TUMBY BAY - In September 2014, when I was in Port Moresby with Trevor Shearston for the Crocodile Prize awards, we went out to UPNG to have lunch with fellow authors Russell Soaba and Dr John Waiko.
Both were old friends of Trevor. I knew Russell from previous Crocodile Prize events but hadn’t met John.
Russell and John had been involved in the early literary scene in Papua New Guinea around the years of independence.
More recently, Russell had supplied me with photographs of himself to use in the artwork for the Inspector Metau novels. If you want to know what Inspector Metau looks like, think Russell Soaba.
John was not only a historian but a playwright; a veteran of one of Ulli Beier’s creative writing courses in the late 1960s.
In his book, A Trial Separation, historian Dr Donald Denoon writes: “Waiko began to doubt the folk-knowledge he had learned as a child, when he assumed that the purpose of education was to learn European lore.
“That judgement was shaken by Hank Nelson and [Ken] Inglis in courses on Papua New Guinea history; then he rebuilt his confidence in the wisdom of his Binandere people through Creative Writing and staging a play”.
I was lucky enough to have Dr Denoon edit my first book, Bamahuta: Leaving Papua, and he came to my defence when the book (and I) were strongly criticised by individuals from the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia and a review of the book was censored from the association’s website.
John’s career has had its ups and downs. He was a professor at UPNG before successfully contesting the national elections but then became embroiled in a scandal over logging and lost office at the next election.
When I met him in 2014 he was at a loose end and without an income but nevertheless he spent an afternoon driving Trevor and I around Waigani sightseeing.
One of the subjects we discussed that day was the impact of the often strident criticism of works published by Papua New Guinean academics, much of the criticism emanating from Australians who had worked in PNG.
John had been subject to it when he published his various articles about Binandere folklore and the people’s conflicts with the British and Australian administrations. His 1972 BA honours thesis, The Binandere Response to Imperialism, also attracted flack. Much later, in 1993, he published his A Short History of Papua New Guinea in which he drew from that thesis.
In the thesis he had pointed out that police on patrol often acted independently of the kiap and without the kiap’s knowledge to resolve inter-clan conflicts and other problems.
Historian Bill Gammage described similar, as well as less savoury, police activities carried out under the radar of the kiaps, especially in his book The Sky Travellers about the Hagen-Sepik patrol of 1938-39.
I was curious about this kind of criticism because I’d spoken to August Kituai a year or so previously about some of the condemnation he had received over his book My Gun, My Brother. August had shown me some of the letters and emails he received and they were not nice.
Those letters and emails reminded me very much of those I received after the publication of my own book. Many of the authors were the same people.
We didn’t really come to any conclusions during our lunch and sightseeing, except to perhaps acknowledge that a lot of the critics tended to have rose coloured spectacles when it came to their time in Papua New Guinea and resented having that view shaken by uppity academics, especially Papua New Guineans themselves.
I hadn’t really thought much more about this until the recent discussions on PNG Attitude about Mathias Kin’s upcoming book on Simbu history.
When I recalled what had happened to John Waiko and August Kituai it occurred to me that any Papua New Guinean writing about colonial history must harbour an expectation of similar treatment.
This must be a great disincentive for those writers. They know they are going to stir the pot and have to be especially careful to get their sources right. This is particularly difficult, as John Waiko acknowledges, when many of your sources are oral and intermingled with folklore.
I’ve dropped a couple of hints that Mathias Kin should go out and buy a Kevlar helmet and a flak jacket because he might need them when his book comes out.
At the same time I admire his resolute attitude and wish him well. I for one am looking forward to the book.