In this extract from ‘Learning to Be a Writer in Papua New Guinea’, Evelyn Ellerman writes of the establishment of the Literature Department at the University of Papua New Guinea in 1967, which led directly to the development of the first shoots of a home-grown Papua New Guinean literature. Her important paper was written as part of the University of Calgary’s ‘History of Intellectual Culture’ series. Link here to Ellerman’s complete paper – KJ
CALGARY – Since so few Melanesians could read and write, the first admission to UPNG was relatively small: in 1966 only 55 students registered.
This was quite literally the beginning of what is now considered to be the PNG national literature.
The Literature Department into which these students came was comprised mostly of Australians and New Zealanders, some of whom, like the department’s first Chair, Frank Johnson, had already been in the colony for a few years.
Like many of his colleagues, Johnson was young and enthusiastic about the opportunity to create something new.
The Currie Commission had recommended that the university recognize and encourage oral culture; accordingly, Johnson adopted learning objectives for his students:
- Read literature and secure as complete as possible a response to it, at the same time developing a critical literary appetite and taste which would generate a desire for further reading of literature;
- 2) Study literature as a creative art form and thus develop an appreciation of, and a response to, creativity in all communication arts leading ultimately to self-creativity;
- 3) Discover, maintain, propagate and develop the traditions of oral literature of Papua New Guinea.
He had begun by calling the department ‘Language and Literature’ rather than ‘English’, offering courses focused on the oral traditions, linguistics, and modern literatures either written in, or translated into, English.
Johnson designed the bridging year that would address the gap between English language proficiency levels among the colony’s high school graduates and the language proficiency required by the university.
In addition, he offered courses in Melanesian languages and made Linguistics a required course so that students could study language as a phenomenon.
According to one of his staff members, Mike Greicus, Johnson thought that a traditional literature curriculum was bound to produce what VS Naipaul had called ‚mimic men‛: unsuccessful imitators of all things European.
By 1972, Greicus observed that the open curriculum initiated by Johnson was already addressing questions of cultural identity and seemed to be encouraging the formation of a new literature.
Frank Johnson cast a wide net when searching for his staff. Prithvindra Chakravarti, one of Johnson’s first hires, recalls that he was conducting fieldwork in Australia in 1966 when he saw an advertisement for someone with an interest in linguistics, literature and, in particular, oral traditions.
Chakravarti wrote a simple one-page letter outlining his background and was promptly hired. He recalls that he was attracted by Johnson’s decision to avoid the standard English curriculum of British and American literature.
Chakravarti’s actual teaching would not begin until 1967, since the first cohort of indigenous students was taking the bridging courses in order to develop their English skills.
When he did begin to teach, he found that the students were all mature adults between the ages of 25 and 40; most were successful school teachers with many years experience, but with only some primary schooling or perhaps the first two years of high school themselves.
The course Chakravarti was asked to teach was ‘Introductory Linguistics and Oral Traditions’. This two-part course was meant to address the concerns of the Currie Commission and became, in effect, the first course in the Literature program.
Before Chakravarti arrived in PNG, he and Frank Johnson had discussed what should be in the course.
Even so, on his arrival, Chakravarti was still required to explain to the Faculty Board why the Literature Department was not following the established ‘Beowulf to Virginia Woolf‛ curriculum then offered by metropolitan universities.
Chakravarti remembers that very few expatriate students registered for the language and literature program.
As a consequence, when he walked into his first Oral Traditions classroom, he discovered that his 27 students used a total of 26 languages, only one of which was spoken by two students.
As an Indian with a degree from an American university, and with experience teaching Aboriginal students in Australia, Chakravarti was sensitive to issues of culture and language.
He decided that he would first assess what the students were capable of and what interested them. He asked them to collect stories for analysis by going home in semester breaks and recording stories from their villages; he also asked them to write stories.
This first course in the oral traditions offered UPNG students the opportunity to experiment with creative writing:
In the first and second weeks I asked them to write whatever they knew about: let us say, a verse.
I read them a poem in very simple English. I did not ask them to write in English. I said. ‘You may have this sort of thing in your own language, so try to write something like it.’
Most of them actually wrote in their own language and some in English: a poem or a small two-liner, or a three-line verse. Some had difficulty, of course, because poetry is difficult to write and very difficult to translate.
And verse taken from the oral tradition is especially difficult, even if you have a good command of English, which was not the case with these students.
Chakravarti organized the writing component of the oral traditions class so that students had their first lecture on Monday or Wednesday and brought him their full story of four pages on Thursday or Friday.
Then he would discuss the story with each of them. He notes that this method produced a great deal of marking compressed into a short span of time, since he was marking stories from 27 students.
As few courses of this type were being taught anywhere in the world, finding a textbook was a challenge. Chakravarti used an American introduction to folklore, but only to the extent that it assisted students in understanding what defined a story, a legend, or a myth.
He felt that using the entire textbook would have been pedantic and culturally inappropriate, since its content focussed on the European tradition of folklore studies and used predominantly American examples.
Chakravarti recalls that, in the first year of its operation, the Literature Department had nine or ten teachers with one or two lecturers. Frank Johnson was also looking for someone to teach a course called ‘New English Literature from Developing Countries’.
Fortunately for him and for other department heads at the new university, there existed in the mid 1960s a small cadre of people with teaching experience in former African colonies.
His advertisement was answered in London by Ulli Beier, who had been promoting African literatures in Nigerian universities since 1950.
When Johnson hired Beier, he gave him the same freedom to develop the literature course as he had to Chakravarti a few months earlier.
Before Beier’s arrival, Johnson put his two newest hires in contact; between them, they decided to add a course in ‘African Literatures’ that would complement the course in ‘Oral Traditions’.
The title of the new course was quickly changed to ‘Emergent Literatures’ so that Chakravarti and Beier could add examples from Indian, West Indian, and Afro-American literatures in subsequent years.
This was the beginning of a partnership that would last until 1971, when Beier left the colony.
As agents of literary change, Beier and Chakravarti would develop a literature curriculum over the next five years that would serve as a model at the UPNG for the next four decades; and they would mentor most of the writers now recognized as the first novelists and playwrights in PNG.
At the outset, Beier and Chakravarti found it was difficult to locate appropriate texts for ‘Emergent Literatures’ as it had been for ‘Oral Traditions’. In the mid 1960s, finding affordable textbooks that would be meaningful to Melanesian students, with negligible exposure to literature, was a daunting task. The two lecturers fell back on what they knew:
For the 1967 course, we chose Chinua Achebe’s new book and one book of Indian fiction. I chose some short stories, not a full novel: short stories in English translation and some in Indian English. There was a cheap American paperback called something like ‚Modern Asian Short Stories.‛ And I remember a very good short story by Khushwant Singh and one or two Tagore short stories in English.
Like Chakravarti, Beier was excited about the opportunity to forge a new curriculum. Drawing upon nearly 15 years of pioneering work in Nigeria, he had some notion of what he wanted to accomplish in PNG.
He had already encountered what he considered to be culturally irrelevant literature classes in Nigeria. Beier describes meeting an instructor who had brought daffodils from England in order to help her classes understand a poem by Wordsworth.
In the early 1950s, Beier began to alter the content in his own classes to reflect what he saw to be the cultural reality of his Nigerian students, eventually claiming to have taught one of the world’s first classes in the emerging literatures.
In Nigeria, Beier had not limited his decolonizing activities to teaching. He assisted his students in forming writers groups and finding a means of publication. He formed the Mbari Writers Club, which he used to promote artistic and literary experimentation, and cultural regeneration.
Enthused by the success of the francophone journal, Présence Africaine (established in 1947), he established the journal Black Orpheus in 1957, training his student writers to edit and critique the work of their colleagues.
He encouraged his Nigerian students to base their texts on their own cultural traditions, publishing several collections of folklore himself in order to provide models. His wife Georgina, a graphic artist, illustrated the publications with Nigerian themes and motifs, and they both worked with African artists to promote a Nigerian look for the publications.
At the outset, the audience for these writerly texts was largely academic and predominantly foreign, but the hope was that this work would provide the foundation for an indigenous literary canon that would be read in Africa.
All of this university-based activity was a conscious attempt to help create a new literature.
As his students were producing texts, Beier was editing and publishing them, and then turning them into curriculum. He has written several times about this process, but he is less transparent about other aspects of his role in creating the new literatures.
As a teacher-mentor, Beier engaged in a wide range of mediation practices. Not only did he encourage, teach, and enable the new writers, he modelled the roles they might assume.
In order to better demonstrate the literary functions of author, editor, and critic, for example, he adopted a series of Nigerian-sounding pseudonyms for himself as he wrote, edited, and then criticized his own ‘Nigerian’ texts.
This was a practice he carried to PNG, where he not only taught writers and established the English-language literary journal Kovave (1969), but he also masked his own identity to write, under the pseudonym ‘Lovori’, the kind of folklore-based plays he hoped his students would eventually produce.
‘Modelling’ is a common teaching practice, but ‘Masking’ is less common, for the obvious reason that it borders on appropriation and inauthenticity.
Nevertheless, the practice sometimes occurs during decolonization, when European mentors try to transfer the institutions and values of western literature to colonized peoples who have no previous literary tradition.
Beier was not alone in adopting a ‘native‛ mask in order to persuade student writers and others that the ‘native’ could write.