I’VE been thinking about the future of literature in Papua New Guinea for a while now.
It’s a frustrating thing to contemplate. As Ed Brumby has pointed out, there is a lack of inertia and an all-pervading ennui in Papua New Guinea that seems to permeate and frustrate not just literature but most worthwhile endeavours.
I’m not sure why this is so but I know that it’s been the case for as long as I can remember. We were even warned about it at ASOPA where we were trained before we set foot in the country.
For a while I thought it was a reaction to colonisation, or whatever it was that Australia practised in Papua New Guinea prior to independence – a kind of passive resistance as exemplified by Ghandi and others at being ruled over by outsiders with an overly developed sense of superiority and little understanding of other cultures.
And, for sure, there were plenty of people in Papua New Guinea who resented what they saw as a dictatorial regime riding roughshod over their sensibilities. If the country is going to be screwed up we want to screw it up ourselves.
But I don’t think this was the case; at least not in terms of the county’s literary development.
The early pioneering efforts of Ulli Beier (pictured) at UPNG were greeted and embraced with great enthusiasm, just as were the later efforts that stemmed out of PNG Attitude and the Crocodile Prize.
I know this latest flowering was dimly viewed by the academics in the universities; mainly, I think, because of snobbery and a highly inflated sense of their own worth, a perennial affliction of many academics.
The single exception was Russell Soaba, who is a true thinker and philosopher and humble to boot.
The politicians, of course, with a couple of exceptions, were too busy slobbering with their noses in the trough to even notice what was going on. What a useless lot they are – get rid of most of them in 2017 I reckon.
The reaction to the news that PNG Attitude and Pukpuk Publications were to wind up in February was quite astonishing. Not only for the comments lodged on the blog but also through the many personal emails received.
However, nowhere among this outpouring of grief and angst was there one offer to pick up the baton (or should that be cudgel?) and run with it. Instead, what we saw was a typical Papua New Guinean shrug of regret and the sound of feet shuffling off into the distance.
What is wrong with these bloody people, I thought?
When I had finished shaking my head and listening to the “we told you so” line knowingly delivered by some fellow expatriates, I began wondering what will happen next.
When Ulli Beier left Papua New Guinea, literature in the country simply collapsed. So too did much of the art scene that he and his wife Georgina had worked so assiduously to foster; although the latter has retained some continuity probably because it doesn’t need much of an infrastructure to keep it going; perhaps because it is closer to the Papua New Guinea’s natural heart.
Before coming to Papua New Guinea, Ulli had worked extensively in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. In 1961 he founded the Mbari Writers and Artists Club with a number of African helpers.
When he went back to Africa in 1971, Ulli found that the seeds he had sown had flowered beyond expectations.
Not so when he returned to Papua New Guinea in 1974 to set up the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies. He had to practically start over again. And when he left again in 1978, it collapsed again.
Maybe we should have heeded Ulli’s experience and done what our expatriate friends advised. Maybe it was best if we hadn’t even tried.
It’s a question that I can’t answer.
Why, for instance, hasn’t one of the Papua New Guinean universities picked up the idea?
Why haven’t they included running a blog like PNG Attitude and a literary competition like the Crocodile Prize as a project in one of their final year literature, journalism or communications faculties?
It’s something that could be run year after year and something that would give their students great experience, not to mention providing a useful service to Papua New Guinea in general.
I bet they haven’t even thought about it. I bet the idea has never occurred to them.
What some of them have done instead is cancel their literarture courses. How dumb is that? Are the universities that scared of their government?
I reckon if there is no one from outside Papua New Guinea to run and stimulate literature in the country, its future is dire indeed.
Talk about a tin pot backwater.