THIS week My Walk to Equality, the first ever collection of women’s writing by Papua New Guinean authors was made available to the public through Amazon Books prior to its dual launch in Port Moresby and Brisbane on International Women's Day in March. Leiao Gerega of the PNG Post-Courier newspaper spoke with the book’s editor, Rashmii Amoah Bell….
Leiao - As the woman behind this remarkable project, please can you tell us a little about yourself, your journey with writing, the challenges you face and your current profession.
Rashmii - My name is Rashmii Bell and I am from Sio in the Tewaii-Siassi local level government area in Morobe Province.
Reading has always been a part of my life so it feels like a natural progression to move into writing. I grew up surrounded by books in my family home and I have been able to access community libraries in Australia.
My professional background is in criminology and mental health working predominantly with boys and men in secure-care settings like prisons and youth detention centres.
I exited the full time workforce in 2008 to become the full-time carer of my three young children and, since 2014, I’ve focused on developing my writing technique under the mentoring of Keith Jackson and PNG Attitude’s community.
My writing published on PNG Attitude is predominantly opinion, commentary and essay with a focus on socio-economic and gender equality issues in contemporary PNG society.
PNG Attitude is the only space that I’ve found where individuals, particularly PNG women, can engage in respectful debate, discussion and sharing of creative writing about issues within PNG and its relations with countries such as Australia, New Zealand and in the Asian region.
When did the project begin and how did PNG women respond to your call out for contributions?
Most importantly, My Walk to Equality is an entirely volunteer-run initiative with the collaboration of PNG women writers, Pukpuk Publications and PNG Attitude. I see the book as an outcome of the discussion, debate and sharing of creative writing published on the eleven-year and counting PNG Attitude blog, and its spin off creations, the Crocodile Prize awards and Pukpuk Publications.
PNG Attitude’s publisher and editor, Keith Jackson, is a former ABC general manager and managing director of one of Australia’s leading public relations firms. The blog receives the voluntarily written contributions of individuals from PNG, Australia, New Zealand, UK, US and around the globe.
Steering Pukpuk Publications is Philip Fitzpatrick is a former kiap, anthropologist and author of many books including Bamahuta: Leaving Papua. Pukpuk Publications, which he established, has over 40 titles in its catalogue of predominantly PNG authors.
The Crocodile Prize awards are the outcome of PNG’s annual national literary competition that encourages the development and promotion of PNG-authored literature. The best entries from the competition are compiled and published by Pukpuk Publications as an anthology. The sixth collection is being assembled at the moment.
My Walk to Equality includes an introduction detailing how the project came about. In brief, it is a result of four contemporary PNG writers - Daniel Kumbon, Francis Nii, Martyn Namorong and me – providing a panel presentation at the internationally-renowned Brisbane Writers Festival in September 2016. It was the first time a group of PNG writers had presented at an international literary event.
Our appearance was facilitated by the PNG Attitude community including Keith Jackson, Bob Cleland, Rob Parer and Murray Bladwell with financial support from former PNG director of education Dr Ken McKinnon and the Paga Hill Development Company.
What is the latest on this project?
My Walk to Equality will be launched in Port Moresby and Brisbane to coincide with celebrations for International Women’s Day on Wednesday 8 March. The book will be available for purchase on Amazon any day now in hard cope and electronic editions. It’s about 300 pages in all and features more than 40 writers.
How are you feeling about it now its nearing finality?
Above all, I am feeling inspired. My Walk to Equality has highlighted that Papua New Guinean women acknowledge the importance of literature as a mechanism of activism for social change. They have demonstrated a willingness to use My Walk to Equality as a platform to express themselves and to highlight to the PNG people and others that they are actively contributing to social change in their nation.
I’d also like to acknowledge and thank the writers’ male partners and those people who supported them in preparing and submitting their writing.
In what ways do you see literature as a means to addressing inequality affecting women in PNG?
Around the time Pukpuk Publications suggested a collaborative book project to me, I was reading Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell their Stories” edited by Catriona Mitchell. That, along with an essay entry I’d written in 2015 for the Rivers Award, another initiative supported by Keith Jackson, triggered the idea for My Walk to Equality.
As it stands, I think that in PNG literature - particularly literature authored by Papua New Guineans - has been overlooked. My Walk to Equality also seeks to address that. I encourage Papua New Guinean women to embrace the avenue of literature to express themselves.
What are the biggest challenges that PNG women face as writers?
I think the biggest challenge for all Papua New Guineans who wish to pursue their passion for writing - particularly using literature as activism for social change - is being able to access a wide range of literature through community facilities such as libraries. It’s a given reality for writers that to be able to write, you must read – and read a lot.
Cultivating a culture of literature in PNG society has a long way to go but activities such as PNG Attitude, Pukpuk Publications, the McKinnon-Paga Hill Fellowship, regional writers associations in Simbu, Enga and Port Moresby, and the support received from public and private sponsors is slowly making headway.
Would you say there is a shared similarity in the way PNG women write? What determines the way they write?
In my own reading and the writing I have seen in contributions to My Walk to Equality, there are common underlying themes. Papua New Guinean male writers are more likely to write about politics and women about relationships.
The development of a sustainable literary culture in PNG is much needed, especially for Papua New Guinean women. Developing, publishing and promoting PNG-authored literature is a key factor which can uplift the confidence of PNG women writers to express themselves and speak out.
How do you rate the current gap between PNG female and male writers as compared to previous years?
I see a surge in talented, articulate PNG women writers who are able to match the male writers who have long dominated PNG-authored literature.
Is there any chance of involving PNG men in similar literary project in the near future?
As someone who advocates the reduction of inequality for both women and men, I hope so.