Nenge – small publisher with big prospects

11 December 2020
Mike Jelliffe on the Aramia River near Balimo, 2018


NOOSA – Nenge Books is a small Australian business based in Coramba near Coffs Harbour, NSW, which publishes independent authors and is the brainchild of a man with strong roots in Papua New Guinea.

The company was established by author Mike Jelliffe to publish his own writing and has expanded to include other works and provide advice to authors seeking low-cost publishing.

“I am always willing to consider publishing any Papua New Guinean authors who are looking for a publishing opportunity,” Mike told me. Authors can email Michael here.

Flying pastors with MAF in the highlands, 2015

Mike arrived in PNG from Australia in 1971 and spent most of his working life there, mainly in aviation as a pilot, manager and trainer. You can read more about him at the end of this article.

He and his wife Kathy raised their three children in PNG and lived and worked in many regional areas – Oro, Western, Sandaun, East Sepik, Southern and Western Highlands, Simbu and Morobe – as well as Port Moresby

Handing over books to church representatives in Port Moresby

A number of Nenge publications are PNG-related and include autobiographies, general interest books and literacy primers. Two new PNG books are summarised below.

Mike says he’s “been grinding away at a sequel to The People of the Bird” and is also midway through editing Pombereol, written by a nurse in Mendi who narrates stories told by her grandfather of life around Mendi before first contact with the outside world.

The People of the Bird is available as a free PDF for Papua New Guineans, who can request it by emailing Mike here.


The Treasury of Teapu: Discovering the real gold in Bougainville by Ray Grindley, ISBN 978-0-6488206-1-1, Nenge Books, November 2020, 366 pages, paperback, includes many photos and pictures. Discounted at AU$30 + postage for PNG orders. Available early in the new year from the publisher at

1969 was a turning point in Australian Accountant Ray Grindley’s life. As a Christian volunteer working with the United Church in Bougainville he meticulously recorded details about the life and culture of the people of Teapu in northern Bougainville.

Now 50 years later, he has combined the stories, along with his own experiences, into one work. There’s a lot in this book: traditional stories, conversations, events in travelling, history, kinship systems, initiation ceremonies, archaeology, spiritual beliefs, mission work and more.

The book is supported by many photographs, making it a valuable record of Bougainville village life at that time. What makes it more valuable is that much of information was lost to the people during the 10 year civil war of the 1990s, when an estimated 20,000 people died.

Each chapter takes the reader on a personal journey with Ray, who arrived in a state of despondency following the death of his girlfriend and left a year later transformed having discovered what he calls the real gold of Bougainville – the love and acceptance of a people previously unknown to him. It’s an inspirational read.

Dekeleba – the Lake Bird by Sarah Kende, ISBN 9780648428480, Nenge Books, 2020, 34 pages, paperback with photos. AU$12.00 + postage for PNG orders. Available immediately from the publisher at

This is a short story of the life of Pastor Kitapateke, who was one of the first converts to Christianity in the Erave-Samberigi-Polupa area of the Southern Highlands. It focuses on his early life and parental influences, his participation in Dobu trading patrols as a messenger and translator, his marriage before conversion in 1961 and his training and pastoral ministry in remote areas east of Erave.

Mike Jelliffe


From 1971, Mike had  a continuing involvement in PNG aviation for 42 years as a pilot and flight instructor and later as a manager in Talair, Macair and general manager of the Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF).

In addition to his aviation qualifications, Mike has an MA in Intercultural Studies and spent 1987-1991 as a missionary and trainer in the Evangelical Church of PNG and he continues to conduct training for rural pastors in particularly in Western and Southern Highlands provinces and Port Moresby.

Training pastors at Dewara in Western Province,  2018

“Many of these people have known me since my early days flying there. Training and facilitating others to achieve their potential is at the core of who I am and hence the focus on training.”

Mike understands that Nenge Books has a role that extends beyond book publishing.

“I believe the most effective role in training and empowering others is through the written word.

“I hope I can be of assistance including training for PNG friends wanting to publish.”

Libraries can provide new lakatois to sail


A modern day lakatoi on a staged cruise for the Hiri Moale festival held annually in Port Moresby

Henry Ipoki is a mature age student at Sacred Heart Secondary School in Tapini. Last year Henry was one of the first entrants for the Ples Singsing Tingting Bilong Mi Essay competition. His essay was hand-written, faxed to someone in Port Moresby who then took pictures and emailed us the JPEG images of the entry form and the essay.

Henry demonstrated good resourcefulness so although the essay did not fit into the word-length criteria, the judges were still provided with his essay to assess its merits along with all the others.

While Henry’s essay was not placed within the winning entries, in his work he had thought through the topic well enough to offer us some wisdom which is worth reflecting upon. And that’s always a good endpoint for written work.

The essay begins by recounting a fascinating old legend about the origin of the lakatoi built by the people of Boera. Henry uses this story to draw a parallel between the first person who learned from ‘a mysterious spirit source’ how to build a lakatoi and his experience, and the expectation, when using a library.

In the oral tradition the receipt or access to special knowledge is a powerful and trans-formative experience, and in many cases such knowledge can only be attributed to mysterious forces.

In the legend, when the young Boera man returns to his village after being instructed by the spirit, he gathers the rest of the men together in a meeting place and teaches them his new knowledge. The next day all the trained men then put their efforts and resources into building the first ever lakatoi.

The lakatoi became the sailing vessel by which an important barter system – the Hiri trade – was started along the Gulf of Papua. This trade route allowed the exchange of goods, skills and information between different people, bonding relationships and even intermarriage of families.

Henry compares this with the modern-day experience where he should be able to go to a library to select the books available land read in them the information he needs, and thereby use such knowledge to help himself and his family. Today’s ‘spirit source’ may be the internet.

This is a profound message and the manner by which it is presented in the essay seems in keeping with the traditional way of imparting knowledge through story-telling and comparison.

The metaphor I derive from Henry’s essay is of a library leading to the building of a new lakatoi with which our people may sail new horizons for material benefits as well as growing social relations and improving our knowledge of the world.

Bereva momokani (Truth).

Henry Ipoki’s short but meaningful essay is presented here with light editing. His message had made a worthy voyage with a good effort to achieve its goal. Read it.

PNG Government should buy PNG Authored Books – An essay by Henry Ipoki

A friend of Ples Singsing Blog, who is also a published PNG author, helped to type out the essay for judging

In our country, there are different books written in different forms or genre such as narrative, poetry, legends and many more.

If you want to know the history of other people how their ancestors came about or the activities that they used to do in the past, then the easiest way is to go to the library or suitable place where you can be able to find some of those books that are written by our PNG writers or authors and from there you can have access to what you are looking for.

For example, I am from Central Province so if I want to know about how my ancestors came up with the idea of building the Lakatoi boat in Boera village, I will read the legend about that.

First of all, I would go to the place where I think I can get that history book and read through. After that I would ask my parents, bubus and elder brothers and sisters and then start doing an investigation and find out about the true story which goes something like this.

In Boera village, since men decided to go fishing in the sea. Along their fishing trip the masalai (spirit) took one of them into the ocean and was teaching him the skill of building a Lakatoi. When the masalai sent him back to the village, he called a meeting and shared the skills that he received from the masalai with the other village men.

The next day, they tried out their new skills to see if it could work and they made the first Lakatoi boat.

When completed, they were very happy because it will help them transport their goods to the neighboring village or place like Gulf and other villages along the coast of Central Province to trade, a system we now called barter.

During this trading, they got used to the system and know how to interact with each other, share their skills or ideas and exchange the goods for their survival.

So simply I will say that this was an example of today’s life situation that we are experiencing which helps in our understanding and development.

So, I wish that PNG Government should buy PNG authored books.

In our country of course some of our cultures and lifestyles are same but a bit different. We can’t understand and know cultures and traditions in our own country if PNG Government buys reading books and other text books from other countries.

The proper and appropriate way is we have to get deep into knowing our cultures and traditions and also backgrounds and lifestyles. After, we can probably buy readers and text books from other countries and trying to learn their lifestyles or tradition.

By doing this, we can be able to develop our skills and knowledge so that we can do something good and better for us and for the generations to come. In that way you will see the different systems like political system, leadership system or trading system will balance and function well and people will be satisfied with they are doing.  

Therefore, PNG Government must buy PNG Authored Books and supply them to the schools throughout the nation. From there we can be able to help each other in one way and the other to bring services into our nation and achieve good results.

On the other hand, government officials must do the same by reading those books and figure out some ideas and ways to help their people. Because it is the best way which will open up our minds, eyes and ears to bring light into the darkness or areas we are not sure about.

Secondly, our PNG writers are always providing good help and skilful books forms. Inside those books, they express many good stories under different forms of writing that we would get ideas from like example mentioned above. The reason why they are doing this is because they know that it is the educational way which would help young Papua New Guineans to develop their learning capacity to become good future leaders of our country.

In some of the magazines and newspapers you’ll find out that most of the people writing or expressing their life stories from the beginning since childhood and how they had been facing difficulties and experience tough situation on their journey towards achieving their goals. And then from there next generation will learn from them and to become good future leaders who will raise the economy and bring our country out to the sunlight like the other overseas countries.

To conclude, PNG Government should buy PNG authored books if they want good ways to build our country. They must make use of whatever resources that we have instead of buying things from outside countries. Because when they buy things especially books from overseas, they spend a lot of Kina which is supposed to be used for other activities within our own country. There are a lot of things to be done and we still yet to be developed so our own books can help us succeed.

I strongly encourage PNG Government to buy PNG authored books to make use of them. I believe that this will bear fruit one fine day.  And on that same note, I thank PNG writers or authors for their effort. God will help them to continue with their work.

PNG Government must go back to their respective provinces, districts and wards and learn from the traditional government and balance the modern and the traditional government lifestyles in order to develop our country with harmony, peace and love as a Christian country.

The Tingting BIlong Mi Essay Competition was launched on December 2020 with the aim of gaining the critical opinions of young Papua Niuginians about the topic asking “Why the PNG government should/should not buy PNG authored books”. The essay responses were a resounding “Yes, they should”. Ples Singsing Blog is preparing a book publication of the 24 collected essays.

For more information email


By Lorna Saguba

‘Bride Price’
Is your WORD, your DEFINITION!
Not our Language,
Your perception,
Instilled in our people,
Twisted our reactions,
 Sold as our TRUTH,
And yet, ‘Bride price’ is not our Word, 
our Language.
About UN-CHERISHED lives.
Your Perception. 
Our Language,
Our perception,
In realizing GAIN and recognizing VALUE,
With cheerful reactions,
Stands as our TRUTH,
Wives’ lives not about price tags,
Our Language,
About CHERISHED lives,
Our perception. 

© Lorna Saguba 2021

How to avoid leaving behind PNG’s 85%

19 July 2021
“We need to start thinking like the communities think. They do not perceive a conflict between their input and the delivery of essential services”


“People build their nation and transform their society by being active creators, observers and participants inside it” – Michael Dom, Put politics last: Let’s stop reversing evolution, 17 July 2021

CAIRNS – That is a statement to agree with.

If we look at most cities and towns in Papua New Guinea, I believe we see ample evidence of participation within the boundaries of a particular vision of nation building.

Down the road is a community school, and the teachers exchange in pleasantries with parents at the supermarket on weekends.

Across town at the district hospital, mums with fractious babies wait in line outside Outpatients and a boy with a broken leg arrives on the back of his uncle’s ute to have it X-rayed and attended to.

Within some limits, nation building is alive and well here.

But my attention is captured by those who do not participate in this reality; the seven million or so people who look out upon a mountain vista and note the mist rising from the valley in the morning.

Or who wake to the lapping of water on some shoreline, a hundred kilometres by foot or dinghy from the nearest township.

These are the people described by Michael as subsistence farmers or hunter gathers in settings where resources are communally shared and political power gained and maintained by an assurance of mutual benefit for all.

I have sat on the shore of a remote bay at Lake Murray, the largest in PNG in the Middle Fly District of Western Province.

I listen to only the sound of birds and the distant laughter of children wafting over the dead calm, tea coloured water.

I wonder what may be their vision for the smart, wise, fair, healthy and happy society premeditated in PNG Vision 5050.

I have posed parts of that question to their elders gathered together in the afternoon shade on common ground.

I have asked for their thoughts on the collapsed classrooms and abandoned aid post which are in plain view.

I am genuinely curious to know if that reality of Vision 2050 is fine with them – or whether it is not.

In over 30 years I have yet to meet a community that said they were happy with those outcomes.

That is when you hear, “We have no government here.”

The unemployed teacher who showed me, his pride tinged with sadness, the last work done by his community’s elementary school children more than half a decade earlier.

The councillor who pointed out the freshly dug resting place of a teenage mother who had died the previous week in childbirth.

In 2006, I conducted a census of rubber block owners in a population of about 12,000 people scattered among a dozen or so communities around Lake Murray.

For the record I took a picture of every block holder standing on his or her block.

Generally they were young, fit individuals who had the energy to clear and plant two hectares of rubber.

Four years later I returned to follow up.

I was shocked by the number of those people who had died.

This time I took pictures of the brother, sister or child who had inherited the block.

In 2013, I took a maternal and child health team into the same area where among other things they surveyed the women and from their accounts estimated a maternal death rate in excess of 1,000 per 100,000 live births.

For comparison it is worth contemplating the World Banks figures for maternal death rates in Fiji (34), Vanuatu (72) or Australia (5).

I believe we are confronted by some stark choices in Papua New Guinea.

Continue along the present pathway defined by the status quo and nothing will change.

Or try something different to facilitate better outcomes for those who call themselves the ‘forgotten people’.

This is the environment where I believe the compact between the government and its people needs serious refocussing.

It is the environment where aid donors must call for proposals that directly address the realities in a sustainable way.

It is the environment where lending institutions need to start their own ‘nation building think tanks’ and consider products that recognise the multifaceted nature of community life: products designed to strengthen more than one sector at a time and link downstream inputs to desired outcomes.

I believe we need to start thinking like the communities think.

They do not perceive a conflict between their input and the delivery of essential services, especially when the alternative is no essential services at all.

They don’t see a conflict, for example, between an effort to increase fishing output may be coupled to improved education services.

I believe there must be a huge focus on tapping into the resourcefulness and energy of those people who wake in the mist of the valley or listening o the waves lapping at the shore.

There needs to be found a means that respects and leverages off the way of life of these people without polluting or destroying their land or water.

That pretty much eliminates extractive industries and big agriculture as partners of choice.

It acknowledges the bedrock importance of traditional land ownership and draws upon the multiple emerging and available technologies to empower women and communities to participate in mini economies linked to the provision of essential services.

This vision requires close consultation with the end users and the provision of the tools, technologies and support they need to enable them to become a major part of the solution.

The solution to problems that have been so long presumed to be the sole preserve of bureaucrats, when in fact, in large measure, they must lie in the hands of the end users.

This is not some pipe dream. There are examples all over the developing world where advances in photo-voltaics has met women’s banana-fibre sanitary pad manufacturing groups.

Where simple robust tools emerging from institutions in Tamil Nadu are transforming the lives of rural Indian communities and where user-friendly point of care diagnostics are preventing the spread of disease in rural settings.

The tools are there and getting better with every year. They just need to be applied in a community-centric, community-empowering way, supported by a vision that acknowledges the dignity and importance of preserving traditional values and people’s way of life on their own land.

I talk to people at community level who agree with this and discuss models that might be appropriate to a given setting.

The challenge is not convincing anyone to have a go.

The challenge is to find a single donor, one bank or one group, that is not paralysed by siloed thinking, blinkered views, stifling protocol, foreign policy objectives or the grand charade of the aid game.

If nation building is to look anything like the much-heralded PNG sustainable development goals, there will need to be a significant adjustment to incorporate the efforts of the 85% of people who are missing out.

Put politics last: Let’s stop reversing evolution

17 July 2021


LAE – How do we return Papua Niugini to a culture of Melanesian cooperation and how can the common people make those in power behave responsibly?

According to the evolutionary perspective, the birthplace of democracy was the tribe. Indeed, tribalism is sometimes referred to as ‘primitive democracy’.

I believe my own attitudes are inspired by democracy and also by independent thinking.

We Papua Niuginians need to learn to think better, and to think independently, because to do so may generate actions that can lead to improving our government.

That perhaps seems counterintuitive, to think independently to improve cooperation.

But I think counterintuitive ideas have an element of novelty that can trigger revised thinking, action and change.

Improving independent thinking is, for me, an important avenue by which improvement in our political system can be achieved.

The process of improving independent thinking is usually left to the education system, which is maintained largely by the government not by the people.

And, as we often find in practice, a good education doesn’t necessarily mean a person has learned anything useful about life.

Certainly education is important, but I think we can agree that there’s more to learning than schooling.

Culture and society also play a major role in shaping the attitudes people have to learning and in learning how to learn.

Education plays its role in nation building by providing the foundational processes and subsequent opportunities which enable people to maximise their contribution to society.

The results of an educational process are delivered within a society and that society forms the matrix through which people are nurtured and their talents expressed.

The actors in nation building need to be well prepared to take up the task.

Society is where rules and regulations, norms and values, morals and beliefs come into play.

Society needs to support nation building and the manner in which it finds unity.

So what unifying values does our society hold which may contribute to nation building?

And by what rules and regulations, and by what acceptable morals and beliefs, do we judge ourselves and our leaders?

This field of inquiry is where culture plays its active role in nation building, since some aspects of a culture may be conducive to positive advance and others may be regressive.

What do we consider to be a useful member of society?

Is the answer to that synonymous with a Member of Parliament?

And should it be?

What is our leadership culture and what does it reflect about our societies’ values?

These seemingly esoteric questions should not be left with academics and intellectuals.

Academics are part of the education system and have a vested interest in its successes and its failings.

How do we work with culture and society?

In my case, the solutions that I can work with directly include participating in national literature and promoting reading and writing skills.

This, for me, is the best least-cost strategy to create a critical mass of independent thinkers.

It cannot be entirely by chance that the vision that underpins PNG’s Vision 2050 and is emblazoned on its cover is, ‘We will be a Smart, Wise, Fair, Healthy and Happy Society by 2050’.

Note the order of those words.

Smart we can work on right away. By thinking independently. By thinking full stop.

Wisdom we can gain by formal education or by reading or through the media or by trial and error.

Fair is simply working for the best for everyone, and not taking unjust advantage of anyone.

Healthy is something that smart can figure out, wisdom secure and fairness distribute.

And if we do all that right, the chances of being genuinely Happy increase significantly.

This is a convoluted way for me to agree with Stephen Charteris that “nation building is a compact between the government and its people. Rather than government, it is actually the people who determine the outcomes”.

But people don’t live their daily lives in politics nor transform their society and ‘participate in nation building’ by merely taking part in politics.

People build their nation and transform their society by being active creators, observers and participants inside it.

That’s a cultural process.

Political pathways do not appear to be productive, in fact, as some commentators regularly tell us that some form of revolutionary action, potentially violent even if suggested otherwise, is required for meaningful political change to occur.

But the order of evolution is society, culture then politics, and we keep reversing it.

It’s the same way foolish people want to achieve happiness before wisdom – sorry, misery comes first because we have to be wise enough to know when the happiness that visits us is the real thing.

Reality doesn’t happen in reverse.

We can achieve political change without having to keep changing the soiled nappies of our politicians.

It would be the smart thing to do, to choose a wise pathway that is fair to people and which offers a healthier social outcome.

Maybe happiness is having less stress with politicians’ nappy mess.

Writing in PNG: Kovave & beyond

13 July 2021


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.

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.

A brief history of PNG literature, Part 2

12 July 2021


Russel Soaba wrote the first Papua New Guinean novel written specifically for his own countrymen

TUMBY BAY – It wasn’t until 1977 that a Papua New Guinean novel appeared that was targeted at Papua New Guinean readers, Russell Soaba’s Wanpis.

Wanpis (Tok Pisin for a person who is lonely or alone, like an orphan) is about identity and displays an angst that is quintessentially Papua New Guinean.

Some 45 years on, that same anguish of 1977 is recognisable in Papua New Guinea writing.

Wanpis stood out because, unlike its predecessors, it was unashamedly aimed at Papua New Guinean readers.

This period of literary flowering in the years around independence was to taper off.

The many departing Australians took their support and buying power with them and, as they got on with their lives, their interest in Papua New Guinea waned.

At the same time, publishers like Jacaranda shifted their attention back to their core markets in Australia.

By 1984 the University of Papua New Guinea’s Literature Department had been reduced to two staff and the national government had lost all interest in supporting literature, a situation that remains unchanged today.

Prithvindra Chakravarti, who had been recruited in 1966 to found the university’s courses in literature and folklore and convene a creative writing workshop, realised his time was over.

In 1986, he resigned from the university disillusioned. The first wave of literature in the new nation had all but foundered.

While many people in PNG maintained an interest in books, and the more stoic writers continued to write, the new political and bureaucratic elite had other things on their minds.

Libraries everywhere, including in schools, began to disappear. In the few places where books were offered for sale, ordinary people couldn’t afford to buy them.

New acquisitions at the university library dried up. The publishing program at UPNG foundered. The UPNG library became an antiquarian booksellers dream, complete with ancient dust.

In 2105-16, the last year for which I could find figures, the PNG Library Service had a budget of K1.3 million and a staff ceiling of 23.

This was for the total government library system in the country including libraries schools and tertiary institutions.

By comparison, the moderate-sized regional council area where I lived in Queensland had six well-stocked libraries for a population of about 200,000, a combined budget of about K6 million and a staff of over 30, not counting volunteers.

The libraries had about 300,000 volumes compared with 100,000 in all of PNG.

Despite the languishing interest in home-grown literature, a few Papua New Guinean writers, including the indefatigable Paulias Matane, persisted in their efforts, but were increasingly forced to fund and sell their own books.

Vanity publishers, especially in India, filled the void left by departing publishers and the quality of editing and production declined.

This period was frustrating for creative PNG’s writers. With few outlets for their work in their own country and little interest in Australia and elsewhere, the promise of those early years had all but evaporated.

At UPNG a small group of Papua New Guinean academics resolutely kept teaching literature. They included Russell Soaba, Dr Regis Stella and Dr Steven Winduo, who published their own works while sustaining in reduced form the embryonic literary tradition.

Soaba and Winduo remain at the university but Stella, who wrote two fine novels, Gutsini Posa (Rough Seas, 1999) and Mata Sara (Crooked Eyes, 2010), died in 2012 just short of his 52nd birthday and days away from the launch of a new book.

Divine Word University in Madang had also begun to teach literature during this period, abandoned the program, then reinstated it in late 2016.

During the barren years from 1986 to 2010, there were several attempts to set up writers’ organisations, mostly within the universities.

A national literature competition was launched but, with lack of support and indifference from the government, had a short life.

By the turn of the century, PNG had largely become a nation without a literary soul. While constantly stating the need for unity and nationalism, successive governments seemed ignorant of the role literature might play in this endeavour.

In the schools, students usually had no access to literature by their authors and poets. Instead, they were fed a diet of overseas writing, much of it inappropriate.

Books with Papua New Guinean themes written by Australian and the other writers who had worked in PNG occasionally trickled into the country.

These often pedestrian memoirs and novels sat alongside works by international writers who seemed to regard PNG as exotic, uncivilised and a worthy setting for a country they had never set foot in and for books that few would read.

Then a faint light appeared on the horizon.

Social media took a long time to take off in PNG and, when it did, coverage was poor and services expensive. It also took Papua New Guineans some time to work out how best to use it.

A couple of blogs appeared including Emmanuel Narokobi’s Masalai Blog that recognised the internet’s potential for serious content and debate. But generally the early efforts were superficial, short-lived and had few readers.

In 2007 Irish company Digicel set up shop in PNG with an ambitious program of building mobile phone towers throughout the country.

In my travels to remote areas, I was often pleasantly surprised that I could obtain mobile phone coverage, even if it entailed climbing a nearby hill.

Even though data charges were high, by 2010 it seemed that just about everyone had a mobile phone.

While the quality of the blogs improved, none was especially useful for creative writers. By far the most successful blog in terms of creative writing and reach was Australian-based Keith Jackson’s PNG Attitude.

This began life in 2006 as a point of contact for Australians who had worked in Papua New Guinea. Keith had been a teacher and broadcaster and the blog was mostly read by Australians who had worked in these fields.

By 2010, PNG Attitude had changed its focus, broadened its appeal and attracted a wider audience, including many Papua New Guineans.

Keith encouraged contributions from PNG and gradually short articles, essays and poetry began to emerge. It was soon apparent that many writers saw the blog as a useful outlet for their work.

In 2010 I contributed an article to PNG Attitude outlining the parlous state of literature in PNG and suggested to Keith that we might devise a writing competition for Papua New Guineans.

Keith was enthusiastic and very quickly The Crocodile Prize emerged, its name acknowledging of Vincent Eri’s pioneering novel.

The first contest was announced in late 2010 and concluded on Independence Day in September 2011. We had also decided to preserve the best writing in an anthology which was published in each of the competition.

In the beginning, the anthology was printed by Papua New Guinean company, Birdwing Publishing, which printed its books in China or India. This was expensive and, given we distributed the books free of charge in PNG from donated funds, the print run was restricted to a few hundred.

Our quest to find a less costly means of publishing coincided with the emergence of CreateSpace (now Kindle Direct Publishing), a US-based digital, print-on-demand system which is a subsidiary of Amazon.

This fitted our purpose well and, after 2012, the anthologies were produced this way. We were now able to distribute up to 1,500 copies to PNG schools and the few libraries that had survived.

Along the way we created Pukpuk Publications (pukpuk is the Tok Pisin word for crocodile). During its six-year life, Pukpuk published about 50 books by Papua New Guinean writers, including novels, poetry, essay collections and a range of other works.

Through The Crocodile Prize, which found a large group of enthusiastic sponsors, many talented novelists, short story writers, poets and essayists emerged. It was a fascinating and rewarding process.

The first of many writers to ignite a spark of extraordinary delight in Keith and me was blogger Martyn Namorong in 2011. He bombarded us with incendiary essays on PNG politics and society that quickly put paid to any paternalistic feeling we may have harboured about what we were doing.

The exemplary poet Michael Dom, joined later by many others including the gifted Wardley Barry, demonstrated an impressive mastery of the form in all its iterations.

Supporting these substantial prodigies was a swag of emerging poets who demonstrated what we soon realised was a natural cultural connection between traditional Papua New Guinean oral literature and song and a more modern poetry.

There were also some stunning memoirs and novels. The productive Bougainvillean writer Leonard Roka stunned us with his raw and uncompromising account of growing up during the Bougainville civil war of the 1990s.

The trauma of the cold-blooded execution of his father by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army drove Leonard’s writing and this tragic event was to form the centrepiece of his award-winning book, Brokenville.

Of his own volition, Baka Bina published his novel, Man of Calibre, using CreateSpace. It was a compelling account of two torrid days during a family dispute in an Eastern Highlands village.

In his novel, Sibona, Emmanuel Peni created a splendid account of the life of an unwanted teenager growing up in Port Moresby.

These works followed the ‘written here, for here’ convention of Russell Soaba’s Wanpis and were clearly definable as Papua New Guinean literature.

In a country with severely limited publishing opportunities, these successes proved that digital publishing and print-on-demand were a viable alternative to high priced and poor quality vanity publishing.

Editing Papua New Guinean writers can be complex because it deals with writers whose first language is usually not English. The main pitfall is that the unique flavour of Papua New Guinean expression and creativity can be subdued in the process.

Another concerning factor was that by publishing Papua New Guinean writers from an Australian base we were repeating the mentorship of UPNG’s Ulli Beier and Jacaranda’s Brian Clouston in the 1970s.

That always had the prospect of not being sustainable and, as Keith and I aged and had to limit our labours, so the curtain closed on The Crocodile Prize and Pukpuk Publications.

There was no easy solution to the problem of institutionalising a home-grown literature within Papua New Guinea.

The PNG government is largely oblivious to the benefits of a national literary culture, perhaps not believing that a free and flourishing native literature is politically desirable.

In 2020, despite concerted efforts and a positive reception, prime minister James Marape failed twice to honour agreements to meet a small delegation of Papua New Guinean authors who wanted to present him with a petition signed by more than 300 writers calling for government assistance.

The Crocodile Prize passed to Papua New Guinean management and, despite a successful hosting of the annual awards by the Simbu Writer’s Association in Kundiawa, the competition faltered and was discontinued in 2018.

In its place however a number of smaller Papua New Guinean competitions emerged, including one under the stewardship of Ples Singsing, managed by writers who were influential during the years of The Crocodile Prize.

Ples Singsing publishes Papua New Guinean writers on its website and is supported by both The National and the Post Courier newspapers. In Australia PNG Attitude continues to publish work by Papua New Guinean writers.

Writer’s associations may be where the future of Papua New Guinean creative writing rests but they have been slow to develop and, where they do, short lived.

Pukpuk Publications was wound down but some similar enterprises based in PNG have emerged.

Meanwhile, Papua New Guinea’s literary culture struggles as it mostly has over the last 60 years.

It is clear, however, that so long as the writers write and are published, no matter how and where, the flame still flickers.

A brief history of PNG literature, Part 1

Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude, 11 July 2021


TUMBY BAY – Papua New Guinea has a rich tradition of oral literature which exists to this day.

Vincent Eri’s work of 1970, The Crocodile, was the first novel by a Papua New Guinean, but it seems likely that the first book written by a Papua New Guinean came from the pen of the New Ireland writer, Ligeremaluoga (also known as Osea).

His book, The Erstwhile Savage, sometimes dismissed as missionary propaganda with no real literary merit, was written in the Kuanua language and later translated and published in English in 1932.

It was republished in 1978 under a different title, An Offering Fit for a King.

Eri’s novel The Crocodile was the result of a concerted push by the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) to promote Papua New Guinean literature in the years immediately prior to independence in 1975.

The chief architect of this movement was Ulli Beier, a lecturer in creative writing.

Most of the material at that time was produced locally as limited print run booklets of poetry, short stories or plays.

The Papua Pocket Poets series was particularly popular, as were literary collections published in magazines like UPNG’s Kovave (1969-75) and Papua New Guinea Writing (1970-77), produced by the Literature Bureau of the Department of Information and Extension Services.

Perusing those early works, the transition of the oral literary form into printed works can be clearly seen.

In his introduction to Three Short Novels from Papua New Guinea published in 1976, editor Mike Greicus said:

“While modern Papua New Guinea writing is founded on the oral literary traditions of a myriad of clan and language groups, it is as new as the emerging country itself, as vital and as exciting. That more will be heard from those writers and from this young literature there can be no doubt.”

This conflation of oral and written forms continues to flavour Papua New Guinean writing and gives it its own unique regional style.

Other writers active at this time were Peter Lus, Wairu Degoba, Pokwari Kale, Allan Natachee (Avaisa Pinongo), Leo Hannett, Rabbie Namaliu, Arthur Jawodimbari, Turuk Wabei, Bob Giegao, Jacob Simet, Jack Lahui, Clemens Runawery, Peter Wia Paiya, Renagi Lohia, Joseph Saruva, Herman Talingapua and Ikini Yaboyang. This is by no means a comprehensive list.

Prior to 1975 many Papua New Guinean public servants and others in sensitive positions published material anonymously or using a pseudonym to protect themselves and their jobs. It is worth noting the few female writers published in these years.Dr Ulli Beier

Under Ulli Beier’s benign guidance, the first issue of the journal of Papua New Guinea writing, Kovave, appeared in 1969 with prose such as Peter Lus’ My Head is as Black as the Soil of our Country, John Kadiba’s Tax and Kumalau Tawali’s Island Life along with John Waiko’s play The Unexpected Hawk.

The journal was published regularly until 1973 and then once in 1975 to coincide with celebrations for Papua New Guinea’s independence. It was the first literary journal of real significance and after the first few issues Beier’s students took over editorial control.

Kovave often published short plays, which were a popular genre for Papua New Guinean writers, perhaps because the form most resembled the animated style of traditional oral story telling.

Many of the plays were performed and broadcast on radio by the National Broadcasting Commission.

One of the curious things Beier did was to write Papua New Guinean plays himself using the pseudonym M Lovori. He hoped his students would read the plays and model their own work on them.

When four Papua New Guinean plays were produced in Sydney in 1970, Beier’s play, Alive, was lauded by Australian critics as the most ‘authentic’ while the genuine Papua New Guinean plays were labelled ‘awkward’ and ‘moralising’.

After Kovave ceased publication in 1975 and Papua New Writing in 1977, it wasn’t until 1982 that a new journal, Ondobondo, appeared.

Ondobondo was also published by UPNG’s Literature Department, this time under the guidance of Prithvindra Chakravarti, and followed the formation of a writers group of the same name that met monthly for discussions and readings.

The new journal included for the first time criticism of local writing by Papua New Guineans and extracts from unpublished novels. It also began to attract female writers. Unfortunately, lack of funding led to its demise in 1987.

The PNG Writer’s Union was formed in November 1984 with president Michael Yaki Mel, vice-president Francis Nii, treasurer Dr Steven Winduo and secretary was Kevin D’Archy.

The Union published a magazine The PNG Writer in 1985 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of PNG independence.

It was published to ‘give young writers the opportunity to appear in print’ and sold at K5 per copy for adults and K2 for students. From the sales it hoped to fund young writers to publish their work.

It included articles by Ignatius Kilage, Kamalau Tawali, John Sari, Joe Kunda Naur, Sorariba Nash, Steven Winduo and others.

In an interview published in the magazine Kilage pointed out that there was a wealth of creative talent in PNG.

In an editorial Mel wrote:

“Let’s nurture it along so that PNG literature becomes a living reality: not just something academics talk about.

“The best way to do it is to join the PNG Writers Union or to set up a branch in your school, college or home district.

“Why not hold a meeting in your own area? You will be surprised at the number of potential writers who turn up.”

The Writer’s Union was at pains to dissociate itself from what was generally understood as university writing promoted by Beier.

It did this in part through forewords and editorials that were written in clear, simple English.

Unfortunately, The PNG Writer went the way of other literary magazines and did not survive. Membership of the Union never reached great heights.

Also notable was UPNG’s series, Papua Pocket Poets, that appeared during this period, with perhaps the most significant volume being John Kasaipwalova’s Reluctant Flame.

This literary flush, with Beier’s encouragement pushing it forward, saw several students and alumni, including Vincent Eri, embarking on more ambitious works.

Beier collaborated with Brian Clouston, the Brisbane-based owner of Jacaranda Press which had published some of UPNG’s magazines and was one of the few Australian publishers with an interest in material coming out of PNG.

Until that time Jacaranda had only published books from PNG by Australian authors, usually educational texts. These sold well and were popular in the Territory’s schools.

Little of the literature produced in this period, by Australians or Papua New Guineans, was particularly outstanding, an exception being Trevor Shearston’s collection of short stories, Something in the Blood.

The most prolific publications of the period were coffee table books by Australian writers, replete with spectacular photographs and designed primarily as souvenirs.

Papua New Guinean literature was characterised by anti-colonial rhetoric which appealed to the left-leaning academics at the university. It was consonant with trends in the newly independent African nations and Beier, who had previously worked in Nigeria, was familiar and supportive of the genre.

A few interesting autobiographies emerged. The first was Ten Thousand Years in a Life Time by Albert Maori Kiki (FW Cheshire, 1968), an occasionally disjointed book, especially towards the end, but the straightforward style overcomes this minor drawback.

It was an important book, not so much for its literary merit but because it presented for the first time an account of what was in the minds of many of the Papuan intelligentsia as the colonial period drew to a close.

In many ways Kiki’s work foreshadowed Eri’s later novel in its account of a boy born into a traditional society in the 1930s and inexorably pulled into the world of the white man.

Kiki described this transition with a beguiling and candid simplicity and frequently made the point that the old ways that formed his character were not forgotten and helped him cope in later life.

Kiki had an intellect which transcended the ruck and sometimes intimidated people, especially expatriates in the higher echelons of the Australian administration.

He was no saint; he was a brawler, metaphorically and sometimes literally: a trade union leader, one of the founding fathers of the Pangu Pati and an independent PNG’s first deputy prime minister.

In the approach to independence Kiki represented much that was perceived by the colonial Administration and its Canberra bosses as sinister and threatening in the emergent Papuan New Guinean elite.

Sir Albert Maori Kiki died in 1993, eight years after independence.

When Jacaranda Press published Eri’s novel, The Crocodile, in 1970, it sold out and had to be reprinted almost immediately.

While most critics were refreshingly non-paternalistic and supportive, reaction from Australian readers in PNG was mixed.

Some were still smarting from Kiki’s book and didn’t like being lampooned again, even gently, by a Papua New Guinean, which, as Beier pointed out, was a bit rich from people who referred to grown men as ’boys’.

Apart from the African influence invoked by Beier, writers of this period took their lead from established European traditions and wrote mostly for an outside audience.

Where they had a message, it was intended for Australian and international consumption. Few wrote for Papua New Guineans.

Paulias Matane, a senior educationist not connected to Beier’s UPNG writers, published his first book, My Childhood in New Guinea, in 1972.

He adopted what was then an uncommon style of packaging the autobiographical details of his childhood around Rabaul in New Britain into a novel-like narrative.

The book takes the reader from Matane’s early days in the village, through initiation, wild days as a village delinquent, the war with the Japanese and his years as a teacher.

In it he outlines the principles that have since informed his steady and prodigious output:

“Reading is very important.  Many of my people do not read at home because books are written by people whose background is not that of Papua New Guinea.

“Our people do not want to read these.  True, some people want to try, but they cannot afford to buy books. 

“I think I will try to write about this country when I leave school.  The books should be small, simple, and cheap.”

No one accused Matane of not sticking to his plan. Now nearing his 90th birthday, he has written more than 40 short books, most of them self-published.

He has also been a strong supporter of Papua New Guinean literature, especially during his time as Governor-General, and mentored several promising authors.

In 1954, 18 year old Michael Somare won a South Pacific Commission’s Literature Bureau competition with an essay about his favourite book, Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition.

The following year he picked up a Forsyth Examination Prize of $40 worth of books. Paulius Matane had earlier won the same prize.

Before he entered politics Somare was a school teacher and later a writer in the Publications Section of the Education Department, where he wrote scripts for the ABC’s Listen and Learn English language broadcasts. 

Because of his interest in broadcasting he was seconded to Radio Wewak, part of the Department of Information and Extension Services, as a broadcaster and journalist.

This training and experience shows up in his 1975 book, Sana: An Autobiography of Michael Somare.  It is a more polished and articulate work than anything before and possibly since.

The book was written on the cusp of PNG’s leap into nationhood and articulates Somare’s vision for the country’s future.

It discusses his early influences which informed his ambition and his political development.

Sana was Somare’s grandfather and it was his wisdom that was passed on to Somare.

Central to it was what his father referred to as ‘Sana’s peacemaking magic’ – the ability to make peace with one’s enemies and turn them into friends.

Somare’s vision involved melding the myriad cultures and interests of PNG into something new which didn’t owe its existence to what outsiders might expect or demand. Somare himself was happy to embrace innovation and new ways.

Of all the books published in those halcyon days, Sana is the most important and bears reading by any Papua New Guinean interested in the past and future of the country.

Needed: A compact between govt & people

16 July 2021


CAIRNS – Michael Dom is right (Two questions long struggled with) in asking how can Papua New Guinea return to cooperation and how can the common people hold power to account and keep it responsible?

No one doubts the absolute necessity for a strong well-governed and administered political centre.

A modern nation state does not exist without it.

Allegedly 85% of PNG’s population of about eight million people live in rural communities and they determine the composition of parliament every five years.

It could be argued that they are not true participants in the political process in the accepted sense.

Elections are often determined by who hands out the greatest number of K50 notes.

And thus begins another five-year round of musical chairs.

As I see it, the weakness lies in the disconnect between the people in the ‘bush’ and those in power.

It seems to me that if voters were truly able to make choices based upon the performance of an incumbent politician in matters such as health, education, law and order and infrastructure, the outcomes along the value chain might be different.

But there is a weakness in this argument.

The PNG government is not so flush with cash that marked improvements to rural services are even possible.

I believe the whole concept of bikman politics, where the leader looks after our interests, is out of step with reality and the much-flawed District Services Improvement Program funds stand testament to that.

Nation building is a compact between the government and its people.

Rather than government, it is actually the people who determine the outcomes.

The whole dynamic needs to be turned on its head.

That is to say, communities and groups of communities must lead the effort to improve local service outcomes by leveraging heavily off the community cooperation Michael Dom refers to.

I think it is pertinent to highlight the many examples of local effort that constructed roads, cleared airstrips, built classrooms and facilitated all manner of improvement without government intervention. 

And I think this ‘pride in place’ and self-help model still applies.

I suggest that real leadership would seek to facilitate these activities everywhere, with the national government seeking to partially fund or support them with staff, training and equipment within the broader framework of applying its policies and standards.

And this is where I believe a significant slice of aid dollars should also be directed, along with better coordination and coupling with banks and enterprise incubation hubs to strengthen resilience across all manner of sectors.

So I come back to the general thesis that empowering communities to have a direct hand in the quality, scope and distribution of services they receive is an essential component of development.

Ultimately this might also influence the quality and vision of the people elected to positions of power.