SCOTT HAMILTON | http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com.au
SOMETIMES New Zealand publishers complain to me.
The book market here is so small, this or that publisher says. Grants are inadequate. Bookshops are closing, as internet imperialists like Amazon expand.
All of these complaints are justified. The life of a Kiwi book publisher can be a difficult one.
But if our publishers need some perspective on their plight, and some inspiration, then they ought to read Phil Fitzpatrick's remarkable article 'The Lost Creative Writing Generation of Papua New Guinea', which was published late last year on the popular PNG Attitude blog.
Fitzpatrick begins his article by recalling the beginnings of written Papuan literature in the 1960s and '70s. As agitation for independence from Australia grew, the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby became a base for a generation of young writers. They worked in English and Tok Pisin, rather than one of their nation's eight hundred or so indigenous languages, and adapted traditional oral storytelling techniques to the page.
Ulli Beier, a German Jewish scholar who had taught in Nigeria before fleeing the Biafran conflict, got a job teaching creative writing at the University of Papua New Guinea, and began to edit and publish anthologies of the nation's emerging literature. A Papua Pocket Poets series was successful, and the journals Kovave and Papua New Guinea Writing were established.
In the 1980s, though, Papua New Guinean writers struggled for support. Papua New Guinea had won independence, but successive governments struggled to find funds for roads and schools, let alone literary grants and creative writing courses. Libraries decayed and closed, local publishers folded, and the Australian and New Zealand literary worlds remained steadfastly uninterested in Papua New Guinean texts.
Over the last decade the internet and cheaper publishing have revived PNG literature. After Digicel raised its towers across Papua New Guinea, bringing the worldwide web to the territory beyond Port Moresby, writers began to self-publish on blogs and social media.
When Phil Fitzpatrick and his friend Keith Jackson established an annual Crocodile Prize for creative writing in 2011, they were deluged with material. Fitzpatrick pays tribute to Martyn Namorong, the self-styled 'educated savage'.
Namorong 'bombarded' Fitzpatrick and Jackson with 'short and incendiary essays' on Papuan society and politics. Namorong grew up in a logging camp in Papua New Guinea's western province, and learned English by listening to shortwave broadcasts from Radio Australia.
Namorong has made himself an enemy of the government of Peter O'Neill, a businessman who was elected on an anti-corruption platform but has since been fighting a warrant for his arrest on charges of corruption. Last year police opened fire on students of the Papua New Guinea University, after they marched to demand that O'Neil address the charges against him. Seventeen students were wounded.
Taking advantage of cheap Chinese publishers, Fitzpatrick and Jackson began to produce anthologies of new Papuan writing, and then to issue books by individual authors. By the time Fitzpatrick and Jackson had established Pukpuk Publications, some Papua New Guinean writers had begun to bring out their own books. Baka Bina, for instance, used Amazon's CreateSapce to self-publish a novel called A Man of Calibre, which describes 'two torrid days during a family dispute in an Eastern Highlands village'.
Apart from Rapa Nui and the Philippines, no Pacific society developed its own script and written literature before contact with Europe. There has been a tendency for scholars to contrast the oral traditions of the Pacific with the written traditions of the West, and to suggest that the two are profoundly different, and perhaps incompatible.
But the alacrity with which PNG writers have adapted an indigenous storytelling tradition to new technology and new publishing opportunities shows that there need be no dichotomy between oral and written literatures.
The PNG literary movement of the 1970s stalled partly because of a lack of support from the country's wealthy southern neighbours. We shouldn't let a new Papuan generation suffer the same neglect. I'm ordering some books from Pukpuk Publications.