Death of a Coast Watcher by Anthony English, Monsoon Books, Burrough on the Hill Leics UK, 2020, 479 pages. Kindle $9.56, paperback $22.75 from Amazon Books
NOOSA – A psychological thriller with a strong connection to wartime events in Papua New Guinea has been shortlisted by the London-based Society of Authors for an award for a first novel by a writer aged over 60.
Death of a Coast Watcher, by Australian author Anthony English, reviewed early last year in PNG Attitude, has made it to the top niche of entries for this year’s Paul Torday Memorial Prize which will be announced on 1 June.
The prize is named for British writer Paul Torday, who published his first novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, at the age of 60.
The judging panel praised the broad selection of works this year, with Donald Murray commenting that “judging was like embarking on an exploration of the world, both in its past and present shapes and forms.
“I felt both enriched and honoured by many of my encounters during the experience.”
Philip Tatham, the publisher of Monsoon Books, expressed pride that one of the firm’s authors was shortlisted for the award.
“We publish books by authors in their twenties to their nineties – our oldest author is about to release his seventh novel for us aged 96,” Tatham said.
“Anthony English’s psychological thriller is set in parts of the world that very few people will have the chance to visit.
“We were immediately drawn to its unusual setting as well as to its finely crafted prose and thought-provoking story about the horrors of war and the abuses and atrocities committed in war.”
Author Robert Forster, who reviewed Death of a Coast Watcher for PNG Attitude, called the book, “erudite in its exploration of unusually difficult issues and ideas.
“He is merciless in the dissection of his characters, and often employs the hatchet precision of a butcher’s block when doing so,” Forster observed of his erstwhile fellow kiap English, who went on similar work on what are now Kiribati and Tuvalu and then development projects in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Along with other pre-independence kiaps, English was awarded the Police Overseas Service Medal by the Australian government in 2013.
“His greatest achievement in the book,” writes Forster,” is to have sat convincingly inside the heads of his principal characters, including the Tolai women, and relayed their most sensitive innermost feeling and thoughts.”
The novel starts in 1943 Bougainville and takes the reader between World War II and 1970s Bougainville and 1970s Kiribati before moving to 1980s Kyoto in Japan.
The book “plays with the misunderstandings that form part of all human relationships,” writes author Nigel Barley. “It lays them bare as key to the human condition itself.’
The theme of war was picked up by Susan Blumberg-Kason in a review for Asian Review of Books: “English tackles tough questions about war [and] the question of whether those who survived will ever cease to be haunted, is left open.”
Australian academic Dr Jenny Murray-Jones commented that “I found myself totally immersed in this account of the horrors of war, where innocent indigenous women are caught up in its atrocities, demonstrating their strength and resilience.
“Memories of past events plague the minds of those who have a connection to it, to the point of obsession, as if they are possessed by the ghosts of these characters.
“An amazing read which delivers a complex tale of the injustices of war and a fight for survival, very close to home.”
Award winners will be announced on Wednesday 1 June at a ceremony in Southwark Cathedral, London, which will be live streamed.
Born prematurely in a remote village on New Britain island, off mainland Papua New Guinea, Lydia Gah learnt to survive from her very first breath.
But it’s her story as the survivor of a 12-year abusive marriage that she’s determined to share with the world.
Ms Gah has just self-published a book titled Survive and Thrive, which documents her life and the violence she suffered at the hands of her former husband while living in PNG.
The violence she endured was during the 1980s, but Ms Gah said it was still a difficult process to write her book almost four decades on.
“It was like reliving those painful years and, consequently, it took me over two years to complete it,” she said.
“I would write maybe a paragraph or the idea that I wanted to bring forward for women to really take courage from or be inspired by, and then I would stop and shed tears.
“But the motivating factor for me to complete the book was, I’m not doing this for me. I’m on the other side.
“Now, I’m doing this for women who are stuck where they are right now.”
Helping others a consistent theme
Following her divorce, Ms Gah pursued her education and went on to become a counsellor and social worker. She also established a charity that supports domestic violence victims in PNG after she emigrated to Australia in 2004.
But she has since turned to writing in the hope her words will both inspire other women to take action and inform a larger, much-needed conversation.
“If the book transforms the mentality of people, how they view domestic violence, and [helps] lessen the incidence of domestic violence and changes the life of someone, I would have done justice,” she said.
“I want to be the voice of the voiceless — the women who, for far too long, have kept quiet about their own ordeal.
“This is my greatest hope that Papua New Guinean women, Melanesian women, Australian women start the conversation about domestic violence.
“It’s not something we should keep quiet about, because the more we keep quiet about it, the more it will happen.”
Calling out the monster
Ms Gah said while attitudes were changing in PNG, unfortunately her story of domestic violence was still all too common in her homeland.
“I know that it’s prevalent in Papua New Guinea, my birth country, [because] communities tend to look the other way when incidences of domestic violence happen,” she said.
“There is an element of not only fear, but shame and embarrassment.
“I want to call this monster out and say: ‘Don’t be embarrassed about it, talk about it’.
“I’m talking about it in the book to address what we have kept a secret for so long.”
Ms Gah is selling her book independently and is also raising funds through the sale of traditional PNG crafts, coconut oil and CDs of songs in her Nakani mother tongue and Tok Pisin to recoup her self-publishing costs.
Making waves in 2021 with Tongan poet Karlo Mila na tanim tokpisin wantaim Benjamin Mane long 2020
LAST year, there were very few entrants in the mini-poetry competition, only four entrees actually, but that was a step up from the first contest, for which we had only one entrant.
Maybe the number of entrees was in line with the ‘mini’ part of that contest title, maybe our awareness was not broad enough, or maybe it was the smaller amount of prize money to be won.
Then again, it could be that the contest requirements were too difficult. But isn’t that what a competition is about?
In 2020, we asked for poems on any subject, written and translated in English and Tok Pisin, or what the contest judge Michael Dom refers to as tok-singsing (tokpisin poems).
Also in 2020, Michael gave us the challenge of using a new form he had invented for writing poems in verse, Primaquatrain. That meant putting in thrice the amount of effort!
The winning poet, Benjamin Mane, not only wrote an excellent poem in the form, he innovated with it and modified it to his own purpose in Pairap Blong Kundu Kirapim Tingting and then translated it into English.
In 2021, the challenge was to write a poem for World Environment Day in dual Tok Pisin and English versions. But that also seemed like a difficult task for all but four entrants.
Nevertheless, the poems we received were of good quality and the amateur poets have made their marks, on the posts at Ples Singsing and were noticed by our fellows in Pasefika.
In fact, renowned Tongan poet Karlo Mila selected two of the poems for the Pacific Voices program at COP26. The poets were contacted to participate in radio interviews to send messages from the Pacific to the gathering of world leaders – How cool is that?!
The winning poem by Fiada Kede, In that Paradise, impressed Michael Dom so much that he did the Tok Pisin translation for it as well.
Another of the poems that Dr. Mila particularly enjoyed was The Change by Austin Nasio. The poem uses our local idiom very well and is rooted in symbols – animal totems – which are characteristic to specific areas of Papua New Guinea. That afforded the poem a unique PNG vision.
This year we are making the competition easier but we still hope that poets will try their hand at translation into Tok Pisin or even Motu. Em i samting blong traim tasol na lukim.
Also, we are very excited that Samoan poet Ms Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i has very kindly agreed to judge of our third mini-poetry contest.
Faumuina also took part in Pacific Voices and her scintillating poem, Etu iti, and 2020 published collection, My Grandfather is a Canoe, were featured on Ples Singsing.
This year Ples Singsing will be announcing a new writer’s project under grant funding by the Commonwealth Foundation. Part of that funding will be to support this mini-poetry contest with a little more in cash prize money, olsem liklik moa toea igo antap.
At Ples Singsing we hope that it’s not only the prize money that draws our poets’ attention but also the distinct pleasure of participating and being read across PNG and the Pacific, as well as the opportunity to interact with poets overseas and to be involved in global events where our PNG voices are heard and appreciated.
I'm a new Graduate
I'm a Job Hunter
I know about Book and Biro only
Day in Day out
I'm a Fresh Graduate
I stare only on note books
To pass tests and exams
I burn midnight candles to graduate
I'm a Fresh Graduate
I don't have experience
I don't have good looking CV
I don't have connections and PRs
I'm a Fresh Graduate
I aspire to learn
Learning is my culture
School taught me to learn
And I will learn
Even if I could learn from scraping
And build from there
I'm a Fresh Graduate
I owe nothing
I don't have experience
But I have skills and knowledge
I can do what I suppose to do
Or even learn while cleaning
I'm a Fresh Graduate
Try me and see
Tame me and find out
Use me and unleash the hidden potential
Help me and I'll build from there
I'm a Fresh Graduate
Zero on hand
Hero in my head
I can stand from here
I'm a Fresh Graduate
Give me this opportunity
I have a reason
I'll proudly serve you
And save my family
I'm a Fresh Graduate
I am here to learn
Learning is part of me
I'm a Fresh Graduate
I'll keep hunting for Jobs
I'll never get tired of your NO
I'll never be ashamed to knock
I'll stand to see one day to be well experienced person
I'm a Fresh Graduate
I'm a Job Hunter!
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.
“I write a lot & always have plenty of ideas, drafts, storylines, even planned sequels…. I’ll be writing for evermore in the future, if I can find time” – Baka Barakove Bina
In 2015, when Baka Bina published his novel, ‘Man of Calibre’, Phil Fitzpatrick described it as “an instant classic” and “a landmark novel”. And this week Bina repaid Fitzpatrick’s prescience by becoming the first Papua New Guinean to make the shortlist of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for his story, ‘What must have happened to Ma?’
Reviewing ‘Man of Calibre’ for PNG Attitude, Fitzpatrick had declared “it marks a significant turning point in the maturity of Papua New Guinean literature, and, indeed, the wider world”, adding that the novel “should immediately go onto the curriculums of PNG’s high schools and tertiary institutions”.
Well, that wasn’t going to happen because there may never have been a nation so disregarding as PNG of its authors, poets, essayists and other creative writers. But in that year, 2015, there was reason for some optimism. Indeed in the previous year, the Crocodile Prize had been confident enough to establish its first Book of the Year Award, won by Leonard Fong Roka for a book with a title as exquisite as its name, ‘Brokenville’.
In 2015, when there was a record number of entries for Book of the Year, and any qualms we had about whether a Book of the Year Award could be sustained, ‘Man of Calibre’ swept all before it. And now, seven years later, Baka Bina has delighted us all over again. And by ‘us’ I place at the head of a reasonably short queue the author’s mentor and amanuensis, Ed Brumby. Another grand champion of home-grown PNG literature and the unbending writers who create it, Phil Fitzpatrick, explains – so much as he is able – the compulsion that shapes and propels the true author – KJ
TUMBY BAY – This compulsion to write is a real mystery, as Baka Bina understands. In effect it has all the hallmarks of an incurable psychological disorder.
Or, if you are inclined to superstition, it is a veritable curse.
Neither failure to find a publisher nor lack of commercial success seems to matter.
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 resented. Hugely.
When I had to work to make a living, I resented it. Now I’m retired with more time to write, I 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 writing.
I read a lot of autobiographies by successful writers, but none has ever satisfactorily explained what drove them to write.
Many suffered financial penury for years before they saw success. And when it came they struggled to explain why that first best-selling book struck a chord with readers.
Tracking down the point when this writing disorder first manifested itself is an interesting exercise and doesn’t necessarily start when you first put pen to paper.
When I was about five I concocted a yarn about my impending birthday and the party my mother would plan.
My birthday is in June; this was sometime in December.
My elaborations were imaginative and I developed them over several days with my school friends.
Imagine my surprise when on the day I had chosen to nominate as birthday party day, several of these friends turned up on our doorstep bearing gifts and ready 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. I waited in dread for a dressing down from my mother after my friends had left.
I did receive a lecture and forfeited a month of pocket money, and this outcome did curtail my imagination for a while, but the urge to improve upon life’s banality resolutely resurfaced.
In time I fully mastered the art of putting ideas to paper and thinking twice about the possible ramifications of what I said or wrote.
Curiously, in old age, those consequences seem to matter less, and I say and write what I feel and to hell with the chain reaction.
Also in old age, with physical and mental capacities degenerating, the world of my imagination is impeded by nothing. In fact, it has expanded considerably. I have some sensational dreams.
While I can’t remember what I did 10 minutes ago and forget people’s names instantaneously, my imagination is as subtle, as luxuriant and alive as it was when I was five years old.
The only infuriating aspect is my inability to remember key words when I need them.
The timeworn hard drive in my head is so chockers, so bursting with ideas, it sometimes takes an hour to rummage through the detritus stored in my brain to find what it needs.
That other world in our head that insists upon being heard is a powerful phenomenon.
It has intrigued philosophers, psychoanalysts and psychologists since, well, forever. Not one of them has come up with a satisfactory explanation.
Not that it bothers me. Some things you have to accept and enjoy.
When I’m close to putting a book to bed, I’m already thinking about the next one.
If I had an option of creating my own village, I would be happy to have all the University graduates without jobs as members of the village.
Our chief would be someone with a degree in psychology from UPNG. Our church treasurer would be an accountant graduate from Unitech. Our marriage counsellor from the church would be a law graduate from UPNG who understands international conventions on human rights and the constitutional limitations on the application of custom. An anthropology graduate would be our land mediator.
Our village committees would be headed by degree holders. An environmental graduate would lead the village’s efforts to build resilience against climate change. We would have a wide array of educated individuals who would fight against government sponsored land grabbing and loggers.
Guys from University of National Resources & Environment would lead the inland fisheries farming, and adoption of climate resilient crops.
This village would be more educated than my current village back home. My folks home don’t have a formal job. But they also have very limited understanding of the issues listed above. A village settled by job-less University graduates is better than one that doesn’t.
Our village meetings would give equal opportunities for men and women to speak. The quality of the discussions would be far superior.
My point is this, getting a formal job should not be the main reason for getting an education. And The National Newspaper’s front page story that paints that it’s all gloom and doom is back there are no jobs is wrong.
PNG’s literacy rate is the lowest in the region, and we need everyone educated. Not necessarily so they can get a formal employment, but because an educated population is critical of their government, make educated decisions, health conscious, and can fight for their rights more effectively, among many other things.
NOOSA – Yesterday Baka Bina was announced as one of five Pacific regional finalists in the prestigious Commonwealth short story prize, the first Papua New Guinean to be thus honoured and chosen from 6,730 entries before the international judging panel. The original story is in Tok Pisin and PNG Attitude is delighted to be able to present this English version, translated by Baka himself, for our readers – KJ
The afternoon chills followed the depression up and the sun was slowly setting to the west. Soon it would sink behind the mountains to go to sleep. I was very hungry when I looked down to see if I could find where mama would be. I was wondering if she would be near here or at the far end of the garden. It was time to find out.
‘Mama, Iyeno!’ I also called out in Tok Ples.
I stood at the edge of break going down to the garden and called out softly. I knew that you just needed to call softly and the call would float down the gully to where mama would be and she could discern my voice.
There were no replies back up to me. My stomach was now growling.
Where I was, it was the head of the garden and looked down the length of the garden in the depression. I tried to think where will I find little things to eat to hold up my empty stomach.
I thought about the laulau trees and fruits across the fence in my cousin’s garden. I did not want to create any angst against me and Ma gets angry when we try to go there to help ourselves to the ripe laulau fruits. I looked towards where the guava trees grew. It was guava season but I knew there would be a few off seasonal ones out of sight amongst the leaves. I will check out the tree.
There would be a lots of bananas trees and a lot of them would bear fruits but mum harvested and hid them in the bushes for them to ripen. She kept of moving the spots she kept because I would get to them and each a good proportion of them. I feel sorry for her. When she wanted to market the bananas, she would find that she would not have enough to take them to the markets. But we had plenty of banana trees and most times she would never run out of them.
I thought of the orange tree but there were not many on the tree. I did count about fifteen fruits last week and I think Papa brought some home so I don’t think any would be ready now.
At the bottom of the garden, there were some more guava trees and I will look them up with my pineapple plot. I did see some heads of pineapples but I am not sure if they will be ripe now.
I moved down the track a bit more and I called out for mama again. This time I raised my voice a bit higher.
I waited a little and stared down the garden. At the bottom of the garden I noticed a whiff of smoke go up.
Ah, there now, mama must be making a garden at that bottom side of the garden. That was the area where dad had extended the fence for her to make the apa vegetable garden following the drain dip.
When the school ended, the three of us went to the village and Ma was not there, we knew that she was still at the garden house where she also kept pigs. It is nearly a week now and she has not come to the village house. When she has a lot of garden work she stays at the hauspik and tries to finish off all these gardening. If it is not garden work, she will be stringing a new bilum. She would stay up all night to make bilums.
My name is Taluo and my two sisters are Dahne and Lottopesa. I am in grade four and Dahne in grade two and Lotto in grade one. We were all hungry as Ma did not send up our cooked kaukau in the morning. Dahne tried cooking out breakfast on the open fire but they were all half cooked which we ate for breakfast.
I did not wait for my two sisters. They were looking for pitpit canes as firewood and when they have collected enough, they will bundle up and leave them by the side of the track and then follow me down. That is part of their work to look for firewood for our house.
My job is to fetch water for the house. We have two twenty litre containers for that. I made a quick job of them from the stream where we collect water from a spring. I fetched water in both of them and have brought them to the house.
I came past them and heard them talking in the bushes that were there on the way to our garden.
I ran down to the guava as looked amongst the few there but they were not ripe yet.
I cast my eyes towards Dad’s sugar cane garden but I was scared to go pull out one cane of sugar. Dad is always adamant that he will be the only one to cut any of his sugar canes. That is his garden and he is always angry with any of us children wandering around there.
Pity me, I was famished but I must hold on.
I walked and search amongst the marretta trunks and spindly legs. I checked the passion fruit vines to see if someone would have pulled on them to get at their fruits.
I searched and collected five fruits that had ripened and fallen to the ground. There were a few more still on the vines and I left them there.
I planted the passion fruit vine and made a law that we were not to get at the fruits still on the vine. Every ripe fruit had to fall to the ground and then we collect them. In this way the vines remained for a long time and bore many more fruits. The fruits tasted better if they had fallen off the vines. If they were harvested off the vines, they had a stinging pungent taste.
I opened up one of the fruits and ate the contents. I wanted to get another one more but I thought of the two girls and left them there. They will be pleased to see the fruits and won’t feel bad towards me. Besides they may be tempted to throw sticks at those ripe fruits still on the vines.
I looked up my small garden. This was a small plot where I was practising my garden making skills. I planted a few sugar canes, taro kongkongs and ginger. At the edge of the few drains, I had lined them with apa vegetables.
Ma did not weed my garden and the grass was growing plentifully and faster. I am thinking, come Saturday, I will not play in the village but come down to weed this garden. I realised the end of the drains were also water logged. It meant that I have to deepen the drains.
It would be much better if I asked Pa to help me.
I went down to the house. The back of the house was inside the garden and the door was set outside. I jumped over the fence to get out of the garden.
I called out again for Ma.
The banana leaves used as a secondary door and curtains and called mehe was still in place on the door. Ma had not yet come to the house. I looked up at the sun. It has gone past the time when Ma is usually at the hauspik. When she is there we know that she will be preparing dinner in her motona wooden drum oven.
I saw that whiff of smoke at the bottom of the garden. Ma must be there. I jumped back into the garden and I also heard the two girls run down the incline inside the garden.
I went past the coffee garden when I heard them call out for Ma and me.
‘Oi’, I replied
‘I am standing next to the fence and was eating tree tomatoes. I had three fruits only as they went sour on me so I left the rest on the trees for you two and am waiting.’
They knew where the tree tomato plants grew and ran towards it looking for me. They held their passion fruits in the hands.
‘Who said you could have a passion fruit first. When you do that, the tree tomatoes will go sour and you will not like it. You see, we are still holding onto our passion fruits.’
‘I know but I have a very hungry stomach and I forgot. I have left some fruits still on the tree for you two girls. You two get them and then we go looking for Ma.’
The girls picked of the ripe fruits off the tree and put them in their bilums before we ran down.
We went over to the cleared spot and looked around. There were no signs of Ma.
We all called out at the same time.
There were no replies. Ma, a lot of times would not reply. Instead if she had a spade or Amuto digging stick, she would bang them against stones or whack the kaukau mounds. We called one more time and then kept quiet to see if we could hear her queer replies.
There were no noises and the bigger of the girls, Dahne left to check the tree stump where the smoke was coming out from.
Ma had piled on all the roots of trees and had burnt them. Dahne dug a stick into the ashes and tried to see if Ma had put any kaukau into them.
I went over to my pineapple plot and found a pineapple head that was half ripe. I broke this off and held it in my hands.
The little Lottopesa went up onto the ridge line next to the garden and in a loud voice call for Ma this side of the garden and over the ridge. It was the time of the year when the moson tree sent up new shoots and she would be there harvesting these new shoots.
‘Mama! Mama O!’
There were no replies.
She slid down the incline.
I stood with Dahne and watched her pull out eight kaukau from the ashes. Two of these were burnt black like the back of saucepans. There is no way we could eat those kaukaus. The other six, the other half of each of them, one side of them were burnt but the other side was a bit okay. Dahne gave us two each to Lottopesa and me and we tried to have these.
I was worried a bit that Ma was not there in the garden. It has been nearly a week now that she was sleeping at the hauspik. She said she wanted to put in some more effort in this new garden that we were standing at. It looked like she must have pushed the kaukau into the warm hearth of the ashes. We could not tell if she shoved the kaukau there yesterday or this morning.
The kaukau did not settle well in the stomach. Half of it was burnt and the bit that remained tasted like fire smoke. I did not like my burnt kaukau and held it to give to the pigs.
Ma regularly digs our kaukau and Pa brings them up for us at the village. Currently we do not have any more in the house. She must have prepared something for us and then went walking to someplace. I sent Dahne over to one kaukau plot and Lottopesa to the next; Ma has two kaukau garden plots where she usually harvests her kaukau from. Sometimes when she harvests a lot, she will have some of them covered in the drains.
We broke up and I left to return to the hauspik.
Dahne came back first to say there was no dug up kaukau there in the drains. Lottopesa came back with the same result.
I removed aside the banana leaves mehe and pulled out the planks and entered the house.
‘Eh, you twos, that is alright. Ma has left a bilum of kaukau here in the house for us.’
We were glad but where was she?
Lottopesa said she was still hungry and Dahne quickly collected some dried sticks for her to start up a fire.
They threw in some raw kaukau over the fire.
And I heard the pig call out.
Dahne went out to call for the pig and it called her back. She found her and called up to the house.
‘Taluo! The pig’s rope is all twisted and the pig is in a sorry state. You find a knife and come cut the bush that has the pig’s leash embroiled in.’
I looked for a bush knife inside the house and found one behind the centre post. Lottopesa knew where Ma kept her knife and pulled out another knife. I compared them for their sharpness, selected one and took that outside.
Ma keeps three sows. One, she tied near to the marshes but it lacked shade and the sun had beaten down strongly there. The pig must have suffered the heat and it was panting terribly. It lay down with froth foaming over its mouth and it was really gasping for air. I did a quick work of the bushes and Dahne pulled the pig down to the small creek for a bath. It however wanted just to drink the water.
I made grunting noises again for the other two pigs and another sow made some noises. I went down to it and saw another twisted leash. This pig was a bit lucky as it was in the shade of moson tree so it was a bit okay. But it was frothing heavily at the mouth too and it was panting terribly. I cut down all the grass that had tangled the leash and when it was free, pulled it down to the creek.
Dahne held onto both of them at the creek whilst I went to look for the third sow.
I called out for a while and did not hear any return wail or grunt. I nearly gave up and listened out. It was then I heard a meek grunt. I felt sorry for this pig. Ma had tied it at the edge of the pitpit cane shrubs way back down there. It was a bit far into the bushes. I waded through.
It was then I remembered where I had harvested and stored some bananas.
‘What is it?’ she replied from inside the house.
‘You go to the stinging nettle salat bush cluster and you will see a lone one growing on the side. Underneath it, you will find some bananas. Bring a brunch or two for us to eat. I forgot about these bananas.’
I walked past a spot where there were a lot of blue flies and there was a strong smell. I looked and thought that perhaps they were buzzing around pig’s excreta and I walked past it.
I found the pig and it too was tangled up on its leash and was lying there sorrowfully and panting.
I looked down on its front legs. The knot looped around the wrists and had eaten into the skin to the bones. The white of the bones were very clear. I was scared but I tried to remember what Pa would do in such situations. I was thinking that he would cut the leash around that hand.
I tried to cut the leash right beside the hand of the pig but it screamed it loudest and it made me scared.
I tried to calm the pig down. I played with the mane whilst I talked to it. I rubbed its cheeks and its stomach. A little while later, it was calm enough to breathe slowly.
I tried unravelling the tangled leash but it was very much tangled in the many grass, sticks and small tree branches. It was also covered over by soil the pig had dug them over.
I heard Dahne call for me. I looked up and I watched her come looking for me. She must have brought the two pigs up to the house.
‘Dahne,’ I called out to her.
‘Where did you leave the two pigs?’
‘Both of them are at the house. Lotto is giving them kaukau and is getting them some kaukau leaves too for them.’
‘Okay, tell her to leave some for this pig too. The leash has eaten into the hands of the pig and I have had to cut the leash.’
‘You must know that Pa will be very angry with you about cutting the leash.’
‘I know but the leash was all tangled up and I will have a hard time. Besides I felt sorry for the cut flesh of the pig.’
‘It was my fortune that she did not scream much when I cut the leash next to that hand.’
‘The pig is standing on its three wheels and is trying to come out of this place where she was in jail.’
I looked up Dahne who was standing at the spot where the blue flies were teeming.
‘Dahne, do you not see the flies and you don’t smell the excreta, do you?’
I called out to her but she does not reply. She was standing there, leaning against a piece of stick and was looking with some fixed stare up into the clouds at the mountains.
I scrambled up to her.
‘Dahne, Dahne!’ I shook her but she does not move.
I looked down at the end of the stick and immediately I jerked my head up.
The stick was resting on Ma’s blouse. And it was all covered in blood.
I felt nauseas and held my nose at the terrible smell.
I quickly cut some bushes and tree branches and leaves and covered up the blouse.
Dahne was standing transfixed at the clouds and tears were now rolling down her cheeks.
Delicately, I held Dahne and turned her around and pulling her by her hands, we returned to the house.
Lotto saw the tears on her sister and berated me for it.
‘Why did you hit her?’
I did not reply. I too was on the verge of tears. I went and sat down Dahne on the bed in the house and called the pigs into the house. I got each of them into their pens and blocked off the entrance to them. I then threw in a few kaukaus each. I let the three legged pig in last and put in a few more extra kaukau into its pen. It can feast on these extra kaukau and forget about the nasty cut on its hand.
Lotto tried to distribute her cooked kaukau to each of us. Dahne did not speak but indicated with her nose she would not want them.
I took both our kaukaus and put them into Dahne’s bilum.
I then distributed the raw kaukau in the bilum and measured it up to something that I could easily carry. It was a bit heavy and I took some out and placed them in a spot where the pigs could not get to them. During other times, Dahne could easily carry a bigger loa but I assessed that she was in no condition to carry any big bilum today.
I put outside the kaukau bilum. I then fixed up the fire with a few more sticks that were cut to size. The fire flared up to warm up the house. I found two pieces of stronger wood that I threw into the fire. These would burn slowly through the night.
We were now ready to move.
Lotto readied her bilum with the pineapple and one brunch of banana. I took the other brunch and filled it inside Dahne’s bilum.
I went and sat down with Dahne and held her tight. Lotto was glad that I was apologising to Dahne. Dahne said nothing. She saw her mother’s blouse and she must be worried. I too am very worried. At this time, we had no clue where Ma would be. Also I have not told Lotto what Dahne saw.
The fire had burnt through and I fixed and threw in the end pieces in case rats moved the end sticks and start a house fire. When the fire was fixed, I told the two girls we were leaving now.
Lotto then asked.
‘How are we trying to leave when Ma has not come yet. And where is Pa too?’
I did not reply. My throat was going to break soon. My tears were ready to fall. I looked out the door and replied in a soft voice.
‘I do not know where they went but we must return to the village. Otherwise the rains will come or darkness will find us.’
‘Why are you forcing us to go back. You are not the boss and also darkness will not rush in on us. Can we wait for a little while?’
I felt like crying. I pulled at Dahne’s hand to make her stand. I slowly coaxed her to go outside. While she was standing, I took her bilum and placed it on her back and swung the handles onto her head.
Lotto got her bilum onto her back and turned to the road. When she did that I saw the tears come streaming down her cheeks. I am not sure, if she is sorry about her sister or is she angry about me forcing them to return to the village or is she sorry about Ma and Dad. I was having the same problems; I was finding it difficult to hold back my tears.
The two girls started walking and I turned back to the house. I checked the fire again to see if it was burning right. I then took to the planks for the house door and fixed them into place just like Ma does and they fitted into place. I then pulled over the banana leaves mehe. I then made criss-crosses with pitpit sticks to keep the mehe in place.
I was glad with my little handiwork on the door to the house. I hoisted my bilum of kaukaus onto my shoulder. I followed the track up the mountain.
I started up the pathway and I noticed some red soil on the ground on the path way. I went a little bit more and noticed that the red soil moved off the track to one side of the garden. I followed the traces on the leaves and garden debris. I knew the area was Ma’s special for raising her pumpkins there. She trailed the runners over this red patch as nothing grew there. The end of the pumpkin grew at an end of a tree stump where the soil was black and she trailed the runners over the dry patch
I went over to the end of the pumpkin vines and saw somebody had done some work digging up the red soil. The soil was broken.
Now the hairs on my skin were all standing. My thoughts are all in a jumbled mess.
I tried thinking.
Ma is not here.
Pa came down last night looking for her.
Both of them are not here.
The kaukau in the fire ashes were all burnt through and through.
The pigs must have slept outside last night for them to be all knotted up.
There is Ma’s blouse covered with blood in the bush.
I now see this turned red soil.
I turned with my head down. My tears started falling down slowly as I left.
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 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.
“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
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.
‘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