From the gravesite to the stage

19 May
May 19, 2014

Nori Vagi Brash speaks about her life as a Papua New Guinean poet, writer, and social activist

You probably haven’t heard of Nora Vagi Brash, and you might need a map to locate Papua New Guinea. But tucked away in this exotic island of the South Pacific, Nora is respected as one of the most outstanding playwrights and poets in the region, and the only female playwright published in the country. 

nora vagi brash_profile pic-1Having grown up in a small village on the outskirts of Port Moresby, Nora has spent her life considering, reflecting and comically scrutinising the norms of society. In an environment of post-independence change, her plays, poems, short stories and puppet shows discussed the challenges of transitioning into a country’s independence, and the merging of Western and traditional practices.

Through her work, Nora hopes to encourage a constant re-evaluation of the norms and values of society, and to have a giggle at the same time.

Kiara Worth spoke to Nora Vagi Brash about her writing career.

Q: How did you become a writer?

A: I started writing when I was about seven years old. My father and grandmother had passed away and I was fascinated by their burial sites, the smell of the earth, the way the moonlight fell on the trees. I would sit by the grave and write poems. Papua New Guinea has strong cultural beliefs, so people thought I was strange, getting wisdom from the spirits to do magic! But that’s how I started writing. I did amateur theatre and radio plays during the 1970s, and became creative director of the Papua New Guinea National Theatre Company, which toured local villages to do performances and raise social awareness.

Q: How do you decide what to write about?

A: Mostly from watching the world go by. I notice small things that people do, how they behave, and they form characters in my mind. Some ideas are triggered by sensory memory. One day I bought a piece of chewing gum from the market, and the taste suddenly reminded me of when I was a young girl. I had a flood of memories and stories that I immediately had to write down.

Q: What has been your greatest achievement?

A: There are many injustices in Papua New Guinea, and my play ‘Which Way Big Man?’ was of my favourites. It made fun of corrupt politicians, people wheeling and dealing at the expense of other people, and actions contradicting traditional values. Story telling is an important part of our culture – most people are illiterate and the best way to impart information is through stories. My greatest achievement is the idea that my writing has helped people to reflect more critically on their society and make changes. I was once called ‘bawdy and disreputable’, that was pretty good.

Q: What advice would you give aspiring writers?

A: You can’t tell yourself to be creative, it’s something that must come, something that flows through you. Write from the inside, and write about things that are important. Also, save your work! At times I’ve been so inspired by the writing that I didn’t save properly – computers were a new thing in those days – and I lost everything. I’ve never been able to capture those stories the same way!

Q: What advice would you give for getting published?

A: Don’t expect to get published immediately, especially in a country where the industry is not well established. My stories have been published in different compilations, poetry books, and theatre productions – the more you can diversify your writing, the more opportunity you will have of being published.

Some Quick Facts about Nora:

  • She has written 14 plays the most notable of which are Which Way Big Man?, Taurama, High Cost of Living Differently, and Black Market Buai
  • She won the Independence Medal in 1985 for her play Taurama
  • Her poetry has featured in numerous journals and publications, and she has attended 15 conferences and workshops internationally to share her work
  • She was one of two artistic directors for the PNG National Theatre Company
  • She was the deputy chairperson for the PNG National Cultural Council and board member of the Board of Institute of PNG Studies

Interesting links:

Article published on the Writers College Blog, 9 May 2014. 


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3 replies
  1. judy marie langley says:

    How interesting. I love reading stories about people who follow their soul’s particular aspiration and in the process achieve remarkable results and self awareness. That is real inspiration. I will read some of her writings. Thank you.

  2. Loretto Uraru says:

    How fascinating, capturing and moving. I’d heard so many stories about this amazing woman but had never got a proper, more, closer look at her history… Come to think of it, she is a good friend of my grandmother’s. This is lovely Kiara! Thank you for capturing this and sharing with the world! Story telling is truly powerful!

    • rex says:

      Thanks so much Loretto! Papua New Guinea is filled with such remarkable people, we definitely need to share their stories more! 🙂


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