Oi, Papua New Guinean writer! Write for the people of PNG

11 December 2016, Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude


FORTY-ONE years after independence in 1975 and Papua New Guinean literature is still in its infancy.

It’s like a child that has never grown up. Or like one of those 20 year olds you occasionally see in primary school trying hard to learn to read and write.

Since Keith and I started the Crocodile Prize for Literature I have been trying to interest literary people in Australia in Papua New Guinean writing.

I believe that recognition outside Papua New Guinea will provoke organisations and government in Papua New Guinea to take literature seriously.

I have sent copies of the books we have published, including the anthologies, to all sorts of people in Australia who might be interested.

I have written articles and essays for literary and popular journals in Australia to use and maybe publish.

Every single one of these efforts has got nowhere. At best I’ve received feedback that essentially says, it’s not very good writing is it. Other editors simply don’t reply.

One of the most difficult things to get across to Australian audiences is that different cultures tell stories differently. For instance, a story from Papua New Guinea may not have a beginning or an end.

Some other conventions don’t apply. A cardinal rule in western literature is not to preach: establish your point subtly and whatever you do don’t spell it out. A lot of Papua New Guinean stories are built around morality tales and the meaning is explicit. This often doesn’t go down well with Australian readers or academics.

This doesn’t mean that Papua New Guinean literature is ‘not very good’, it means that Papua New Guinean literature is different. It’s that difference that should be capturing their attention, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to.

I’ve gone out of my way to explain that Papua New Guinean literature is still developing but is showing a distinct regional flavour and style with great potential that needs to be recognised.

Deadly silence.

I’ve wondered for some time about this indifference and lack of interest. It is, after all, not that far removed from the indifference Australians have about Papua New Guinea in general.

But there is also a marked literary snobbishness at play too.

Most of the literary world in Australia lives in its own rarefied world. Strangely, it’s the same sort of snobbishness I’ve noticed coming out of literary circles at the University of PNG.

It’s the same with popular literature in Australia too. This segment of the publishing world seems to be dominated by female writers chronicling the adventures of tough outback women succumbing to the rough charms of rugged men in Akubra hats and four-day stubble on their faces.

I’ve never actually read any of these potboilers an am basing my opinion on the covers of those that dominate the fiction shelves in bookshops these days.

Papua New Guinean literature doesn’t fit with that sort of stuff at all.

But getting back to the academics, especially the ones I’ve occasionally managed to corner.

When pushed, they seem to regard Papua New Guinean literature much like they would a rowdy four year old. Nice for 10 minutes or so but would you please take it away now?

I think I’m qualified to make a judgement about Papua New Guinean literature. I’ve read a huge amount of it and I’ve got an honours degree in literature.

I know a lot of the writing is terrible, especially the poetry, but I think a lot of it is classy. With a bit of support and some decent editing some could be brilliant.

But how do you convince an indifferent world of that?

I’m starting to think the effort is not worthwhile. I doubt it’s possible to break through the indifference.

I think the future of Papua New Guinean literature rests with the people of Papua New Guinea.

Once Papua New Guineans start to read and appreciate the work of their own writers, PNG literature will mature, improve and sustain.

If you are a Papua New Guinean writer, these are the people you should be writing for, not the airy-fairy denizens of rarefied academia or some hip overseas reader.


Belated Merry Christmas and a Happy 2017 to everyone. I have been in Kandep the last few weeks trying to build a house.

I have updated myself with all PNG Attitude articles and comments. As always I have enjoyed them all and hope for the best come 2017.

I have been drawn to this article by Phil and agree with him entirely that PNG writers need ‘a bit of support and some decent editing’.

I am currently reading Lynda LaPlante’s book ‘Wrongful Death’ which was published in 2013. The international bestselling author has published 27 other major books, most of them on crime. I never read or came across any of her books until now.

I notice that she gets a lot of support from dozens of people. And as an accomplished author – she is an institution in herself with lots of people working for her. She acknowledges a whole lot of them by name – researchers, police officers, supporters, financial advisors, friends, literary agents, book editors, publishers, promoters, cooks etc.

PNG writers are no match. Indeed we are like a 20 year old youth who is just learning to read and write in elementary school. PNG literature has a long way to go.

What we, those of us who call ourselves writers/authors must keep on writing and continue to self-publish hoping that the next one we produce will be a hit. And we must continue to promote each other’s work by ordering copies and reading them.

I am proud to say PNG is a diverse country. Our stories are unique. It should interest a lot of people both within PNG and everywhere else just as much as I have enjoyed books by Africans, Chinese, Indians, Europeans or Pacific Islanders.

The funny thing is – all these books do not have any foreign accents at all – no Chinese accent, no French accent, Russian or Indian accent etc.. The books are all written in perfect English. Good editors?

Why should books from PNG not interest peoples from other parts of the world – let alone Australia, the country that taught us how to speak in English and write in it?

Posted by: Daniel Kumbon | 30 December 2016 at 07:31 PM

Point taken on Phil’s statement regarding audience.
Perhaps I should have added that if I write for PNGns, it should be at a standard where if a non PNG audience is reading, they should not stop reading and put down the book or paper.

We have and have had people attending post graduate schools and producing thesis and works that are read and they graduate on these works they produce. By the same token (bar the editorial assistance) those here in PNG, we ought to produce a work that can pass and be read internationally with little or no editorial assistance.

We in PNG who write should not belittle ourselves and try to put out our mediocre work. Even a one pager should be comprehensive in proper spelling, grammar, tenses and follow as much the rules of English writing. I am no expert and don’t make out to be one.

I make do with reading and re-reading my work again and again. What rules-don’t ask me as I don’t follow any rules except the ones I remember from the language drills in primary school and the ones where the computer underlines them.

it is not easy writing in Tok Pisin and Motu. My works take the Pinglish approach and do it the hybrid way.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was written for an African audience but found international acclaim. (I have to remember that there was good editorial support for this book).

I liked it when it is stated that difficult allusions and metaphor are avoided and cultural backgrounds made explicit. Sentence are limited to maximum of 3 clauses and within sentences there is a balanced use of adverbial and adjectival phrases. Great care is taken with pronoun reference.

Good sage advice – my next project breaks all that is said above.

I enjoyed very much the travels and musings of Inspector Metau and am looking forward for the next instalment.

Blessed seasonal greeting to all and wish those travelling safe travel. KJ na misis, raun gut.

Tenkyu tru Baka. Mi tingim long ologeta wantok long PNG taim mitupela raun long narapela hap; na hamamas long mituepla lukim Mosbi na Hailans long Febuari-Mas long yia ikam – KJ

Posted by: Baka Bina | 15 December 2016 at 05:38 PM

If you are a writer you should read widely and take what you can from what you read. That’s axiomatic.

But what you should also do is write for your audience, your readers. Every book ever published about the art of writing makes that point first and foremost.

So at some point you have to decide who that audience is. And that gets back to your motives for writing in the first place.

If you are writing to make money and boost your literary ego write for an international audience. But remember what you are up against. And you won’t be preaching to the converted either.

If you writing to say something about PNG and to inform your countrymen and women write for PNGns.

You can stand on a high hill and look out across the ocean or you can turn inland and look towards the mountains. Doing both at the same time is a very skilled task.

At the moment PNG desperately needs to be able to read literature by its own writers, people who understand them and share their joys and sorrows.

That’s why I say that PNG writers should write for PNGns first. If you write well people outside PNG might notice too and buy your books. That would be a bonus.

My Inspector Metau books are written for PNGns and PNG-informed Australians. Having identified that audience I write for them, not some obscure reader in Alaska or the Maldives.

To quote a prescient PNG commentator, Elvina Ogel, “Our own respect and appreciation of our culture and cultural items should not be contingent on its acceptance by others”.

Elvina was writing about bilums but it equally applies to writing and literature.

BTW, Phil’s third Inspector Metau novel is nearing publication. I’ve had the pleasure seeing a draft, which I’m part way through, and it’s as perceptive and humorous as the first two – which are available free here – KJ

Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 14 December 2016 at 07:33 AM

Good points raised here, Phil.

I agree with you that the tendency for PNG writing to make explicit statements makes the reading bland. It fails to allow readers to engage in critical thinking, demand the reader to go off and research the accounts presented and make their own assessment.

Therefore, I think by confining the PNG writer to a purely PNG audience will restrict any growth On this point, I agree with Baka.

I think PNG writers should constantly push their boundaries with their writing style and, reading a variety of text will help with this.

We all have the common ground of PNG and being a PNGn but diverse writing style and readership should be encouraged – particularly if we are to be considered a nation of good writers/literature.

I also wanted to pick up on Bob’s Cleland’s point about BWF2016.

The ‘My Walk to Equality’ anthology is a direct response to Daniel, Francis, Martyn and I participating and coming away from the festival with feedback from the audience.

That day, the Australian audience asked to read PNG literature that depicts positive aspects of the PNG rather than the doom and gloom that’s consistently portrayed in the media.

So in this sense, the four of us, plus Bob, Keith, Phil, Murray Bladwell, Rob Parer along with all the PNGns and Australians of the PNG Atttitude writing community and especially PNG women writer contributors can demonstrate in 2017, the impact of PNG writer’s appearance at BWF2016 through a book that has been compiled to fill a gap the Australian audience has identified missing in international literature.

Posted by: Rashmii Bell | 14 December 2016 at 05:28 AM

There’s no doubt, Phil, that Papua New Guineans need to take ownership of the development of their literature – and, thankfully, and often under difficult circumstances, a small but growing number are.

As Chips Mackellar notes, correctly, a national literature does not develop overnight.

It is less than 50 years since Ulli Beier engineered the publication of the first Papua New Guinean-authored novel and now, thanks to you and Keith and a coterie of emergent Papua New Guinean writers and poets, PNG literature has begun to flourish again – albeit with an almost total dependency on the likes of you and Keith.

I certainly understand and share your frustration that, with notable exceptions such as the Simbu Writers Association, literary leadership in PNG remains sadly lacking.

But we also need to bear in mind (as, no doubt, you do) that, unlike we retired lapuns with time on our hands, emerging Papua New Guinean writers still have to earn/make a living, manage households and children and deal with the demands of extended families and wantoks and all of those other shores which eat their days.

Time and space to think, ponder and reflect and then to craft their tales and poems are in preciously short supply – as are the necessary editorial and self-publishing skills.

Crafting connections with Australian writing groups and conducting writer workshops are of enormous value, of course.

But, at the risk of stating the obvious, the immediate need is to develop editorial and self-publishing capabilities.

The latter is the easier of the two: the likes of Jordan Dean, Baka Bina and others have demonstrated this with their own publications – and, one might add, it is incumbent upon them to lead the way share this knowledge with others, as Jordan already is.

Developing editorial capabilities is a far more challenging matter which, when I can squeeze out the time, I will address further.

Posted by: Ed Brumby | 13 December 2016 at 07:06 AM

The fact that PNG literature is still in its infancy is directly related to the quality of education available in PNG.

The standard of education has been steadily deteriorating since 1975. The reason the writers of that era were good is because they had a decent education, even out in the bush schools.

Nowadays we get submissions to the Crocodile Prize and to Pukpuk Publications written by teachers who have a very poor command of written English (and Tok Pisin for that matter). Sometimes it is downright embarrassing.

If the teachers can’t read and write there is no way they can teach their students to read and write.

Of the few talented writers we see they are the product of their own endeavours and (probably) the dedication of their parents. Not the product of the PNG education system.

Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 12 December 2016 at 06:22 PM

Thank you, Phil, Keith, Chris, Ed and others who have and are helping Papua New Guineans to write.

You are doing this for one simple reason: You care about the people of PNG. You are planting the seeds. Eventually it will bear fruit…in what form, who knows.

The group of writers you are encouraging now will bear fruit. It is a slow process but eventually your efforts will bear fruits. Keep on encouraging us, brata!

Posted by: Joe Herman | 12 December 2016 at 05:52 PM

Bob and Phil, I had a look at the poems entered for the Crocodile Poetry Prize 2016, and I have to say that although most were meaningless and would have been difficult to edit, there were others which contained pearls of wisdom and would have been easy to edit.

For the ‘better’ poems, their main problem was that their rhythm was out of kilter, and the rhymes were bad, for example, singulars attempting to rhyme with plurals and so on. But the ‘good’ poems could have been easily edited.

My advice to PNG intending poets is :

If a poem has a tale to tell,
Then its lines must scan and they must rhyme well,
With a rhythm clear with a steady beat,
Like pounding hooves or marching feet,
With words that are plain and easy to say,
With meanings as clear as the light of day,
With intentions sharp and opinions strong,
And not too short and not too long.

Posted by: Chips Mackellar | 12 December 2016 at 05:24 PM

It would be interesting to get some feedback from the BWF Bob to see what the impact was – I’m sure it was substantial.

The point I was trying to make is that except for a few Australians with PNG experience PNG writing has very little appeal. That’s why I advise writers to write for PNGs first and worry about international fame later.

One of the reasons I have wound back Pukpuk Publications is that I was inundated with manuscripts that I couldn’t possible accommodate.

I’m now going to dedicate my time to helping organisations like SWA and EWA set up their own publishing programs using CreateSpace.

And just a note. Editing PNG writing is not ‘simple’. Ask Keith, Chris Overland and Ed Brumby. They are all adept at taking often appalling manuscripts and making something worthwhile out of them. It is exceedingly hard work.

Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 12 December 2016 at 02:00 PM

I’m surprised, Phil, that you didn’t mention the PNG presence art the Brisbane Writers Festival this year.

Only four PNGns directly benefitted and they had only an hour to talk with about 50 people. The important point is that it was the first such event for PNG writing and is set for continuation into the future.

PNG’s presence is sure to grow. Detailed planning for the 2017 Festival will start in February.

The biggest hurdle that I see for PNG writers is the difficulty, virtual impossibility, of having their work edited. Every writer needs an editor. The worlds best writers need and have an editor.

To your credit, Phil, up to now, you did a simple editing job on all works you thought worthy of publication in PNG Attitude or the Crocodile Anthology. What happens from now on?

PNG Attitude will continue under my editorship (and editing) – KJ

Posted by: Bob Cleland | 12 December 2016 at 11:47 AM

Phil, thanks for the article, you keep on giving us conversation topics but they somehow always dry up.

Personally I admit I need to know what and how to write so that other people outside of PNG can be interested and be able to read my stories.

I should not be writing for PNGns in mind and I need to break out from writing for PNGns. I want to improve my writing and the outside readership even if one only, will go a long way to help me along. I dream of the day that my entries to Commonwealth Writers perhaps can get mentioned, that would help.

Mind you I was never taught how to write a good sentence, paragraph and to join them into a story. If it was taught, it must have been during one of those days that I decided picking coffee was better than attending school.

(Facebook was not in my time but coffee prices went through the roof during my school days.)

Perhaps Barbara Short and yourself can post lessons on PNG Attitude and Crocodile Prize sites. I’d take lessons from you all.

In Port Moresby, it’s not feasible to go to UPNG and you did suggest to Stanley Leawon in his comment on Jordan Dean’s article on copy paste and Facebook.

But if you read the comment in Leawon comment, if the academia is doing that, do we want to go to them. Perhaps Dr Anna Joskin is different. I could look to them with a platter of salt, but hey, I need help and I am not getting it from anyone here in PNG.

I would like someone to say I know how to write a good prose, come lets discuss it. Nobody’s called for us to get our heads together yet in POM so the rest of the country is going to be difficult.

Another thing I would like to see more from you and those who critic our work to tear it down. The latest reviews are far to easy on the stomach and the work reviewed fall short. I got one review from you and I have pulled up short to self publish my anthology and look at my work again.

Yes there is all that you say in this article that is true with my work. I have spent the last six months going through sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph cutting words, changing words, changing sentences and moving paragraphs around.

I tried to shorten all my sentences and use a maximum of two joiners and even that is still too long. That is what the review has done for me.

Yes I cried when I read your last review of my book but I am happy that it has given me cause for concern to pause and re-scrutinise my work. That is what all of us here need to do is take criticism to heart and work to improve our writings.

I would appeal to those doing the reviews be hard and us on the receiving end to accept these criticisms. (Following your review of my book – thank you, I did go through the story going thoroughly through and picked out what you said were wrong and made changes without changing the story.

(I was going to re-publish as 2nd edition tomorrow but will wait until a friend has seen what I have done and will do that in late January). That is what reviews that cut to the bone does for a writer and we need reviewers to not go easy on on.

I think if we write for outside readers, then the country will benefit because it will be in better prose.

I would like to look at ways to market and bring our books to the rural readers. That is is going to be my ennui for a long time. I guess I have to get a handful of well written short stories, anthologies, novellas and books together before I venture down that road.

A lot of our writings don’t use dialogues. We narrate plenty. I have had a copy of Chinua Achebe’s Thing Fall Apart that I read again and again. It is my model book and writing. The clarity in his prose is awesome. The dialogue is plentiful, short, good and relevant.

This is in contrast to my writing where I want to tell the details. Chinua writes a bare minimum in his descriptions in the lines but he captures your imaginations and you get carried away with him in his rich tapestry of African life which is similar to our village life. I’ve read it over and over so many times but my imagination still runs wild each time with the story.

I run a second story in my mind on how it would pan out in my village today. It is full of emotions that will get you drained time and time again. You will when someone close to the main protagonist is murdered.

Oi tingting bilong mi tasol.

Posted by: Baka Bina | 11 December 2016 at 06:34 PM

Phil, you should be awarded a Queen’s Medal for your contribution to PNG literature. However, from my observation we have gone around in a circle to what it was in the 1970s. We don’t have a fully committed publishers and editors.

There are no established markets to sell our books. I wish there was a publisher with established connections with the bookshops and stationary shops as retail outlets in the country so, when a new book is published, all the retail outlets can order in bulk to resell to the general public, students, teachers, etc.

UPNG Press has an arrangement with Masalai Press in the US. Masalai Press does the publishing and sends it to UPNG to sell at its bookshop.

From the top of my head, UPNG probably has a student population of about 20,000. This includes the Open Campus and Study Centres. That’s the potential market when you publish with UPNG Press.

Also, early this year UPNG Press signed an agreement with a Chinese university to supply books written by PNGians. The books will be translated into the Chinese language and republished for the students at that university (with a student population of over 12 million) to purchase.

There’s some light at the end of the tunnel but it’s still dim.

Posted by: Jordan Dean | 11 December 2016 at 02:24 PM

While bookshops are disappearing Barbara their place is being taken by online retailers such as Amazon and the Book Depository. I don’t think people are abandoning hard copy books, they are just buying them another way. As for eBooks I think that craze has peaked and is diminishing.

As we know, some 80% of Papua New Guineans live in rural areas. They don’t have access to the internet and when they do it is prohibitively expensive. They are the people the writers of Papua New Guinea should be targeting. No matter how successful PNG writers might become they will get nowhere if those people don’t read their books.

Social media is useful but it still only reaches a small audience, a large proportion of which is made up of elites. They are only a small factor in the PNG literature scene. They are also able to take care of themselves and don’t need to be targeted. The UPNG has a small publishing program but its books only go to those elites and fellow academics. It is, in fact, a closed shop. Literature is a broad church and needs to cast its net over a much bigger area.

Interesting that you mention the Stanley Hotel. It seems to have stolen the mantle of the go to place for the rich fat cats and the pointless consultants on big salaries from the poor old Crowne Plaza. I don’t know what happened to the Royal Papua, it kind of fizzled (it reminds me of the big black plinth thing in ‘2001 A Space Odyssey).

Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 11 December 2016 at 11:41 AM

Don’t despair, Phil. Remember that our own literature took hundreds of years to develop.

For example, the Magna Carta in 1215, the basis of our present system of government, was written in Latin, because there was no English literature then.

Even when English was beginning to be written, its spelling was chaotic, and the grammar was uncertain, and it wasn’t until the printing press was invented that English became sufficiently standardised to become the basis of our present literature.

So with no tradition of its own literature, PNG has a long way to go before it can catch up.

In the meantime, you and Keith have done wonders to get it to the stage it is now at. You should be very proud of the good work you have done so far, so don’t give up now.

Posted by: Chips Mackellar | 11 December 2016 at 11:19 AM

Thank you, Phil, for all you have done to help PNG writers. You are much appreciated by them!

I think that at the present moment in time the world is not sure about the future of books. In the places where I shop there are no longer any bookshops. Some parents say “Don’t give the children books. They can get everything on line these days.”

People read “books” on their small electronic pads these days.

Social media used to be full of short comments – not full sentences.

On the Sepik Region Development Discussion Forum (SRDDF) I have tried to get people to write longer posts which are written in proper sentences.

They are often full of what I think you call “Spoonerisms” when you use a similar sounding word which has a different meaning. But we don’t let those things worry us and just get on with the discussion.

At the moment on SRDDF I am contributing each week about two pages of the book ‘A Short History of Wewak’ by Lorna Fleetwood. I have no way of contacting the lady but I’m sure she would not mind.

Her story is really appreciated by many of the SRDDF readers and often an interesting discussion takes place about the historic events mentioned in those two pages.

Some people in Australia are interested in hearing about PNG and get snippets from TV programs like Lateline the other day.

I guess you are right in saying that PNG writers need to keep working away to write good books for PNG people to read.

I think autobiographies or biographies are a good way to start. There are so many people in PNG who have had an interesting life story … from Stone-age man to World jet-setter… and so on.

In the National Weekender this weekend Thomas Hukahu reviews an interesting book, ‘Fifty Miles from Tomorrow’ by an Inuit, William L Iggiagruk Hensley, on Land Right for Indigenous peoples in Alaska. This is a topic that PNG writers need to take up again. It is something that may interest Australians who are now starting to worry that the Chinese want to buy up Australian land.

There are certain “Big Topics” around in the world today and this surely is one close to the heart of all PNG people who feel their land belongs to them and their tribe.

I hope some PNG thinkers and writers will come up with some good solutions to this problem, especially due to the fact that PNG appears to be so rich in minerals and oil and gas yet the people who “own them” appear to gain nothing much from them when they are dug up and exported to developed countries all around the world.

These people are tossed off their land, watch their hunting grounds disappear, see their rivers and seas polluted and spoilt for fishing, have to move to other areas to find food just to survive.

The government gets money from the mines but it doesn’t trickle down to them. Their Aid Posts are without medicines and often closed down. They die of curable illnesses all the time. These tribal groups will eventually die out completely or be absorbed into the squatter settlements at the various towns and cities of PNG.

Meanwhile the politicians and government workers grow fatter every day living it up in the Stanley Hotel and other similar places and watching world class Olympic Games and soccer matches at the stadiums built from the money gained from the minerals and oil and gas.

Posted by: Barbara Short | 11 December 2016 at 08:37 AM

What? Writhing with writing wont welter widely?

Of exploration of lands and engagement with peoples on (PNG) islands, ventured but few ‘outsiders’.

Of converse, ‘insiders’ reticent on grounds of the literati, are but a trickle less than a stream.

Of torrents reigning PNG, words heard impacting are immediacies; damming, welling, reflecting, still wants, await writ.

Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 11 December 2016 at 08:09 AM

Perhaps a social media revolution amid PNG’s millions would yield a dismissal of autocratic “Fake-News” broadsheets in favour of those who would champion the promotion of the aspirant authors ignored by Australia.

Posted by: `Robin Lillicrapp | 11 December 2016 at 06:44 AM

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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