Behind New Guinea Moon

Comment on Kirsty's Kite, below:
Just dropping by...
What's next Kate?

x Lorraine Marwood
 As they used to say on The Curiosity Show, I'm glad you asked!
Me, my little sister Hilary and an unknown boy, Mt Hagen Show, 1975
Next up, hopefully in March 2013, will be my long-awaited (by me, anyway) 'New Guinea book,'  now titled New Guinea Moon.

I've wanted to write about PNG in the 1970s for a long time. When I was six years old, my family moved there, first to the capital, Port Moresby, and then to Mt Hagen in the Highlands. My father worked as a charter pilot, flying everything from coffins to cows to coffee beans, in and out of tiny Highland airstrips. We moved back to Australia just before I turned twelve, so effectively all my primary school years were spent in PNG.

It's fascinating that  every time I tell someone that I'm working on a book set in this time and place, almost invariably they will respond, oh, my uncle lived there for years... my mother grew up there... my cousin/sister/neighbour's brother was a missionary/teacher/had a coffee plantation in New Guinea... Everyone seems to know someone, or is related to someone, who was involved in the country in some way.

PNG is a huge, but largely unspoken, part of of Australia's history. I've been encouraged by the recent release of at least two novels, both based partly on personal experience, set in pre-Independence Papua New Guinea - The Mountain, by Drusilla Modjeska, and To The Highlands, by Jon Doust. Maybe it's time to talk about colonial New Guinea at last.

New Guinea Moon is a young adult book, not literary fiction, and I don't have any grand ambitions to explore the relationship between Australia and PNG in great depth. But to me, those three decades between the Second World War and PNG's Independence, from 1945 to 1975, and just after, have always seemed like an intriguing, and neglected, little pocket of history. Old hands say that once New Guinea gets into your blood, it never leaves you. That's certainly been true of my father, who would dearly love to go back and revisit all those airstrips. And I guess it's also true of me, even though I was only eleven when we left, and too young to make sense of much of what we'd experienced there.

When we came back to Australia to live, two things stood out for me about our time in New Guinea. First was the isolation -- both physical, tucked away in those remote mountains, and cultural. We had no TV, no radio apart from Radio Australia. If we wanted news of 'home' we were reliant on aerogrammed letters from my grandparents, and out of date newspapers and magazines airfreighted in from 'Down South.' When I landed in Grade 6 in Cheltenham East, I was totally ignorant of pop music, fashion, football, TV -- everything that might have given me some common ground with the other eleven year olds in the playground. I might as well have dropped from Mars.

The second was my consciousness of Other. At the time I didn't see this in terms of race, but of poverty. I knew that not everyone in the world lived in brick veneer houses in suburban streets. I knew that there were people who lived in smoky huts with woven cane walls, where pigs wandered in and out, and who sold sweet potatoes for a few cents at the market. I was horribly, painfully aware of how incredibly lucky, in material terms, I was and all my peers were, and I was priggishly prompt to point this out. Especially when I went on to my very privileged private secondary school... And perhaps that awareness, that sense of amazed gratitude, has never quite gone away either.

My dad said recently that those years in PNG set us up, as a family. We were able to rent our Melbourne house while we were away, and that extra income paid off the mortgage and secured our financial future. 'Growing up in New Guinea' has always been a huge part of my personal identity. And although Julie's story in New Guinea Moon is very different from mine, many of my memories have gone into the book. I hope that I've managed to convey a little of what it was like to live in that extraordinary place, at that extraordinary time.

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