‘Tok-singsing’: Giving Back to PNG

20 October 2020


“It is a home-grown literature that will amplify the creativity, culture and spirit of Papua New Guineans. But, lacking the required support, literature has not emerged in PNG as an influence capable of playing its vital role in education, in nation building or in people’s lives” – Keith Jackson AM, ‘The chasm in PNG’s cultural integrity’.

Author's small stash of gold
An author’s small stash of gold.

PORT MORESBY – Here’s the thing. If we want Papua New Guinean literature to have its own life we must do more than create it, we must interact with it, nurture it in our thoughts and conversations, and appraise it to the realities and imaginations of our society.

That means reading and discussing, sharing and critiquing, in mutual respect, the value and utility of our works, with our peers and to our readers.

Make no mistake that encouraging and participating in this vital activity was a critical aspect of the success of the Crocodile Prize when it was run from the pages of PNG Attitude.

In the aftermath of the death of the Crocodile Prize we should not only appeal to the government for support of our national literature, we should also revitalise the appreciation of our literature ourselves by making it the subject of our discourse.

That activity should not be seen as the restricted area of academic interest and should never be thus limited in a modern day literate society.

Dom 2 Steven Winduo  Transitions and Transformations (UPNG Press and  Bookshop and Manuia Publishers)
From ‘Transitions and Transformations’ by Steven Winduo  (UPNG Press and Bookshop and Manui Publishers).

Writer’s like Martyn Namorong, Rashmii Bell, Kelakapkora Sil Bolkin, Mathias Kin and Julie Mota have previously demonstrated an interaction with our literature, both through their written expressions on literary agenda and in the various social, historical and in poetic discourses to which they have responded.

Such were the heydays of the Crocodile Prize literary feast.

Writers on PNG Attitude have been quiet of late but no doubt have been working studiously away in their own dreamtime domiciles and creative cubicles.

Nevertheless, this period reminds me of high school English lessons when everyone seemed to have disappeared into their desks after the teacher asked someone to read out loud for the class the next paragraph in the textbook: pin drop silence.

Well, I’ll read it then.

In order to achieve a home grown literature, as Francis Nii argued for official sanction last year, we need also to utilise our other two common and recognised National languages, Tok Pisin and Motu.

There is an unspoken agreement, at least among poets, to create and present our works in Tok Pisin.

This simple desire requires thinking out the work in Tok Pisin, and while that may seem straight forward for single language speakers, the nature of being bilingual, and more so multilingual, can turn this simple deed into a Herculean task.

(Or should that metaphor be ‘a job for Dodoima the giant’?)

Meanwhile, we’ve recently discussed the use of Tok Pisin, or rather the limitations versus utility of using dual language in fiction writing, short stories and novels, specifically in regards to Baka Bina’s short story Hanging Balls.

Incidentally, I am also reading for a (much overdue but hopefully well timed) review of Baka’s novel Operesin Kisim Bek Lombo, with such spicy Tok Pisin title and all.

However, in the previous discussion I’m not sure if we fully appreciated both the value and difficulty of using local or dual languages in long form fiction literature, which is an intuitively accepted idea in poetry.

Perhaps, we’ll learn more about this when it’s been tried out by one or two fiction writers. PNG poets are forging ahead.

We do have a history of using Tok Pisin and our local languages in literary writing since the advent of Ulli Beier and the Papua Pocket Poets and the short story era of the literary magazine, Ondobondo.

As we’ve learned there are scattered collections of PNG literature in places like the fantastic online resource at Athabasca University, the original paperback copies at the University of South Pacific, the restricted collection at the UPNG Michael Somare Library, the modern PNG Attitude blog site and even a number of private collections from expatriates who may have departed our shores, at least physically if not spiritually.

It appears that we should have a national treasure trove of literature for everyone to benefit from exploring.

While we ourselves may not have delved into the available literature, or addressed the idea of developing a literary canon, overseas literary aficionados have provided collections of PNG literature for worldwide scrutiny, and hopefully may have included examples of PNG writing in Tok Pisin and other language translations.

For example, there is an excellent publication of the Trobriand Islands legend of Imdeduya and children’s tales which I am working my way through (very slowly).

In a recent article by Francis Nii we were informed of Ganga Powell’s book titled, Through Melanesian Eyes, published under Macmillan Press Australia and now available on Amazon.

Much of the material was taken from the Ondobono era. The title of Powell’s collection is reminiscent of Russell Soaba’s 1979 poster poem Looking thru those eyeholes.

Well if you’re looking through our eyes you may be even more appreciative to use our tongue and be informed of the background brainwaves which produced those words echoing through time and space, indelibly inked and electronically everlasting.

For example, and as some ANU students may now know, Raymond Sigimet has provided good examples of poems in Tok Pisin (and even Broken Tok Pisin).

In the latter example the speech effect of Broken Tok Pisin may look odd on paper but can be very readily heard when read aloud. 

Albeit, the poem does poke fun at inexperienced expatriates’ mispronunciations when using Tok Pisin.

While some readers may feel sensitive about this amusement, it must be asked, is the rendering not true?

The French often feel a snobbish kind of disgust at the Anglophone slaughter of their language.

And even the native British, not to mention the ‘Strayans’, brutalise the Queen’s English. So, all is fair in love of languages.

Alternatively, the use of local languages and especially Tok Pisin is of greatest value to our own PNG audiences. There are some sterling examples of such poetry on PNG Attitude’s pages.

Wardley Barry-Igivisa has integrated Tok Pisin terms into much of his poetry as well as providing an interesting ‘street level’ type response to politicians in his first attempt at a Tok Pisin poem, what I like to refer to as tok-singsing, there being no prior Tok Pisin word for ‘poetry’.

I look forward to more Tok Pisin wizardry from this skilled wordsmith, although we’re not always viewing the same scenes on n the light of our socio-political agendas.

The same good use of Tok Pisin’s power of expressiveness has been achieved by other poets creating tok-singsing, most recently Dennis K Belas’s poem Kisim bek kantri.

Apparently there have been no similar examples of Tok Pisin use from women poets on PNG Attitude, at least not from my search, apart from Julie Mota who produced her book Cultural Refugees in dual English and Tok Pisinfor which I provided a review, I’m not conversant on recent Tok Pisin poems by women writers.

On the other hand the Ondobondo poster poems revealed the familiar name of Mary Toliman, writing about wanpela pasin bilong ol Papua Niugini man, and who I hazard is related to Pamela Josephine Toliman of Crocodile Prize 2014 fame.

Regrettably I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading Caroline Evari’s Nanu Sina: My Words, which received respective recognition from the World Bank media team during International Women’s Day this year.

Neither have I had the chance to review the women’s poetry in Rashmii Bell’s edited collection My Walk To Equality, since my ordered copy somehow sailed off into history.

I shall have to remedy my ignorance as soon as Amazon is shipping with any sanity.

Nonetheless, I’m more than certain that PNG women poets have something to say to us in our common tongue, na Tok Pisin bilong ol tu ia, em bai yumi ol man pilim lo bun stret.

This opinion is not to denigrate or dissuade the use of English in poetry, nor deny the versatility and universality of the world’s foremost language of communication. I would be hypocritical to do so as I have a natural affinity for English as my first language.

In fact, my own adventures into Tok Pisin use in poetry started a decade after I had already been writing poems. So from experience I know it’s no walk in the park.

All the same, there’s a lot of pleasure to be had during the crafting of a good Tok Pisin poem, and much more fun to be had when it’s read aloud to local communities and to those who have knowledge of the language.

Personally, I enjoy the way Tok Pisin can really spit out frustration at ridiculous behaviour while at the same time being amusing, with a kind of effortless tone of sarcasm that is appreciated in everyday conversations.

For example, em ol wanem kain man? That is, what kind of men are they, which is a sarcastic inference that, whomever those men are, they are certainly not behaving like men at all.

Then again Tok Pisin can present tenderness without an overpowering mushiness and at the same time remain unashamedly humorous about the saddest of outcomes, such as the loss of a spouse.

What’s more, in the examples Tok Pisin version of my poem Steven & Louise, there’s a tone to the reading which requires an understanding of the context which starts at the first line, ‘Oooh lewa’, by the expression moving from wistful to rueful and then to sorrowful in tone.

Certainly the same subtleties in speech and language effects can be said of English and other languages too, and therein lies the real value of poetry, and a literature which uses our own common tongue in all its vast variety of expression: it will speak to us in a voice which is also in our familiar language thus allowing us to connect with it immediately.

That Tok Pisin poems may be challenging to develop is a good control valve for quality of expression – poetry is after all an elevated speech.

Indeed, to me, tok-singsing is an elevated speech, em igatim naispela Tok Pisin tru, na tu emi toktok long ol liklik na ol bikpela samting wantaim, na moa iet emi save kam long as turu bilong bel na tingting.

Then, as Hart-Crane responded, “How to behave / In poetry: / Give things back / What they already have”.

Regarding the future of PNG literature* and the support being sought from the national government, my personal message to prime minister James Marape is that while we strive to ‘Take back PNG’ we must also ‘Give back PNG’.

Our national literature can do this even when our national budget cannot.

* Caroline Evari, Betty Wakia, Daniel Kumbon and Jordan Dean were twice invited to meet prime minister Marape to present a petition signed by more than 300 supporters of Papua New Guinean literature and seeking government funding support for local poets, writers and authors. On both occasions the prime minister was otherwise occupied.

This article first appeared on PNG Attitude on 05 June 2020 https://www.pngattitude.com/2020/06/tok-singsing-giving-back-to-png.html.

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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