continue to grow. After winning the prize in 2020, Kritika Pandey signed with an agent, is currently working on the final edits of her first novel, has had short-form works come out in the Kenyon Review and on BBC Radio 4 as well as teaching creative writing workshops with the Himalayan Writing Retreat and Writing Workshops Dallas. After receiving multiple literary agency offers, 2018 winner Kevin Jared Hosein signed with Aitken Alexander Associates and his new novel is a major lead title to be released in 2023 under the title Adoration in UK/Commonwealth (Bloomsbury), and Hungry Ghosts in North America (Ecco). To mark the 10th anniversary of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize last year, BBC Radio 4 commissioned three recent winners of the Prize to write brand new stories for radio to be broadcast this summer.
Submissions for the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize will open on 1 September 2022. Those interested in submitting to the prize can follow @cwwriters on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or visit commonwealthwriters.org for updates.
CHRISTCHURCH – Poet Michael Dom’s two newest books are being praised for their illumination of life in Papua New Guinea and as a “treasure chest of a special type of poetry”.
Dried Grass over Rough Cut Logs and 26 Sonnets: Contemporary Papua New Guinean Poetry were launched this month.
Veteran writer Professor Stephen Winduo describes Dom as a poet who has come of age.
“He has the ability to pick up the ordinary and mundane, and project it onto a page and make us see what we are unable to see on our own,” says Winduo.
“He shows us a different worldview to the one we have been living and breathing our whole life.
“In a line of poetic tradition since Alan Natachee, Kumalau Tawali, John Kasaipwalova, Apisa Enos, Russell Soaba and this writer, Michael Theophilus Dom is quickly securing his place among the great poets of this nation.”
Pioneering Pacific poet Professor Konai Thaman said of 26 Sonnets: “This collection tells me more about PNG than most of the reference books I’ve used and/or recommended to my students.
“The passion, humility, honesty, as well as the determination of the poet to share important human issues facing his community and the concomitant link between those and what is going on globally, make this collection unique.
“This is of course not to underestimate the collection as a treasure chest of a special type of poetry – the sonnet, and although this form originate from elsewhere, Michael has used it successfully, contextualised and made it his own, including the Tok Pisin poems, for our education and enjoyment.”
Dom says the sonnets collection spans 15 years. He says the form is easy to describe but difficult to master.
“We have our own way of writing,” he said. “People talk about authentic cultural voices. For me, authenticity is about expressing ourselves honestly.
“I wasn’t trying to make a collection of sonnets but I could see it was a useful form.
“The sonnets have a certain potency in the way they can deliver a message. I appreciated what it was doing for my writing.”
Dom won the coveted Crocodile Prize in 2012 for his poem, Sonnet 3: I Met a Pig Farmer the Other Day, which is included in this collection.
Dried Grass over Rough Cut Logs features all new poetry by Dom.
He says the title of the book refers to the Tok Pisin term bush materials, which has a wider meaning encapsulating Papua New Guinea and essentially its people and home.
In the foreword, Ed Brumby writes: “As his previous anthologies and prizes attest, Michael is a highly gifted poet and wordsmith, acknowledged and admired by his readers and peers.
“He gives full flight to his talent and creativity throughout this anthology, exploring style, metre and, occasionally, typography and layout as he yet again pushes the boundaries of his craft.”
The book includes a clutch of poems by Samoan poet Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i.
Faumuina was previously published in Fika (2006) and is a spoken word poet, particularly on issues affecting Pacific Island people such as sea level rise, heritage and self-identification.
Both books were published by independent PNG publishers. Dried Grass over Rough Cut Logs by Francis Nii, and 26 Sonnets by JDT Publications, which is owned by Jordan Dean.
“I don’t think of publishing these books in terms of importance, for me, it is a necessity – to gather these poems and publish them,” said Dom.
“The important thing is to express our culture in literature.”
Mary Rokonadravu, a Fijian writer, is the 2022 winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific region. Her story, The Nightwatch, was one of 6,730 entries this year and shortlisted alongside 26 other writers from the continents of Africa, Asia, Canada & Europe, and the Caribbean. Of this shortlist, 5 made it from the Pacific, the fifth continent.
This was her fourth time to enter the competition, her third shortlisting, and her second win. She previously won the prize in 2015, the first time she submitted a story – Famished Eels which was published in Granta. In 2015, she became the first non-Australian and non-New Zealander writer to win the regional prize, winning directly from the Pacific Islands, without any writing support, and from a space without infrastructure for the literary arts and publishing. Her short story The Brief Insignificant Life of Peter Abraham Stanhope was shortlisted in 2017. English is her third language.
This is the second time you have won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific region. What is its significance to you?
It’s been seven years since I first won the CSSP (Pacific) Prize. Winning it again this year is reaffirming and a sign that what I do as a writer has meaning. In 2015 and 2017, I felt that I was in a competition. This time around, I do not feel as much that it is a competition – we are still floating on the waves of a pandemic and many of us have lost friends and family. The last two years of the pandemic and its media coverage and pumping of data on infections, deaths, recoveries, and vaccinations have kept me grounded in the realisation of just how fragile life is, just how fragile the planet we live on is.
That disrespecting our one physical home has deeply tangible consequences, and that even when we choose to live peaceful, minimalist, non-exploitative lives, the actions, and choices of others can still maim and kill us. In this sense, the pandemic is a microcosm for the way we structure global living and dying through deeply exploitative relationships we have come to normalise as politics, economics, and trade. It very sharply brings to the fore the fact that all that we need to do to save ourselves, we must do together.
In this shortlisting and then this regional win, I feel heard but deeper than that, I feel a sense of family with all other writers who entered the competition. I still feel this collective sense of being alive, that all our voices are surviving this terrible thing and I’m very aware of the fact that so many writers and storytellers, some barely beginning the realisation of their calling, could have perished in this pandemic. But 6,730 of us survived, kept writing, are alive and inspired enough to enter this competition. This competition is in some ways a celebration of life, of being human, of telling each other, ‘It’s quite something that we’ve come this far’.
Our stories are lifebuoys we throw out into the dark ocean – we have no idea who it might speak to, carry, or save. I feel that every single writer who is writing anywhere in the world is doing this and those that came before us continue to do this for us.
You chose to remain in Fiji and in the Pacific islands although you knew you’d have better literary opportunities in other countries. Please explain this decision and the challenges and learnings from it.
I have always been very aware that I stood to gain from better opportunities had I moved to another country. Fiji and other Pacific Island countries do not have creative writing programmes, publishing infrastructure, organised groups to safeguard the interest of writers and drive advocacy and lobby on their behalf, sustained funding, and resourcing for development of the craft. However, I’ve remained because I’ve always felt that my passion and craft depend heavily on my proximity to the physical, emotional, and spiritual spaces that serve as inspiration and repositories of my stories.
There are zero opportunities in my country and region – I believe the national arts and culture sector are still developing strategies and plans to engage with the literary arts and writers such as myself.
Having said that, I’m also keenly aware of the fact that resourcing of the arts sector is sparse and even now, with little to zero going to writers, the little that is shared between performing arts, visual arts, heritage arts, continues to be deficient. I have previously argued that recognising and giving space to writers is critical to the growth of the arts and culture sector because the very nature of our craft positions us to promote and make a case for all art forms and the sector could benefit from it.
I had to learn very early in my writing that I must accept the fact that there are no opportunities, and I simply must live with that. I also had to learn that I have nothing except opportunities that exist internationally by way of competitions. So far, I have only entered the Commonwealth Short Story Prize competitions, but I now intend to broaden that if I’m to get anywhere at all. I have never ever applied for writing residencies but am actively embarking on that now. These are things I never did in 2015 and 2017 but am changing that this year. I also learned that I am not good at promoting myself, so I am working with a publicist this year, and it’s changed things positively. These are lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way.
The Nightwatch has been described as a ‘blisteringly relevant’ short story. It has also been described as ‘brilliant’, ‘unforgettable’, ‘heartbreaking’, and ‘so rich in its scope, language and devastating recognition of place and people’. In your own words, what is The Nightwatch about and what made you write it?
I was fortunate to grow up in the rural Fijian culture of oral storytelling. This was complemented by the oral storytelling my father practised and he was South Indian, as was my mother – my adoptive parents. Perhaps the most outstanding thing about my childhood and teenage years is that I was brought up on a copra estate which had been part of a larger estate where my maternal grandfather and his own mother served indenture in. My grandfather was a child when he entered Fiji as part of the Indian indenture system, and he completed his indenture and later bought out a sizeable portion of the estate that was in bush and he and his daughters planted coconuts on it. From a very early age I carried the audacity to believe my voice, my stories, and the stories of my people mattered. I was also audacious enough to begin putting these to paper once I learned to read, speak, and write the English language. It never occurred to me that perhaps my stories did not matter. The isolation of an island upbringing was a blessing for me. This is where I received the gift of believing in the value and worth of my own storytelling and I was blessed with a family that supported it and teachers in school who encouraged it.
The Nightwatch is about the tremendous loss that ordinary people face under the historical machinations of capitalism, neoliberalism, and religious fundamentalism. It was a story that arrived in multiple pieces from things I had witnessed as a child. But at the heart of everything is my concern that bearing the garments of Christianity and given the backdrop of the climate crisis, violence, poverty, and our exploitative practices, we remain reluctant to examine the role of faith in the mossed and degrading architecture of Christianity that arrived on our shores well before our colonial masters the British did.
As peoples who lend life to political and economic systems that in turn shackle us, we continue to talk about decolonisation but ignore the elephant in the room – Christianity’s most rank evolution – Christian fundamentalism through the rise of the Christian right. And much older than that, the Christianity that generationally justified the capture and sale of human beings; slavery; indenture, a euphemism for slavery; outright theft of land and other natural resources; and the rationalisation of current economic and political structures that normalise unequal trade, education, healthcare, food security, and the willingness of the affluent to let the poor succumb to a world that is becoming uninhabitable due to pollution and the climate crisis.
The Nightwatch is a story, and it is a set of questions. One of its first questions is: what happens when we are no longer able to question the faith we follow, or, what happens when religion becomes corrupt, and we are unable to question its turn? A later question could be: what does history show us about our faith, or, has Christianity evolved over different periods, and if so, what, when, where, how and why did it change? These are important questions in a time where fundamentalism is driven by the gospel of fear and the gospel of prosperity and undergirded by dogma.
These are not questions for our current time only, they are questions that need have been asked several decades and several centuries old as well.
After all, at what point did it become important to fear and hate others than to offer water to a thirsty stranger. It isn’t a Christian question. It’s a question of our humanity.
TRISH NICHOLSON – posted on 19/01/2017 PNG Attitude blog
My Walk to Equality, edited by Rashmii Amoah Bell, Pukpuk Publications, 278 pages. Paperback $US10.53 or Kindle $US1.00. ISBN-10: 1542429242. ISBN-13: 978-1542429245. Available here from Amazon
MY Walk to Equality is a remarkable achievement. Not only as Papua New Guinea’s first anthology of women writers but also for its inclusiveness, breadth of vision and balance.
The 45 writers of these 81 stories, essays and poems originate from many different parts of PNG and its islands.
Their day-jobs include aircraft mechanic, nurse, educator, lawyer, home producer, student and administrator.
They write as mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, friends and neighbours as well as professionals in their respective fields.
Equally diverse are the topics addressed: from village childhoods to competitive urban employment, taking leadership initiatives and engaging in inter-nation events.
The reader is cleverly guided through this rich feast by the anthology’s structure of four main themes: relationships, self-awareness, challenging gender roles and legacies.
The writing sparkles with originality and imagination.
But perhaps most remarkably, My Walk to Equality projects something few books of women’s writing manage to do so well: a clear understanding that gender equality is not simply a women’s issue – it is a complex societal problem that requires attention to male as well as female needs in rapidly changing times.
Among the prose and poetry are moving protests against the physical and psychological abuse so many women in villages and cities contend with. But the contributions also speak of important roles women play in family, community and nation.
These women writers are not victims but aware, self-empowered, strong, active women, and each within her sphere has achieved much.
One indication of their strength is their recognition of the positive roles men can play in gender equality: stories that honour farsighted fathers and uncles, celebrate transformed brothers and husbands, and acknowledge dedicated schoolmasters.
In this sense it is not simply an anthology ‘about and for women’; it is a book for our present world of growing inequalities of all kinds, within and outside Papua New Guinea. Only through gender-balanced leadership can any of us tackle our current challenges both local and global.
While a few of the anthology’s contributors are established writers, others are only now discovering and gaining confidence in their talent.
But it would be misleading to look upon any of them as ‘new voices’ – the cultural roots of their self-expression go back through millennia – rather they are ‘newly heard’ voices or, as one contributor puts it, ‘freely heard’.
The freshness and authenticity of indigenous literature – which no ‘other’ can convincingly appropriate – is here melded with insights embracing the future.
Through their wisdom, optimism and hope, these women’s voices create a significant presence on Papua New Guinea’s literary stage and a worthy addition to the world’s narratives.
Stories wield power. Our freedom, indeed our survival, depends on having our stories heard and listening to those of others.
My Walk to Equality is the first anthology of Papua New Guinea’s women writers – it must not be the last.
Trish Nicholson’s most recent book, Inside the Crocodile, was published in 2015. You can read Phil Fitzpatrick’s review here. Her next work, A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, is forthcoming