BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
IN RUNNING THE CROCODILE PRIZE competition, one of the things we receive in abundance, apart from the deluge of entries, is praise. People tell us it is a great thing that we are doing for Papua New Guinea.
I’m as inclined as anyone else to lap this up and quietly preen about it but when I sober up and put it in perspective I realise that it is actually a two-way street. I’m getting as much out of it as I am giving and so too, I hope, are our readers.
Obviously one of the things I’m getting is the opportunity to read some great literature (and some not so great literature too) but there are other gains that are not immediately obvious or so tangible.
One of the most significant and subtle gains has been the gradual diminishment of the sense of what is sometimes called “the other”. This is that nagging awareness that we Australians and Papua New Guineans are somehow irrevocably different. I’m sure it affects Papua New Guineans as much as it does Australians. There are positive aspects to being different but there are many more negatives involving such elements as arrogance, prejudice, racism, intolerance, you name it.
I’m fairly easy going and I like to think that I mix reasonably well when I’m in Papua New Guinea but at the end of the day, or week, or month, I inevitably retire into my comfortable European cocoon, be it a tent, hotel, house or simple frame of mind. I’ve always envied those few people, like Carol Kidu, who seem to have come pre-armed with a total lack of this sense.
One of the things that got me thinking about this was the acute intelligence that I encountered in both the entries and at the workshop last year. I’m white, he/she is black but he/she is one hell of a lot smarter than me! I’d suggest that a lot of Australians in Papua New Guinea have yet to admit to this possibility. The reverse is also true, I’m black, he/she is white but I’m one hell of a lot smarter than him/her – fancy that!
Another thing relates to empathy. This is something that is sometimes hard to detect in Papua New Guinea. The lack of it is all too obvious in the way men treat women ,for instance.
Despite having been a rough and tough kiap in a previous life I’m actually a big sook. Something that used to tug at my heartstrings was the appalling attitude to animals in many villages, from starving and diseased dogs (as distinct from lean hunting animals) to the old highlander casually plucking fur for his wig from a live cuscus.
Then along comes along something like Kirsten Ipi Aria’s anguished poem about the green turtle at Koki market. A small thing but it speaks volumes. There are other entries before that, young men writing poems of tribute to their canine friends for example. These are sentiments which are common to many people, no matter where they live. After all, we are all just human beings; it’s just that recognising that fact is sometimes hard to do.
There is a lot more to this “other” thing of course; many would see it as a typical colonial manifestation and hangover, which is undoubtedly true. I’m not sure I want to debate that however, best leave it to people wiser than me like Martyn Namorong.
So what does all this esoteric palaver mean?
It means that the entries in the competition are far from being mere attempts at recognition by Papua New Guinean writers from some sort of “superior” source. They are, in fact, gifts to our readers, both in Australia and Papua New Guinea. They are gifts of understanding and friendship but, most of all, of commonality. For this, I for one am grateful.