Asking if Papua New Guineans write is the wrong question

Askim sapos ol Papua Niuginian’s isave rait emi rong askim”

[Tok Pisin translations]


IT WAS MY IMPRESSION that one of the questions bothering Philip Fitzpatrick around 2010, on his ruminations about his once adopted home was that, if Papua New Guineans are writing, then where is the published evidence?

LONG LUKSAVE-TINGTING BILONG MI wanpela askim ibin sikirapim het bilong Philip Fitzpatrick long 2010, taim em i tingim bipo asples bilong em ibin olsem, sapos ol Papua Niuginian’s isave rait, orait we stap mak tru bilong ol insait long pablikesen?

The question here is raised about the field of literary endeavour rather than the academic and workplace necessity of writing, not that boring stuff which earns real money but the thrilling stuff that gets most of us nothing but self-satisfaction and relief in return.

Dispela askim emi ikam long giraun bilong ol litireri wokmak na ino long ol kain skulwok na wokples we igatim nid long raitim, ino dispela raitim we nogat hamamas bilong en tasol igat pei moni, tasol dispela hamamas raitim blo sampela lain we inogat pei moni tasol ol iet i kisim wanbel na belisi olsem bekim.

Of course, Phil is a literary afficionado and is himself a writer of no mean talent, leaving a footprint across the literary landscape of PNG and Australia, with books such as Bamahuta: Leaving Papua, Dogger and Two Sides to every Story: A Short Guide to Cross Cultural Awareness in Papua New Guinea.

Em nau, Phil em isave laikim tumas ol kainkain litiritia na em iet i wanpela raita igat namba, we ol lekmak bilong em istap long graun bilong PNG na Australia, wantaim ol buk olsem Bamahuta: Leaving Papua, Dogger na Two Sides to every Story: A Short Guide to Cross Cultural Awareness in Papua New Guinea.

It was Phil’s, and Keith Jackson’s, overriding sense of confidence in the creative abilities of PNG people that encouraged them to go ahead with the creation of the Crocodile Prize, after testing the waters through publishing PNG authored blog articles.

Em ibin Phil, na Keith Jackson tu, husait igatim gutpela luksave tru long pasin na save bilong yumi ol PNG na ol igo het long kamapim Crocodile Prize, bihain long ol ibin testim wara tasol long pablisim ol wanwan PNG raita long blog.

Are Papua New Guineans writing?

Ol Papua Niugini isave raitim tu o?

That same question was probably posed before, by no less a character than Ulli Beier, godfather of PNG literature.

Dispela wankain askim ibin kamap bipo tu, na ino kam long liklik nem emi Ulli Beier tasol, godpapa bilong PNG litiritia.

Beier took on an active, and some say far too interactive, role as a guardian for the cause of indigenous writing and a facilitator for local publication. And call him what you like, there weren’t and still aren’t many like him around – none in fact.

Beier em ibin kirapim wokabaut, we sampela itok em i putim em iet igo insait, olsem wasman blong ol wok yumi ol asples i raitim, na halapim long kamapim lokol pablikesen. Yumi iken mekim nek long em ibin wanem kain man, tasol inogat narapela olsem em istap nau – nogat tru.

By hook or by crook he took PNG writing out of absolute obscurity and thrust it warts and all into the public arena, at a time when it was about time and in a way that was his own way.

Emi tromoi huk na mekim hait wok long kamautim PNG raitim long ples tutak, sua istap wantaim, igo long pablik ples, long dispela taim bilong en long kamap na long wei em iet isave laikim long en.

Today we can look back at the many different achievements of Beier and assess his methods and means with the knowledge and wisdom gained from our high seats, raised above the dirt and sweat of those tasks executed during that historic period.

Mipela istap nau tete iken lukluk long ol wanwan hanmak Beier ibin putim na skelim ol pasin em ibin mekim wantaim sampela kain save yumi igatim antap long sia king, em yumi sindaun long ples we inogatim doti na tuhat bilong dispela wok long taim bipo.

Such reviews may be useful if they have meaningful purpose, in much the same manner as Beier’s efforts were. And we may even do a much better job than he did, when gifted with the supreme intelligence of hindsight.

Ating dispela lukluk igo bek ken igatim gutpela as na kaikai bilong en, wankain olsem wokmak bilong Beier iet. Na ating yumi iken mekim wok ikamap moa beta long em, bilong wanem yumi igat bikpela save long ol samting ikamap pinis.

The question for Phil and Keith in 2010 was then, “Are Papua New Guinean’s still writing?”

Askim bilong Phil na Keith long 2010 emi olsem, “Ol Papua Niuginian’s raitim iet o nogat?”

I don’t think those were their only questions but it might have been or at least it would appear in hindsight that all three men were seeking and waiting, then opening up the avenues for PNG writing to be (re-)discovered, with the fervent hope that the answer was affirmative.

Mi noken save sapos dispela askim tasol em istap long tingting bilong ol o nogat tasol long lukluk igo bek gen emi olsem ol tripela man ia ibin painim na weitim, na bihain opim ol kain rot bilong PNG raiting iken igatim luksave gen, na ol igatim bikpela laikim olsem dispela bekim bai olsem yesa.

And, of course, the evidence in those days was pretty thin on the ground, so like the good ol’ kiaps of yesteryear, Phil and Keith put their backs and their bucks to the task of unearthing the buried treasure.

Na, em i kilia olsem long dispela taim inogat liklik mak long giraun, em nau Phil na Keith mekim wankain olsem ol kiap bilong taim bipo, ol i putim bun baksait na moni igolong dispela wok bilong kamautim gol long giraun.

(Ah, the proud arrogance of white men knows no bounds. Huh!)

(Oh, biket kusai bilong ol wait man inogat pinis. E!)

So, some years have passed since we laid the Crocodile to rest in deep waters. That’s exactly what happened historically during the early 1970’s and 1980’s when a few writers reignited the flames for writing those stories, poems, drama and novels of our own, then later the flames died out.

Orait, sampela yia igo pinis long mipela ibin lusim Pukpuk igo silip idai long bikpela wara. Emi wankain olsem bipo long 1970’s na 1980’s taim ol wanwan raita man-meri ikirapim paia gen long raitim ol stori, tok-singsing, pilai-stori na buk-novel bilong yumi iet, na bihain gen paia igo daun isisi na idai.

In 2020, before starting our championing of contemporary PNG literature at Ples Singsing, my three colleagues and I were asking similar questions ourselves. We created Ples Singsing Blog six years after The Crocodile Prize ended but, were our colleagues still writing?

Long 2020, bipo long kirapim wok sambai long PNG litiritia bilong yumi naunau long Ples Singsing, mi wantaim ol tripela wanwok bilong mi mas igatim wankain askim long mipela iet. Mitripela i kamapim Ples Singsing Blog long sikspela yia bihain long Crocodile Prize emi pinis tasol, ol wanwok i raitim iet o?

Our recent experience seems to be in-line with the historical descriptions made by Professor Steven Winduo for the phases of PNG literary movements and it would be interesting to learn how our period will be defined.

Wokabaut bilong mipela ikamap wankain olsem long bipo-taim we Professa Steven Winduo i makim ol kirap na pundaun bilong PNG litireri wokabout, na ating bai yumi laik lainim wanem kain mak dispela taim bilong yum iet igatim.

So, our literary advances pass in waves, albeit short amplitude, high frequency waves, but waves nonetheless, just as it does with the rest of the world. In between there’s a trough in continuity.

Em nau, litireri wok bilong yumi iluk olsem solap bilong solwara, emi sotpela, ikam klostuklostu, tasol em igatim maunten bilong em tu, wankain olsem long olgeta ples giraun. Namel taim wok igo daun.

There is a signal. Papua New Guineans do write. And that goes without saying it right here.

Igatim signol. Yumi Papua Niugini save raitim. Na inogat as bilong toksave long hia.

It was obvious, at least to me, that after all of Phil and Keith’s hard-won battles for encouraging Papua New Guineans to take up the cause of our own national literature, we ourselves have far less inclination to do so – sure we’re writing, but we can’t be bothered to do too much about it.

Emi bin kilia tumas, ating long mi iet, olsem bihain long olgeta hatwok pait bilong Phil na Keith, long halavim ol Papua Niugini long sanap long nem bilong nesenol litiritia bilong yumi iet, mipela gen inogatim gutpela bel tingting long mekim – itru yumi raitim tasol sikin iles long surukim wok moa iet.

That’s a parallel outcome to what happened at the end of Ulli’s era, except now the failing on our part happened again with less of the controversy, Phil and Keith being such fine and proper gentlemen.

Emi wankain olsem ibin kamap long taim bilong Ulli, em nau dispela pundaun bilong yumi iet emi kamap gen, tasol nogat ol kainkain paul stori bilong en, bilong wanem Phil na Keith ol i gutpela man igatim naispela pasin tasol.

The one common element appears to be us Papua New Guineans, so it’s more than likely that we have no one else to blame for the parlous state of our national literature.

Em yumi iet ol Papua Niugini istap namel long ol dispela asua bilong pundaun, olsem na ating inogat narapela lain bilong yumi sutim pinga long ol i bagarapim kamap bilong nesenol literatia bilong yumi.

Two branches which have been burning on strongly are drama and poetry, because they have more cultural relevance as oral literature. These two creative art forms tend to be open to interpretation by the authors/actors and require or receive almost no editing. However, I don’t think that is an entirely appropriate approach to advancing their development, especially for a national audience to celebrate.

Tupela han diwai tasol i lait istap strong true em pilai-stori (drama) na tok-singsing (poetry), bilong wanem ol dispela istap insait long kalsa bilong yumi pinis olsem orol litiritia. Long dispela tupela hanmak bilong art ol lain husait i wok long en igat fridom long tromoi save na laik bilong ol iet igo insait long mekim ikamap no inogatim wok long stretim. Tasol, mi iet ting olsem dispela em ino halavim yumi tumas long putim wok igo het we bai soim mak tru, na tu long yumi hamamas olsem emi nesenol samting.

I have been doing my fair bit to promote more PNG poems to be written with translations into our vernacular languages. It is hoped that a colleague at University of Goroka will soon share her thoughts on the state of local theatre and drama production.

Mi iet mekim liklik wokmak bilong mi long putim tok-singsing igo pas we istap long ol tokpisin na tokples bilong yumi iet. Ating bai yumi kisim belgut taim wanpela wanwok long Yunivesiti bilong Goroka emi raitim ol tingting bilong em long wanem mak bilong lokol tieta na drama prodaksen.

Nevertheless, at this time Papua New Guineans have many more books which contribute to an increasing quantity and quality of national literature. Their availability to readers is a separate issue.

Tasol naunau, long dispela taim, yumi Papua Niugini igat planti moa buk we i kamapim nesenol litiritia bilong yumi igomoa moa iet. Asua istap iet olsem emi hat long ol buk long kam long han bilong ol rida.

Many of these PNG authored books arose as a direct result of the Crocodile Prize and others were indirectly inspired and challenged to publish manuscripts, some of which were gathering dust on long forgotten bookshelves.

Planti bilong ol dispela buk ibin kamaut olsem wokmak bilong Crocodile Prize na ol arapela long ol lain husait i lukluk tingting na bihainim wok blong pablisim, ol kain pepa we sindaun longpela taim na das i karamapim antap long bukself ol i lus tingting long en.

No one has done the numbers yet but it seems to me that the output inspired by the 2010’s Crocodile Prize era may almost rival that from the early 1970’s. In those days, despite the institutional support and assistance for writing organisations, Ulli’s disciples and latter-day followers were unable to maintain the fervour and flame of writing and publishing.

Inogat wanpela man i kauntim namba tasol mi ting olsem wokmak bilong Crocodile Prize emi klostu wankain olsem wokmak bilong 1970’s. Long bipo taim ol institute ibin putim halavim igo long ol raita ogenisesen, tasol ol disaipel bilong Ulli na ol husait i bihainim ino bin holim pasim dispela bel sikirap na paia lait bilong raitim na pablisim.

These days there is no institutional support whatsoever. And yet local efforts and enterprises have evolved for publishing PNG writing. Core elements of publishing which need better trained capacity and experience are proof reading, editing and review. These are still severely lacking in PNG.

Nau tete inogat wanpela institute i sapotim, nogat tru. Tasol igat lokol wok ikamap na liklik bisinis ikirap long pablisim wok mipela PNG i raitim. Sampela bun-baksait bilong wok pablisim em long kisim skul na save long wok bilong ridim gut ol wok (pruf-ridim), mak-makim (o editim) na luksave long ol kainkain wokmak (em revuim). Ol dispela yumi inogatim long PNG.

Our literary godfather Ulli Beier was a great editor of PNG work and that seems to have gotten him into a lot of trouble with his peers, past and present (strewth!).

Em litereri godpapa bilong yumi, Ulli Beier, igat bikpela save long editim ol PNG wok na dispela pasin emi putim em insait long trabol wantaim ol wanlain bilong em, long bipo taim na long nau tete (olomania!).

I can relate to the trials, tribulations and temptations of proof reading, editing and review, since I do this on a daily basis at work, and then in my obsessive pastime as a writer. Editing is not easy for either the author or the editor. Nuff sed.

Mi iet isave long hatwok, bikpela hevi na ol kain traim iken kamap long taim bilong pruf-ridim wok, editim na revuim wokmak bilong ol narapela raita long olgeta dei bilong wanem emi wokmoni blong mi iet na tu emi wok we mi iet isave sikirap long mekim long en olsem wanpela raita. Editim wok bilong narapela em ino isipela samting long edita na raita wantaim.

So, another commonality with the era of PNG’s literary growth spurts is the challenges associated with preparing manuscripts for publication and subsequent distribution. That was the least of Ulli’s troubles since he used his considerable profile and personality to PNG writer’s benefit. (That sounds like a certain former PR specialist whom I know.)

Em nau, narapela samting istap wankain long taim bipo na long nau insait long wokabaut bilong PNG litiritia em ol kain hevi bilong stretim na stretim ol buk-pepa long pablisim na salim igo aut. Dispela emi liklik hevi tasol long Ulli husait isave putim biknem na pasin bilong em iet long kamapim ol PNG raita. (Ating dispela i wankain pasin bilong wanpela forma PR saveman mi save long em.)

Today it would be entirely appropriate to respond to Prime Minister James Marape’s statement that he will “help PNG writers to write” by saying that what PNG writers’ really need is the facilitation of better editing, proof reading and publication processes and the fostering of a small print on-demand industry to supply the local market, which is yet to be explored. The terms public private partnership and small-to-medium enterprise come to mind.

Tete em bai strepela pasin long bekim toktok Prime Minister James Marape ibin mekim olsem em bai “helpim ol PNG raita long raitim”, wantaim toksave olsem mipela ol PNG raita nidim tru halavim long dispela editim na pruf-ridim wok na pablisim, na igo moa, long kirapim liklik bisinis bilong printim-long-oda bilong saplaim lokol maket, we inogatim luksave long en ikamap. Ol kain nek olsem pablik praivet patnasip na small-to-medium entaprais ikam long tingting bilong mi.

The embers are still burning in the fireplace of PNG literature. Ples Singsing is one such place where such a fire is nurtured. There are other places too, such as Hibiscus Three, Poetry PNG and the stalwart writer’s societies in Simbu as well as in Enga, the cultural elder brother of Hela, Hon. Marape’s homeland.

Ol sid bilong paia istap iet long paiaples bilong PNG litiritia. Ples Singsing emi wanpela hap bilong lukautim dispela paia. Igat ol narapela hap ples tu istap, olsem Hibiscus Three, Poetry PNG na ol strongpela lain bilong raita sosaiti long Simbu na tu long Enga, em ol bikpela brata insait long stori tumbuna bilong Hela, as ples bilong Hon. James Marape.

At this juncture of our nation’s history asking if Papua New Guineans write or still write is the wrong question. Rather we should ask ourselves how are we going to embrace, value and improve what we are writing, and how are we going to make our stories available to future Papua New Guineans.

Long dispela mak long nesenol histori dispela askim sapos Papua Niuginian’s isave rait emi rong askim. Moa beta yumi iet askim olsem, inap bai yumi holim pasim, litimapim na strongim ol dispela wokmak yumi raitim, na putim dispela ol stori bilong yumi istap bilong ol Papua Niuginians bai ikam bihain bihain.

The right answer will be the legacy of a creative entity, the diverse peoples of a truly independent state.

Gutpela bekim blong dispela askim em bai kamap bikpela mak bilong soim yumi husait, yumi ol kainkain man-meri blong trupela independen state.

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.

4 thoughts on “Asking if Papua New Guineans write is the wrong question

  1. That layout works very well in setting out a Tok Pisin text with an English translation Michael.
    With respect to Ulli Beier’s effort at encouraging PNG literature, I think that his biggest problem was working within the small pool of UPNG. He had a captive band of potential writers among his students but no real reach out into the general public where a great literary source existed.
    In contrast, I think that Keith and I tapped into that larger resource and that helped in our success. It’s always been a point of regret for me that we couldn’t bring the academic and the common together in the Crocodile Prize endeavour.
    Where we ultimately failed in establishing an ongoing movement was down to sheer exhaustion on our part. Running the Crocodile Prize was incredibly time consuming and expensive and turned out to be something we couldn’t maintain for an extended period of time.
    Writing is by its nature a solitary affair carried out by solitary people. Getting a bunch of writers together for any length of time is like hearding cats.
    I guess, at the end of the day, I’m happy to know there are writers out there beavering away no matter what happens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Much appreciated Phil.

      I think Beier worked within a small group of writers that he could be directly responsible for, understand and interact with personally and build a mutual trust and confidence with, all towards starting something of value.

      Not too different from Ples Singsing founding, where there can only be four Masterminds, the rest of you are Wantok’s & Wanwok’s, or even Wantrabol.

      Thanks for noticing the layout too.

      An interesting part of preparing this article was that I caught myself using the Tok Pisin text to correct the English.

      Michael Dom


  2. Hi Michael – This is a good discussion to have, but you might want to re-frame the question in the interests of furthering the discussion. I wonder if the question shouldn’t be “Are Papua Niuginians Telling Stories?” That opens the question up to all the forms of media available to writers. Since traditional publishing in PNG right now is dodgy, and editing hard to find, PNG story tellers need to look at what is available to them, not what is unavailable. Once you start to build capacity in one area, opportunities will appear.
    I’ll give you some examples. If we are talking about other former colonies, sub-Saharan African writers often found that after independence, the infrastructure and knowledge (eg. publishers and editors) failed because that capacity was embedded in the colonial system. When the colonizers left, so did the money and expertise. So, some of those writers turned to writing for film, tv or radio; or they turned to live theatre for their plays and to newspapers for poetry.
    Now, I am very aware that PNG writers have been producing drama and writing poetry and “publishing” them in the same way that African writers have. So this is a strength. The question is how that creative strength can be married to existing supportive services and technologies. It may be, for example, that alliances can be forged between writers and universities to start with, or between writers and radio networks. Can university students registered in Communication programs or English programs be given credit for project courses where they edit new fiction? Since the internet is everywhere, can you forge alliances with academics and students across the South Pacific, one person at a time? Can radio networks provide “publishing” through broadcasting? Are there any regional alliances to be made with Christian organizations, which traditionally have all the capability you are in search of and more? True, some of these organizations would not be likely partners, but many would – again it depends on who you approach and what their organizational culture is. Some of the greatest publishing houses in the Near East and sub-Saharan Africa are Christian and they have made their reputations by simply supplying their now-how and technologies to burgeoning literary systems. No religious strings attached.
    In Canada, another former colony, we now have a thriving literary scene in English Canada, but that was only made possible by one radio director in the 1950s and 1960s who argued for a program that featured Canadian writers on our national radio system, the CBC. It is not an overstatement to say that the CBC MADE English Canadian literature. At first, that one man did all the editing himself. Gradually more and more capacity developed within the CBC. Then one publisher, McClelland and Stewart got interested (that is Jack McClelland did). He organized author’s tours, radio interviews, CanLit on the curriculum, etc. Most Canadians living at that time had no idea there WAS anything called Canadian Literature. Today, the CBC runs a contest every year called Canada Reads. Four or five well-known people choose their favourite book and defend it in online debates over five weekly shows. Everyone in the country watches it, posts their comments online, etc. and sales for those books (whether they win or not) go through the roof.
    Since music is such a strong force in PNG, how about a culture hour, where PNG music and PNG story-telling share the airwaves. Developing an audience for literature could piggy-back on the existing audience for music.
    So, developing an audience is a large part of developing a literary system. The different parts of a literary system involve
    1. writing,
    2. publishing (think different media, not just print),
    3. distributing (not just book sales, but library programs, book clubs, “free” online sales – this practice actually sells more books for you),
    4. post-processing (i.e. editing, and criticism, etc.), and
    5. consumption (again, think of online consumption, libraries, book clubs).
    Not all of these parts have to be in-country, or in traditional forms of media. Not all of them have to be the result of one company or government department. I would say, first look at what forms PNG writers are now using to tell their stories. Look at what expertise exists to enable that story-telling. Look at the gaps. Consider how to build friends and allies. Strengthen what you have and then look to see how else you can tell stories.
    Sincerely, Evelyn Ellerman

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your very instructive comments. We are surely on your schedule.

      So, you do agree with the gist of the title.

      And you are right that we should explore different modes and means for storytelling.

      There’s more to come.


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