BRISBANE - Lola Olufemi, women’s officer of Cambridge University’s student union, was amongst a group of students who recently, co-signed an open letter to the university’s English Department criticising a prescribed reading list dominated by white male authors.
The letter requested the ‘decolonisation’ of the English literature syllabus by giving the same moral and intellectual consideration to include black, minority and ethnic authors.
The London Telegraph gave front-page coverage to the letter, singling out Lola Olufemi’s photograph from amongst the collective petitioners and reframing the story to suit the newspaper’s right wing agenda.
As a result of the press coverage, Ms Olufemi endured a torrent of racist and gendered abuse.
Co-signatory, student Isadora Dooley Hunter, said, “People react negatively because it makes them feel uncomfortable but you need to make people feel uncomfortable for them to address their privilege.”
Privilege - a notion so universal, and discussed and debated at the turn of each second.
In Papua New Guinea, the lack of personal finance, absence of benefactors and the lack of an influential network enabling access to donor-funding are significant factors hindering the development of a thriving public literary culture.
Despite this, though, there is an awe-inspiring number of indigenous writers. They scramble to be published, their endeavours largely unrecognised nationally.
One result of this is that the authorship of the literature that is available in Papua New Guinea is predominantly Caucasian.
This applies to stories about our history not just contemporary affairs. In the context of the nation’s war history, including the notorious Kokoda Track Campaign, the stories have been and continue to be told by white male authors.
Earlier this year, I was invited by the Kokoda Track Foundation as a volunteer, to deliver a work which I believed would contribute to the glacial increase in the number of published writings by Papua New Guinea’s women writers.
I saw this as an opportunity to make visible the position of Papua New Guinean girls and women in transcribing our nation’s history.
It was a mammoth task which I developed from a sparse brief provided by the Foundation. There was also an abbreviated timeframe: just two days assigned for me to deliver a workshop then gather content in Kou Kou, Oro Province.
The outcome was to produce a children’s story on Kokoda, a task I completed well ahead of schedule despite the short time frame.
The Foundation was aware of and confident in my ability to do this as in May this year I had delivered a gender-equality themed book workshop to students of Sefoa Primary School, also in Oro Province.
And this project had come straight after the Foundation’s observation of the successful publication of My Walk to Equality.
So, at the end of all this, the children’s book was recently published. It was my work and I’m proud of all of it - from research through every developmental step, including the workshop, to providing the book with its title, ‘Butterflies along the Track’.
As a Papua New Guinean woman writer, this opportunity was one I valued and naturally I strove to maximise both my own experience and the elevation of the Papua New Guinean voice, particularly that of girls and women, it offered.
I tried as best I could to capture that authenticity as well as the narrative of the Kokoda Track Campaign in ‘Butterflies along the Track’.
Subsequently I was upset and offended when it was claimed the story was written by school students and that I was attributed the role of “co-author” and thanked for my “artistic guidance”. Offensive and also grossly inaccurate.
There was my title on the book’s cover with no space afforded for my name. I felt exploited.
I also felt that the Kokoda Track Foundation had somehow misappropriated my intellectual property and talent to suit its agenda. It was such a far cry from the mateship between Australians and Papua New Guineans that the book sought to commemorate and celebrate.
Instead I felt that ‘Butterflies along the Track’ had become a by-product of the subtle flexing of white privilege publicly paraded as ‘development’ in PNG.
My experience begs several questions. Would the same outcome have transpired if an Australian writer had led the project? Would an Australian writer have done what I did on an unpaid voluntary-basis? Would an Australian writer accept not having their authorship recognised on the front cover, alongside the badge of the organisation that commissioned the work?
It has not evaded me that speaking out like this will influence my future literary collaborative work with some organisations and institutions operating in Papua New Guinea.
That is a price I must be prepared to pay for my revelation of how this project was wrought.
I feel I ran into a notion of ‘privilege’ in bilateral relations that excluded me and paid higher tribute to the better endowed social entrepreneurial desire to further a presence in a developing nation.
With the wisdom granted by hindsight, I take full responsibility for my naivety in acting only with good faith as my guide.
I accepted ad hoc processes, lack of expertise and other flaws because I was confident in my ability to deliver. My failure to demand a contractual agreement outlining the specific terms and conditions of my work was a lesson learnt the hard way.
In saying all that, however, I have consistently acknowledged and publicly expressed gratitude to the Kokoda Track Foundation for providing me with the opportunity to travel to and spend time with the people in their communities.
It was work which created in me much joy and to which I remain committed.
As a Papua New Guinean with much privilege, it was a small contribution to my people.
And so I move on. In future, I hope that social enterprise organisations engaged in similar projects in PNG give full consideration and respect to collaborative process and, most importantly in the case of literary projects, ensure that a tangible contribution is made to creating a sustainable, locally-driven literary culture.
And where acknowledgement for PNG authorship is due, attribute it freely. It means so much.
I would advocate organisations championing Papua New Guinean writers, and there are precious few of these, seek direct donor-funding to deliver book projects. This would be particularly beneficial to redressing the lack of publishing opportunities for Papua New Guinean writers,
The efforts, freely given, of Pukpuk Publications since 2011 has been a boon for Papua New Guinean writers, but how hard it has been to create sustainability in the absence of whole-hearted institutional support. You see, these innovators were not in the club either.
Yet, at a time when prestigious events such as the Brisbane Writers Festival and Sunshine Coast Writers Festival have enthusiastically welcomed and endorsed the inclusion for Papua New Guinean writers, publication opportunities at the domestic level remain scarce and there is no systemic effort being made to change that.
The moment to appropriately acknowledge my work passed on Kokoda Day, 2017. I declined offers to edit or make adjustments to ‘Butterflies along the Track’. I just couldn’t bring myself to it.
Subsequently, I withdrew from an agreement with the Foundation to produce a gender equality themed children’s book. It was disappointing but the collaboration was over.
Somebody said something like this once: It started with warm invitation and ended with cold, complicated farewell.