The lost creative writing generation of Papua New Guinea
19 December 2016
IMAGINE a country with a talented pool of writers but no commercial publishers and virtually no bookshops. Add to that an indifferent government offering no support to those writers and even seeking to suppress what they write.
And if you are thinking about some tiny tin pot dictatorship in the nether regions of Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa, think again.
Because the situation I describe is just to our north in Papua New Guinea, a country that, before the advent of the Manus Island detention centre, hardly registered on most Australians’ radar.
Papua New Guinea has a rich tradition of oral literature which continues to exist. But it wasn’t until 1970 that the first novel by a Papua New Guinean writer was published, The Crocodile by Vincent Eri.
While The Crocodile was the first novel, if you go back much you’ll find the first book written by a Papua New Guinean - the New Ireland writer Ligeremaluoga (also known as Osea).
The book, The Erstwhile Savage, sometimes dismissed as missionary propaganda with no real literary merit, was originally written in the Kuanua language but was translated and published in English in 1932. It was republished under a different title, An Offering Fit for a King, in 1978.
Vincent Eri’s novel came out of a concerted push by the then new University of Papua New Guinea to promote Papua New Guinean literature in the years immediately prior to independence in 1975. The chief architect of this movement was Ulli Beier (left), a lecturer in creative writing.
Most of the material at that time was produced locally as booklets of poetry, short stories or plays with limited print runs.
The Papua Pocket Poets series was particularly popular, as were the literary collections published in magazines like Kovave and Papua New Guinea Writing.
In perusing those early works, the transition of the oral literary form into printed works can be clearly seen. In his introduction to Three Short Novels from Papua New Guinea, featuring the works of Benjamin Umba, August Kituai and Jim Baital, editor Mike Greicus said: “While modern Papua New Guinea writing is founded on the oral literary traditions of a myriad of clan and language groups, it is as new as the emerging country itself, as vital and as exciting. That more will be heard from those writers and from this young literature there can be no doubt.”
Some other writers active at this time were Peter Lus, Wairu Degoba, Pokwari Kale, Allan Natachee (Avaisa Pinongo), Leo Hannett, Rabbie Namaliu, Arthur Jawodimbari, Turuk Wabei, Bob Giegao, Jacob Simet, Jack Lahui, Clemens Runawery, Peter Wia Paiya, Renagi Lohia, Joseph Saruva, Herman Talingapua and Ikini Yaboyang. And this is by no means a comprehensive list.
Prior to 1975 many Papua New Guinean public servants and others in sensitive positions published material anonymously or using a pseudonym to protect themselves and their jobs. Some should perhaps now stand up and be acknowledged for their writing. It is also interesting to note the shortage of female writers, a situation still persisting today.
This conflation of oral and written forms continues to flavour Papua New Guinean writing and gives it its own unique regional style.
Under Ulli Beier’s benign guidance, the first volume of the journal of Papua New Guinea writing, Kovave, appeared. In this first volume, prose such as Peter Lus’ My Head is as Black as the Soil of our Country, John Kadiba’s Tax and Kumalau Tawali’s Island Life appeared along with John Waiko’s play The Unexpected Hawk.
The Papua Pocket poets appeared shortly thereafter and included works like John Kasaipwalova’s Reluctant Flame.
One of the curious things Ulli Beier did was to write Papua New Guinean plays himself using the pseudonym M Lovori. He hoped his students would read the plays and model their own work on them.
When four Papua New Guinea plays were produced in Sydney in 1970 it was ironic that Beier’s play, Alive, was lauded by Australian critics as the most ‘authentic’ while the genuine Papua New Guinean plays were labelled ‘awkward’ and ‘moralising’.
Nevertheless, with Beier’s encouragement, several University of Papua New Guinea students and alumni, including Vincent Eri (right), embarked on more ambitious works.
To this end, Beier collaborated with Brian Clouston, the Brisbane-based owner of Jacaranda Press. Jacaranda had published some of UPNG’s magazines and was one of the few Australian publishers with an interest in material coming out of Papua New Guinea.
Until that time it had only published books from Papua New Guinea by Australian authors, usually educational texts. These sold well and were popular in the then territory’s schools.
Little of the literature produced in this period, by Australians or Papua New Guineans, was outstanding. An exception was Trevor Shearston’s collection of short stories, Something in the Blood. But the most prolific publications in this period were coffee table books, replete with spectacular photographs, designed primarily as souvenirs.
In the Papua New Guinean literature there was much anti-colonial rhetoric which appealed to the left-leaning academics at the university, and this was consonant with trends in the newly independent African nations. Ulli Beier had previously worked in Nigeria and was familiar and supportive of this genre.
There were a few interesting autobiographies emerging, such as Ten Thousand Years in a Life Time by Albert Maori Kiki. The book, published by FW Cheshire in 1968, is occasionally disjointed, especially towards the end, but a straightforward style overcomes this minor draw back.
It was important because it presented for the very first time an account of what was in the minds of many of the Papuan intelligentsia as the colonial period drew to a close.
In many ways Kiki’s work foreshadowed Eri’s later novel in its account of a boy born into a traditional society in the 1930s and inexorably pulled into the world of the white man. Kiki described this transition with a beguiling and candid simplicity and frequently made the point that the old ways that formed his character were never forgotten and helped him cope in later life.
Kiki had a sort of benign intelligence which transcended and stood above the ruck and sometimes intimidated those less gifted, including the denizens of the higher echelons of the Australian administration.
Kiki was no saint; he was a brawler, metaphorically and sometimes literally. He went on to become a trade union leader, was one of the founding fathers of the nationalist Pangu Pati and Papua New Guinea’s first deputy prime minister.
In the run up to independence he represented everything that was perceived by the colonial administration and its bosses in Canberra as sinister and communist-inspired among the new Papuan New Guinean elite. Sir Albert Maori Kiki died in 1993, eight years after independence.
When Jacaranda Press published Vincent Eri’s novel, The Crocodile, in 1970, it sold out and had to be reprinted almost immediately. While most critics were refreshingly non-paternalistic and supportive, the reaction from Australian readers in Papua New Guinea were mixed.
Some of them were still smarting from Kiki’s book and didn’t like being lampooned again, even gently, by a Papua New Guinean, which, as Ulli Beier pointed out, was a bit rich from people who referred to grown men as ’boys’.
Apart from the African influence invoked by Beier, the writers of this period seemed to take their lead from established European traditions and they mostly wrote for an outside audience. Where they had a message, it was intended for Australian and international consumption. Few wrote for their fellow Papua New Guineans.
Paulias Matane was not connected to Ulli Beier’s UPNG writers. His first book, My Childhood in New Guinea, was published in 1972. Sir Paulias adopted the style of the novel to describe the autobiographical details of his childhood around Rabaul on New Britain.
The book takes the reader from his early days in the village, through initiation, wild days as a village delinquent, the war with the Japanese and his early days as a teacher. In it he outlines the principles that have informed his later steady and prodigious output.
“Reading is very important. Many of my people do not read at home because books are written by people whose background is not that of Papua New Guinea. Our people do not want to read these. True, some people want to try, but they cannot afford to buy books. I think I will try to write about this country when I leave school. The books should be small, simple, and cheap.”
No one can accuse Sir Paulias (right) of not sticking to his plan. Now well into his eighties, he has written over forty short books, most of them self-published. He has also been a strong supporter of Papua New Guinean literature, especially during his time as Governor-General, and has mentored several promising authors.
In 1954 eighteen year old Michael Somare won the South Pacific Commission’s Literature Bureau Competition with an essay about his favourite book, Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition. The following year he picked up a Forsyth Examination Prize of $40 worth of books. Paulius Matane had won the same prize.
Before he entered politics Michael Somare was a teacher, first in schools and later in the publications section of the Education Department, where he wrote scripts for the Listen and Learn broadcasts on the ABC. Because of his interest in broadcasting he was seconded to Radio Wewak with the Department of Information and Extension Services as a broadcaster and journalist.
This training and experience shows up in his 1975 book, Sana: an autobiography of Michael Somare. It is by far a more polished and articulate work than anything before and possibly after it.
The book was written on the cusp of Papua New Guinea’s leap into the vast unknown of nationhood and necessarily articulates Somare’s vision for the future. The book also sets out the things that influenced him at an early age and informed his political development.
Sana was Michael Somare’s grandfather and it was his wisdom that his son passed on to the grandson, Michael. Central to this wisdom was what Michael’s father referred to as ‘Sana’s peacemaking magic’. The essence of this magic was the ability to make peace with one’s enemies and turn them into friends.
Michael Somare’s vision involved melding the myriad cultures and interests of Papua New Guinea into something new and unique which didn’t owe its existence to what outsiders might expect or demand. For this reason he happily embraced innovation and new ideas.
Of all the books published in those halcyon days, Sana is probably the most important and it bears reading again by any Papua New Guinean interested in the future of their country and what their first prime minister was thinking.
It wasn’t until 1977 that a Papua New Guinean novel appeared that was targeting Papua New Guinean readers. Russell Soaba’s Wanpis. In Tok Pisin, the title refers to someone who is lonely or alone, like an orphan.
Wanpis is about identity and there is angst on display that is quintessentially Papua New Guinean. That same anguish of 1977 is recognisable in Papua New Guinea writing nearly forty years on.
Where Wanpis stood out from its predecessors is that it was unashamedly aimed at Papua New Guinean readers. In that sense, and distinct from Vincent Eri’s pioneering work, it was the first novel written wholly for Papua New Guineans.
The years following independence saw this brief period of literary flowering taper off. The many departing Australians took their support and buying power with them and, as they got on with their lives, their interest in Papua New Guinea waned.
At the same time, publishers like Jacaranda shifted their attention back to their core markets in Australia.
While many people in Papua New Guinea maintained an interest in books, the new elite had other things on their minds. Libraries everywhere, including in the schools, began to disappear. In the few places books were offered for sale, often at inflated prices, ordinary people couldn’t afford to buy them. New acquisitions at the university library dried up. That UPNG library today is an antiquarian booksellers dream, complete with ancient dust.
The Papua New Guinea Library Service had a budget of K1.3m last year. It has a staff ceiling of 23 and has holdings of 100,000 volumes. These figures are for the total government library system in Papua New Guinea, including libraries in schools and tertiary institutions.
By comparison I live in a moderate-sized coastal town. We have six well stocked local libraries serving a population of about 200,000 people. They currently have a combined budget equivalent to K6m and a staff of over 30 people, not counting volunteers. They have about 300,000 volumes and a membership of about 40% of the population; these are regular users and borrowers and do not count casual visitors.
A few Papua New Guinean writers, including the indefatigable Paulias Matane, persisted in their efforts but were increasingly forced to fund their own books and sell them personally. Vanity publishers, especially India-based ones, filled the void left by the departing publishers and the quality of editing and production declined. The publishing program at the university foundered.
The fallow period following independence was frustrating for creative writers in Papua New Guinea. With few outlets for their work in their own country and indifference from Australian and international publishers, the promise of those early years all but evaporated.
The only bright spot was the resolution of the University of Papua New Guinea to keep teaching literature. Russell Soaba taught there as did writers Regis Stella and Steven Winduo. These men published their own works while sustaining, where they could, the embryonic literary tradition. Many students who attended the university have fond memories of all three.
Russell Soaba (pictured as a young man in 1973) and Steven Winduo are still at the university but Dr Regis Stella, who wrote two fine novels, Gutsini Posa (Rough Seas, 1999) and Mata Sara (Crooked Eyes, 2010), died in 2012, just short of his fifty-second birthday and days away from the launch of a new book.
Divine Word University in Madang had also begun to teach literature during this period inspiring would-be writers but later abandoned its program. It has just, in late 2016, reinstated it.
During the barren years from around 1980 to 2010, there were several attempts to set up writer’s organisations, mostly within the universities. A national literature competition also ran for a short time but, with lack of support and continued indifference from the government, both enterprises had short lives.
By the turn of the century Papua New Guinea had largely become a nation without a literary soul. While constantly spruiking the need for unity and nationalism, successive governments seemed ignorant of the role literature might play in this endeavour.
In the schools, students usually had no access to literature by their own countrymen and women. Instead, they were fed a diet of overseas writing, much of it inappropriate to their needs and interests.
Books with Papua New Guinean themes written by Australians and the odd international writer occasionally dribbled into the country but this was far from being an indigenous literature.
There were other works closer to the country. Authentic and often pedestrian memoirs and novels by Australians who had worked in Papua New Guinea sat alongside works by international writers who seemed to regard the country as exotic and remote and a worthy setting for a pot boiler. By and large most of these efforts were irrelevant to the cause of regenerating a Papua New Guinean literature.
Then a faint light appeared on the horizon.
Social media took a long time to take off in Papua New Guinea and, when it did, coverage was poor and services expensive. It also took Papua New Guineans a while to work out how best to use it. A couple of blogs appeared, like Emmanuel Narokobi’s The Masalai Blog, that recognised the internet’s potential for serious content and debate but generally the early efforts were superficial, personalised, often vitriolic and had limited reach.
In 2007 Irish company Digicel set up shop in Papua New Guinea. Digicel served many of the remoter and least developed parts of the world and was a good fit for Papua New Guinea. It began an ambitious program of building mobile phone towers. In my travels to remote areas, I was often pleasantly surprised that I could obtain mobile phone coverage, even if it entailed climbing a nearby hill.
Digicel set off a social media revolution in Papua New Guinea, in both urban and outlying areas. By 2010 it seemed that just about everyone had a mobile phone. The rates were high but are now gradually decreasing.
While the quality of the blogs improved there was none especially useful for creative writers. A few writers set up their own blogs to get their work out but their audience was limited.
By far the most successful blog in terms of creative writing and reach was Australian-based Keith Jackson’s PNG Attitude. This blog began life in 2006 as a point of contact for Australians who had worked in Papua New Guinea before and shortly after independence. Keith had been a teacher and broadcaster and the blog was mostly read by Australians who had worked in these fields.
However, as it evolved, the site attracted a wider audience, including many Papua New Guineans. They contributed short articles and essays and, as these increased in number, it became apparent that many writers saw the blog as a useful outlet for their work.
In 2010 I contributed an article to PNG Attitude outlining the parlous state of literature in Papua New Guinea. From there Keith Jackson and I devised a writing competition for Papua New Guineans which we called The Crocodile Prize in acknowledgement of Vincent Eri’s pioneering novel.
When that first contest was done and dusted in September 2011, we produced an anthology of Papua New Guinean writing and continued to do so each year as the competition continued.
Initially we used a local Papua New Guinean printer and publisher, Birdwing Publishing, which printed its books in China or India. It was expensive and, given that we distributed the books free of charge within Papua New Guinea from donated funds, print runs were restricted to the lower hundreds.
Our quest to find a cheaper way of publishing coincided with the emergence of CreateSpace, a US-based digital, print-on-demand system which is a subsidiary of Amazon. This fitted our purpose well and, after 2012, the anthologies were all produced this way. We were now able to distribute up to 1,500 copies to Papua New Guinea’s schools and the few libraries that had survived.
Along the way we created Pukpuk Publications. Pukpuk is the Tok Pisin word for crocodile. As well as the annual anthologies, Pukpuk has published almost forty books by Papua New Guinean writers, including novels, poetry, essay collections and a range of other works.
When you consider that today’s Papua New Guinean literature has sprung from a deeply moribund era only in the last five years, this output has been impressive. Through the Crocodile Prize, we have discovered a very encouraging band of poets, writers and critical essayists.
This has been a fascinating and rewarding process. Writers seemed to emerge out of the blue and, when they are first encountered, there is the repeated electric feeling of discovering substantial and hitherto unknown talent.
The first writer to ignite that spark was the prolific blogger Martyn Namorong in 2011. He bombarded us with a series of short and incendiary essays on Papua New Guinean politics and society that quickly put paid to any paternalistic sense we might have harboured about what we were doing.
The poet Michael Dom, joined later by Wardley D Barry-Igivisa, demonstrated an impressive mastery of the form in all its iterations. Beneath these palpable talents was a much bigger swag of emerging poets who demonstrated a natural link between traditional Papua New Guinea oral literature and song and the more modern poetic form.
There were also some interesting memoirs and novels. The productive Bougainvillean writer, Leonard Fong Roka stunned us with his raw and uncompromising account of growing up during the Bougainville civil war of the 1990s. The trauma of the cold-blooded execution of his father by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army drove Leonard’s writing and this sad event was to form the centrepiece of his award-winning book, Brokenville.
Of his own volition, Baka Bina published his novel, Man of Calibre, using Amazon’s CreateSpace. It was a compelling fictional account of two torrid days during a family dispute in an Eastern Highlands’ village. And, in his novel, Sibona, Emmanuel Peni produced a splendid account of the life of an unwanted teenager growing up in Port Moresby.
Both of these novels followed the ‘written here - for here’ tradition of Russell Soaba’s Wanpis and are clearly definable as Papua New Guinean literature.
In a country with severely limited publishing opportunities these successes effectively proved digital publishing and print-on-demand as a viable alternative to high priced and poor quality vanity publishing.
Editing can be complex because we are dealing with writers whose first language is usually not English. The danger is that the unique flavour of Papua New Guinean expression and creativity can be subdued in the editorial process.
Another concerning factor is that, by publishing Papua New Guinean writers from an Australian base, we are repeating the mentorship of Ulli Beier and Brian Clouston in the 1970s, that, in influencing Papua New Guinea’s literary output, can both distort it and even encourage dependency.
There is no easy solution to this problem. The Papua New Guinean government is largely oblivious to the benefits of a national literary culture and, given its current repressive inclinations, might not consider a free and flourishing native literature a good thing anyway.
The Crocodile Prize passed to Papua New Guinean management at the beginning of 2016. This followed a successful hosting of the annual awards by the Simbu Writer’s Association in Kundiawa, the first time this had happened outside the national capital.
Writer’s associations may be where the future of Papua New Guinean creative writing rests but they have been slow to develop. Coupled to the advantages of digital publishing and print-on-demand services these groups, if they can achieve strong leadership, may offer another dim light on a distant horizon.
Meanwhile, the re-emergence of a Papua New Guinean literary culture struggles onward. So long as the writers write and are published, no matter how, and their books are distributed, even in small numbers, the flame still flickers.
This is valuable information for those of us who are interested in learning about how our first written literature emerged.
We would appreciate it so much if the links to those works can be included here.
Posted by: Huwe Kwadi | 09 March 2020 at 06:50 PM
Pretty much sums up the short history of PNG Literature. Without writers, a country lacks soul. The truth is, we don't have enough writers compared to athletes or musicians. Most literature major students who graduate from universities end up in news/media jobs or teaching. One can't earn a living through writing and hence, the art of writing is slowly dying out. It's time the relevant government agencies do something to rekindle the literary flames in PNG.
Posted by: Jordan Dean | 21 December 2016 at 11:53 AM
Hi Phil, Your brief and penetrating overview of the literary landscape of this nation is enlightening yet worrying, since the powers that be are indifferent to this situation.
But we the PNG writers need to take up this challenge and move on and persist in writing, because some day, a new dawn will break when PNG literary works will take a leap.
Posted by: Simon Davidson | 19 December 2016 at 09:53 AM