Author praised for opening readers’ eyes to West Papua’s repression

By Pacific Media Watch editor Kendall Hutt,

Bookstore owners, writers, authors, family, friends and a group hopeful of West Papuan independence squeezed into the Women’s Bookshop in Ponsonby last night to celebrate the work of young New Zealand author Bonnie Etherington and her novel The Earth Cries Out.

Not only is the novel being celebrated and praised for Etherington’s mastery of the written word, but because of its ability to make the public more aware of life in West Papua, a region controversially ruled by Indonesia since the 1960s.

Pacific Media Watch editor Kendall Hutt (left) with author Bonnie Etherington. Image: Del Abcede/PMC
Pacific Media Watch editor Kendall Hutt (left) with author Bonnie Etherington. Image: Del Abcede/PMC
Pacific Media Watch editor Kendall Hutt (left) with author Bonnie Etherington. Image: Del Abcede/PMC

Plagued by media freedom and human rights violations, many media freedom and human rights organisations and several Pacific nations have condemned the widespread arrests and imprisonment of West Papuans for non-violent expression of their political views.

These are issues Etherington herself acknowledged speaking with Asia Pacific Report earlier this week, saying she wanted to show readers West Papua’s rich and diverse history, not only its complex political situation.

“I really wanted to show multiple sides of West Papua because it is so often forgotten or stereotyped by the rest of the world.”

This is something those who have already read The Earth Cries Out praise.

Harriet Allan, fiction publisher for Penguin Books New Zealand, commended Etherington in a speech on her ability to provide insight into West Papua through the eyes of a child, that of female protagonist Ruth.

“As Ruth bears witness to what she sees, we too start to hear the voices that have been silenced by politics, sickness, violence and poverty.”

Like Ruth, we come away with a greater understanding of this country and its diverse people and also of ourselves and the bonds of love and friendship.”


‘Shed some light’

Although she has not had the chance to read her sister’s entire novel, Etherington’s younger sister, Aimee, says what she has read is very similar to how she and her sister experienced West Papua.

“With the descriptions, I felt like I was back there. She’s done a really good job of capturing how it feels, I guess.”

Aimee Etherington says she hopes her sister’s novel spreads awareness of West Papua.

“Most people that I’ve spoken to don’t really know that it exists, so it will be good to shed some light as to what’s going on there and, I guess, giving a bit of insight on how as New Zealanders and Australians we can actually do something about it.”


‘Almost experiencing it’

Like Harriet Allan, Women’s Bookshop owner Carol Beu loved Ruth’s voice.

“I think becoming aware of the situation in Papua through the eyes of this child, Ruth, is really quite special”, Beu told the audience.

“The way it’s revealed, it’s fascinating.”

Beu admits this was also “quite shocking”, due to Etherington’s ability to place the reader in the moment.

“You’re almost experiencing it.”

Penguin fiction publisher Harriet Allan (left) with author Bonnie Etherington. Image: Del Abcede/PMC

Bea also acknowledged those in the audience who were supporting the book on more of a political level, such as West Papua Action Auckland spokesperson Maire Leadbeater.

Bea told those gathered she found the politics of The Earth Cries Out “quite astonishing and wonderful”.

“It’s a book that makes you angry in many ways on a political level.”

Leadbeater herself, however, says she is looking forward to reading the novel.


Mister Pip comparisons

“I think looking at countries through a literary perspective can be very helpful at times. I can’t help thinking of the book Mister Pip, about Bougainville and how amazingly helpful that was I think in terms of people understanding the conflict.

“It’s done in a fictionalised way but it’s true to the situation, so I’m picking from what I’ve heard about the book it may achieve that as well.”

Leadbeater is not the only one to draw comparisons with Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, however.

Tony Moores, owner of bookstore Poppies in Remuera, reached a similar conclusion.

“This is not Mister Pip, but the issues it deals with are quite similar, from a different perspective.”


Powerful, shocking

The Creative Hub founder, John Cranna, who also noted ties with Mister Pip, praised Etherington on her talent after listening to several excerpts read by Allan and Etherington herself.

“For such a young writer to be writing about such dramatic and shocking events, and to be pulling it off, is quite an achievement.

To write about violent death is … very hard in a reserved, powerful way, but she certainly did that very well.

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