BRISBANE - On a clear, mid-September afternoon in 2017, four women - heels clicking and voices chattering excitedly - hurry across an aerial walkway connecting two of the city’s cultural hubs.
They are behind schedule and the urgent hum of traffic serves to spur an even faster pace and longer strides. They hustle down a staircase and enter the cool of the performing arts centre courtyard beyond the unremitting glare of the Queensland sun.
There, in a far corner of this place, they spot familiar faces seated around two large alfresco dining tables that have been pushed together. A celebratory lunch is already underway and cheerful smiles and shouts greet the approaching quartet.
From the four women, whose pace has now slowed to a stagger, invisible jetstreams of exhaustion and exuberance sweep out, hover, then float into a seemingly limitless sky. They have just completed their task as panellists at the first ever session on PNG women's literature at the Brisbane Literary Festival.
A panel not of academicians on PNG literature, but of representative of the 45 women who have created an important part of it. A collective act of creativity and truth-telling in book form that has never happened in this way before and, because it is the first, can never happen in this way again.
The group the women are now plunging into are mismatched: men, women, whatever, starched collars, tee-shirts, A-line frocks, weekend slacks, shorts (in Keith's case daggy, he crops the photos to make them appear acceptable).
Australian and Melanesian hairstyles - chemically coloured, hot-iron straightened, some in natural Afro-glory, one or two neatly combed to deflect sparse coverage. There are pops of makeup that colour the Caucasian and multi-toned, melanin faces.
These eleven people all have a deep connection to a land mass described in Trish Nicholson’s ‘Inside the Crocodile’ as “the eastern half of a large dragon-shaped island just north of Australia.”
As the conversation begins to flow, dainty flutes of chilled pinot noir circulate. A toast is bestowed upon the four panellists and on their 41 absent counterparts, those Papua New Guinean women who have completed a unique achievement, a milestone for their country, an amazing act of literature.
For the first time, Papua New Guinean women have come together to write and publish a collection of articles, stories and poetry about their society and their role in one of the most significant challenges it faces, summed up by the book’s title, ‘My Walk to Equality’.
Around the table, congratulatory words volley and lob as praise is showered upon the four women. Everybody is aware that this moment belongs to 45 Papua New Guinean women and they know that these women have been supported and cheered on by the many hundreds in the united nation of readers and writers connected through the 13-year old PNG Attitude blog.
This online community centres its literary life around the historical and contemporary connection between Papua New Guinea and Australia and the many issues that flow from that relationship.
Enthusiastic talk ensues. It has been another positive year for Papua New Guinean writers at the Brisbane Writers Festival, a renowned international literary event in its 55th year, a decade older than the panellists’ homeland.
In mid-June this year, Australian thinktank the Lowy Institute played host to PNG’s deputy prime minister and treasurer Charles Abel who delivered an address canvassing PNG’s economy, APEC, the PNG-Australia relationship and the future of his country. On the state of the nation’s education system, Abel commented:
“The fastest way to progress a nation is to enable its people. The primary enabler is a quality education…One thing which continues to strike me is that we have one of the best education systems in the world on our doorstep, in Australia”.
Elaborating, Abel went on to propose that, in its development assistance to PNG, Australia should have education as its key focus. This became a point of critical comment on social media as internationally-educated Papua New Guineans hollered for the ‘decolonisation’ of PNG’s education system.
It seemed a rash and unfair misrepresentation of Abel’s proposal which was advocating no less a good than the acceleration of a critical mass of PNG’s middle class towards leadership, good governance and business innovation.
In emphasising the importance of learning and an educated population, Abel proposed that Australia create 1,000 places in boarding schools for Papua New Guinean students selected from Year 9. This would be the Launchpad for a longer-term strategy that would include an exchange program for Australian and Papua New Guinean teachers and lecturers in schools and universities:
“We need to accelerate the education of our young people, the quality of the English spoken and written expression, and the adoption of latest technology and systems by greater interaction with the Australian people and education systems. This is the help we need while we also build the PNG system”.
On this point, it is difficult to disagree with Charles Abel.
As I canvassed in my Pacific Conversation interview with Dr Tess Newton Cain, I have generally been uninspired by the lack of written content and critique published by Papua New Guineans, including by those with the highest levels of tertiary education. Most notable has been the absence of such in public discourse.
Thirteen years have passed since the laying of an invisible literary travelator across the Torres Strait between Australia and PNG which has long been functioning at full capacity. Its key operative, Keith Jackson AM, performing a double act as publisher and editor of the literary spectacle that is PNG Attitude.
Alongside Keith has been author and publisher Philip Fitzpatrick, the dedicated mentor of so many Papua New Guinean writers with manuscripts complete and incomplete and needing advice on what to do next.
Each has his story of how he left Australia as a young man to undertake work as a colonial public servant and then implant roots that would see a continuing dedication to Papua New Guinea even many decades after Australia had withdrawn its administration. In the absence of any official policy to encourage and nurture a national literary culture and sparse infrastructure to build one, Jackson and Fitzpatrick determined it could be done and tirelessly did it.
The duo have been a phenomenal force of mentoring, stewardship and on multiple occasions generous benefaction to hundreds of aspiring and emerging Papua New Guinean writers, editors and those brave enough to venture into small-scale self-publishing.
Accompanying them on the travelator have been other Australians who worked and lived a life in Papua New Guinea prior to independence and at various times since: Ed Brumby, Murray and Joan Bladwell, Lindsay Bond, Bob Cleland, Rob Parer, ‘Chips’ Mackellar, Peter Kranz, Barbara Short, Paul Oates, Chris Overland, Father Garry Roche and Arthur Williams are amongst many on an honour roll of names that thread the lively commentaries, debates and discussions on the progress of PNG and its relationship with Australia.
With similar gusto and dedication as Jackson and Fitzpatrick, all these people have voluntarily pitched in to develop and promote Papua New Guinean writers; their lived experiences in the writers’ homeland providing invaluable insights into the people and culture of Australia’s nearest neighbour.
They bequeath an asset that in the coming years will be valued by Australian communities seeking ways to better understand Papua New Guineans as well as Papua New Guineans to assert their own culture to Australians.
Intrigued by the lively debates and inspired by the output of PNG writers operating at all stages of the craft, at the end of 2014 I too jumped on this travelator. At that time, generous mentorship, large outputs of published PNG-authored titles and small patches of philanthropic and corporation funding flowed consistently between the two countries.
However, despite the marked increase of numbers aboard this literary conveyor belt, the direction of movement has been more sideways than forward, and slowing rather than propelling.
As he did in his 2016 book publication, ‘The Embarrassed Colonialist’, journalist Sean Dorney’ in a recent special ABC television documentary urged Australians to recognise their past colonial administration of Papua New Guinea and to try to better understand, include and embrace the relationship in the present.
Dorney encouraged Australians to seek out the positives of the people of a land that the international lens focuses on unfaltering corruption, communities marred by crime and exploitative practices of foreign entities.
It is undeniable that literature is an effective mechanism for motivating citizen participation in social change. Its potential to improve the perceptions and attitudes fostered by ill-informed and unbalanced reporting is unequivocal.
Yet, as the governments of PNG and Australia continue to ignore and decline proposals for grants, commissions, fellowships, literary exchanges and other resources, to develop a sustainable indigenous-led literary environment, Dorney’s plea seemed futile when considered against the reality.
In all the possibilities offered by donor funding and aid to PNG, somewhere in the complexities of planning and delivery the great benefits offered by a national indigenous literature have been relinquished.
It is frustrating to witness the concentration of investment in sports and ‘events’ when a malnourished PNG Attitude, with a 13-year history, has demonstrated repeatedly that Papua New Guineans are talented and extremely passionate about literature and have proven their ability to take it somewhere. The essential life skills of reading and writing, much-needed by every individual, taken into universes as polar as the classroom and the world.
This predicament invites one to seriously consider whether Charles Abel meant his vision seriously, for it had so much to build on. By all means insert Papua New Guineans into the Australian education system, but also insert Papua New Guinean culture and society – especially our writing – more assertively into the Australian literary and media mainstream.
So we may conclude that Australians will only better understand Papua New Guinea if more Papua New Guineans are supported to write about Papua New Guinea and more Australian and Papua New Guinean writers are journalists are supported to share their knowledge and experience.
It is nothing short of embarrassing to admit that the writers of two countries with so much common interest are not looked upon as a resource and stimulation for that common interest.
As for me, in acknowledgement of the great support the Brisbane Writers Festival afforded Papua New Guinean writers to showcase and participate in its literary event of 2016 and 2017, I will be a volunteer at this year’s festival.
It’s the outcome of another literary activity initiated and facilitated by the PNG Attitude online community, supported by the Paga Hill Development Company and focused on achieving outcomes for all Papua New Guinean writers, editors and publishers.
This article was prepared for the My Walk to Equality Writer Fellowship 2018 sponsored by Paga Hill Development Company. The fellowship commenced in mid-March 2018 and will conclude at the end of September 2018. Information and regular updates of activities undertaken by fellowship recipient, Rashmii Bell, may be found here or via Twitter: @amoahfive_oh