Indigenous literature and academic elitism in PNG

Phil Fitzpatrick

By PHIL FITZPATRICK – 30 August 2018, Keith Jackson & Friends PNG Attitude

TUMBY BAY – In countries with a written literary tradition, especially in the western world, the publication of books has been largely accomplished outside government.

In those places, book publishing has and continues to be mainly a capitalist enterprise. Artistic and philosophical considerations aside, the chief driving force has been to make money. If not lots of it, at least enough to cover costs and maybe put some bread on the table.

Many writers will object to this mercenary view and argue that their main aim in writing is to engage in the transmission of creativity and ideas.

The truth is it is a discussion that contains elements of all these things.

In countries that do not have a written literary tradition the situation is different. Papua New Guinea is a case in point.

The written literature of Papua New Guinea was essentially born in the missions of the late 19th century but it was only in the five or so years before independence in 1975 that it emerged with a truly indigenous flavour, with quality and in some quantity.

This movement was driven by the University of Papua New Guinea and more particularly by the endeavours of one man, Ulli Beier, a lecturer in creative writing whose earlier career had been spent doing something similar in Nigeria.

Most of the writers from this this period were in one way or another connected to UPNG. The majority were Beier’s students. Vincent Eri, who wrote the first Papua New Guinean novel, The Crocodile, after which The Crocodile Prize is named, was one of them.

While this singular literary effort was going on at UPNG there was little serious writing being published elsewhere. Except in the education sector, no independent firm sprang up to publish writers not associated with the university.

Literature in PNG thus evolved in isolation in an academic context. There was nothing like a popular publishing industry established in PNG although the larger missions continued to publish stories drawn from biblical analogies, some of which were written by Papua New Guineans

Most of the writers after 1975 continued to have some sort of connection to UPNG. Many of them were students who had gone on to become lecturers and teachers at the university.

Indigenous literature in PNG was effectively a closed shop, tightly controlled by academia.

As the years went by, UPNG, like many other institutions, suffered severe financial constraints and governance became compromised. The encouragement and even the ability of academics to publish was considerably diminished. Even UPNG’s literary monopoly shrunk and, with a few outstanding hold-outs who often published at their own expense, indigenous literature dried up.

PNG Attitude was established in 2006 and by 2008 was beginning to encourage indigenous cntributions (an early article was by Aloysius Laukai, still going strong on Bougainville) but it wasn’t until later in 2009 that Papua New Guinean bylines from people like Gelab Piak, Mari Ellingsen and Reg Renagi began to regularly appear.

When the Crocodile Prize came along (planned in late 2010, launched in 2011), offering online publication to anyone and the added chance to be published in hard copy, it directly challenged the literary academics at the UPNG. It also placed emphasis on creative writing  and commentary as well as news writing, a significant turning point.

Here had emerged a popular, people’s literature challenging the hallowed ground of an academia that had virtually run out of steam. What to do? Jump on board and help it along or ignore it and hope it would go away?

Remarkably, and except for pragmatists like Russell Soaba, the latter is what happened. The academics didn’t want a bar of it. Perhaps they thought it was beneath their dignity and an affront to the closely guarded status of a Papua New Guinean literature that had hardly continued to exist.

When Crocodile Prize organisers came knocking with invitations to join in the doors were locked and there was a pretence the newcomers weren’t there.

If there was ever going to be any glory attached to literature in PNG, it seemed they wanted it for themselves.

There has been a deafening silence since.

They sit in the mouldering innards of UPNG and stew and write learned articles about each other that never get published.

Imagine if this had happened in Britain or the USA. We would never have had all those great writers, from Shakespeare to Mark Twain to JK Rowling.

They would have been still looking for a publisher.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: