It is challenging to write fiction, based on actual history, than on pure imagination. The challenge is to be as close to history, but aided with literary license to reconstruct a storyline that maps out the narrative. The technique known as fictionalizing history is taken on board to plough the field of history and fiction to make something grow out of it.
Land Echoes (2014) is my first novel based on my grandfather, Holonia Jilaka, whose life inspired this book. Although not a biography the novel’s timeline is based on the part of my grandfather’s history.
I recorded my grandfather’s story on tape when I was a UPNG student many years ago. The part that I was interested in was the part where he went to the Highlands of Papua New Guinea in 1933 as a shepherd boy with the Catholic missionaries. He spent three years (1933-1935) in Simbu area before being discharged as a mission boy. He then joined the police force, taking his training in Rabaul depot under the instructions from Ludwig Somare and a sergeant from Buka. Kiap Jim Taylor recruited him into the police unit to make the historical Hagen Sepik patrol in 1938/1939.
My grandfather told me only part of the story. The rest I had to read and discover for myself. From the transcript I had of his story I began the writing project in December 1994/January 1995. At that time I was studying for my PhD in English at the University of Minnesota, USA. It was winter holidays but I could not return home.
To keep me busy and distracted from homesickness in the middle of Minnesota winter I decided to write five pages a day the early drafts of the novel, Land Echoes. I wrote every day without for two months, completing the first draft of the novel by the time February 1995 came around. I was quite happy with the self-productivity that winter. I think I completed around 500 pages of hand written notes.
I then started the process of typing the manuscript into my laptop. By the time classes started again I shelved the writing project for my PhD program. From time to time I returned to my manuscript in the next 20 years, even after my doctoral studies. I had some help along the way from colleagues and writers in PNG and Australia. I received documents, manuscripts, and books about the famous Hagen Sepik Patrol that Jim Taylor, John Black, and Pat Walsh, but only as sources of reference to contextualize the history that was made with the help Papua New Guinean policemen like my grandfather.
I was interested in highlighting the life of my grandfather against the early work of the Catholic Church in the Highlands and the Australian government’s administration of the newly discovered highlands region of Papua New Guinea.
The only way I could make sense of this was to delve into history that I was born too late to know. I equipped the writing life with raw imagination to enter into the period beginning late 1920s and 1930s to juxtapose that with periods from 1960s to the 1970s. The challenge with a project such as mine was to make history interesting to read through fictional narrative, while making sure to remain close to actual events in history.
The following books helped me understand history before reconstructing them in this book: The Sky Travellers by Bill Gammage, They Went Out to Sow by Fr. John Nilles, SVD, A Short History of Wewak by Lorna Fleetwood, The Martyrs of Papua New Guinea by Fr. Theo Artes; The Bishop’s Progess: A Historical Ethnography of Catholic Missionary Experience on the Sepik Frontier by Mary Taylor Huber.
Other materials that helped me reconstruct various historical moments in Papua New Guinea are hereby acknowledged: background on Ahuia Ova in PNG History Through Stories: Book 2 by Eric Johns, Sana by Michael Thomas Somare, Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime by Albert Maori Kiki, and Murray, J. K., quoted in Downs, L., The Australian Trusteeship: Papua New Guinea 1945-75 (Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra 1980), p.39, cited in John Waiko. Papua New Guinea: A History of Our Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
It is challenging to write books about our pioneer citizens who worked very hard alongside Australians to build this country. Many of them died without being remembered. If an effort is made to remember them they usually are remembered as nameless policemen, teachers, cargo carriers, cooks, shepherd boys, translators, APOs, and ‘haus-boi’. Many of them worked in coconut plantations and mines as labourers. The Papua New Guineans who helped in the administration had no books written about them.
The effort to write about my grandfather is to give some name and place in the early colonial history of Papua New Guinea. For me, writing this book for 20 years has taught me an important lesson: With the passing of every leader, whether of the past or present, a whole history of the person and this society goes with that leader. Papua New Guineans are so busy doing other things, but are not writing the books about Papua New Guineans who deserve to be known or rewarded for their contributions to the development of this modern nation of Papua New Guinea.
Writing a historical fiction challenges a writer to create outside of the comfort zone. I hope I have captured within the pages of the novel Land Echoes (2014) the essence of that challenge. I do hope that Land Echoes (2014) will encourage fellow Papua New Guineans to take up the pen to write the many wonderful histories and life narratives of our people.
Land Echoes is co-published by the UPNG Press and Manui Publishers and printed in the USA with assistance of Masalai Press in California. Once the book is launched it will become available to the reading public at the University of Papua New Guinea Bookshop.
For further information regarding the book you can contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org