An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
“THESE traumatic experiences provide motivation and passion for me to write,” the intense young man told me. “I put my sense of anger and revenge into writing.
“It is a war I am battling, not with guns and bullets any more but with words. I believe words can reach to the ends of the world with insights about our people of Bougainville.
“The generations to come can always learn from the lessons of the past.”
Sitting in his dormitory cubicle, his eyes drifting towards the ceiling, Leonard Fong Roka recalled the day he started writing.
His story begins in Tumpusiong Valley, home to the Jaba tailings area of the now former Panguna copper mine in Bougainville.
Roka’s home area was the epicentre of the 10-year civil war and his people were the landowners. It was within the conflict, confusion and tragedy of resistance, rebellion and warfare that Leonard Fong Roka was raised.
Leonard, described by his classmates as an introvert, is very much a silent achiever. He lost his father, a catechist from West New Britain who married and integrated within the Bougainville community: murdered by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army simply because he was an outsider in the midst of the crisis. Bougainvilleans refer dismissively to other Papua New Guineans as ‘redskins’.
Now, as a final year PNG Studies and International Relations degree student, Leonard recalls his early experiences during the Bougainville crisis.
“In 1986 I began my schooling at Piruana village tokples (local language) school but in 1990 my education was disturbed by the Bougainville crisis. I was in Grade 4. My dreams of an education were shattered but books were my companion during the war years. I read books I had with me even in the middle of the jungle.”
During my interview with Roka, he appeared sensitive and there were long silences. “Wet mi tingim gut na start gen” (Give me time to recall and start over”), he would joke.
Every question of mine seemed to strike a fresh memory of Bougainville in the days of the crisis. It wasn’t until the peace process was established in 1995, that Roka resumed schooling and entered Arawa High school where his passion for writing was born.
“A highlander, William Mania, was my English teacher in 1997 and he got my class writing poetry.
“He told us that it was our time to write for the world to know about Bougainville, to promote and preserve our unique culture and traditions through literature.
“My first poem was My Panguna submitted for a silver jubilee magazine poetry competition in 1997. It was not successful but I kept the poem and maintained a passion to have my work published.
“I never got there until I enrolled at the University of Papua New Guinea in 2003. Here, after reading poems and stories by students in the university news bulletin, I got a rough poem published. This was actually the catalyst for giving me the courage to compose poetry.”
When Roka withdrew from the university in 2004, he wrote in the comfort of his Tumpusiong Valley in Central Bougainville. His style of writing developed in the bush where there were no professional writers around him.
“After I left university, I was regarded as a failure by my extended family; it was another battle in my life”, Roka recalls.
“I used my school fee money to build a house in the jungle isolated from everyone except my mother, who paid regular visits.”
With two writing pads and pens brought by his mother, a dictionary, a thesaurus and books on literature, Roka continued his pursuit of poetry. Every day he wrote a stanza of a poem and every week he completed a poem.
By 2007, a final manuscript was ready and he contacted his old university lecturer, Steven Winduo, to help him publish the poetry. This turned out to be unsuccessful so Roka sought assistance from the late Joseph Kabui, a relative who was then President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.
Kabui’s death soon after ended the pursuit for a second time. “This time I almost gave up looking for publishers,” Roka said.
Roka then he came across a book published by Divine Word University Press.
“My first impression upon seeing the book was to have my manuscript published by this press” Roka said. He applied to study at Divine Word University and was accepted in 2011.
“All I carried with me to the university was my school certificates and the manuscript for my poetry collection entitled The Pomong U’tau of Dreams,” he said, giving a cranky laugh.
“My first intention was to make contact with the DWU press, have my book published and go back home and write more books.”
Unfortunately, this manuscript was also not published.
Discouraged, Roka forgot about being published and got on with his studies. It was then, while attending a communication skills lecture by Ms Aiva Ore, he was introduced to the PNG Attitude blog published by Keith Jackson.
It dawned on Roka that blogging had potential for him.
The provision of Information Communication Technology (ICT) services in Divine Word University became the catalyst for Roka to venture into blogging. He found a sphere for his writings to be read around the world with a mouse click. It was through blogging that Roka eventually met his publisher, Phil Fitzpatrick, an Australian author.
The PNG Attitude blog couldn’t publish all of his poems and stories. For Roka writing was breathing and his output was prolific. He realised his literary output needed books.
“I just don’t want my stories to get lost on the internet, I wanted them to be in books for my people in Bougainville and Papua New Guinea to read,” Leonard said.
It was through the Crocodile Prize awards writing that Leonard’s work caught the attention of Fitzpatrick. Roka felt it was a dream comes true in many colours to see his first articles published in the third annual Crocodile Prize Anthology.
“My mate, Papua New Guinea’s award-winning poet, Michael Dom, shot me an email and asked if I’d thought of making a submission for book publication. He believed there would be value in a published book.”
Although Roka describes himself as an introvert by birth, his publisher sees him as a soldier. To Fitzpatrick, Roka is Captain Bougainville – standing up for Bougainville, a lone man with pen and paper.
After his studies and workload, Roka sets aside time every day to write something for his next book.
“My style of writing developed in the bush where there was no professional writer beside me. That’s why my style is 'raw and edgy' as Phil Fitzpatrick once described it. But I have to admit that plotting is not in me; I type as it comes to my mind.”
Roka’s second book was a collection of short stories, Moments in Bougainville.
The traumatic experiences of Roka’s life provided motivation, passion, backdrop and theme for the stories, which are always gritty and uncompromising, providing insights for the reader even as Roka works to exorcise his own demons through writing.
Jackdon commented that “each of these short stories is a gem. The characterisations are strong, the narrative is fresh, the twists and turns are gripping”.
He continued: “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’s third published book Brokenville is a personal account of growing up on Bougainville during the civil war.
By now the night had grown old and Roka shook his head: “Mi i nap lo skul, mi laik stap tasol na rait” (“I have had enough of school, I just want to write”).
Looking towards his laptop he said, “My fourth and fifth books are almost ready for publication, I have been working on them at the same time.” He’s also working on his final year research paper.
His fourth book - an ethno-political exploration and mapping of the Bougainville conflict and the province’s future - is due to be published later this year or early in 2015.
Meanwhile his first three books have been submitted in the Book of the Year category in the Crocodile Prize – PNG’s national literary awards. The winners will be announced on Independence Day this year.
For this upcoming Bougainvillean writer, seeking a job is a secondary option. He has found where he belongs, as a Papua New Guinean writer maintaining the legacy of PNG literature.
For Leonard Fong Roka, there is still a lot to tell the world about Bougainville.
“Words can reach to the ends of the world with insights about our people of Bougainville.
“Future generations can always learn from the lessons of the past.”
You can purchase Leonard Fong Roka books from Amazon here in hard copy or digital versions