4 Books I loved reading in 2020

In the year that was, I made a concerted effort to read more books either written by Papua Niuginan authors or about PNG women’s practices. Despite the year throwing us a huge curveball, expanding my literary knowledge of my matrilineal homeland and it’s people remained a priority. I’m grateful to my wantok meri Deb Chapman, whose Brunswick home I refer to as the unofficial PNG embassy for Melbourne. Her home is full of Papua Niugini artwork, conversations and occasionally wantoks from home. Every time I leave Deb’s place my son and I usually leave with books.

I mentioned to Deb a while ago that I was interested in reading an anthology by PNG women that was published a few years ago My Walk to Equality edited by Rashmi Amoah Bell. As I was telling Deb about this book and it’s claim to being the first PNG women’s anthology written by PNG women, I saw a look in Deb’s eye that was uncertain. She then promptly walked upstairs to her home office and descended with a pile of books spanning a variety of topics all relating to beautiful Papua. That was a few years ago. I’m still getting through that pile slowly. Some new ones have been purchased by myself in between book readings and are now part of my personal collection.

The books that Deb gave me and that I have recently discovered are the kinds of books I craved during my tertiary learning years, especially during my Fine Arts degree in Australia. This was pertinent to a time of my early to mid twenties when I was still figuring out who I was, my place in society and a Western art history that didn’t always readily accept or understand my cultural dualities, despite the cultural and political history between the two nations I call home.

My relationship with Deb is a beautiful and nourishing one. Deb has spent many years in my homeland and raised her two sons there. Deb and I are both comfortable enough to say the things we want and need to say to each other, despite how hard or difficult it may be for the other to hear. As Deb puts it “there’s no baggage between us.” Here’s a selection of books from Deb’s and my own collection that gave me light in dark places in the global pandemic year.

I love how comfortable these Engan women are with their bodies. Originally I tried to share this story on my Instagram account, but censoring of the image by Instagram’s strict community rules restricted me to publish this image because of visible nipples. I also love how the baby is feeding in their own way and how comfortable the mother is with feeding publicly.

Reading this book and the several other chapters relating to Engan women’s childhood, menstruation, Enda Iyongi Katenge (protective magic for married life), garden work, healing, the spiritual world to death, felt like I was being let into a secret and sacred space just for women. Papua Niugini women rarely get a look in historically or contemporarily. I relished the courthood chapter because it spoke of a human universality that I and I’m sure many others could relate to today. There were even moments whilst reading this chapter that I felt I could’ve and wished I had some of these Engan courtship songs previously for some of the dating experiences I had (the bad ones), that I could recite and sing in a natural tongue, so eloquently to the departed or rejected in such a poetic way. Our way.

Pauli topo pilyamo,
Neamaka nao kandenge
Napipi, paulu doko wask latu napipi

When harvesting your pandanus nuts,
It is I who usually eat them,
So don’t give your forest to anybody else.

(In this song, as in many others, references to food and eating are used as metaphors for sexual relations.)

Chapter 2 Courtship, page 34, From Inside the Women’s House: Enga Women’s lives and traditions, Alome Kyakas, Polly Wessner, Illustrated by Albert Wet Ipu, published by Robert Brown & Associates (QLD) 1992

Published in 1993, this book focused on the lives of five professional Papua New Guinea women. Dr Naomi Martin, Nora Vagi Brash, Meg Taylor (now a Dame), Rose Muingnepe and Dr Rose Kekedo. These are the leading, pioneering women’s lives I needed to read about. Women who make and made incredible achievements academically, creatively, politically and spiritually for Papua Nuiginian people. Choosing an ambitious path can be a lonely one at times. Reading about these women’s lives gave me hope and strength that I wasn’t alone and that I wasn’t the only one cutting the path that I’ve chosen to take.

2020 was a great year for me in having time to reinvent and refine, to get clear on what I want to do with the skills and gifts I’ve acquired. Reading this book also gave me an understanding of cultural and historical changes that these women pioneered in their respective communities. All of these women were the firsts in their fields. The first woman to obtain a PhD, the first female lawyer and diplomat, the first woman to be appointed to head of the Church Council. What I cherished the most about learning about their working lives is the importance of staying connected to their communities. Something I that I highly value and aspire to. Go and read it because Papua Niuginian women are amazing.

Reading Views from Interviews was a perfect segway into another amazing PNG woman’s life. Maggie Wilson (nee Leahy) A True Child of Papua New Guinea: Memoir of a life in two worlds. The late Maggie Wilson is Papua New Guinea’s first female filmmaker among many other incredible achievements for her people of the Western Highlands region. Edited and with additions by her close friend Rosita Henry.

I inhaled Maggie’s words off the page. Understanding her life, the challenges she faced, living a life between two worlds and the complex, yet significant kinship system she was born into, her adoring and supportive English born husband and her innovation! I now believe that Maggie was the woman behind the so called bilum wear or bilum fashion we see today. Shout out to my wantok meri Pauline Vetuna for making me aware of Maggie Wilson’s Facebook Page.

2021 will see me dive into more Melanesian authors, there are two at the top of my list; The Melanesian Way, Bernard Narakobi which I started reading in 2020, but as this particular book is rare I can only borrow it for two weeks at a time from the State Library of Victoria, thank goodness restrictions have somewhat eased locally.

Love at first cite.

“Some people say this nation of ours will be united through parliament, public service, roads, bridges, armed forces and the like. I say, maybe, maybe not. The one thing that can unite us is ideology, or philosophy.”  – Bernard Narakobi preface, The Melanesian Way.

As I discovered later in the year that was, Narakobi was not the first to use the phrase The Melanesian Way. It was the iconic kanake leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, a book of similar name was published in 1978. The idea of Melanesia 2000, a Melanesian cultural festival was actually borne out of the gathering of kanake women’s religious groups in New Caledonia. Jean-Marie Tjibaou endorsed and advocated the idea. I plan to dig into a bit more of this history over this coming year and deepen my understanding of Melanesian kastom through attending the next Melanesian Arts and Cultural Festival in Vanuatu in 2022.

The Melanesian Way was published to coincide with Melanesia 2000 the first Melanesian Festival of Arts endorsed & led by Jean-Marie TJIBAOU in 1975

“The occasion for producing this book was Melanesia 2000, the first Festival of Melanesian Arts. Melanesia 2000 was 2000 Melanesians gathered for an imposing celebration, and the 50,000 spectators who attended.

Melanesian 2000 was a brief moment in the Kanaka quest for an identity and for many Europeans, the event which made them aware of the existence of an aboriginal culture.

Through this book, we want to resume the dialogue to rebuild to tell the world that we are not survivors of prehistory, still less archaeological fossils, but men of flesh and blood.

Today, Kanake comes to you, charged with time and history, rich in his unique cultural experience. He claims his place in the sun.”

Jean-Marie TJIBAOU

3 Replies to “4 Books I loved reading in 2020”

  1. Oh Wantok Meri, just read this!! thanks for the acknowledgement and love; I deeply appreciate our friendship and connection and honesty too…you are one of the few people in my life that I can feel a special kind of accountability. Tenkyu tru for your graciousness and for sharing these books and your thoughts. cant wait to see how the next few years unfolds for your thinking and practice and what you will share with the rest of us. stay centred and strong; yu wanpela fit meri tru. much love

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