Thursday, January 27, 2011

Our Prolific Jeff Febi

One of Papua New Guinea’s prolific writers currently churning out poems and short stories, not to mention the novels he has up his sleeve, some already published, is Jeffery Febi.

“A song for camels” is a recent short prose piece that caught storyboard’s eye.

It talks about coffee growers of the Highlands region, the difficult terrain that one has to combat with practically every day to ensure no calamity comes his way. There is mist and cold sweep of winds pervading each valley and ridge, and a careless or an unwary step along the hillside tracks can prove fatal in some areas.

Yet those that live along and beneath the ridges labour strenuously away, knowing that this is their destiny. In Jeffery Febi’s story, Somolie slips and falls, but thanks to a brief ledge along the cliff wall of a mountain he clings on to dear life. His cap falls, too, in those brief fatal seconds, revealing a smooth moon shaped “hairstyle” by which Mihi, a relative, spots him a few metres above. Mihi then calls out frantically if his kela clansman is all right. When that brief drama of struggling back to the safety of the mountain top is over, both men can now look down at the menacing deep gorges and gullies beneath them and at the cap that is barely visible and laugh their hearts out.

 This is a nice and lively melodramatic piece, so representative of the hard life and times of the highlands coffee grower today. There’s a kind of railway gang chorus attached to it, a sort of toil and moil sentiment which Jeffery wants us to see through this short story. When the Highlands Highway becomes dysfunctional at times for one reason or other, the author draws our attention to the rough terrain that surrounds that area. It reminds one of an oft used geographical term, “tyranny of the terrain.”

Yet without the men and the women of those regions, including the help of children to some degree, we in the other parts of the country would not enjoy a nice cup of coffee in the cool of evening some days. Notice the song the coffee growers sing:

They call us camels. They call us white horses.
They call us semi-trailers. They call us many names.
Names of things we don’t know much of. 
We’re they who walk with the strength of our fathers.
Those bygone men who had tamed angry rivers,
Appeased bellowing clouds and walked with mists. 
Our coffee beans shall not go to waste!
Our coffee beans shall not go to waste!
O no – no - no; shall not go to waste! 

Jeffery then sums up the short story as follows:

“Mihi joined and they sang with a certain pride that sent the song speeding downhill on the wings of a determined breeze. 
Far below, an army of white bags in a long and winding line resembling a herd of camels on a journey came into view. When the song reached them, hearts were touched and moved. Many repeated the chorus and the gorge reverberated with their inspiration. 
It is their song and they loved it. It inspires strength which they need in order to climb Kuipi; and confidence to walk shamelessly with their loads through villages (whose inhabitants ridicule and call them names) along the road. 
And they continued singing their hearts out - husbands, wives and their children.”

The thing that fascinates storyboard about Jeffery Febi’s work is his ability to maneuver his subject matter to and fro, much of which is wide ranging as far as themes go. One moment we have a poem on coffee or a short story of same (as partly represented above). At another, it is the subject of corruption and expensive power play around the vicinities of Waigani hilltops, and yet at another a poem of gentle persuasion set in the remote regions of the country. In each item we read, there is evidence that this writer moves his readers around a bit, even if it means taking them on tour of some complex cultural set up which we are not very much familiar with. Yet he handles his subject matter so well that already the organizers of The Crocodile Literary Prize are beginning to rave about his work.

His achievements are prospective as well as deadly sure. This writer knows what he is doing, and is in full control of his subject matter. That sentiment of certainty would certainly make men such as Thomas Gray envious. Notice the following lines from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife
 Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
 Along the cool sequestered vale of life
 They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

But of course we would regard Gray’s as patronizing. The rural scenery that Febi offers us is real, as real and tangible as the coffee we taste in our cups. Indeed, Febi’s work seen in the collective offers an important remark on the current issues of the day governing our intellectual lives. Life is no longer that sober device that Gray once had in mind for the so-called little people of the rural areas. In Papua New Guinea, the re-awakening process of the rural sector is much more tumultuous than that. Each character of a short story or persona of a poem regards the world through questioning eye-holes, as it were, and attempts at discovering answers to these questions. We commend Jeffery Febi for that insight.

The reader will notice that some of the entries along with Jeffery Febi’s work in The Crocodile Literary Prize are previously published material, much of which coming from the Writers’ Forum of the National Weekender. We would like to remind the organizers that much of that material is copyright material, ownership of which belongs to individual authors firstly, but should they come within the winning and publishing range then sufficient acknowledgement would be due to the National newspaper. Rather than send money give The National a medal. They deserve one.


By Jeffery Febi 

 In many a land well-favoured, crowds
 They stand to proclaim their renewals.
 And invite bees onto many a pearly stage,
 Then yellow their limbs with their jewels
 As bees in hype and gaily dances engage.

 Some begin to bow under jovial loads,
 As green gold replace many a pearly stage.
 This transformation, bees send to hive
 With gentle persuasion to kindly disengage.
 Then days of colour prepare to revive.

 O! masses upon masses, more beautiful,
 Load grey brown branches. And between
 Weary green leaves, paint them shiny red.
 O red! pleasant red! a signal to convene;
 Hurry! please hurry! or they will shed!

 And men, women and children convene
 With excitement and many a gaily song,
 Under weary branches to lighten a load.
 And then for many an happy hour long,
 Bags after bags and more they overflowed.

(An entry in The Crocodile Literary Prize.)