A brief history of PNG literature, Part 1

Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude, 11 July 2021


TUMBY BAY – Papua New Guinea has a rich tradition of oral literature which exists to this day.

Vincent Eri’s work of 1970, The Crocodile, was the first novel by a Papua New Guinean, but it seems likely that the first book written by a Papua New Guinean came from the pen of the New Ireland writer, Ligeremaluoga (also known as Osea).

His book, The Erstwhile Savage, sometimes dismissed as missionary propaganda with no real literary merit, was written in the Kuanua language and later translated and published in English in 1932.

It was republished in 1978 under a different title, An Offering Fit for a King.

Eri’s novel The Crocodile was the result of a concerted push by the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) to promote Papua New Guinean literature in the years immediately prior to independence in 1975.

The chief architect of this movement was Ulli Beier, a lecturer in creative writing.

Most of the material at that time was produced locally as limited print run booklets of poetry, short stories or plays.

The Papua Pocket Poets series was particularly popular, as were literary collections published in magazines like UPNG’s Kovave (1969-75) and Papua New Guinea Writing (1970-77), produced by the Literature Bureau of the Department of Information and Extension Services.

Perusing those early works, the transition of the oral literary form into printed works can be clearly seen.

In his introduction to Three Short Novels from Papua New Guinea published in 1976, editor Mike Greicus said:

“While modern Papua New Guinea writing is founded on the oral literary traditions of a myriad of clan and language groups, it is as new as the emerging country itself, as vital and as exciting. That more will be heard from those writers and from this young literature there can be no doubt.”

This conflation of oral and written forms continues to flavour Papua New Guinean writing and gives it its own unique regional style.

Other writers active at this time were Peter Lus, Wairu Degoba, Pokwari Kale, Allan Natachee (Avaisa Pinongo), Leo Hannett, Rabbie Namaliu, Arthur Jawodimbari, Turuk Wabei, Bob Giegao, Jacob Simet, Jack Lahui, Clemens Runawery, Peter Wia Paiya, Renagi Lohia, Joseph Saruva, Herman Talingapua and Ikini Yaboyang. This is by no means a comprehensive list.

Prior to 1975 many Papua New Guinean public servants and others in sensitive positions published material anonymously or using a pseudonym to protect themselves and their jobs. It is worth noting the few female writers published in these years.Dr Ulli Beier

Under Ulli Beier’s benign guidance, the first issue of the journal of Papua New Guinea writing, Kovave, appeared in 1969 with prose such as Peter Lus’ My Head is as Black as the Soil of our Country, John Kadiba’s Tax and Kumalau Tawali’s Island Life along with John Waiko’s play The Unexpected Hawk.

The journal was published regularly until 1973 and then once in 1975 to coincide with celebrations for Papua New Guinea’s independence. It was the first literary journal of real significance and after the first few issues Beier’s students took over editorial control.

Kovave often published short plays, which were a popular genre for Papua New Guinean writers, perhaps because the form most resembled the animated style of traditional oral story telling.

Many of the plays were performed and broadcast on radio by the National Broadcasting Commission.

One of the curious things Beier did was to write Papua New Guinean plays himself using the pseudonym M Lovori. He hoped his students would read the plays and model their own work on them.

When four Papua New Guinean plays were produced in Sydney in 1970, Beier’s play, Alive, was lauded by Australian critics as the most ‘authentic’ while the genuine Papua New Guinean plays were labelled ‘awkward’ and ‘moralising’.

After Kovave ceased publication in 1975 and Papua New Writing in 1977, it wasn’t until 1982 that a new journal, Ondobondo, appeared.

Ondobondo was also published by UPNG’s Literature Department, this time under the guidance of Prithvindra Chakravarti, and followed the formation of a writers group of the same name that met monthly for discussions and readings.

The new journal included for the first time criticism of local writing by Papua New Guineans and extracts from unpublished novels. It also began to attract female writers. Unfortunately, lack of funding led to its demise in 1987.

The PNG Writer’s Union was formed in November 1984 with president Michael Yaki Mel, vice-president Francis Nii, treasurer Dr Steven Winduo and secretary was Kevin D’Archy.

The Union published a magazine The PNG Writer in 1985 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of PNG independence.

It was published to ‘give young writers the opportunity to appear in print’ and sold at K5 per copy for adults and K2 for students. From the sales it hoped to fund young writers to publish their work.

It included articles by Ignatius Kilage, Kamalau Tawali, John Sari, Joe Kunda Naur, Sorariba Nash, Steven Winduo and others.

In an interview published in the magazine Kilage pointed out that there was a wealth of creative talent in PNG.

In an editorial Mel wrote:

“Let’s nurture it along so that PNG literature becomes a living reality: not just something academics talk about.

“The best way to do it is to join the PNG Writers Union or to set up a branch in your school, college or home district.

“Why not hold a meeting in your own area? You will be surprised at the number of potential writers who turn up.”

The Writer’s Union was at pains to dissociate itself from what was generally understood as university writing promoted by Beier.

It did this in part through forewords and editorials that were written in clear, simple English.

Unfortunately, The PNG Writer went the way of other literary magazines and did not survive. Membership of the Union never reached great heights.

Also notable was UPNG’s series, Papua Pocket Poets, that appeared during this period, with perhaps the most significant volume being John Kasaipwalova’s Reluctant Flame.

This literary flush, with Beier’s encouragement pushing it forward, saw several students and alumni, including Vincent Eri, embarking on more ambitious works.

Beier collaborated with Brian Clouston, the Brisbane-based owner of Jacaranda Press which had published some of UPNG’s magazines and was one of the few Australian publishers with an interest in material coming out of PNG.

Until that time Jacaranda had only published books from PNG by Australian authors, usually educational texts. These sold well and were popular in the Territory’s schools.

Little of the literature produced in this period, by Australians or Papua New Guineans, was particularly outstanding, an exception being Trevor Shearston’s collection of short stories, Something in the Blood.

The most prolific publications of the period were coffee table books by Australian writers, replete with spectacular photographs and designed primarily as souvenirs.

Papua New Guinean literature was characterised by anti-colonial rhetoric which appealed to the left-leaning academics at the university. It was consonant with trends in the newly independent African nations and Beier, who had previously worked in Nigeria, was familiar and supportive of the genre.

A few interesting autobiographies emerged. The first was Ten Thousand Years in a Life Time by Albert Maori Kiki (FW Cheshire, 1968), an occasionally disjointed book, especially towards the end, but the straightforward style overcomes this minor drawback.

It was an important book, not so much for its literary merit but because it presented for the first time an account of what was in the minds of many of the Papuan intelligentsia as the colonial period drew to a close.

In many ways Kiki’s work foreshadowed Eri’s later novel in its account of a boy born into a traditional society in the 1930s and inexorably pulled into the world of the white man.

Kiki described this transition with a beguiling and candid simplicity and frequently made the point that the old ways that formed his character were not forgotten and helped him cope in later life.

Kiki had an intellect which transcended the ruck and sometimes intimidated people, especially expatriates in the higher echelons of the Australian administration.

He was no saint; he was a brawler, metaphorically and sometimes literally: a trade union leader, one of the founding fathers of the Pangu Pati and an independent PNG’s first deputy prime minister.

In the approach to independence Kiki represented much that was perceived by the colonial Administration and its Canberra bosses as sinister and threatening in the emergent Papuan New Guinean elite.

Sir Albert Maori Kiki died in 1993, eight years after independence.

When Jacaranda Press published Eri’s novel, The Crocodile, in 1970, it sold out and had to be reprinted almost immediately.

While most critics were refreshingly non-paternalistic and supportive, reaction from Australian readers in PNG was mixed.

Some were still smarting from Kiki’s book and didn’t like being lampooned again, even gently, by a Papua New Guinean, which, as Beier pointed out, was a bit rich from people who referred to grown men as ’boys’.

Apart from the African influence invoked by Beier, writers of this period took their lead from established European traditions and wrote mostly for an outside audience.

Where they had a message, it was intended for Australian and international consumption. Few wrote for Papua New Guineans.

Paulias Matane, a senior educationist not connected to Beier’s UPNG writers, published his first book, My Childhood in New Guinea, in 1972.

He adopted what was then an uncommon style of packaging the autobiographical details of his childhood around Rabaul in New Britain into a novel-like narrative.

The book takes the reader from Matane’s early days in the village, through initiation, wild days as a village delinquent, the war with the Japanese and his years as a teacher.

In it he outlines the principles that have since informed his steady and prodigious output:

“Reading is very important.  Many of my people do not read at home because books are written by people whose background is not that of Papua New Guinea.

“Our people do not want to read these.  True, some people want to try, but they cannot afford to buy books. 

“I think I will try to write about this country when I leave school.  The books should be small, simple, and cheap.”

No one accused Matane of not sticking to his plan. Now nearing his 90th birthday, he has written more than 40 short books, most of them self-published.

He has also been a strong supporter of Papua New Guinean literature, especially during his time as Governor-General, and mentored several promising authors.

In 1954, 18 year old Michael Somare won a South Pacific Commission’s Literature Bureau competition with an essay about his favourite book, Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition.

The following year he picked up a Forsyth Examination Prize of $40 worth of books. Paulius Matane had earlier won the same prize.

Before he entered politics Somare was a school teacher and later a writer in the Publications Section of the Education Department, where he wrote scripts for the ABC’s Listen and Learn English language broadcasts. 

Because of his interest in broadcasting he was seconded to Radio Wewak, part of the Department of Information and Extension Services, as a broadcaster and journalist.

This training and experience shows up in his 1975 book, Sana: An Autobiography of Michael Somare.  It is a more polished and articulate work than anything before and possibly since.

The book was written on the cusp of PNG’s leap into nationhood and articulates Somare’s vision for the country’s future.

It discusses his early influences which informed his ambition and his political development.

Sana was Somare’s grandfather and it was his wisdom that was passed on to Somare.

Central to it was what his father referred to as ‘Sana’s peacemaking magic’ – the ability to make peace with one’s enemies and turn them into friends.

Somare’s vision involved melding the myriad cultures and interests of PNG into something new which didn’t owe its existence to what outsiders might expect or demand. Somare himself was happy to embrace innovation and new ways.

Of all the books published in those halcyon days, Sana is the most important and bears reading by any Papua New Guinean interested in the past and future of the country.

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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