Monday, March 25, 2013

PNG Writing Lessons

Presenting my books to Founder and Principal of PNG Paradise High School
during the National Book Week 2012.
What you throw away can become someone else’s treasure. In the year 1988 I was working as a trainee librarian at the then Goroka Campus of UPNG. It was the first job I had had after graduating with a BA degree with majors in Literature and Philosophy. I was a library fellow in the Michael Somare Library of UPNG at that time.

During one of my trip every morning to the Goroka dumpsite to discard all the rubbish I picked up a book that the library had thrown away. It had no cover. The rest of the book remained intact. I took the book with me with the intention to read and keep it.

It turned out years later that the book served the basis of one of the chapters in my study of Papua New Guinea writing. The book, Three Short Novels of Papua New Guinea (1974) was written by August Kituai, Jim Baital, and Benjamin Umba. The study of this book was done during my Masters degree in English literature at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand in 1991.

Part of this research is now published in my latest book Transitions and Transformations: Literature, Culture, and Politics in Papua New Guinea (2013).  The specific study of The Three Short Novels of Papua New Guinea is given in chapter 8 of the book, which I am happy to introduce as part of the narratives that this column concerns itself with.

The very act of writing is a challenge many Papua New Guinean writers consider as a serious preoccupation. This is exemplified in Kituai’s The Flight of a Villager, where Iso shows the letter of reference to the young Australian to get a job as a houseboy. This is a classic representation of writing as an important instrument of negotiation between the colonizer and the colonized. In Kituai’s story the signature of the referee and the written aspect of the reference are more important than the person who uses the reference.

Benjamin Umba’s The Fires of Dawn starts with the first contact in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The period is one full of serious confrontations between the Highlanders and the Europeans and their coastal policemen and carriers. This led to a society disturbed and fragmented as in August Kituai’s The Flight of a Villager, where the village youth attracted by the seductive city life escapes from the rigid rules of the village. The Flight of a Villager is a story about the first experiences of contact societies and the illusions that follow such exposures to the outside world.

Tali, Jim Baital’s story is about the great return to the village. The story is about villagers alienated as a result of long years of service in the colonial work force. The great return, however, is hardly an easy transition. It is the most difficult thing for someone who has been alienated from the village. The village becomes more negative to those who went away to work in outside in coastal towns. The villagers disapprove new ideas and values. Baital goes further to show how damaging this attitude is for future generations of Papua New Guineans. Individuals become bearers of the residual guilt of their colonial past. Baital embraces possibilities of a nationalist’s concern here. He highlights some of the individual guilt and shame in a changing cultural system.

The main characters in Three Short Novels from Papua New Guinea are single characters. Each character follows a line of experience, perhaps, parallel to the experience of the three authors. The individual characters are often rebellious youths who are forced to leave the village in search of other possibilities in towns. The qualities of the characters are first judged against the society’s view of what are considered good qualities against bad qualities. Good qualities involve respect of customs, elders, observation of village rules, hard work, proper marriage, courting, courage, and strength to fight for the society in times of invasion. These qualities are absent.

All main characters in these novellas, in many ways, accepted their condition as village outcasts and rebels. For instance, Anglum’s son Tanawa, in The Fires of Dawn, is murdered for betraying the village and tribe. He is portrayed as an element of betrayal. His own society must eliminate him. The Fires of Dawn highlights the contact with the first missionary at Denglagu, the traditional land of the Kukane, which was resented by the Kukane tribe. As we discover later in the story, Tanawa, Aglum’s son, accepts the mission’s word and works on the mission station. The other Kukane tribesmen take this as a betrayal of trust.

Iso in Kituai’s The Flight of the Villager runs away from his village with a friend to Goroka. Goroka with its hordes of problems, crimes, and seductiveness displeases Iso. He lives a vagrant’s life with someone from his own village. They live on leftovers brought by his friend. He eventually gets a job as a house servant (house boy) with a young Australian officer in Goroka. The difficult, often-irresistible, modern life always allures the rebellious youth into voluntary isolation, alienation, and separation from the village. Iso achieves personal freedom as well as personal liberation. He escapes from the village punishment and the tax law of the council. This escape makes it possible for Iso to reflect on the two different worlds in a conscious way.

The Three Short Novels from Papua New Guinea were written based on the experiences of the authors. These writers occupy themselves with conflict of cultures, escape from these conflicts, and confrontations with more complicated problems in towns. The village conflicts result from breaking of rules, disobeying elders’ commands, forced marriages, or sex related conflicts. External forces augment internal conflicts and tensions of one particular society. Individuals caught up in these tensions and conflicts reject such conditions. New laws, politics, religion, administration, and education are the basis of a new social order and power.

These stories emphasize the moments of transitions and transformations in Papua New Guinea.


  1. I can't wait to read your new book, Transitions and Transformations in Papua New Guinea. I have Three Short Novels from Papua New Guinea as well as many other books written by PNGs, all of which I read back in the 1980s and 1990s. I will look forward to rereading them along with your new book and its interpretations.

  2. Thank you Laura, I hope the new book will fill in some of the gaps. Yes, I enjoyed the three short novels. Hope to see reprints appearing in UPNG Bookshop soon.

  3. Wantok, a wonderful piece. I look forward to reading your latest book, and introducing it to my students. Please let me know how I can get a copy.

  4. Tara, knowing you appreciate the piece is a reassuring feeling. To get copies of the new book you need only to place the orders using UH Bookshop, Hamilton Library Pacific Collection (Stu Dawrs) or simply order online at or through Barnes and Transitions and Transformations is printed out of USA. Check Masalai Press operating out of California for orders. The person to contact is Tom Slone of Masalai Press.

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