In this second extract from ‘Learning to Be a Writer in Papua New Guinea’, Evelyn Ellerman writes of the emergence of student writers at the University of Papua New Guinea from 1967, which led to the development of a home-grown Papua New Guinean literature. Her paper was part of the University of Calgary’s ‘History of Intellectual Culture’ series. Link here to the complete paper – KJ
CALGARY – In the late 1960s, three principal publishing vehicles were associated with the University of Papua New Guinea’s Literature Department.
Kovave, an in-house literary journal; Papua Pocket Poets, an in-house poetry series; and a number of externally published collections whose content was gleaned from the journal and the series.
In 1969, Ulli Beier started the literary journal Kovave for his student writers, which he edited until 1971 when he passed editorial control over to John Kasaipwalova, who edited one issue and in 1972 turned the journal over to Apisai Enos.
The editorship remained with Enos until the journal’s demise in 1975. Not only did Beier install his writers as editors of Kovave, he added them to the Editorial Committee from the beginning.
For the pilot issue, Beier chose three writers for the Committee —Vincent Eri, Rabbie Namaliu and Leo Hannet —along with staff members, Elton Brash and Jo Gray.
By 1971, all five Committee members were writers: Russell Soaba, Arthur Jawodimbari, Dus Mapun, John Saunana, and Apisai Enos.
With the sole exception of Nigel Krauth, an Australian who joined the Committee in 1975, the journal was Indigenised within two years of its inception.
Kovave was an ambitious journal. Each issue of approximately 60 pages including 10-12 examples of poetry, four to five items of prose, two to three items of folklore, and a play.
In most issues there is one entry under the heading of ‘Art’, one or two reviews, and perhaps a piece of criticism.
Kovave published UPNG student writers almost exclusively, with the occasional exception of staff and students from Goroka Teachers College, which was affiliated with the university.
The journal’s modest audience included the staff and students of PNG’s tertiary institutions and those expatriates and foreign-academics interested in new literatures.
The genres of choice in Kovave were the autobiographical sketch and drama; Beier felt students used the first to affirm village values and the second to assert their militancy. What is increasingly obvious over time is a lack of interest in the prose forms of folklore.
While traditional verse does appear once for every three or four modern poems, Enos began to replace prose forms with critical essays as soon as Issue 4.1 (1972), and by Issue 5.1 (1975) Kovave offered only two pages of folklore.
Chief among the Literature Department’s publishing accomplishments during Beier and Chakravarti’s tenure was the ‘Papua Pocket Poets’ series, which Beier began in order to have oral materials for his literature classes.
Each volume was small, cheaply produced and inexpensive. With the exception of the first volume, Beier published the series in Port Moresby.
Papua Pocket Poets supplied a publishing outlet for the creative writing classes and for the poets from Kovave: Apisai Enos, Kumalau Tawali, JohnKasaipwalova, Arthur Jawodimbari, Gapi Iamo, Dus Mapun, Jerry Kavop, Peter Kama Kerpi, and their professor, Prithvindra Chakravarti.
Its 46 volumes reflect the interests of its editors, Ulli Beier (vols. 1-25) and Prithvindra Chakravarti (vols. 26-46).
Both men worked together from the beginning in the department to encourage PNG poets and to broaden their knowledge of other oral traditions. The first three volumes, for example, concentrate on Maori, Malay, and Yoruba oral traditions, respectively.
Beier followed these with Indonesian, Ibo, Bengali, and Biafran collections. From the fifth volume to the twenty-fifth, the series focuses almost exclusively on PNG poetry, whether modern or traditional.
The main difference between the editorships is that Chakravarti published mostly modern poetry (14 of the 17 PNG volumes), while Beier published mostly traditional poetry (9 of the 12 PNG volumes). This disparity is likely due to the passage of time.
By 1973, Chakravarti could concentrate on modern poetry because enough of it had been written by that time. However, given the waning traditional content of Kovave by 1973, writers may simply have had other interests.
Under Beier, the only modern poets represented are Enos, and Tawali. Two of the volumes under Beier are collections of original Pidgin poems; only one under Chakravarti is in Pidgin.
Chakravarti’s editorship featured two collections of modern poetry and one collection of traditional. Of these two, ‘Modern Poetry from Papua New Guinea’, edited by Brash and Krauth, consists of reprints from Kovave. The rest of the volumes are specific to individual ethnic groups.
None of the collections of modern poetry is by a woman. As a whole the Papua Pocket Poets series remains the single-most comprehensive source of printed verse from PNG.
Although Beier had originally used Papua Pocket Poets as a teaching resource, the anthologies that began in 1971 with ‘Five New Guinea Plays’ were meant to create a certain style for PNG writing and to develop for it an immediate foreign readership.
The student-generated plays have as their subject either culture clash, anti-colonialism, or generational disputes. In this, they fairly reflect the generally polemical nature of the early plays from UPNG.
The following year, Jacaranda Press published the first collection of short stories from Beier’s writers. Of the 13 short stories in ‘The Night Warrior and other Stories’, eight were taken from Kovave, and one was reprinted from the Australian journal Overland.
In 1973 Beier published another PNG collection, ‘Black Writing from New Guinea’, this time with the ‘Asian and Pacific Writing’ series of the University of Queensland Press.
Of the 29 selections by 18 authors, only one autobiographical sketch, two poems, one story, and one play had not previously appeared in Kovave or Night Warrior.
During his second stay in PNG (1974-1978) as Director of the newly-formed Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, Beier published ‘Niugini Lives’ in the ‘Pacific Writers’ series. By now a pattern to these anthologies was clearly visible.
Of the 15 submissions by 14 authors, six had been previously published in Kovave. Two had originally appeared in the ‘Journal of Papua New Guinea Studies’ and one in ‘New Guinea’. One was an extract from Kiki’s autobiography, ‘Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime’. Two were older pieces collected by missionaries.
The last Beier anthology, ‘Voices of Independence’ (University of Queensland Press, 1980), followed the same pattern as the others in that it chose work from mostly the same group of writers, each of whom had up to four pieces included.
‘Voices of Independence’ also introduces newer writers and enlarges the scope of the previous collections. In addition, the collection is prefaced by a well-balanced Beier essay on the previous 10 years of PNG literature, which is the first attempt at outlining a literary history for PNG.
The first 10 years of PNG literary production were clearly dominated by the programs and practices of UPNG.
While the university was not the only site of literary activity, it was the institution most connected with creative writing and best linked to global cultural networks.
During its first decade, the Literature Department invited writers and teachers from other colonies to give talks and to teach in the department. It hosted conferences and festivals.
Some of its students visited African universities and took the opportunity to study abroad before returning to teach at UPNG.
As an indicator of rapid change during decolonisation, the literature curriculum devised by colonial universities like UPNG can be considered an important factor in the intellectual, social, and cultural formation of the first generations of independence era leadership.
Graduates of literature programs were highly literate and therefore frequently drafted into public service. As a consequence, their university-based intellectual and cultural formation is historically relevant.
The literature curriculum can be used to study leadership, yet is also central to understanding the formation of cultural systems during the transition from colony to nation, especially when considered in the context of the colonial literature department itself.
In attempting to model and encourage the four roles of a Western-style literary system, academic staff members of these colonial universities were engaged in the unique process of training other people to take their jobs once the system had been Indigenised.
Clearly, analysis of the colonial university literature curriculum can inform the study of literary influence within, and amongst, colonies and the metropolis, connections between intellectual and cultural movements, and the evolution of individual writers during the colonial era.
It can also provide a historical foundation for the study of independence era literary systems. Forty years after the inception of the Literature Department at UPNG, the original curriculum strengths, though packaged somewhat differently, still existed.
In 2009, the department offered two paired strands in ‘Linguistics and Modern Languages’ and ‘Literature and English Communication’‛ Students who chose the Literature strand received the following explanation for its teaching focus in the university course handbook:
“Most courses in Literature are designed with three broad interests in mind. The first emphasis is on postcolonial literary studies, theory, and criticism. Here also the emphasis is on literature of PNG and the Pacific.
“Second, the program emphasises creative writing, literary techniques and methods and studies in various genres of literature.
“The third focus is on cultural studies, literature and society, traditional knowledge systems, folklore and oral traditions. Various issues and studies in culture, literature, folklore and society are given significance.
“A major in literature will cover all the three areas. Students can take up literary studies on its own or as an elective with other courses. In essence, literary studies allow flexibility and an interdisciplinary focus.”
In 2009, the three areas in which the literature curriculum placed emphasis were outgrowths of its decolonising curriculum of the 1960s and 70s, and the creative writing classes first offered by Ulli Beier.
The ‘New Literatures’ category now incorporated theory, criticism and all the literature courses. The emphasis was still heavily on the new literatures and world literature since Modernism, constituting about 35% of the curriculum.
The second group of courses, which accounted for 24% of the curriculum, focused on writing, editing and publishing. ‘Oral Traditions’ had been subsumed under a broader category of ‘Cultural Studies’ and made up 41% of the curriculum.
Of the first generation student-writers from UPNG, only Russell Soaba remains on staff at the Literature Department today. Many of his colleagues are members of the second generation of PNG writers, who attended UPNG in the 1980s when Prithvindra Chakravarti was still in the department.
After more than 40 years, the resonance between the late colonial and the contemporary department was significant in its implications for curriculum and teaching, but the effect of this tradition on the history of PNG literature remained to be seen.
One thought on “Writing in PNG: Kovave & beyond”
Really nice to read. Thanks for the Artikel