Today Sheena Simelolo inspires a new generation of writers as an English literature tutor at the University of Goroka, but her own love of writing was sparked years before as a secondary student.
She was challenged by a teacher at Marianville Secondary School in Port Moresby, who had taken note of Sheena’s burgeoning literary interest and challenged her to put pen to paper.
“I started writing because of school,” Sheena said, “a defining moment was when I was in Grade 10 – my English teacher, Ms Rosa Kedarosi, made us write short fictional stories every weekend.
“She would either give us the beginning or the ending and it was up to us to complete the story.
“I was always interested in writing short stories – I was a great reader and most of my writing was inspired by the books I read.
“I loved reading books that were based on true stories or that depicted real-life situations.”
Sheena’s writing flourished and upon completing high school she decided to study for a Bachelor of Education, Language and Literature at the University of Goroka, where her passion transformed in to a way of life.
It was in her final year at university that Sheena first heard of the Crocodile Prize – the national literary awards – but was uncertain of whether to enter.
Nonetheless, she continued writing for her own enjoyment and became proficient at using fictional tales as a means to explore cultural and social issues.
After the completion of her studies, Sheena returned to Marianville Secondary – this time to teach year nine English and Social Science.
This was followed by a year-long stint at St Paul’s Lutheran Secondary in Enga and two years in Milne Bay teaching at Cameron High School.
In 2018, she moved to her present role in Goroka and this year, deciding the time had come to make her writing public, entered a short story, The Kitoro, in the Crocodile Prize’s Cleland Award for Heritage Literature.
The story is a reflection on her ancestry in the Rigo District of Central Province.
“Our unique cultures and traditions are mostly orally preserved – passed by word of mouth from generation to generation,” Sheena said.
“Writing is a new concept to our society. When our traditions are translated to the written word, I feel it has a lasting impression and that we are helping to preserve our traditions.
“I wrote about how a young Rigo girl and boy would become a couple while performing the traditional dance called the Kitoro – my uncles told me it is a form of love dance.”
The piece struck a chord with many readers and received an overwhelmingly positive response, including from political science lecturer Bomai Witne who described it as “a very beautiful story of our purposeful art of dressing, dancing, building relationships and acknowledging the source of knowledge and inspiration.”
Sheena also believes that writing is a particularly important outlet for women in PNG.
In 2019, Abt Associates is sponsoring the Crocodile Prize Award for Women’s Literature, which will be given for the most outstanding piece of writing that reflects the distinct and diverse perspectives of Papua New Guinean women.
“It is very important to have a platform for Papua New Guinean women writers because most of us don’t have a voice,” Sheena said.
“Our voices are usually heard through our fathers, brothers, uncles, pastors…..
“We really are silenced, we are the scapegoats for the society’s wrongs and, thus, writing is a unique way to air our views and be heard as functioning members of our society.”
True to her instincts as a teacher, Sheena wants all young Papua New Guineans – women, men, girls and boys – to join her in documenting PNG’s past and present.
“I would like to encourage all young Papua New Guineans to make it their business to preserve their cultures and traditions by writing them down,” she said.
“Interview your grandparents or anyone who is knowledgeable about your way of life.
“Write the songs, chants, parables, fables and the way you build your houses, your canoes, make your gardens, go fishing – these are just some of the many things that you can document and preserve your cultures.
“If we don’t, we will become strangers in our land.”