In yesterday’s opening session of The Crocodile Prize writers’ workshop, PHIL FITZPATRICK addressed the far from straightforward question of Papua New Guinea writers and their writing and what the literary contest has revealed about them
FIRST OF ALL let me make it quite clear that I am not about to impart any great wisdom about writing.
I’m as mystified as anyone else about what compels people to write.
As far as I know there are no magic formulas.
Some of us are not even very good at it but for some inexplicable reason we persevere.
I guess there is a certain pleasure in a well turned phrase. It must be similar to a well executed brush stroke in a painting or a particularly well rendered tune on a guitar or piano.
What I do know is that there is rarely money to be made from the habit.
To make money out of writing you usually have to lower your standards, catch a populist wave, write to a tired but tested formula and, last but not least, be extremely lucky.
If you follow this path and somehow crack the big time you might make money but you’ll probably never be famous.
Either way, while that is happening, it is handy to have another job so you can afford to eat and pay the bills.
The alternative is to live in relative but noble poverty. Trendy lefties call that a lifestyle choice but poverty, no matter how sweetly labelled, is still poverty.
Writing is also a solitary occupation. Having an understanding wife, husband or partner, not to mention children, is a positive advantage.
It is also useful to have somewhere to publish your work, even if you make very little money, or even nothing, out of it.
Feedback is good too. It’s nice to know that someone has read what you have written, even if they are overly critical.
So there you go – there’s not much wisdom there at all. I imagine that if you’ve been writing for some time you know all about it.
Now, what about writing in Papua New Guinea? After all, this is one of the reasons we are here today.
Again, some clarification is needed. I wasn’t born here and I don’t live here. I lived here a long time ago but things were very different then.
These days I only occasionally visit, mostly to earn money to support my writing habit.
I’d like you to keep that in mind when considering the following observations.
I think everyone will agree that the 1970s were a watershed for writing in Papua New Guinea.
Those times gave us books like Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime, Sana, My Childhood in New Guinea and, of course, The Crocodile; not to mention all the plays and poetry that were performed or appeared in a number of exciting journals.
The visual arts also flourished at this time.
The accepted wisdom is that a lot of this creativity came about through the efforts of Ulli Beier, a lecturer at the University of Papua New Guinea.
I’m not so sure that this is entirely accurate. While Ulli and others provided the ways and means for creative expression I suspect that the raw material was always there just waiting to be released. In other words, it had a life of its own and a definite reason for being.
The reason, of course, was colonialism; or to be more specific, anti-colonialism.
It was a simmering, albeit gentle, anger, both at a personal level and at a national level.
This anger and concomitant creativity was directed, not so much inward, as outward towards the Australian administration and the world at large.
While the writers hoped their own people might read what they had written they were more concerned that their colonial masters were aware of what they were saying.
These people were writing for a cause.
This made life for Ulli and his friends just so much easier.
It is also probably why writing in Papua New Guinea went flat after independence had been achieved. After 1975 there was no cause to inspire writers. The storm in the colonial teacup had abated.
Since then there has been plenty written about Papua New Guinea but very little within Papua New Guinea. Most of the post-independence writing about Papua New Guinea has been done by Australians who once lived there. Their audience has likewise been mainly Australian.
If you look at the meticulous research and detail in the works of people like Jim Sinclair, for instance, you quickly realise that he is writing for a much wider audience than just Papua New Guinea. Even his commissioned works, like the history of Morobe or the South Pacific Brewery are largely populated by Europeans.
I’m a great fan of Jim Sinclair and I’m not sure if this is a fair comment but hopefully you get my drift.
So what were Papua New Guinean writers doing in this time? Well, apart from a couple of exceptions, they seem to have been languishing in obscurity.
Was this because those writers lacked a suitable cause, like in the 1970s, or was it because they lacked a suitable venue in which to publish their work?
Was it because people didn’t want to hear what they had to say or was it more sinister; a fiendish government plot to keep dissenters quiet for instance?
I’m not a great fan of conspiracy theories but as for the rest I’m sure it’s been a combination of those reasons; they are, to a great extent, interrelated and inseparable.
So why do I think that many writers in Papua New Guinea need a cause before they put pen to paper?
The simple answer is by reading the many entries in the Crocodile competition.
The causes these writers espouse are many and varied; the sad loss of history and tradition, the treatment of women and children, the damage to the environment that development or greed brings, the list goes on and on.
But don’t get me wrong; there are also some great pieces of pure whimsy among the entries – I just love Bernard Sinai’s story about the grunge queen for instance.
Overall, however, the cause is greed and corruption among Papua New Guinea’s leaders and public servants. It is a theme which has pervaded the competition from start to finish.
I think, when you see the winners in the three categories, you might agree with me.
My other observation about the competition is that of edification. Being involved in it has personally been a very great learning curve. I think it might have been the same for Keith and many of his Australian readers.
One of the things I’ve learned about is the power of the Internet and the way it is being used by people in Papua New Guinea.
I was initially concerned that restricting the competition to PNG Attitude might exclude a great many people in Papua New Guinea.
While this is still a concern I now feel a lot more comfortable about it. People in Papua New Guinea are becoming rapidly computer savvy.
With the future broadband developments flagged by Digicel and others I think that what is now the domain of the relatively well-educated middle class will soon become available to the population at large. That is, to enough people to really matter. When that happens, writers in Papua New Guinea will really come into their own.
So where to from here?
This is what the workshop is all about.
Do we now largely have a bunch of fired-up, indignant and angry writers looking for blood or is there something deeper and more rational at work?
What will carry Papua New Guinean literature into the future?