‘Moments in Bougainville’ by Leonard Fong Roka, Pukpuk Publications 2013, ISBN 9780987132154. Available from Amazon, paperback, $7.60. http://www.amazon.com/Moments-Bougainville-Collection-Short-Stories/dp/0987132156
LEONARD FONG ROKA (‘Captain Bougainville’ as author Phil Fitzpatrick jocularly refers to him) yields to no one in his desire to tell the story his way and sometimes the going is not for the faint-hearted.
The PNG Attitude blog, where much of the author’s writing appears, has managed a number of important milestones in its seven-year history, and identifying Roka as a latent literary talent has been amongst the most significant of them.
Here, in his second book, Moments in Bougainville (short stories this time following his successful volume of poetry, The Pomong U’tau of Dreams), Roka offers 16 stories of war and love that derive in the main from the Bougainville civil war that raged for most of the 1990s.
Roka lost his father in this war: a catechist from West New Britain who had married and integrated within the community murdered by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army simply because he was an outsider. There is a poignant dedication to John Roka of Bali Island – “sadly you are not here to read what I write”.
The author’s home area is near Panguna, the site of the copper mine that was to become the epicentre of the civil war. His people are the landowners of this area and his upbringing took place within the conflict, confusion and tragedy of resistance, rebellion and finally savage warfare that, one way or another, cost up to 20,000 lives.
If death and destruction were not Roka’s constant companions, then certainly they became too regular events that had to be coped with and somehow accommodated within his worldview.
These traumatic experiences provide motivation, passion, backdrop and theme for short stories which are always gritty and uncompromising, providing insights for the reader even as Roka works to exorcise some of his own demons through his writing.
Each of these short stories is a gem. The characterisations are strong, the narrative is fresh, the twists and turns are gripping.
And, at the end of it all, the reader is left with a different view of Bougainville and the Bougainvillean people. It is as near to an insider’s view as an outsider is ever likely to secure.
Roka, back at university as a mature age student, a decision which has given him the opportunity to write as well as learn, is developing as something of a polymath.
In addition to poetry, stories and essays, he is also working on an autobiography, Brokenville, and is well advanced on a massive Bougainville Manifesto project which blends history, anthropology, politics, economics and other disciplines to offer a vision for a stable and prosperous future for this once-troubled island that, even today, struggles to recuperate from its period of turmoil and destruction.
Now concluding his studies, engaged to be married and on the verge of a permanent return to Bougainville, it must surely be that the rest of Leonard Fong Roka’s life will be as peaceful and productive as the first 20 years were tumultuous and vicious.
Bougainville has found in Roka a voice that transcends politics and violence and goes to the heart of the people themselves – who they are, what they’ve experienced and what they aspire to.
And I must not conclude this review without mentioning Pukpuk Publications, Phil Fitzpatrick’s publishing house for the showcasing of Papua New Guinea’s writing talent in book form.
Like PNG Attitude, Pukpuk Publications demonstrates just how much can be achieved even on the mere sniff of an oily rag.