Tess Gizoria chewed up the pieces of her journal entry and ate them.
It was a misiguided punishment from her father with whom Tess had a fractious relationship as an adolescent.
Tess, now as then, is articulate, direct and determined.
“We’d always argue – maybe it’s because we’re so much alike,” she reflects.
“He found what I’d written – I can’t remember exactly what it was – but he was so mad at me!”
Ironically, it was her father who first encouraged Tess to start writing.
“Inspiring me to write? It was my Dad, because I needed a way to vent,” she says, just barely holding back laughter, “we were always arguing about things and I felt so strongly about them.”
“He told me I talked too much and to put my energy in to more useful things – one of them was writing.
“I was a child and supposed to respect my Dad and not speak against him – all of that – I put it all down on paper.”
The frustrated teenager grew up and her writing practice, which began as a way to process a challenging patriarchal relationship, became a method to intellectualise the complexities of culture and gender in modern Papua New Guinea.
“There’s such a big responsibility on a Papua New Guinean woman to be a daughter and a sister – a partner and a wife – a mother and a provider,” Tess says.
“We don’t necessarily have the space to embrace ourselves and find out who we are.
“Wanting to know who I am as a person has challenged me to reach out and find what I can offer as a person – not just somebody that represents something to someone else.
“Who is Tess? What does she like? What does she do? Being connected to me – a me who is not a daughter, a sister, a mum, a provider. Just me.”
To answer these questions about the present and future, Tess decided she needed to look to the past.
“Whether I’m conscious of it or not, the cultures and customs of my people play a huge role in my identity,” she says.
“It’s about finding things that resonate with ourselves – they could be our customs of old or the new ones we’re creating now.”
Tess continued to write in her journal, for herself, but as her passion for social change grew she began sharing her work in online activist communities.
It was in these Facebook forums that she first heard of the Crocodile Prize – the national literary awards of Papua New Guinea – which provides recognition for writers and a platform to publish their work.
“I didn’t think to share my stories,” Tess says, “I didn’t think anyone would want to read them or that they were worth reading.”
“I sent my piece on the deadline day for the Crocodile Prize – I just wanted to be critiqued.”
She entered her piece – ‘Ketar natis, killings and two grieving kinsmen’ – in the Cleland Award for Heritage Literature, which is bestowed each year for writing that delves into traditional customs, beliefs and stories.
Tess wrote about the traditions of her father’s Goilala people and how they relate to the present existence of her family.
“My story wasn’t just about culture and traditions,” she says, “it was about a lack of connection.”
“It asks ‘why don’t I know my traditional boundaries, cousins and people? Why don’t I know my forests and rivers?’”
The impact of heritage – both the positive and the negative – is important to Tess.
“The Goilala people are known around Port Moresby for being raskols,” she says.
“It has really impacted how we see ourselves and our identity as young Papua New Guineans.
“Writing is about finding my space, and wanting to show a different view of what a Goilala woman is, and what a Goilala woman can contribute to society.”
Her last minute entry was a resounding success and within the space of two weeks Tess was a Crocodile Prize winner.
The literary triumph was a huge surprise for Tess and her family, and she took the opportunity for some well-deserved gloating.
“Dad was just as shocked as I was that my writing would get to this stage,” she says.
“I teased him: ‘Dad, you should have made me eat more pages, because I would have won a lot more awards.’”
One of her younger sisters also writes and Tess reckons she’s an even bigger talent, demonstrating incredible maturity for her age.
“She’s really, really good,” she says, “she’s somebody I like to bounce ideas off.”
“There was a piece she wrote that really challenged the way I saw myself as a Goilala woman.”
Tess, who will turn 30 at the end of the year, knows that writing is a way of documenting traditions and assessing the relevance of kastom in contemporary society – particularly for women.
“There’s a huge appetite for Papua New Guinean stories because we’ve come to the stage where we want to figure out who are,” she continues.
“We’re already good storytellers – writing shouldn’t be hard, it should be easy.”
Tess urges people to put pen to paper and submit entries to the Crocodile Prize. In 2019, the Abt Associates Award for Women’s Literature and the Cleland Award for Heritage Literature have placed a priority on the unique experiences of women and the diverse traditions of PNG.
“The world already sees Papua New Guinean women – but we don’t hear them enough,” she says.
“Our voices are so different and complex – you won’t find two stories that are the same.
“I want to see a lot more Papua New Guinean women write.
“We need to tell our stories and listen to each other’s stories if we are to connect and raise each other up – as sisters, as daughters of this land, and as women supporting other women.”
Tess’ message is clear: words are to be shared, not swallowed.
Excerpt from ‘Ketar Natis, Killings and Two Grieving Kinsmen’ by Tess Gizoria
The winning entry in the Cleland Award for Heritage Literature in the 2017 Crocodile Prize
The figurative description of the term ketar natis would be equivalent to the pain of a splinter embedded under a fingernail.
Even if the splinter were removed the sore would prove rather painful and could take forever to heal, often leading to the loss of a nail and the stunted growth of the new one
It wasn’t until years later that I learnt the full extent of ketar natis. My Dad recounted the story of two innocent boys whose lives were cut short because of a grandfather’s wrong doing.
One of the boys was not selected to go on to Mainohana’s De La Salle High School in the Central Province, whilst another from his village was.
The boy who had been selected to go to Mainohana had an older brother who was already enrolled in grade nine.
The unfortunate boy’s grandfather was angry that two children from the same family could stumble upon such luck whilst his only grandson missed out.
It wasn’t fair he thought to himself. The two boys didn’t have a father to guide them. Their mother had to raise pigs and make gardens just to support the boys when they returned home for the term holidays.
The brothers didn’t seem to concentrate in school anyway, and would even miss a few days at the beginning of every term to do chores such as mending the thatched roof of their mother’s house or fencing of their gardens to keep the wild pigs out.
His grandson would always be in class and not worry about running out of food, because he would walk there to give the boy additional supplies on the pupils’ mandatory weekends in school.
The brothers on the other hand, would have to escape Friday from afternoon classes to run home, because their food rations would have run out before the fortnight was up.
The anger grew into bitter resentment and became too much to bare that he settled on an evil plan to kill the younger of the two brothers.
On the afternoon of the last day of holidays for the brothers, the old man’s grandson planned to go along with the brothers to the river to fish.
This aptly suited the old man’s plans. He took his bow, arrows, and machete, gave his daughter (the boy’s mother) a suitable excuse, and headed in the direction of the hunting grounds in the hills.
After he was well out of the villagers’ sight and under concealment of the forest canopy, he took a detour for the river.
As he approached he heard his grandson calling down to the boys at the river’s edge. Guessing that the younger of the brothers would be down there as well, he made his way toward higher ground to find a vantage point to take aim.
He lined up the boy with the tip of his arrow and prepared to let loose.
Just as the arrow whirred past his ears and snap out of the crook of the bow string the boy darted out of sight and a fourth boy loomed up into the flight path.
He never anticipated the company of a fourth boy in the fishing party.
Realising his mistake too late, he took to the jungle to make his escape. But he had been spotted.
The name of the fallen boy’s murderer was passed on like wild fire onto the villagers and the fallen boy’s relatives.
As the shocked fishing party returned to the village with the lifeless body of their fallen friend, the victim’s father had no qualms about striking the old men’s unsuspecting grandson on the back of his head with a fatal blow of his machete.
The old man soon returned to the village as ketar natis had taken its course and no more killings would ensue. Both families would now have to live with the pain of losing an innocent child.
Ketar natis demanded that the pain the old man caused the victim’s family could not be fixed until he, the perpetrator, felt it too.
Then and only then could he kill pigs and apologise. But the loss of his beloved grandson and the rejection by his kin would always be a reminder.