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Gender equality in PNG: What a dispiriting conversation

The fragile men of PNG who cannot tolerate women’s success

PHIL FITZPATRICK Crying croc

When Keith Jackson and I set up the Crocodile Prize in 2010, we thought it was necessary to have a special category for women's writing.

It didn’t take long for us to abandon this idea when it became abundantly clear that Papua New Guinea had many talented female writers.

In subsequent years, plenty of awards were carried off by women - it was close to a 50-50 split between male and female writers.

We believed this was a matter to be celebrated. And we understood that this success opened up a significant avenue to promote the cause of gender equality.

It was this kind of thinking that eventually led to the publication of the first anthology of PNG women's writing, 'My Walk to Equality', under the astute editorship of Rashmii Amoah Bell.

Unfortunately the publication of this book earlier this year attracted a deluge of misogynistic spite from men and women, involving both sexism and racism.

One of the most surprising sources of these nasty and unnecessary attacks was from the organising committee of the Crocodile Prize.

This was profoundly troubling and did not augur well for the future of the Prize and women's participation in it.

It also had a severe impact on the women writers involved, especially those involved in editing and the many other ancillary tasks demanded by a publishing program – including artwork and promotion.

Those poor women are now reeling from the effects of a backlash of envy and are now adamant they will not follow through with the planned second anthology.

We are hoping that they will reconsider this and again take up the cause.

Papua New Guinea has a reputation for taking good things and twisting them so they become unrecognisable and counterproductive.

We wonder whether this is what has happened to PNG literature over the years since independence. Back then a vibrant literary culture was slowly smothered and began to die.

Perhaps our more recent attempts to revive it are also doomed to failure.

If the treatment of PNG's women writers exhibited this year is anything to go by, hopes for a healthy future where talented men and women can work together to publish enlightening work that guides this new nation may be misguided.

Over the course of the last seven years or so we have seen a remarkable renaissance in PNG literature, largely driven by PNG Attitude and the Crocodile Prize.

The many writers who have come to prominence through these efforts has been incredibly heartening. There is not room to name them all here and recount their many achievements.

But as we hold this shining prize in our hands it has suddenly begun to disintegrate.

We fear that all that will be left are a few crumbs around our feet.

We hope that is not the case.

I, for one, am not prepared to continue if it means leaving the women writers of PNG behind. That would be a profoundly stupid thing to do.

This thing has to be healed now.

And it is the men of PNG who have to come humbly forward with their shame on display asking for forgiveness.

To continue blaming the women for their success is not an option.

Comments

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Chips Mackellar

Don't give up on them Phil. Backlash signifies success. Failure happens only when there is no response at all. Because response has come in the form of backlash means womens' writing has stirred up controvesy. They should keep writing, and with your help, they should keep publishing.

Trish Nicholson

I am more than delighted, Rashmii, if my suggestions have been in any way helpful.

The other advice, of course, that all writers know in their hearts is: never give up.

I'm an optimist, backed up by my personal knowledge of a good number of remarkable Papua New Guinean women, and I look forward to the next anthology of PNG women's writing with keen anticipation.

Rashmii Bell

Thank you Trish.

Incidentally, a comment I made previously in relation to PNG writers needing to shoulder the task of promoting their own published work stems from advice I've read in your book 'Writing Your Nonfiction Book' (Matador, 2014).

The suggestions Trish puts forward there is what readers have seen me initiate and implement regularly across social and print media to widen the reach of MWTE since publication.

Trish Nicholson

I think it is good that this shameful backlash is being discussed openly. My understanding is that sales and demand for My Walk to Equality have far exceeded expectations, not just in PNG but in Australia and elsewhere.

The backlash is a sign of this success - no success, no backlash - and it seems to me that the best response is to build on this remarkable success and go ahead with the second anthology.

No social enlightenment has been gained without struggle and a battle of words is preferable to any other.

Please, Papua New Guinea women writers, reconsider, forge ahead, your many readers and supporters have your back.
___________

At last count, some 7,000 copies of My Walk to Equality had been sold, most of the sales sponsored so the books could be distributed free of charge in PNG - KJ

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