From the window, she stares down at the people clumped under trees, or sitting on the back of utes. She watches women walk along the muddy street in their bright, puffing meri blouses, billums stuffed with kaukau, taro, yam. Mangy dogs run by, nipping at each other, head toward the beach.
‘What do they do all day these people?’ he asks, standing behind her now.
‘The market. Telling stories.’ She looks up, kisses him. ‘C’mon, let’s get this over with.’
He takes the kit from his pocket.
‘I’ll do it,’ he says so softly she almost misses it.
She’d watched him ask for the malaria test kit at the chemist as she stood by the door, hands clenched at her sides, stomach twisting in on itself. It was a small bite on her ankle, though they’d been careful: long shirts, trousers, even socks after dark in the stinking tropical heat. They’d applied insect repellent and slept under the net while the stench of slow-burning mosquito coils had made her gag. Years ago, in Africa, she’d had to take a malaria test too. But she wasn’t pregnant then.
He takes the kit out, sets the needle.
In 2007 and 2008, I lived and worked as a volunteer in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and in 2012, I returned to undertake research for my novel, Bloodlines. I expected to take photographs, make copious observation notes, ask my friends questions about culture, politics, village life, but my trip unfolded differently and was greatly influenced by two things: I went with my partner where previously I had been a solo traveler, and secondly, I was incredibly ill with nausea in the early stages of pregnancy.
Having my partner’s observations and interpretations was useful as it reminded me what PNG—in all its beauty and brutality—is like for the first time visitor; in a sense it was as if I had ‘fresh eyes.’ The nausea, too, provided me with a certain vulnerability. I stayed indoors fearful of malaria which would mean losing the baby, and I spent long moments watching the town from the windows. When I had a malaria scare, my fears escalated. This pervading vulnerability was significant: it greatly influenced both the process of writing and the content of the novel. Social worker Brené Brown claims that ‘vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change’ (cited in Walters, 2012). Much of Bloodlines has been borne from a negotiation of my vulnerabilities—as a fledgling writer, as a new mother, as a white outsider in PNG.
Although it may be our nearest neighbour, few Australians know much about PNG except the violence and corruption emanating from Port Moresby or, more recently, the debacle of the off-shore detention centre on Manus Island. Most forget we were the colonial power in PNG. And if PNG isn’t prevalent in our psyche, it’s even less so on our bookshelves. In my own experience of attempting to secure a publisher for Bloodlines I was told that the PNG plotline was intriguing yet, paradoxically, books about PNG do not sell. So, why did I feel compelled to write about this wonderful, complex country?
When I do speak to someone who’s ‘been there,’ there is a glint in the eye, an energetic shift, a delight in being able to share one more anecdote about the country. Drusilla Modjeska suggests people who have spent time in PNG ‘know that there is a spirit to the place that can make everything else seem somehow flat, and it doesn’t take much prompting for them to talk of the way it has shaken them around, changed their perspective, even their lives.’
PNG certainly had ‘shaken me around’ and I knew I wanted to further explore my experiences of this frustrating, glorious country through writing. It offers a would-be writer an extraordinary back-drop: environmental biodiversity, hundreds of distinct cultural groups, locals who love drama, rumour and sharing stories. From the outset, I wanted to evoke the dense-jungled mountain interior and palm-fringed island where I lived and worked, and I wanted to pay tribute to the generous, friendly, hard-working people I lived and worked with—which brought me face to face with the challenges of writing about another culture, one (at times) so vastly different to my own. But more than this, I wanted to investigate the vulnerability of the outsider in PNG, grappling with cultural difference and the legacy of colonialism, un-belonging and ‘not home’.
The result, six years (one negative malaria test and two babies) later, is Bloodlines.
Nicole Sinclair’s short fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Review of Australian Fiction, Westerly, indigo Journal and Award Winning Australian Writing, and also forms part of the artworks along Busselton Jetty. Her short stories have won the Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Award and the Down South Writers Competition. Nicole has lived and worked in Papua New Guinea and now lives in the south-west of Western Australia with her husband and two (very young) daughters. Her first novel, Bloodlines, was shortlisted for the 2014 T.A.G. Hungerford Award, and will be published by Margaret River Press in March, 2017.
Modjeska, D. (2003). PNG Writing, Writing PNG. Meanjin, 62(3), pp. 51-52.
Walters, H. (2012, March 2). Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change: Brené Brown at TED2012. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blog.ted.com/vulnerability-is-the-birthplace-of-innovation-creativity-and-change-brene-brown-at-ted2012/