Of Building Blocks, Library Shelves, and a Country’s Soul

Maebh Long

IN THE WINNING ESSAY of the Tingting Bilong Mi 2020 essay competition, Illeana Dom brings her readers into her old school library. As she walks us past the library shelves, she points out absence: the lack of new works by PNG authors in the non-fiction section, and in the fiction section, the difficulty in finding any works by PNG authors at all, such is the dominance of international writers. This is not, Illeana insists, what the library in a Papua New Guinean school could look like. There are novels, essays and poetry collections by PNG authors that could adorn the selves. With governmental support her old school library could be a PNG school library, one that highlights the achievements of local writers and presents the rich variety of Papua New Guinea’s cultures in engaging, inspiring works. The more local books that are read, the more local books are likely to be written, and instead of endlessly scrolling on social media or forlornly traipsing through uninspiring library shelves, Papua New Guineans could be accessing a body of literature that engenders pride in national accomplishments.

But as libraries currently stand, their emptiness is such that the competition’s second prize winner, Mathisah Turi, finds herself silent when she tries to name a Papua New Guinean author. To counter this silence she writes with passion about the power of imagination and the need to stimulate it, and her piece calls for governmental support for stories featuring the languages and peoples of her home nation. For her, these books would not rest on library shelves, but become building blocks enabling the country to enrich the nation in its own ways and on its own terms. These blocks would become props to local languages, seawalls preventing steady erosion from waves of English. And they could fill the hands of a generation too used to grabbing blockish smartphones. 

For Issabelle Vilau, whose essay won third prize, Illeana’s libraries and Mathisah’s building blocks are transfigured into the core of the nation. By telling the stories of a thousand generations in nearly as many languages, local literature can unite the different communities and cultures across Papua New Guinea. Local literature is not simply the heart or the brain of a country: for Issabelle, it is a country’s soul. It is a nation’s interior monologue, its critic, its conscience. Without it, the nation is simply a body, moving and resting and changing, but without a deep sense of self. Without it, the different parts of the national body will never feel as one.

Vilousa Hahembe, who wrote the most popular essay on the blog, reminds us that local stories and poems – the building blocks for libraries that will form a nation’s soul – not only motivate and unite, but serve the important function of opening readers’ eyes to the specific social issues of Papua New Guinea. By engaging with local challenges and community worries, readers will learn to think critically about social problems and recognise the work that needs to be done. A literature written by PNG authors for PNG readers will celebrate and preserve, but it will also confront, head-on and with in-depth knowledge, the challenges ahead, so the public can strive to change the country for the better.   

These four writers, brilliant female essayists all, express themselves with insight and urgency. Their metaphors enliven their essays and their references to other writers and thinkers weave their arguments into important national conversations. Together they dismiss anxieties about the local pool of talent: these four young women show that with the right support, a substantial body of contemporary PNG literature can be made accessible to a new generation of readers.

There are, of course, Papua New Guinean books that could already be placed on library shelves. Not only books from writers producing material and in need of support today, but books from earlier bursts of literary activity. These books, which should be centre stage in libraries, and their authors, whose names should come easily to the tongues of Papua New Guinean readers, could provide a firm foundation for shelves and blocks and souls.

There is a range of wonderful material from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, with literary journals, the Papua Pocket Poets series, poetry collections and novels published by UPNG students and graduates. The University of Papua New Guinea was not the only institution that sought to facilitate decolonisation and national identity through writing, art and drama, however. From 1968 Glyn Davis, at Goroka Teachers College (GTC), edited four typescript volumes of a series he called New New Guinea Writing. The Summer Institute of Linguistics had been printing collections of oral literature since the late 1960s. From 1969 the Kristen Pres published hundreds of small, inexpensive volumes which were a mixture of Christian reading material and folklore, and for three years ran literary contests. Glen Bays ran creative writing workshops at the Creative Training Centre from 1970, and he published the work produced there in booklets and in the Nobonob Nius. He also founded the Christian Writers Association of Melanesia (CWAMEL), which from 1972 had its own magazine, Precept. In 1968 the Administration founded a Papua New Guinean Literature Bureau. The Bureau established Papua New Guinea Writing in 1970 and took over the national literature competitions Roger Boschman had started in 1968. These popular literature competitions were joined by the Waigani Writing Competition in 1969, the Kristen Pres competitions from 1970 to 1973, literary sections in the Port Moresby Eistedfodd in 1970, and, less competitively, a Writers’ Day from 1972.

I do not note this array of material to emphasise loss or lament the disregard of works that should populate library shelves. Rather, I give this space to one period in PNG’s literary history to stress that the writers of the Tingting Bilong Mi essay competition are part of a vibrant tradition that over long generations has been expressed orally and in writing, that has taken form in hundreds of local languages, that has waxed and waned and changed, but with support can fill library shelves with works new and old. There are so many blocks ready to be used.

The re-flourishing of contemporary writing, a regrowth that needs to occur every generation, could take many forms and spring from unexpected sources. Perhaps, given that the essay writers expressed concern about phones and online writing styles, this blossoming could draw productively on the language of social media. Casual, vernacular language use can be clever and witty and fresh and can enable readers to see the potential in everyday speech. To take an example from the 1960s and ‘70s once more, before the University of Papua New Guinea was founded, a Commission on Higher Education in Papua and New Guinea was established to consider what form a Papua New Guinean university should take. Among the recommendations in the Commission’s report were thoughts on the lingua franca of the university. The Report suggested English rather than Tok Pisin, arguing that while Tok Pisin could be ‘Ingenious and at times delightful’, it could not articulate ‘even quite simple abstract concepts with elegance, precision and economy. Efforts to demonstrate its range, say by translating Shakespearean speeches, fall into the category of literary curiosities – entertaining certainly, but as certainly trivial’.[1] Yet, when university students in the 1970s began publishing in the literary journal Kovave, as well as Papua New Guinea Writing, they readily disproved this. Rabbie Namaliu, for example, had two plays in Tok Pisin performed to much acclaim, and these were published in Kovave: The Good Woman of Konedobu (1970) and Maski Kaunsil (1968, pub. Kovave 1975). Similarly, John Kasaipwalova’s ‘The Magistrate and my Grandfather’s Testicles’ (1972) presents excellent, humorous use of slang and non-standard English, as does his award-winning short story, ‘Betel Nut is Bad Magic for Aeroplanes (1971). I am not claiming that the language of social media is the same as Tok Pisin, of course, but I suggest that language hierarchies which present certain modes of communication as fundamentally more literary than others can prevent us from seeing their potential. The writers of the Report were wrong when they said that Tok Pisin could only produce trivial curiosities. Let us see what the inventive use of other languages and other modes of speech in Papua New Guinea can do today.

There are so many wonderful works from Papua New Guinea that could fill the country’s library shelves, act as building blocks for communities, and form part of the nation’s soul. Given the talent on display in these essays, there are so many more works that are ready to come. As these young women remind us, and we hope the right people are listening, they just need the right support.


[1] Report of the Commission on Higher Education in Papua and New Guinea (Canberra: The Commission, 1964), p. 5

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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