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Good reading and writing in Papua New Guinea

This article was written by PHIL FITZPATRICK to explain the Crocodile Prize to Australian writers and readers.  It is featured in the current December issue of GR (Good Reading) magazine....

Good Reading - December 2011FOR THE RELATIVELY FEW tourists who venture there, Papua New Guinea is very aptly marketed as the land of the unexpected.

For many people, Papua New Guinea conjures up images of brightly painted Huli wigmen, languid palm-fringed beaches, friendly and happy people and, of course, the Kokokda Trail.

For others it is a dangerous place with gun-toting raskols, corrupt politicians and an infrastructure on the verge of collapse.

For a select few it is a veritable gold mine, replete with seemingly unlimited and exploitable natural resources.

While none of these things are completely true, the last thing anyone associates with Papua New Guinea is a burgeoning literary scene.

Literature in Papua New Guinea has long been moribund but is now awakening.

In the years prior to independence from Australia in 1975 and for a short time afterwards there was a brief blossoming of activity.  The first novel published by a Papua New Guinean writer was The Crocodile by Vincent Eri in 1970.

While The Crocodile is still in print, there are no publishers in the country actively producing fiction or poetry.  There is no distribution network for books and there are no bookshops available to the general public in the whole of the country. 

You cannot buy a copy of The Crocodile anywhere and ordinary people just can’t afford to buy books.  They don’t generally have access to cheaper online bookstores either.  As a result, the literacy rate in Papua New Guinea has been steadily falling since independence.

Many people in Papua New Guinea are avid readers.  They read books dating back before independence from the few provincial libraries still operating and they read old and remaindered books they occasionally find in the second hand clothes stores.  Few of these books have Papua New Guinean themes.

This doesn’t mean that there are no writers in the country.  They are lurking in the woodwork everywhere.  They tend to have a distinctive style which is influenced by a long history of oral literature and song.

A literary competition cobbled together on a shoe string budget by the PNG Attitude blog and helped along by the Papua New Guinea Post Courier and a few other generous sponsors recently culminated in a writer’s workshop, an awards ceremony and the launch of an anthology in Port Moresby at the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby during the Independence Day celebrations this year.

The competition and awards were appropriately named The Crocodile Prize after Vincent Eri’s pioneering novel.  Sir Vincent Serei Eri passed away in 1993 but his widow, Lady Margaret Eri, was able to attend the awards ceremony along with the many talented writers who contributed to the competition and the anthology.

Prizes of K2,500 were presented to the winners in the three categories of short story, poem and essay  while a special K1,000 prize was presented in the Dame Carol Kidu Prize for a woman writer.

The competition will be run again in 2012 and promises to be even bigger and better.  With any luck it will be a new dawn for writers in Papua New Guinea.


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