IN early 2013, the Crocodile Prize for Literature entered its initial year under the administration of the just-formed Papua New Guinea Society of Writers, Editors and Publishers.
Unfortunately things did not run smoothly in the new organisation and one result was that the number of entries fell far below that of previous years.
The Society was also unable to secure sponsors for a number of award categories, nor could it secure funding for the annual writers’ workshop.
As it became apparent that the project was failing, emergency measures were taken and a small group – which came to be known as the Crocodile Prize Organising Group, or COG – seized control.
The upshot was that the Prize was saved but, in 2013, there were only four awards made: for short stories, poetry, essays and heritage writing. As there were no heritage entries, the funds for this category were distributed amongst the other three.
The Prize may have been enmeshed in chaos but happily the writers remained on song and the high quality of contributions continued.
It is not insignificant that he became known in literary circles as ‘Captain Bougainville’.
Over time he evolved a distinctive style of writing, characterised by the innovative use of language, words, imagery and phraseology and by the way all this was strung together.
Of particular note is the way he deliberately eschewed the conventional rules of grammar and invented his own way of speaking.
Most writers develop a style, or use different styles, which they borrow or modify from other writers’ work. Where a writer develops a distinctive and unusual style it is very rare that it is used consistently. In many cases such works are experimental. When such work evolves further it tends to become trailblazing.
Leonard’s style is distinctive in that it is his own invention. However, there is nothing experimental about it. He doesn’t consciously set out to write in this manner. His writing is largely instinctive and comes from a deeper place.
In large part, it has had its genesis in the Bougainville civil war, about which he so elegantly writes. The emotion and narratives thus generated evolved into a form other writers can only envy. It might be added that it takes courage to do your own thing, especially in literature.
In this sense it is difficult to identify his literary – as differentiated from his emotional - influences, or, indeed, whether there are any.
His writing defies description, except perhaps for its raw and visceral aspects. ‘Farewell My Bougainville Prophetess’ is an example of his writing that illustrates a stage in an evolution that promises great things should it mature further.
Leonard’s writing is also refreshing because it promises much for the literature of not only Bougainville but also for Papua New Guinea and the greater Melanesian realm.
In his work he sets an example for other Melanesian writers to follow. In time this may even develop into a distinctive regional style. It’s greater value, however, is to demonstrate the possibilities for others who might follow in his footsteps.
It was for these reasons that he was selected as the best short story writer for 2013. He has since published several books about Bougainville, including his stunning memoir, Brokenville.
Over the last year or so, Captain Bougainville’s keyboard has been silent. Beset by personal tragedy and setback, this talented writer has had to manage even more demons. We all hope this is a short deviation and that this self-hewn literary craftsman will soon be back amongst us.
Farewell My Bougainville Prophetess
LEONARD FONG ROKA
THE stench of body odour and sweat overwhelmed Dabuna’s senses as she jostled her way through the flesh of high spirited travellers in the Buka Airport departure lounge.
On her tail was her proud mama, Itonani, who braved her way through the curious eyes of the black men hanging onto the windows silently saying goodbye to their fellow countrymen and countrywomen.
Laborious was the posture of the queue for the check-in counter but the joy for a daughter going to the foreign land of Erereng to be educated belonged not in the pocket. It was something to be expressed by being beside her daughter, steadfast till she was airborne.
Dabanu, the great woman of Kongara, secured her boarding pass with a dancing heart, for going away from her Bougainville in an aeroplane to study and become a teacher was a milestone. She hugged her grey haired mama and together they took an edge of a bench and sat.
“Dabanu, my daughter,” Itonani consoled her baby as they sat waiting for the big bird to land, “You are the light of those backward and barbaric mountains of Kongara. The Kieta people blame us for all the trouble that happens in Arawa; but it is us that saved their land from the cruel Erereng that dug a big hole in the heart of our island with their big, thieving company.”
“Kietas are like that, Mama,” Dabanu said, as she got herself hunched ready in a corner near the boarding gate, “They think we are the scent of trouble in the land. But it was us who died to fight those ever thieving Erereng that were colonizing our land and minds.”
Out of nowhere the plane roared as it landed on the Bougainville soil. It taxied to a stunning halt to their north and, with a quavering roar again it entered the clear space before them. The pair watched in wonder as the airport men maneuvered to and fro, doing their jobs.
It was big and white and so imposing. Dabanu had a thorough look at it as the passengers from it began to enter the terminal. On it were the symbols - a Bird of Paradise and the words, ‘Air Niugini’ - of the distant country and people that had ruled their land since that fateful year, 1975.
“Mama, si damaiko simenang,” her mama hugged her as tears rolled down her aging cheeks. “Tampa sikuru darabaing; Bougainville, the land your brothers and sisters died for needs you.”
“Don’t worry Mama,” Dabanu consoled, fighting off tears.
“My daughter,” Itonani sobbed, “You are the future of your clan; you are the mother of the land of Tairima and you are the blood of Bougainville’s future for which our people from Buka to Buin have died and suffered for under the terror of the cruel Erereng since the days of the Germans.
“Be careful and never wander away from your school for the land of the Erereng is a land of rapists, rascals, murderers and false gods - men of the street that preach till night. Yes, daughter you know it as the newspapers tell us who these people are. They did the same in our land so we had to fight and chase them away and now we enjoy our freedom on our island.”
The mother and the daughter were still clinging to each other in the deep sorrow of losing each other. The other travellers began jostling through the door for the plane that was waiting outside in the shimmering heat of the day.
“My daughter,” the saddened mother, sobbed, “Please remember those words of your uncle Birengka as he farewelled you at Kakusira. He said, ‘As populations increase, our land is not expanding and this means land has a store of conflicts for you, Dabanu. So you have to marry a man who knows your myths and family history. This is a man from a clan our family has marital relations with since the dream time. My niece, this is your power to laugh off liars.”
Itonani let go of her daughter and helped her with her handbag and tidied her tangled shirt at the collar.
“Remember your father,” the sorrow shaken mother added as an afterthought, “He died for the good of our land and your future as a Bougainvillean on Bougainville and was not a no body. Love not an alien that does not know your myths and will not stand to support you when conflicts arise because he is stranger without roots in Bougainville or Choiseul where your progenitors come from.”
Dabanu, with tears running freely down her cheeks, marched for the door out to the aeroplane broken hearted. She was now leaving her beloved mother in tears, a sin she hated. The mother who had brought her up without a father because he had been killed by the Erereng army as he fought for their right to be Bougainvilleans.
Her mother was her life. Her mother was all the reason for her existence through the war that the Erereng had fought so they could steal Bougainville’s wealth and resources.
“Be educated my love, and come back and help Bougainville to be free.” The last words of her beloved mother echoed in her head as she entered the plane.
Directed to a seat, she sat in tears looking out of the window. The plane rattled towards the runway and after a few seconds she was high in the sky like an eagle.
As the northern tip of Bougainville faded from sight, she was mesmerized by the beauty of Buka Island as it drifted below on the vast blue sea of Solomon. Her land was truly a paradise of black people.
Her flight was scheduled for a stop-over in Rabaul so she kept her eyes to the sea below.
Buka was gone from her sight, now there was no island in the blue sea below. She wondered why her Bougainville was called ‘one country’ with the Papua New Guineans when there was no proof of closeness between them.
She remembered her flight from Taro airport to Honiara some years back. It was so beautiful how her Bougainville was connected to Choiseul, Santa Isabel and Guadalcanal. But now she was lost. The Papua New Guineans had indoctrinated Bougainvilleans with all the lies they had adopted and created for their own country.
The plane merged into some turbulence that surprised her. Below she could not see any further because of the thick clouds. So she mumbled a prayer to God for her safety on the plane and in the land of the strangers ahead.
Warm tears rolled down her cheeks as she envisaged her mother sitting and crying at the Buka airport.
“Dear God,” she prayed in tears. “Protect and guide me for I am the mother of Bougainville; a Bougainville woman who is still in pain and in need of freedom. Let me be the light of the future for my people who perished in the war against exploitation and those who are still forced to dance to this exploitation and indoctrination. Amen.”
Erereng – ‘redskin’ in the Nasioi language
Si damaiko simenang - Oh, you are leaving me, my love
Tampa sikuru darabaing - commit yourself to your studies.