WHEN Keith Jackson and I tentatively embarked on our quest to assist in the regeneration of Papua New Guinean creative writing by inaugurating the Crocodile Prize for literature in 2010, we didn’t know how far it might go or whether we would succeed.
Although we gradually garnered the support of many Papua New Guinean writers, we were always aware that the initiative was ours and that we were intruding on others’ ground and that this had the potential to be culturally tricky.
As it turned out this was not an issue, either because no one else had thought of it or wanted to do it. Apart from a couple of elevated academics, the proposal was greeted with enthusiasm by all, including the grandfathers of Papua New Guinean literature, Russell Soaba and Sir Paulias Matane.
We took special care to celebrate the once fertile past in Papua New Guinean literature and named the prize after the first novel by a Papua New Guinean, Vincent Eri’s The Crocodile.
Vincent was no longer alive but we made sure we contacted his family for permission. It was reassuring when his widow and daughter came to the first Crocodile Prize awards ceremony in 2011.
It would be untruthful if we said that the five years of our oversight was uneventful. There were lots of bumps in the road, particularly in 2013 when a Papua New Guinean-elected organising committee failed to live up to expectations.
But that glitch preceded perhaps the most successful year of the competition with a splendid edition of the annual Crocodile Prize Anthology being published in 2014.
And in 2015 there was a very successful awards ceremony and writer’s workshop hosted by the Simbu Writer’s Association in Kundiawa – and another impressive anthology.
Last year, despite teething problems, the chairman of the organising committee, Emmanuel Peni, pulled off a wholly Papua New Guinean-run contest.
The other gratifying aspect of the Crocodile Prize has been its many spin-offs. These range from the not-for-profit publishing arm, Pukpuk Publications, publishing endeavours by many Papua New Guinean writers, ancillary competitions, visits to Australian writer’s festivals by Papua New Guinean writers, the emergence of recognised writers and social commentators like Martyn Namorong, as well as mentoring programs.
It now looks like many of the writers published by Pukpuk Publications will be picked up by university publishers in Papua New Guinea, especially by a re-energised UPNG Press under the stewardship of Chief John Kasaipwalova..
As Keith and I bowed out of the Crocodile Prize, we felt that all the hard work had paid off and that our original intention to assist spark a sustainable Papua New Guinean literature was fulfilled as we left a burgeoning literary scene in Papua New Guinea.
Of course, it was not just us. It was several hundred writers and the many sponsors and supporters who threw their weight behind the initiative.
The collection of prize winners’ work from 2011-15 has been featured in PNG Attitude over recent weeks. It is now available as a fully-fledged collection of the very best of contemporary Melanesian writing.