IN one of my regular visits to the University of PNG Bookshop I came across a book: Our Time but not Our Place: Voices of Expatriate Women in Papua New Guinea.
The book published by the Melbourne University Press in 1993 was edited by Myra Jean Bourke, Susanne Holsknecht, Kathy Kituai, and Linda Roach.
I could not resist buying it for my personal library for two reasons.
First, I figured the book is useful for my research on how Papua New Guinea is constructed through the eyes of expatriates, in this case how expatriate women saw, lived, and experienced this country. This perspective is one that is difficult to know until it is on paper. Expatriate women have varied reasons to come to Papua New Guinea. The ones around which the book features include adventure in exotic surroundings, seeking fortunes, changing jobs, running away from unhappy situations, furthering professional or academic interests, and others came here because their partners or parents worked here.
Some of the contributors to the book lived in Papua New Guinea since the 1930s. The book covers the stories of women from Australia, Britain, New Zealand, China, France, Ireland, Germany, Netherlands, and North America.
“The writers chose to present their experiences in the form of essays, diary extracts, letters, memoirs and fiction. Some focus on incidents, issues or characters while others review the entire period of their sojourn in Papua New Guinea,” say the editors of the book.
The second reason for buying the book is that many books written about PNG are difficult to get hold of from our end. The University of Papua New Guinea Bookshop, under Dr. John Evans’s, capable management, now sells rare and out-of-print books and publications on Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands.
Dr Evans, who knows more about books than anyone I know, made sure the UNI Bookshop regained its reputation as the best bookshop in the PNG and the Pacific. A complete section holds books and publications about Papua New Guinea and the Pacific.
The UNI Bookshop is the place to recommend to anyone interested in books about PNG if accessing one from other libraries is not possible.
I am glad I bought the book. I read the book several days later during a quiet time at home. I read the book backwards, beginning with Rosalie Everest’s story “Barefoot and Free”. The story interested me because Mrs Everest, as she was known to me, was one of my inspiring teachers at Aiyura National High School between 1982 and 1983. Mrs. Everest, the ‘local meri’, a term used by her students to differentiate her from other expatriate teachers, taught me expressive arts with good nature and grace. She guided me to write and illustrate my first children’s story book in 1983. For that part of my education and growth, I acknowledge her in my second book of poems: Hembemba: Rivers of the Forest (2000) published by the Institute of Pacific Studies (IPS) in Fiji.
After I had read the book I pondered on how little we, Papua New Guineans, know our expatriate teachers, coworkers, helpers, mentors, friends, mates, and acquaintances. I knew Mrs. Everest for two years as her student, but hardly knew the full background and the challenges she and family went through to live with us, work with us, and help us to find our place in the world. Mrs Everest, her husband Mr. Roy Everest (my biology teacher), like many well-meaning expatriates, gave their lives and time to develop our intellectual capacity without displaying frustrations, displeasure, unnecessary demands, or anger to belittle us.
I also pondered on the importance of writing books in our lives. I was lucky to have someone like Mrs Everest who encouraged and mentored me in thinking about writing books before I entered the University of PNG.
Even though the unearthing of the literary and artistic talents came early to me, I refused to think that I had any talents at all. I entered the University to study political science and public administration. It was only in the third year of my studies did I make the final decision to study literature, and chose writing as my career.
Writing in the same book as Mrs Everest are other expatriate women whose work I have read. Among them are Mary Mennis, Lolo Houbein, and Amirah Inglis. Mary Mennis’s ‘Hagen Saga’ is an indispensible story about the Catholic missionary experience in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
The essay by Lolo Houbein on the theme of love in Papua New Guinean literature has been a source for several of my research papers. Amirah Inglis published two iconic books on colonial law and its application and misapplication: ‘Not a White Woman Safe’: Sexual Anxiety and Politics in Port Moresby 1920-1934 and Karo: The Life and Fate of a Papuan. I have never met these expatriate women writers and scholars, but their books and scholarships remain influential in the research I do in literature and cultural studies in PNG.
Books and teachers are important part of our lives. The difference they make in our lives permanent marks we can never erase.
By reading this book, I discovered the importance of writing down our experiences and publishing them in books for others to know who we are and the kinds of work and challenges we face in our lives. I appreciate reading the essays in the book, especially the stories of Andree Millar, Mollie Parer, and Tan Mow Yan Hing, whose shops in Wewak hold so many childhood memories for me.