21 October 2020
Dr. Evelyn Ellerman
Congratulations on this new venture!
It’s a funny thing about national literatures. It seems as though they find their own time to blossom. Like Papua Niuguineans, I live in a former colony, Canada. Different circumstances, but many of the same challenges. We achieved our political independence in 1867, but it wasn’t until almost a century later, 1967, that we awoke as a culture.
There are many reasons for this, but the influx of many European cultures through immigration, added to over 60 pre-existing indigenous cultures, meant that it took us a long time to figure out what the collective term “Canadian” meant. It happened with a bang in the 1960s, centring on a year-long celebration of our first century as a political entity.
I was in high school at the time and remember the very day in 1963 that I was able to walk into a bookstore and actually buy something written by a Canadian author. Just one book. But it was in the window. I couldn’t believe it! It was a poetry anthology called The Blasted Pine: An Anthology of Satire, Invective and Disrespectful Verse – Chiefly By Canadians. It changed my life. I began to look for more books about my country and gradually they appeared, mostly because our national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, made a point of introducing us to authors on the radio, and because one publisher, McClelland and Stewart, made a point of publishing Canadian authors and sending them on tour across the country for us to meet them. Publishing and distribution are essential and this is how it was for English Canadian writing at that time.
But there is another factor that is crucial to growing a national literature: children need to grow up reading about the world through the eyes of their own culture. Throughout my entire schooling, the children’s readers, the textbooks and all the cultural references were foreign. When I entered university in 1966, there was no university program anywhere in the country for studying Canadian literature. It was next to impossible to even find a single course in Canadian literature. I know. Because I looked.
Today, it’s a different story. Today, if you were to ask people about Canadian literature, they would be able to list their favourite authors. But, when I first went to university, and well into the 1980s, whenever I talked about Canadian literature, people would laugh and say, “What Canadian literature? You’re joking.” So, it is critical to reach children and youth, so that they grow up knowing who they are as a people.
But that was then – the chief publishers and distributors of literature used print and the radio, much as Papua Niuguinea literature did when it started. Come to think of it, this was at basically the same time as Canadian literature: the mid 1960s. People in Canada started with publishing their poems in newspapers and magazines and read their work aloud on the radio. Then publishers came and went for book length works. Publishing is always a problem, as it is difficult for local or smaller publishers to compete with the big houses.
Today, Papua Niuginean writers, and other writers around the world, are using the internet, which is a wonderful technology for publication and dissemination. A colleague of mine once told me that his first books were all printed in the usual way. Then, he decided to publish a book using an open access online platform and suddenly, he found that he had ten times as many sales because of the reach of the digital platforms, as well as a rapidly developing network of readers and fellow writers. My advice to any writer these days is to explore all the possibilities of such platforms. In my view, the internet not only provides an almost limitless audience for creative writing, it has actually given poetry a new birth, because it is such an oral/aural technology. The internet has re-vitalized the genre by enhancing what is at the core of all good verse: the music of the spoken word.
I applaud the efforts of Michael Dom and all the other writers and friends who are responsible for this new blog. I believe it will provide a cornerstone for the community of writers from Papua Niuguinea.
Dr. Evelyn Ellerman