Writing in PNG: Kovave & beyond

13 July 2021

EVELYN ELLERMAN

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.

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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