FORTY-ONE years after independence in 1975 and Papua New Guinean literature is still in its infancy.
It’s like a child that has never grown up. Or like one of those 20 year olds you occasionally see in primary school trying hard to learn to read and write.
Since Keith and I started the Crocodile Prize for Literature I have been trying to interest literary people in Australia in Papua New Guinean writing.
I believe that recognition outside Papua New Guinea will provoke organisations and government in Papua New Guinea to take literature seriously.
I have sent copies of the books we have published, including the anthologies, to all sorts of people in Australia who might be interested.
I have written articles and essays for literary and popular journals in Australia to use and maybe publish.
Every single one of these efforts has got nowhere. At best I’ve received feedback that essentially says, it’s not very good writing is it. Other editors simply don’t reply.
One of the most difficult things to get across to Australian audiences is that different cultures tell stories differently. For instance, a story from Papua New Guinea may not have a beginning or an end.
Some other conventions don’t apply. A cardinal rule in western literature is not to preach: establish your point subtly and whatever you do don’t spell it out. A lot of Papua New Guinean stories are built around morality tales and the meaning is explicit. This often doesn’t go down well with Australian readers or academics.
This doesn't mean that Papua New Guinean literature is ‘not very good’, it means that Papua New Guinean literature is different. It’s that difference that should be capturing their attention, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to.
I’ve gone out of my way to explain that Papua New Guinean literature is still developing but is showing a distinct regional flavour and style with great potential that needs to be recognised.
I’ve wondered for some time about this indifference and lack of interest. It is, after all, not that far removed from the indifference Australians have about Papua New Guinea in general.
But there is also a marked literary snobbishness at play too.
Most of the literary world in Australia lives in its own rarefied world. Strangely, it’s the same sort of snobbishness I’ve noticed coming out of literary circles at the University of PNG.
It’s the same with popular literature in Australia too. This segment of the publishing world seems to be dominated by female writers chronicling the adventures of tough outback women succumbing to the rough charms of rugged men in Akubra hats and four-day stubble on their faces.
I’ve never actually read any of these potboilers an am basing my opinion on the covers of those that dominate the fiction shelves in bookshops these days.
Papua New Guinean literature doesn’t fit with that sort of stuff at all.
But getting back to the academics, especially the ones I’ve occasionally managed to corner.
When pushed, they seem to regard Papua New Guinean literature much like they would a rowdy four year old. Nice for 10 minutes or so but would you please take it away now?
I think I’m qualified to make a judgement about Papua New Guinean literature. I’ve read a huge amount of it and I’ve got an honours degree in literature.
I know a lot of the writing is terrible, especially the poetry, but I think a lot of it is classy. With a bit of support and some decent editing some could be brilliant.
But how do you convince an indifferent world of that?
I’m starting to think the effort is not worthwhile. I doubt it’s possible to break through the indifference.
I think the future of Papua New Guinean literature rests with the people of Papua New Guinea.
Once Papua New Guineans start to read and appreciate the work of their own writers, PNG literature will mature, improve and sustain.
If you are a Papua New Guinean writer, these are the people you should be writing for, not the airy-fairy denizens of rarefied academia or some hip overseas reader.