Some ideas on strengthening PNG literature

By Phil Fitzpatrick

Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude, 28 august 2011

Phil Fitzpatrick, author of Bamahuta Leaving Papua

THE WRITERS’ WORKSHOP in Port Moresby sponsored by PNG Attitude and the PNG Post Courier and hosted by the Australian High Commission is not far off now and the time seems ripe to float a few ideas.

The grand theme of this first workshop is the future of literature in Papua New Guinea.

As one of the organisers of The Crocodile Prize I’ve been pre-occupied with the subject for a while and have evolved, for better or worse, a few ideas which I want to share in the hope of kicking off the debate.

The first and most urgent thing that needs to happen is the establishment of a new Papua New Guinea Literature Board.

If the government cannot be convinced of the value of such a board, the alternative would be a Papua New Guinea Literary Foundation.

The establishment of a board, while allowing for a sound funding base, might be open to political meddling, propaganda and other problems, such as those now bedevilling the National Museum and Art Gallery.

The establishment of a foundation would be dependent upon finding a couple of large sponsors, not an easy task as the quest for sponsors for The Crocodile Prize demonstrated; we got there, but only just.  The risk here would be not so much political as commercial interference.

I reckon K1million would be needed to set up the organisation.  Running costs might be in the vicinity of K300,000 a year.

I would envisage a small group of trustees, a director and deputy director, and a small staff.  The trustees and staff would be gender even.

Given the limited opportunities for publishing in PNG, the organisation would have a small publishing arm. 

This is not a difficult thing to organise these days.  Small publishers in Australia often operate from home offices.  My publisher has an office on a yacht moored in a marina in Cairns.

The publishing arm should aim to produce about six books a year, probably Papua New Guinea’s capacity at the moment.

Given the paucity of bookshops in PNG, I think the organisation should be equipped with an online store to market its products.  This would include the ability to provide both print-on-demand hardcopy books as well as e-books.

The capacity to produce this sort of material already exists in PNG through companies like the Birdwing Group and Moores.

With the gradual introduction of internet facilities in schools, the publishing arm should be able to feed into the education system and effectively bypass the monopoly on overseas school literature that presently exists.

I’ve thought long and hard about the idea of the physical distribution of hard copy books in PNG and have come to the conclusion that it is unfortunately too hard, unreliable and cumbersome to work effectively.

While the organisation should have an editorial committee there needs to be some clear and unequivocal rules about the type of material published.  This is a very difficult subject but here are some observations.

In the process of organising the literary competition, I researched and perused previous literary endeavours in PNG, particularly from the halcyon days of the 1970s.

I found a lot of the works to be fairly heavy going, politically themed and academic in nature; in other words, boring.

I think this was a product of the momentous times and the fact that the impetus for publication was coming from the University of Papua New Guinea.  All credit to Ulli Beier and his compatriots, but most of the stuff was not what your average reader in PNG now wants to read.

There was no real development of what could be termed ‘popular fiction’ at the time.  Here I’m thinking about the sort of stuff you see in airport bookshops around the world; spy novels, crime novels, fantasy novels and so on.

While I’m not advocating pulp fiction as an ideal for PNG, I think a healthy middle-of-the-road approach somewhere between Harry Potter and the academic stuff might be a good idea.  In other words, exactly the sort of material that we have seen in The Crocodile Prize contest and which appears in the anthology.  I think we are on the right track there.

A key function of whatever organisation evolves should be the perpetuation of The Crocodile Prize and the continued publication of an annual anthology of original work.

I think we have demonstrated that these are easy enough to organise, get plenty of support from writers and readers, and are a worthwhile things to continue doing.

I have other ideas but perhaps this is enough for starters.

There is plenty of willing help in Australia and the wider world and accepting this help for a while should not compromise national pride.

Australian writers in particular work for a pittance and are used to doing things on shoe-string budgets.  Most of them write for the love of it and are happy to share their experiences and expertise.  This asset should be capitalised upon by PNG.

Affiliation with the Literature Board of Australia and the Australian Society of Authors might be a good idea too.

If you have thoughts on the subject now would be a good time to make them public so we can go armed to the workshop ready to get things moving.

Comments (in order of entry):

A great little project funded over many years by NZAid saw two levels of School Journals produced quarterly. All contents were by stories, poems, plays written by Papua New Guineans.

The project had the very positive result of fostering the emergence of Papua New Guineans who wanted to write.

Editorial assistance was provided and the writers were both rewarded and motivated by seeing their work in print and distributed nationwide (or as widely as creaking systems allowed).

Harness and build on this experience in any plans for workshops, foundations etc. (For further information contact the curriculum unit of the Department of Education and/or NZ High Com.)

Posted by: Daniel Doyle | 28 August 2011 at 08:36 AM

A writers board? A writers foundation? Affiliation with Australian literary boards and societies?

Phil and Keith, if we could make any of these work that would be manna for PNG writers.

It is a good topic to discuss and do something about now.

In fact, I am even wondering if this year is when everything we’ve wanted do about literature and PNG writers takes some solid foundation.

Let us simply find the money and do it. We have enough manpower on hand.

Posted by: Russell Soaba | 28 August 2011 at 11:32 AM

I like Daniel’s suggestion. It’s one way of making Papua New Guinean literature available to a wider audience.

I’ll be willing to write some stuff for free to contribute to any such project.

Perhaps the journal thingy can be incorporated into the normal education budget. Something to pitch to the folks at Waigani.

Posted by: Martyn Namorong | 28 August 2011 at 01:48 PM

Phil – A PNG Literature Board may be more feasible. Thefiasco of the National Museum and Art Gallery is, in my opinion, created by people working for petty and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats and simply not doing their jobs.

The idea of the Board is firmly grounded in ‘the people’, through us as writers. We are their voice. And now we have our champions.

As you suggest a Foundation may get interference from commercial sponsors. I like that idea less than the political interference because it is usually non-negotiable.

I obviously didn’t get into writing for the money and I’m not about to let either government or big business deprive me of the pleasure gained from sharing the sweat of my brows.

Or perhaps we can blend the two notions. Does anyone know of a model we can use?

Posted by: Icarus | 28 August 2011 at 07:19 PM

Manna is indeed what we need, the stories need to be told.

We need to be reminded of how we have come, and how we are getting to where we think we need to go.

Count me in.

Posted by: Freda Vania Keranu /Apia, Samoa | 08 May 2012 at 02:29 PM

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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