Land Echoes – Writing Fiction Based on Actual History


Here is a story about a storyteller and how he told his grandfather’s story.

This is an interview I found on Malum Nalu blog about a friend and a Papua New Guinea writer and scholar, Steven Winduo. I wanted to feature Steven on my blog because some of the things and the way he wrote his novel is interesting and we can learn from them as writers. In his own words below, Steven explained how he wrote his book, Land Echoes (2014), based on his grandfather’s life story.

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It is challenging to write fiction, based on actual history, than on pure imagination. The challenge is to be as close to history, but aided with literary license to reconstruct a storyline that maps out the narrative. The technique known as fictionalizing history is taken on board to plough the field of history and fiction to make something grow out of it.

Land Echoes (2014) is my first novel based on my grandfather, Holonia Jilaka, whose life inspired this book. Although not a biography the novel’s timeline is based on the part of my grandfather’s history.

I recorded my grandfather’s story on tape when I was a University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) student many years ago. The part that I was interested in was the part where he went to the Highlands of Papua New Guinea in 1933 as a shepherd boy with the Catholic missionaries. He spent three years (1933-1935) in Simbu area before being discharged as a mission boy. He then joined the police force, taking his training in Rabaul depot under the instructions from Ludwig Somare and a sergeant from Buka. Kiap Jim Taylor recruited him into the police unit to make the historical Hagen Sepik patrol in 1938/1939.

My grandfather told me only part of the story. The rest I had to read and discover for myself. From the transcript I had of his story I began the writing project in December 1994/January 1995. At that time I was studying for my PhD in English at the University of Minnesota, USA. It was winter holidays but I could not return home.

To keep me busy and distracted from homesickness in the middle of Minnesota winter I decided to write five pages a day the early drafts of the novel, Land Echoes. I wrote every day without for two months, completing the first draft of the novel by the time February 1995 came around. I was quite happy with the self-productivity that winter. I think I completed around 500 pages of hand written notes.

I then started the process of typing the manuscript into my laptop. By the time classes started again I shelved the writing project for my PhD program. From time to time I returned to my manuscript in the next 20 years, even after my doctoral studies. I had some help along the way from colleagues and writers in PNG and Australia. I received documents, manuscripts, and books about the famous Hagen Sepik Patrol that Jim Taylor, John Black, and Pat Walsh, but only as sources of reference to contextualize the history that was made with the help Papua New Guinean policemen like my grandfather.

I was interested in highlighting the life of my grandfather against the early work of the Catholic Church in the Highlands and the Australian government’s administration of the newly discovered highlands region of Papua New Guinea.

The only way I could make sense of this was to delve into history that I was born too late to know. I equipped the writing life with raw imagination to enter into the period beginning late 1920s and 1930s to juxtapose that with periods from 1960s to the 1970s. The challenge with a project such as mine was to make history interesting to read through fictional narrative, while making sure to remain close to actual events in history.

Read More on Steven’s blog

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