This poem has the potential to cause some grief so please take with a grain of salt.
The Right To The City
I acknowledge the bubble I live in.
This great expense of kina that fills the cracks they fall through.
And then the audacity.
The audacity I have to complain, and poke at poverty from the comforts of a high stool.
I have no shame.
Why should I?
Behind these tinted windows wound up shut.
You can’t see me.
And I can not smell the rising stench when I whiz past for the sound of black dirty water whizzing into ceramic mugs.
Much like freshly scented earth.
Unlike the putrid black water stagnating in flow next to those shacks.
And I still have the audacity…
The audacity to sit on my high chair prodding their poor pockets with my stick of law and order.
“Please protect me from the unsightly reminder that they do not belong like dirt on my tiled floors.”
The right to the city is mine to drive in while they walk left between cars with boxes of buai and GoGo Cola.
I am Master. Leader. Status created from white mud left drying under happily lowered flags at flag poles on that day back in ’75.
And they must know this or I will remind them with the blare of my horn.
They must acknowledge my status mirrored as my distaste for the ples type, because I do not want to be reminded that I am the Sophisticated Kanaka using fancy words.
My wordly words don’t know worlds outside this bubble arising from dirty black water in China cups and microwaved Eggs Benedict.
And don’t take my bilum, you wicked white woman. My identity. My culture!
– My words lack panache.
But I have a white paper with black writing so I guess that means white made sense of space between darkness so black is now right. Right?
Building authenticity is the wall I put up to stop hands reaching over. Because I’ll get to it, when I can.
Right now my hands are crossed slicing through eggs on toast while they wait with their coconuts and bananas on the other side of the wall.
Yet, I am still the guardian of authenticity. An Avenger, Masked Marvel behind words living in a bubble. And if I cannot speak for them, then who else will.
The late Martin Luther King said:
“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change.”
But Martin Luther King died a long time ago so not much will change apart from my social life.
This has the potential to cause a bit of controversy but I am exercising my right to write. The poem is a coalescing of certain ponderings that have weighed on my conscience of late.
It is not my cleanest poem and closer reading would pick up on several narratives woven into one.
The conflict apparent throughout us a challenging of my own place and space in the PNG urban narrative. My own space of privilege as well as some embedded narrative under the surface.
I am also drawing on a recent debate around the much cherished place of Bilum’s in PNG’s contemporary iconography and how my generation will build values around that. I have yet to come to a settled opinion on this matter so the verdict is still out on that one.
HOWW TO READ: To enjoy the entire piece, please read all three perspectives.
Kiri hoped that his dad would stop playing with his bilum and take her to the sugar cane vendor to get a juice but he could see that her dad was distracted by something towards the back of the market.
Maybe he had seen someone he knew, dad is really tall after all, he can see everyone.
Kiri suddenly noticed something slimy and red on the edge of the pathway that drew her curiosity for a moment.
Her dad knew most things and mom was too busy looking over pineapples again.
I don’t like pineapples, she reminded herself.
So she ask her dad, “What’s the red stuff over there dad?”
“Where?”, her dad asked.
She felt it silly that her dad could see everything but couldn’t see the red stain on the side of the pathway.
She pointed to it expecting her dad to finally see what she was referring to.
It must have worked because soon her dad was pushing her away towards her mom and began telling her about the red stain.
“It’s called buai, Kiri. Keep away from it.” She looked up to her dad seeking an explanation. “It’ll make you sick.” The answer did not satisfy her so she looked to her mom for an answer.
She heard her mum let out an annoyed “Yuck”, which made her realise that that all she needed to know to stay away from the red stain.
Bella still had a pineapple in her hand but set it down then bent down to her side and pulled Kiri in close.
Peeking under the pineapple vendor’s stall, her mum began pointing to a group of ladies at the back, selling buai on the stalls near the guy selling trinkets.
Kiri recognised one of the ladies at the buai vendor’s stall. She wanted to tell her mom that that one of the ladies was Bubu Dorothy’s friend – they brought her the green leaves Bubu Dorothy used to cook in the soup she really liked.
Bubu Dorothy calls the green leaves kumu (Koo-moo).
Her mom didn’t know what though. Her mom was explaining that they were chewing betelnut, or buai, as they called it in Papua New Guinea.
“After they chew it, they need to spit some of it out.” Kiri was troubled.
“That’s why someone spit it there.”
She had been told off countless times for spitting her food when she was younger so she knew that it was wrong to do that.
Why would adults want to spit stuff everywhere?
“That’s yucky mommy!” Kiri cried. “Someone might step in it.”
She figured that that was how people got sick – when they stepped in it.
Kiri began to think about Bubu Dorothy and her friends when she visited her
grandmother during the weekends. They chewed buai too but she never saw them spitting it anywhere on the ground. She assumed that it must have been some other adults and could not have been Bubu Dorothy’s friends.
Bubu Dorothy’s friends had told Kiri about Papua New Guinea too and asked her if she knew how to speak Tok Pisin. She said she didn’t and felt a bit sad about that. She had been meaning to ask her mom about it but kept forgetting the word used to call the language.
They didn’t teach her that at kindergarten.
Kiri oftened wondered about Papua New Guinea. It seemed like a really exotic land that wasn’t real or that only adults lived there.
As her mom stood up, Kiri felt her dad’s hand suddenly grab her and hoist her into the air and above his head. “That’s right. That’s why you won’t be walking down there anymore.”
She really liked being up high on her dad’s shoulders. She could see everything. Kiri thought that this was only appropriate too. Now that she knew buai stains were bad, she didn’t want to be on the ground.
Kiri looked over to see Bubu Dorothy’s friend talking to some of the other ladies around the buai vendor’s stall and hoped that she would notice her high above her dad’s shoulders.
She wanted to tell her that buai stains were bad.
Her mom and dad were having a serious conversation, but she only cared to pay attention to her mum trail off and say something about Rusty’s looking red and rusty.
She thought it was funny that her mom was making a joke that her dad did not find funny at all. Kiri knew her mom made those silly jokes but she never found them funny and only laughed at her dad sound disappointed at the joke. Her dad would usually slap his face and shake his head when he heard that joke.
He heard her dad say “Nice try love” and figured he couldn’t slap his face now because she was on his shoulders.
Kiri looked at the buai stain on the path, trying to see if someone would step on it but it seemed that everyone must have seen it because they kept stepping over it.
Her dad suddenly turned around and she realised they were making a line towards the sugar cane vendor.
At last her dad was getting her something she really wanted.
As they strode off, she felt her dad struggle and jerk something free from his arm. He then pass her his bilum. She knew exactly what to do with the bilum, draping it across
She really liked the bilums her mom and dad had.
She turned to see if Bubu Dorothy’s friend had seen her, and to her cheer, she had. In fact, everyone at the buai vendors stall had seen her. Kiri let a huge grin sweep across her face.
A feeling of pride rose in her.
She was on top of the world and carrying her dad’s favourite bilum.
She hoped to go see Bubu Dorothy soon to tell her about the buai stain and that she saw Bubu Dorothy’s friend at Rusty’s market. She would also ask Bubu Dorothy about that language was that they spoke in Papua New Guinea because her mom and dad didn’t know about it – they didn’t look like Bubu Dorothy or her friends.
The market was abuzz with it’s usual Saturday morning flair.
Bella had been craving pineapples and fresh food all week so she thought a trip to Rusty’s was well needed for her home. She knew she picked right to live in Cairns. It was familiar and the pineapples always reminded her of her childhood.
She saved the pineapples for the last item on her list as she usually did. She trusted only one market vendor for pineapples because her mom trusted it.
For Bella, the stall facing Sheridan Street near the watermelons had the best pineapples.
Bella sifted through the bulbous yellow fruits our of habit, as if to contemplate which which one was the best like her mom’s sisters had taught her when she was younger.
She was having a moment when she she was distracted.
“What’s the red stuff on over there Dad?”
Bella flicked a quick glance, shifting her attention from the pineapple in her hand to where her daughter stared curiously.
Bella cringed at the long familiar sight.
She’d seen it many times before growing up. The deep red stain, still moist and full of mush, splattered across the edge of the concrete curb spilling onto the tar road.
Roger shot Bella a concerned look, muttering under his breath, “That’s just wrong”, before turning to his daughter.
“It’s called buai, Kiri. Keep away from it.” He said, ushering his daughter towards Bella. “It’ll make you sick”.
The judgmental look on Roger’s face brought up the slightest embarrassment in Bella.
A flood of memories crashed into her. Growing up in Papua New Guinea during the 90s and early 2000s, she saw the red stains paint road sides and footpaths, and on rainy days, even puddles. Rubbish bins too seemed to cop the swath of rusty redness.
Twice she had experimented with it but on both occasions it left her reeling from the high so she told herself it wasn’t for her.
Bella’s mum had told her to avoid the stains too. Something about typhoid or tuberculosis but it was so long ago now, she had forgotten just which one it was. She just knew to keep away from it.
She let out an exasperated “Yuck!” in agreement with Roger.
Bella lent down to Kiri and pointed out the ladies in the back of the market stalls selling buai, chewing buai, and talking with their mouths full of buai.
“After they chew it, they need to spit some of it out. That’s why someone spit it there.”
“That’s yucky mommy!” Kiri cried. “Someone might step in it.”
Bella felt guilty for describing it the way she did but she knew it was the truth. She didn’t know how else to explain it.
“That’s right,” Roger said, whisking Kiri into his arms and over his neck to Kiri’s favourite place on her dad’s shoulders. “That’s why you won’t be walking down there anymore.”
Bella saw a look of disapointment rest on Roger’s face so she tried to add a bit more seriousness to the moment, “That’s really bad. If council don’t do something about this soon Rusty’s’ll start looking red and… “. She paused. Grinned. Then added “…Rusty!”.
Roger sighed, shook his head in disappointment and smiled. “Nice try love”.
She’d been working for that punchline but it she missed it. She thought it was a good joke.
Bella turned to sort through the pineapple, taking a moment to look up to see the buai sellers in the back.
Several men and women stood in a bunch picking up the $5 and $10 packs, laughing, talking, and in between, husking the green shell with their teeth to taste the fleshy nut inside.
Strangely, it reminded her of her coffee dates with her friends.
Same-same, but different.
She wondered for a moment if they could see her.
Would they consider her Papua New Guinean? She didn’t chew betel nut. She rarely spoke Tok Pisin. She took to her dad’s caucasian features and apart from her frizzy-curly hair that her daughter shared, she didn’t fit the mould of what she thought a Papua New Guinean looked like.
She turned to see Roger and Kiri were wondering towards the sugar cane juice vendor that Kiri loved. She wondered about her daughter. Would she ever want to visit Papua New Guinea?
She let out a huge grin then when she noticed Roger passing his bilum up to to her daughter to hold.
The gesture between the father and daughter didn’t go unnoticed. Bella noted the Papua New Guinean mother’s around the buai seller’s pointing and smiling.
She thought she heard one of them say “Eeee lukim, naise yah, em tumbuna blo Dorothy, mama blo em we?” (Eeee that’s nice, that’s Dorothy’s grandchild, where’s the mum?).
Bella couldn’t help but let out a quiet giggle.
She picked a pineapple and handed over some change, packed it into her bilum and strode towards her family, making sure to wave at the Aunty’s around the buai stall.
His wife had told him to get something for Kiri but he had gotten distracted and needed a moment to remember just what it was when he noticed them by the buar vendors.
Roger adjusted his bilum strap over his shoulder darting his gaze over their direction to see if the group of Papua New Guinean’s noticed him. He knew that smiling and nodding was the the courteous Papua New Guinean gesture to do when seeing a wantok but no one had noticed him.
He often wondered how to approach them, not for his sake, but for his daughter Kiri’s sake. Roger didn’t want her to miss out on a bit of her culture. He could speak a bit of Tok Pisin, though with a heavy Australian accent, but he hoped that his daughter would learn it too one day.
His daughter. Yes.
Roger turned his attention back to his daughter standing by him. Both were exhausted from the market, or rather, waiting for Bella to pick out the freshest produce.
As was always the case, they were now at the pineapple stand on Sheridan Street side of Rusty’s. She always made sure they parked on Sheridan Street or above Rusty’s.
The pineapple was always the last stop on the way out of Rusty’s for them but he couldn’t understand why Bella wouldn’t simply pick a pineapple and leave.
Fiddling with his bilum strap, he heard his daughter ask, “What’s the red stuff on over there dad?”
Roger searched through the flurry of people on the busy footpath. It didn’t help that he towered above the crowd. For as long as he could remember, he was always taller then everyone else.
“Where?”, he quizzed his daughter.
She pointed to the curb.
He saw the red stain splattered across the concrete curb.
Roger knew exactly what it was. He’d seen it many times before in his time working in Port Moresby a few years before.
It was one of those first conversations he had had with his wife where they both related to their experiences with buai.
He’d tried it as a curious waitman, figuring he needed to try out this kastom, but, much to the entertainment of the locals, he was surprised to find out that there was nothing pleasant about buai.
Much like Bella, he found the high a bit too much to handle and the effort seemed too hefty to go through for the experience.
They both had agreed that worse then the experience they had of chewing, was seeing the spit stains everywhere. Roger remembered it on roadsides, footpaths and once even had it splattered on his work car from a passenger on a PMV Bus.
He preferred a cigarette and the local SP Lager to the buai, but he gave up the smoking when Kiri was born. The Lager, he couldn’t kick, which was a reason he liked Cairns – he could always find a six pack down at the Sheridan Liquorland or at the Smithfield Dan Murphy’s.
Bella, who by then had shifted her attention from the pineapples to Kiri looked at Roger. He shot her a look as if to prod her into remembering that conversation from all those years ago.
“That’s just wrong”, he muttered to her.
Roger, pulled Kiri towards him and ushered her towards his wife, “It’s called buai, Kiri. Keep away from it. It’ll make you sick”.
He knew there must’ve been some truth to it, reasoning that it looked really bad on the ground so it must host some disease too.
Bella let out a disdainful “Yuck”.
Roger knew Bella wasn’t a fan of buai stains but wasn’t expecting the response that followed.
His wife knelt down and pulled Kiri towards her to explain something to her.
Their conversation was lost to him through the noise of the bustling sidewalk, but he saw Bella pointing toward the buai vendors in the back followed by Kiri exclaiming, “that’s yucky mommy! Someone might step in it!”
Roger felt uneasy.
His worst fear was that his daughter would grow up resenting her own people. He was always aware of the bad reputation that PNG had in the media but he didn’t want his daughter growing up denying her heritage. He had enjoyed his time in PNG and wanted to go back at some point.
He knew he had to distract her daughter quickly.
“That’s right!”, he surprised Kiri, grabbing her playfully and whisking her over his head where she could be as far away from the world as possible. “That’s why you’re not staying down there anymore!”
Roger wanted to say something about his thought to his wife, but before he could, Bella was already in a serious tone.
“That’s really bad” his wife began.
“If council don’t do something about this soon, Rusty’s’ll start looking red and…”, Roger sensed a hesitation in Bella’s voice. He recognised the momentary pause but listened closely just in case his wife was truly serious.
But she dropped the word “…rusty” without timing and panache making him cringed.
He realised his wife was putting on one of her bad attempts at a dad joke punchline.
Now his disappointment had shifted to Bella’s really bad joke, but he knew they would have to have a serious conversation about the incident later.
“Nice try love”, he told Bella, shaking his head in disapproval.
He loved Bella. Her fizzy curls and cute smile attracted him to her but it was her wit and humour that he enjoyed about her.
He was thrilled Kiri shared the same qualities too.
Bella went back to picking the pineapples and Roger remembered what she had asked him to do for Kiri – sugar cane juice.
Kiri was a big fan of the sugar cane juice from the vendor at the food court entrance. Roger guessed it would be a welcomed distraction for Kiri so they set off for it with Kiri around his neck.
Avoiding the splatter of buai stain on the pathway, Roger glanced over again at a crowd of Papua New Guinean men and women around the buai vendors husking at the green nut to taste the ball of flesh inside.
One of them caught his eye so he gestured a nod and a smile to which they responded in kind.
Roger felt a reassurance rise in him.
His daughters place in the world is still there. But just to be sure he wriggled off his bilum from his shoulder and passed it to his daughter riding high above.
Rodger wanted everyone to see his daughter with her bilum. He wanted everyone to know that Kiri was from PNG too. He especially wanted the Aunty’s at the buai stall to see Kiri and tell Bella’s mother, Dorothy, that they saw Kiri at Rusty’s carrying her bilum.
This is the first time I have experimented with this technique in writing. I believe it is called perspective writing. It was inspired by a long time favourite underground Hip Hop band of mine from New Zealand called Homebrew Crew with their song 55 Storeys which explores the day in the life of two guys where one commits suicide and lands on the other. A bit dark but the story telling and cross over of narratives was something I found fascinating.
Hence in this piece, I began with Bella telling her story and then created her Roger and Kiri. Then I built up the piece by exploring the unique perspectives of each character. I actually surprised myself with Roger because his character was really received differently in Bella’s eyes but he had his own reasons for reacting the way he did. Only when I began writing him in, did I understand Bella completely.
One thing I am always curious about is what other people are thinking when I am talking to them. As individuals, we are constantly filtering the world through a lens that is unique to each and everyone of us.
Forming a bigger influence behind my works have been my concern and curiosities around the growing diaspora of Papua New Guineans in Australia and further afield. Cairns has a very significant number of PNGeans, which is perhaps why I chose to set this story in Cairns. Beyond that, I wanted to raise a question I thought was important about how the diaspora will negotiate their identities in subsequent generations.
The questions Bella and Roger have are concerns that I have heard voiced by Papua New Guinean parents abroad. Bella too is quite aware of her own perceived distance from her identity. Identity, in some sense, is bestowed up on to us by those who we believe have authority to ordain such an act. The government gives us passports to legally call us a person of X, Y or Z country, our clansman give us their acknowledgement through their acceptance. But what happens when we just feel like we just are despite not looking or behaving the part.
Kiri’s innocence, I believe, pushes away all the influences of the world telling her who she is not so she can begin exploring her own identity without prejudice. This is why her character was very important for me to include.
The scene is at Rusty’s Market in Cairns. A place I frequented a lot during my time there. What fascinated me about that great good place was the diversity that was embraced there. The Rainbow community had their stall next to the Asians next to the Papua New Guineans and everyone in between turned up there during the weekend.
The incident with the buai stain though was a real situation. I was distraught when I first saw it. I guess that is what I fed into the narrative too.