TUMBY BAY – It wasn’t until 1977 that a Papua New Guinean novel appeared that was targeted at Papua New Guinean readers, Russell Soaba’s Wanpis.
Some 45 years on, that same anguish of 1977 is recognisable in Papua New Guinea writing.
Wanpis stood out because, unlike its predecessors, it was unashamedly aimed at Papua New Guinean readers.
This period of literary flowering in the years around independence was to taper off.
The many departing Australians took their support and buying power with them and, as they got on with their lives, their interest in Papua New Guinea waned.
At the same time, publishers like Jacaranda shifted their attention back to their core markets in Australia.
By 1984 the University of Papua New Guinea’s Literature Department had been reduced to two staff and the national government had lost all interest in supporting literature, a situation that remains unchanged today.
Prithvindra Chakravarti, who had been recruited in 1966 to found the university’s courses in literature and folklore and convene a creative writing workshop, realised his time was over.
In 1986, he resigned from the university disillusioned. The first wave of literature in the new nation had all but foundered.
While many people in PNG maintained an interest in books, and the more stoic writers continued to write, the new political and bureaucratic elite had other things on their minds.
Libraries everywhere, including in schools, began to disappear. In the few places where books were offered for sale, ordinary people couldn’t afford to buy them.
New acquisitions at the university library dried up. The publishing program at UPNG foundered. The UPNG library became an antiquarian booksellers dream, complete with ancient dust.
In 2105-16, the last year for which I could find figures, the PNG Library Service had a budget of K1.3 million and a staff ceiling of 23.
This was for the total government library system in the country including libraries schools and tertiary institutions.
By comparison, the moderate-sized regional council area where I lived in Queensland had six well-stocked libraries for a population of about 200,000, a combined budget of about K6 million and a staff of over 30, not counting volunteers.
The libraries had about 300,000 volumes compared with 100,000 in all of PNG.
Despite the languishing interest in home-grown literature, a few Papua New Guinean writers, including the indefatigable Paulias Matane, persisted in their efforts, but were increasingly forced to fund and sell their own books.
Vanity publishers, especially in India, filled the void left by departing publishers and the quality of editing and production declined.
This period was frustrating for creative PNG’s writers. With few outlets for their work in their own country and little interest in Australia and elsewhere, the promise of those early years had all but evaporated.
At UPNG a small group of Papua New Guinean academics resolutely kept teaching literature. They included Russell Soaba, Dr Regis Stella and Dr Steven Winduo, who published their own works while sustaining in reduced form the embryonic literary tradition.
Soaba and Winduo remain at the university but Stella, who wrote two fine novels, Gutsini Posa (Rough Seas, 1999) and Mata Sara (Crooked Eyes, 2010), died in 2012 just short of his 52nd birthday and days away from the launch of a new book.
Divine Word University in Madang had also begun to teach literature during this period, abandoned the program, then reinstated it in late 2016.
During the barren years from 1986 to 2010, there were several attempts to set up writers’ organisations, mostly within the universities.
A national literature competition was launched but, with lack of support and indifference from the government, had a short life.
By the turn of the century, PNG had largely become a nation without a literary soul. While constantly stating the need for unity and nationalism, successive governments seemed ignorant of the role literature might play in this endeavour.
In the schools, students usually had no access to literature by their authors and poets. Instead, they were fed a diet of overseas writing, much of it inappropriate.
Books with Papua New Guinean themes written by Australian and the other writers who had worked in PNG occasionally trickled into the country.
These often pedestrian memoirs and novels sat alongside works by international writers who seemed to regard PNG as exotic, uncivilised and a worthy setting for a country they had never set foot in and for books that few would read.
Then a faint light appeared on the horizon.
Social media took a long time to take off in PNG and, when it did, coverage was poor and services expensive. It also took Papua New Guineans some time to work out how best to use it.
A couple of blogs appeared including Emmanuel Narokobi’s Masalai Blog that recognised the internet’s potential for serious content and debate. But generally the early efforts were superficial, short-lived and had few readers.
In 2007 Irish company Digicel set up shop in PNG with an ambitious program of building mobile phone towers throughout the country.
In my travels to remote areas, I was often pleasantly surprised that I could obtain mobile phone coverage, even if it entailed climbing a nearby hill.
Even though data charges were high, by 2010 it seemed that just about everyone had a mobile phone.
While the quality of the blogs improved, none was especially useful for creative writers. By far the most successful blog in terms of creative writing and reach was Australian-based Keith Jackson’s PNG Attitude.
This began life in 2006 as a point of contact for Australians who had worked in Papua New Guinea. Keith had been a teacher and broadcaster and the blog was mostly read by Australians who had worked in these fields.
By 2010, PNG Attitude had changed its focus, broadened its appeal and attracted a wider audience, including many Papua New Guineans.
Keith encouraged contributions from PNG and gradually short articles, essays and poetry began to emerge. It was soon apparent that many writers saw the blog as a useful outlet for their work.
In 2010 I contributed an article to PNG Attitude outlining the parlous state of literature in PNG and suggested to Keith that we might devise a writing competition for Papua New Guineans.
Keith was enthusiastic and very quickly The Crocodile Prize emerged, its name acknowledging of Vincent Eri’s pioneering novel.
The first contest was announced in late 2010 and concluded on Independence Day in September 2011. We had also decided to preserve the best writing in an anthology which was published in each of the competition.
In the beginning, the anthology was printed by Papua New Guinean company, Birdwing Publishing, which printed its books in China or India. This was expensive and, given we distributed the books free of charge in PNG from donated funds, the print run was restricted to a few hundred.
Our quest to find a less costly means of publishing coincided with the emergence of CreateSpace (now Kindle Direct Publishing), a US-based digital, print-on-demand system which is a subsidiary of Amazon.
This fitted our purpose well and, after 2012, the anthologies were produced this way. We were now able to distribute up to 1,500 copies to PNG schools and the few libraries that had survived.
Along the way we created Pukpuk Publications (pukpuk is the Tok Pisin word for crocodile). During its six-year life, Pukpuk published about 50 books by Papua New Guinean writers, including novels, poetry, essay collections and a range of other works.
Through The Crocodile Prize, which found a large group of enthusiastic sponsors, many talented novelists, short story writers, poets and essayists emerged. It was a fascinating and rewarding process.
The first of many writers to ignite a spark of extraordinary delight in Keith and me was blogger Martyn Namorong in 2011. He bombarded us with incendiary essays on PNG politics and society that quickly put paid to any paternalistic feeling we may have harboured about what we were doing.
The exemplary poet Michael Dom, joined later by many others including the gifted Wardley Barry, demonstrated an impressive mastery of the form in all its iterations.
Supporting these substantial prodigies was a swag of emerging poets who demonstrated what we soon realised was a natural cultural connection between traditional Papua New Guinean oral literature and song and a more modern poetry.
There were also some stunning memoirs and novels. The productive Bougainvillean writer Leonard Roka stunned us with his raw and uncompromising account of growing up during the Bougainville civil war of the 1990s.
The trauma of the cold-blooded execution of his father by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army drove Leonard’s writing and this tragic event was to form the centrepiece of his award-winning book, Brokenville.
Of his own volition, Baka Bina published his novel, Man of Calibre, using CreateSpace. It was a compelling account of two torrid days during a family dispute in an Eastern Highlands village.
In his novel, Sibona, Emmanuel Peni created a splendid account of the life of an unwanted teenager growing up in Port Moresby.
These works followed the ‘written here, for here’ convention of Russell Soaba’s Wanpis and were clearly definable as Papua New Guinean literature.
In a country with severely limited publishing opportunities, these successes proved that digital publishing and print-on-demand were a viable alternative to high priced and poor quality vanity publishing.
Editing Papua New Guinean writers can be complex because it deals with writers whose first language is usually not English. The main pitfall is that the unique flavour of Papua New Guinean expression and creativity can be subdued in the process.
Another concerning factor was that by publishing Papua New Guinean writers from an Australian base we were repeating the mentorship of UPNG’s Ulli Beier and Jacaranda’s Brian Clouston in the 1970s.
That always had the prospect of not being sustainable and, as Keith and I aged and had to limit our labours, so the curtain closed on The Crocodile Prize and Pukpuk Publications.
There was no easy solution to the problem of institutionalising a home-grown literature within Papua New Guinea.
The PNG government is largely oblivious to the benefits of a national literary culture, perhaps not believing that a free and flourishing native literature is politically desirable.
In 2020, despite concerted efforts and a positive reception, prime minister James Marape failed twice to honour agreements to meet a small delegation of Papua New Guinean authors who wanted to present him with a petition signed by more than 300 writers calling for government assistance.
The Crocodile Prize passed to Papua New Guinean management and, despite a successful hosting of the annual awards by the Simbu Writer’s Association in Kundiawa, the competition faltered and was discontinued in 2018.
In its place however a number of smaller Papua New Guinean competitions emerged, including one under the stewardship of Ples Singsing, managed by writers who were influential during the years of The Crocodile Prize.
Ples Singsing publishes Papua New Guinean writers on its website and is supported by both The National and the Post Courier newspapers. In Australia PNG Attitude continues to publish work by Papua New Guinean writers.
Writer’s associations may be where the future of Papua New Guinean creative writing rests but they have been slow to develop and, where they do, short lived.
Pukpuk Publications was wound down but some similar enterprises based in PNG have emerged.
Meanwhile, Papua New Guinea’s literary culture struggles as it mostly has over the last 60 years.
It is clear, however, that so long as the writers write and are published, no matter how and where, the flame still flickers.