Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A visit to Paradise High School

                                         The motivation to write

Principal Safak Deliismail and students of Paradise High School enjoying the talk given by Russell Soaba during the National Book Week festivities.
Storyboard felt deeply honoured to be invited by Paradise High School to their National Book Week festivities Wednesday 10th August. The atmosphere felt at the school could easily be likened to an established writers’ seminar if not a session at a P.E.N. international congress. It was the good questions asked of a writer by the students there that made storyboard feel that way. In a way, the whole afternoon became a “success story” for the school itself.

The first question asked, was: “What motivated you to write and become a success story?”

The answer provided by storyboard was standard enough. It was the same sort of answer any successful writer would give the world over.
The thing that motivated storyboard to write, came the reply then, was that in all his lifetime he had been nothing but a failure. It was that sense of failure that motivated him to write. Even today he has not abandoned the idea of seeing himself as such. And so he must write: not so much to publish and sell as to satisfy a certain curiosity deep within us that gives us the signal that we are not doing enough. But the greatest challenge to all this comes to us when we see what failure means face to face. It is that moment of realization that compels us to go on writing. And we will go on doing this forever.

The second question called for clarification on the notion that storyboard was a “failure”. “Sir, if you regard yourself as a failure, how is it that you are famous, here and overseas?”

To which the response was that storyboard never won any major literary prizes for all that he had written in his lifetime. If there were any reward at all for his work, these came in the form of fellowships and interns that enabled him to pursue his writing career at certain private schools around New England area of the United States when he was in his thirties; and at certain universities as a Writer-in-Residence.
“How old were you when you first published?”


A wow swept through the head of the crowd.

The Principal of the school, Mr. Safak Deliismail, asked if there were any organizations or establishments in place to honour the country’s writers with awards and prizes. Storyboard answered that there were none in PNG, and those elsewhere had their own programs and policy guidelines to follow. “But that should not deter us from writing,” he continued, “from being writers and artists, which is what we are. So then, if we keep on writing, the chances are that we might reach that anticipated hour of success in our art, in our craft, which, if understood and appreciated well enough, will surely raise the whole world to its feet with salutation and cheers.”

Another question, possibly from the Grade 10 section of the crowd, had something to do with storyboard’s favourite myth or legend. What was it? The cassowary story, came the reply. The cassowary story? Where is it from? From the East and West Sepik Provinces, said storyboard. There was a huge round of applause. The student asking the question was from the East Sepik.

“And sir,” asked another, what is your usual reaction when someone says that he or she likes your books very much? I’m talking about Wanpis and Maiba here.”
“I get worried,” replied storyboard. “If my books are described as likeable, or enjoyable, then I begin questioning my own worth as a writer. And this in turn leads me to realize that all good writing is subject to objective literary criticism. It is good criticism that determines the true value of a book. That calls for quality as well. I tell this to my students of literature at the University of Papua New Guinea. And I am telling you this now: your best reader is not the one who says, “I like your books,” but the one who says, “Your books intrigue me.”

“How many books have you written, sir?”

“Just four: two novels, and two volumes of poetry. But now we come to the “success” part of our meeting this afternoon. This should ease your minds a little. Reason why I am well known is that this small number of books is proof enough that I am a very good writer. There is your success story.”

At this point we all realized that time was running out on us. Ms Bronya Kaine, conducting that afternoon’s book week session, announced that there was time for one more question.
The question was: “How long did it take you to write Wanpis?”

“Ten years,” came the reply.

Whistles of disbelief, perhaps; a little of fidgeting here and there. This can’t possibly be the right answer?

“All writing is art, scribbled in a diary that we keep visiting over and over. It starts at an earlier age, such as where you are now. And then we grow up with our writing. Let Mum, when cleaning house, store those diaries in a secure place. Keep on creating those diaries now until you reach your twenties. At that point, come back to all that you have written, arrange and re-arrange them, and there you will see that you have written a novel.”

The applause received then was resounding – an almost standing ovation.
Then the principal rose and thanked his school for choosing to share that Wednesday afternoon with a writer. He pointed out that writers were a special group of people; that you rarely saw them in public places, except at book fairs signing autographs; and that what they thought and wrote was useful advice to people of all walks of life, from ordinary people up to statesmen and leaders of countries.

The faculty of Paradise High School consists of Papua New Guinean and Turkish teachers or patrons and mentors. A student there finds himself or herself in a prestigious position of being a member of an international community of scholars, writers and artists. As he looked around, storyboard was mindful of the fact that the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Literature was Turkish, an important reflection on the academic potential of this new school.
And as he sat down to autograph the school’s copy of Maiba, at the kind request of the principal, he could sense that there was and there is no greater reward, no greater prize, for the writer than to see his books placed in the libraries of those young people so eager to know what writing is all about, such as the student who asked: “How old were you when you first published?”