An entry in the 2016 Crocodile Prize
PEOPLE who see the title of this article for the first time will wonder if there is any such word as Writeatoullie in any of the world’s languages.
Indeed the word is not to be found in any modern dictionary for it is a word I created after watching Brad Bird’s 2007 Academy Award winning animated film, Ratatoullie.
Ratatoullie is a French dish prepared by expert chefs and the movie tells the story of how a colony of rats in Paris could cook Ratatoullie too, proving restaurant critic Anton Ego wrong when he disagreed with the title of a cookbook, ‘Anyone Can Cook’.
The critic was adamant until, when he finally tasted what the rats cooked, he had to concede that anyone can cook.
After watching the movie, I felt inspired to share my story about how I got interested in writing. And I gave my experience the name Writeatoullie, ‘Anyone Can Write’.
Writing was never part of me. Like many educated Papua New Guineans I used to think that the art of writing belonged in the hands of the gifted; clever and brainy individuals who mastered the English language in its entirety.
My high school education reached only Grade 10. As an average student, I wasn’t good in English. That was evident in the ‘C’ I scored for the subject in the final Grade 10 examinations.
Back then colleges accepted Grade 10 school leavers, so I applied and got accepted into the Bulolo Forestry College while most of my bright colleagues went on to Grades 11 and 12 at various national high schools.
The Bulolo chapter of my education broke new ground. The courses offered were forestry orientated science subjects blended with extensive practical field work. English and mathematics surfaced again, taught in the first year possibly to polish and prepare us for the core forestry subjects.
After three years at the college, I was employed as a resource forester with the Department of Forestry. My work environment was mostly confined to the bush, forest and jungle. Active reading and writing were absent.
Also diminished on my lips were the style and fluency of the English language. The nature of my work and my postings did not warrant its regular use. Tok Pisin was the daily communication lingo. Good English was gradually slipping away from me.
The only time English became useful was when I had to prepare a report or communicate with my expatriate supervisor. This continued for 10-15 years after I left college.
Only newspapers kept me close to the English language. Although I did not have access to them each day, they consumed some of my leisure time followed closely by occasional popular magazines that crossed my path. I guess those publications kept me close to the English language.
Literature in general was a foreign subject until November 1998 when I was on a duty trip to Milne Bay. In Alotau, something caught my eyes that was to open the door to literature and set me on a path of unveiling a literary talent that had lay hidden in me for many years.
Melbourne Storm was in its maiden year and had made the NRL finals. One Saturday I travelled from Ulabo to Alotau to watch the weekend finals game on TV.
As I was going in and out of the Alotau shops that morning, I passed a table selling second-hand books and something caught my attention. On the table was a book entitled, ‘To Serve with Love’, authored by Sir Paulias Matane.
I wasn’t a book lover nor an avid reader but when I saw Sir Paulias’ book, I instantly got attracted to reading it because he was popular on TV in those days and strongly advocated that Papua New Guineans write books.
I was flipping through the pages and the thought of purchasing the book and reading it during my weeklong stay struck me. So I bought it.
It took me less than two days to finish reading the book and, with nothing else to do, I re-read it, this time more slowly absorbing the content. I became enthralled, moreso by the writing than the story.
Two things in ‘To Serve with Love’ beguiled my attention.
First, the simplicity of the writing style and the everyday vocabulary Sir Paulias used in his writing amazed me. Second, touching and reading a book written by a Papua New Guinean like Sir Paulias Matane presented some kind of a challenge to me.
If Sir Paulias Matane could make use of everyday English to write a book, nothing was impossible, I said to myself. That premise was the fire that set alight my interest in writing.
I made my first attempt at writing by contributing an article to my employer’s quarterly newsletter, Gadona. The reaction from readers was good. Many were impressed. I was also impressed when I read the article. I discovered I could write like others.
It was the start of my much writing I undertook for Gadona while I was locked away in the forest.
Every time my writing appeared in Gadona, I was elated and reached a stage where I felt I should go beyond the newsletter. So I decided to write articles for the Post Courier’s Weekender section. I penned my first short story for the Post Courier in late 1998.
I continued writing until one day, beyond my expectation, I realised the pages of the manuscript I was working on had greatly increased. I realised that my writing would no longer be the anticipated short story but something different.
I found the isolated and lonely logging camps the most ideal place to write and continued to work on the manuscript wherever I camped.
Due to extensive travel and heavy workload it took me nearly three years to complete the book.
It took me another 12 months to go over the manuscript, fixing, adding, subtracting, arranging chapters and everything else I deemed necessary to be done.
Satisfied, I allowed the manuscript to be read by friends. But strangely not many took the time to read everything or make any critical comment that would either denounce or improve my work. Maybe the thickness of the manuscript (110 pages of A4 size paper) scared them.
Nevertheless, a few friends managed to spend some time reading the whole book and offered invaluable comments and recommended it for publication.
I got excited at the prospect of getting it published but this was another new area and posed a challenge for me. As a stranger on this unfamiliar turf, I got stuck. I knew nothing about publishing and I didn’t know where to send the manuscript or to whom.
Sir Paulias crossed my mind but I was not sure if he would assist me. I looked up his number in the telephone directory and called him one morning from Kimbe.
I had never known or talked with Sir Paulias before but he sounded friendly over the phone. After introducing myself I notified him of my manuscript. Sir Paulias sounded pleased and asked me to send it to him.
Two weeks later, while on my way to Open Bay in East New Britain on a business trip, I fronted up at Sir Paulias’ Takubar office armed with the manuscript. It was my first time to meet Sir Paulias and I felt a bit nervous as I was led to his office. But it was different when I finally met him.
Sir Paulias greeted me as if he had known me for ages and I felt welcome the moment we shook hands. He directed me to a seat and, after settling down, I presented him my manuscript. I told him that I wanted his overview of my work and possibly help in finding a publisher.
Sir Paulias expressed surprise. He said many Papua New Guineans called him and expressed their interest in writing but none had showed up with a manuscript. He said I was different. Well done, he said.
That kind of compliment from a master writer inspired me. His words were the ammunition I needed to keep the fire of writing burning in me.
He told me to check with him after a week by which time he would have gone through the manuscript. When I returned a week later after my Open Bay stint, I fronted up at Sir Paulias’ office. He greeted me with a broad smile the moment he saw me.
He said he was impressed with the story and wanted a soft copy. I sent him a copy as soon as I returned to Kimbe. Sir Paulias then advised me to expect a letter direct from the publisher.
I knew my work was now before a publisher and kept my fingers crossed hoping that the publisher would accept it and publish it.
Two weeks later I got a letter from CBS Publishers in India advising me that my work would be published and they included all the costs I had to facilitate.
I later realised that this was the same publishing house that published Sir Paulias’ books. With a foreword written by Sir Paulias, 500 copies of ‘A Bride’s Price’ were printed.
The book was launched before a packed crowd by the late Sir Alkan Tololo in September 2003 at the Kokopo Secondary School Hall. Also launched at the same time were Sir Paulias’ book ‘Ripples in the South Pacific’ and a book of poetry by Sam Mutuaina.
Sir Paulias was instrumental in organising the launch and there I began to understand and appreciate fully his genuineness in advocating PNG literature.
I had not seen or touched a copy of ‘A Bride’s Price’ prior to the launch date. There was a delay due to some technical reasons associated with shipping. My book was due to arrive late.
Sir Paulias again stepped in and brought 10 copies into the country just for the launch. It was at this time that I first sighted a copy of my book.
When I picked it up and held it in my hands, I realised I had achieved something very few Papua New Guineans achieved in their lifetime. I had written a book that I previously thought was only possible for the trained and gifted hands. I was an author.
The experience was like a window curtain being opened. In the process of writing ‘A Bride’s Price’ and in communicating with the editor of CBS Publishers to prepare the manuscript for publication, I had learnt many things about writing, publishing and how the publishing industry works.
I had learnt to create and develop my own writing and editing skills and even how to go about conducting research for my writing.
In 2005 my entry in the 2005 national literature competition took out first prize in the short stories for dramatisation category. In 2014 my entry in the Crocodile Prize competition won the prize for heritage writing. This was followed by the first level Val Rivers Prize two months later. I am currently revising and editing my third book.
I started writing only 18 years ago. Considering my educational background and where I come from in a literary sense, I am a total outsider, an absolute stranger in the literary field.
But after two books and currently working on a third and winning three top level prizes in three different national literature competitions, I can confidently herald Writeatoullie –Anyone Can Write!