Francis Nii’s struggle for contemporary PNG literature
By Ben Jackson
The twisted metal of a motor vehicle accident in Papua New Guinea’s Highlands nearly brought Francis Nii’s story to a dramatic end.
The crash, at the start of 1999, left him forever paralysed from the waist down and brought his promising career as an economist and financial adviser to a sudden halt.
Francis, now 56, speaks softly and chooses his words carefully, but behind this gentle nature is an immense inner-strength that has served him well in the most trying of circumstances.
“There were moments I saw death coming,” he says.
“But every time I looked at the faces of my three daughters, there was this immeasurable power and energy unleashed in me to fight to stay alive and see them grow to womanhood and live lives of their own.
“They have always been at my side and, to this day, although all the girls have children, they are so close to me. I am a proud grandfather.”
The unexpected and tragic accident would have caused most people to despair, but Francis transformed it into an opportunity to surround himself with family and to channel his energy into pursuits to make the country better.
His formal education began at Diani Community School in Simbu Province in 1973 and continued at Chuave Provincial High School, where he developed a love for books.
After completing high school he studied for an economics degree at the University of Papua New Guinea, graduating in 1987.
It was at UPNG that Francis began experimenting with poetry, participating in recitals and publishing a number of poems in the PNG Writers Union Magazine, ‘Ondobondo’, and a book titled ‘Through the Eye of Melanesia’.
Though in many ways he is a product of modern educational institutions, Francis maintains a strong link to his own cultural identity and has never lost touch with the traditions of his people.
“I am of a mixture of traditional and modern eras,” he says.
“I grew up in the hausman, survived by subsistence farming and wore tanket, kondai and malo.”
This close connection to his roots fostered an egalitarian, community oriented spirit which led him to a graduate position in the then Rural Development Bank.
Over the next decade Francis travelled Papua New Guinea and began to better understand the complexity of its people as he worked to boost small projects in Rabaul, Bialla, Namatanai, Manus, Kainantu and Goroka.
It was in Goroka in February 1999 that the terrible motor vehicle accident nearly took his life. Francis is hesitant to talk about this calamity, but says he was victim of bad company. It changed his perspective of human nature.
After surviving the initial stages of his severe injury, he moved to Kundiawa where he has since lived at Sir Joseph Nombri Hospital, one of the few places suitable for him to stay in his rugged home province.
With the generosity and care from the hospital staff, particularly Dr Jan Jaworski and Dr Urakoko Boku, Francis regained his health and then rekindled his love of literature – he resumed his own writing and later supporting other writers.
He also involved himself in voluntary and charity work – notably with the Simbu Children Foundation – where his resilience, energy and enthusiasm boosted the morale of other hospital patients, especially those living with a disability.
In 2005, having written for several years without access to a computer, Francis managed to scrape together the resources to publish his first novel, ‘Paradise in Peril’.
“I wrote the novel by using scrap paper from the hospital’s trash bins,” Francis says.
“Reverend Daryl Boyd of the Lutheran Church typed the entire 200-plus pages and [former governor-general and author] Sir Paulias Matane assessed it and sent it to India for publication.”
Though Francis is a fine storyteller, he doesn’t limit himself to a single form. His finely-crafted essays, stories and poems also combine with a strong sense of justice, a loathing of corruption and a love for country and peles.
He brings a unique understanding of fading traditions and an intellect sharpened through academic and professional excellence.
He says of his first novel, “I captured real issues affecting the society hued in a fictitious plot with different model characters.”
“The underlying idea was to keep readers captivated and engrossed in the story and, as the issues unfolded, to embrace them and, hopefully, make a difference.”
In 2012, Francis heard about the establishment of the Crocodile Prize – PNG’s national literary awards – and recognised its potential to provide a platform for writers who were creating an authentic Papua New Guinean literature.
“There are talented writers, but the lack of publication opportunities has been the obstacle,” he says.
“The Crocodile Prize and its annual anthology are the keys to unlocking this stumbling block and certainly there will continue to be a flood of new writers and new writing in the ensuing years.”
Francis was no longer writing on recycled paper, but punching out prose and verse on a mobile phone – enabling him to reach further and wider than ever before.
He entered the Crocodile Prize and also established himself as a regular contributor to the eminent blog PNG Attitude – published by Keith Jackson, co-founder of the Crocodile Prize, who had been a teacher in Simbu 50 years earlier.
In 2013, Francis had a defining moment when he won the Crocodile Prize award for essays and journalism for ‘If Dekla Says Papua New Guinea is Eden, Then It Is!’
The Crocodile Prize’s other co-founder Philip Fitzpatrick later wrote that this essay gently, but pointedly, made light of Papua New Guineans who follow Westernisation only to miss what their traditions have to offer.
“The end result is an anecdote and fable of considerable power, both in its social and political contexts,” Fitzpatrick said of the essay. “Part of this power is in its purposeful but cleverly disguised objective of making its readers think about the issues.”
It was quintessential Francis Nii.
Rather than sit back and feel content with his achievement, Francis saw his Crocodile Prize success as an opportunity to encourage others and expand the base of writers and readers across the country and he wasted no time in getting to work in his native Simbu.
“Keith Jackson, Philip Fitzpatrick and the Crocodile Prize elevated me to a different height where I am now a writer, editor and publisher,” he says.
“We established the Simbu Writers Association in 2014 to encourage the present generation to write and be published.
“We travelled to remote areas of the province to bring the message of literature to schools and to the people.”
Francis and the Simbu Writers Association never intended to make money, which was fortunate because the exercise of publication and distribution cost far more than they ever got back.
“We had an idea and were prepared to work hard and without compensation to realise it,” he continues.
“We began to visit schools, talking to students and teachers about the Crocodile Prize literary contest. We covered lots of ground and talk to many hundreds of people.
“Schools don’t have the money to bulk buy books so I handed out copies of my novel – sometimes a principal would even ask me to autograph it!”
The mission to encourage reading, writing and critical thought took group through some of PNG’s most treacherous terrain and marginalised communities.
“Sometimes the roads were so bad we couldn’t get through,” Francis says, “but that didn’t happen often… we were very determined.”
“As more books became available, we grabbed whatever transport we could to deliver them, including ambulances and police vehicles.
“Once, disgruntled youths held us up thinking we were the Governor and local politicians – we gave them a book to let us pass.”
The Simbu Writers Association continued to spread the word and also facilitated more local authors to be published, including a collection by students at Ku High School that was launched by Kerenga Kua MP, now PNG’s Minister for Petroleum and Energy.
The Association again teamed up with Kua to host the 2015 Crocodile Prize Awards in Kundiawa – the first and only time the ceremony has been held outside Port Moresby.
While it was no surprise that local writing was well-received within PNG, Francis could not have foreseen the international acclaim and support he would receive.
In 2016, he was conferred perhaps his greatest recognition as a writer when invited, along with authors Rashmii Bell, Daniel Kumbon and Martyn Namorong, to present at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia – a trip sponsored by Paga Hill Estate and Professor Ken McKinnon.
The PNG authors took the stage for the one-hour session, reflecting on the state of their nation, from a political and social perspective, its halting developments in literature and daring to imagine their people’s future.
Francis told stories of the journey of the Simbu writers and mused on the disappearance of the hausman, the institution of the men’s house that provided the educational and ethical foundation for Highlands societies.
He also revealed a subtext to his years of hard work – a fear that without a stream of writing and writers the nation that had been born of a thousand tribes might become disconnected from itself.
“PNG has a wealth of diverse and esoteric cultures and traditions, unique flora and fauna, historical heritage and relics, legends and folklores, proverbs and idioms, contemporary developments and issues and others to be written about,” Francis says.
“Different cultures and traditions are passed on orally from generation to generation – but they need to harness this talent and convert it into written form.
“A nation without literature is a people with lost identity.”