How PNG’s first literary blossoming arrived

12 July 2021


Ulli Beier – “Drawing  upon nearly  15  years  of  pioneering  work  in  Nigeria,  he  had  some  notion  of  what  he  wanted  to  accomplish in PNG”

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.

Many  of  these  students  were  required  to  take  a  bridging  year  in  order  to improve  their  grasp  of  English.  A  handful  registered  for  the  literature  classes  and began  to  write.

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.

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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