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Pukpuk Publishing – a great gift bequeathed to PNG writers

A relaxed Phil Fitzpatrick at a writers workshop in Port Moresby (Ben Jackson)KEITH JACKSON

PHIL Fitzpatrick, modest man that he is, would probably disagree with me that Pukpuk Publishing has emerged as the most significant development in the history of Papua New Guinean publishing.

The most recent Pukpuk Publishing book list [download Pukpuk Publishing August 2015], contains 27 titles, all but one about PNG, and offers an abundance of quality reading.

The not-for-profit publisher is one of a number of positive collaterals to derive from the Crocodile Prize, which itself managed to rejuvenate creative writing in PNG which had been largely hiding in a cupboard since the 1970s.

What I particularly like about Papua New Guinean writers, apart from their considerable skills,” Phil has written, “is the way they dip into their rich cultural heritage to background their work.

“This is what makes Papua New Guinean literature distinctive and appealing. The result is a school of literature clearly identifiable with the country.”

The Prize – established in 2010 with the first awards in 2011 – offered a forum where PNG’s writers could be recognised and rewarded, and Pukpuk Publishing provided the absolute joy of publication in book form and an opportunity for PNG readers to access their own literature.

In 2010 Phil Fitzpatrick wrote an article about the state of literature in PNG for the Independence Day supplement in the Post-Courier newspaper that led to the establishment of the Crocodile Prize.

In the article, Phil pointed out that in the years leading up to Independence and for a short time afterwards literature had flowered in Papua New Guinea.

“One of the reasons for this was the need felt by many Papua New Guineans to examine their place in the world in those radical times,” he wrote. “The question for many was: who are we and where do we want to go? Writing about it seemed a logical thing to do.”

But Phil’s research for the article had revealed that the vibrant and dynamic literary scene of 1970s Papua New Guinea was in serious decline. The little that was published was sporadic and, with a few notable exceptions, not very good.

“As someone who had watched the burgeoning literary scene in the 1970s, I was filled with dismay,” he wrote. “Tiny nations like Samoa were leading the way while Papua New Guinea seemed to have fallen by the wayside.

“Keith and I discussed this sad state of affairs by email and out of that the Crocodile Prize was born.”

Phil had already published three books – including the stunning Bamahuta: Leaving Papua - through the small Diane Andrews publishing house, and he and I both knew that it would be futile encouraging writers to write without ensuring that their writing could be put into the hands of readers in PNG.

So was born the annual Crocodile Prize Anthology – now in its fifth year – and, as PNG’s best writers began to emerge, so long-form writing evolved in the form of collections and novels and non-fiction books.

Phil was ready for this and corralled the growing passion for print into the Pukpuk Publishing stable. Then, just last year, with more books being published, the opportunity arose for a PNG Book of the Year Award, generously funded by Ok Tedi Mining.

Also last year, the PNG Association of Australia began a sponsorship which enabled the Crocodile Prize to print books and distribute them free of charge to PNG libraries and schools.

In addition, we developed an editorial mentoring program where experienced writers like Ed Brumby guided PNG’s emerging authors though some of the rigours of preparing a book for publication.

And there’s a lively website, managed by Ben Jackson, which links writers, readers and benefactors to entries to the Prize, news about it and details on how to participate.

So, in just five years PNG had developed a complete creative, editorial and publishing package and established a supply chain between writers and readers throughout PNG.

Now here’s the rub.

This is a major professional enterprise based on voluntary effort, supported by the generosity of sponsors and driven by administrators and writers rewarded only by the recognition of publication and the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile.

Unfortunately it is a long way from becoming a commercial concern.

The K100,000 raised this year (plus something similar by the Simbu Writers Association to mount the awards event) and the hundreds of hours of work that administering these activities entails is beyond the thin red line of human resources to sustain.

Unless a major benefactor is found willing to underwrite a gross annual budget of around K500,000 in order to relocate the epicentre of the Prize to Papua New Guinea, it seems unlikely that it can survive in its present form into 2016.

Pukpuk Publishing, however, with Phil Fitzpatrick at the helm, will continue to offer a lifeline to link Papua New Guinea’s writers with readers throughout the world.

Comments

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Barbara Short

You'll be pleased to hear that copies of the last Crocodile book are being read and discussed by Book Clubs in parts of NSW.
There is an audience out there. They are being compared to Australian Indigenous writers.
We need to have them read at the NSW Annual Writers Forums.
Don't give up.
Thanks Phil and Keith and everyone who is doing something positive. I'm enjoying my job as a journalist for the Sepik Region Development Discussion Forum on Facebook. Never a dull day!

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