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The Island is Calling

Indigenous literature and academic elitism in PNG

Phil 2015
Phil Fitzpatrick


TUMBY BAY - In countries with a written literary tradition, especially in the western world, the publication of books has been largely accomplished outside government.

In those places, book publishing has and continues to be mainly a capitalist enterprise. Artistic and philosophical considerations aside, the chief driving force has been to make money. If not lots of it, at least enough to cover costs and maybe put some bread on the table.

Many writers will object to this mercenary view and argue that their main aim in writing is to engage in the transmission of creativity and ideas.

The truth is it is a discussion that contains elements of all these things.

In countries that do not have a written literary tradition the situation is different. Papua New Guinea is a case in point.

The written literature of Papua New Guinea was essentially born in the missions of the late 19th century but it was only in the five or so years before independence in 1975 that it emerged with a truly indigenous flavour, with quality and in some quantity.

This movement was driven by the University of Papua New Guinea and more particularly by the endeavours of one man, Ulli Beier, a lecturer in creative writing whose earlier career had been spent doing something similar in Nigeria.

Most of the writers from this this period were in one way or another connected to UPNG. The majority were Beier’s students. Vincent Eri, who wrote the first Papua New Guinean novel, The Crocodile, after which The Crocodile Prize is named, was one of them.

While this singular literary effort was going on at UPNG there was little serious writing being published elsewhere. Except in the education sector, no independent firm sprang up to publish writers not associated with the university.

Literature in PNG thus evolved in isolation in an academic context. There was nothing like a popular publishing industry established in PNG although the larger missions continued to publish stories drawn from biblical analogies, some of which were written by Papua New Guineans

Most of the writers after 1975 continued to have some sort of connection to UPNG. Many of them were students who had gone on to become lecturers and teachers at the university.

Indigenous literature in PNG was effectively a closed shop, tightly controlled by academia.

As the years went by, UPNG, like many other institutions, suffered severe financial constraints and governance became compromised. The encouragement and even the ability of academics to publish was considerably diminished. Even UPNG’s literary monopoly shrunk and, with a few outstanding hold-outs who often published at their own expense, indigenous literature dried up.

PNG Attitude was established in 2006 and by 2008 was beginning to encourage indigenous cntributions (an early article was by Aloysius Laukai, still going strong on Bougainville) but it wasn’t until later in 2009 that Papua New Guinean bylines from people like Gelab Piak, Mari Ellingsen and Reg Renagi began to regularly appear.

When the Crocodile Prize came along (planned in late 2010, launched in 2011), offering online publication to anyone and the added chance to be published in hard copy, it directly challenged the literary academics at the UPNG. It also placed emphasis on creative writing  and commentary as well as news writing, a significant turning point.

Here had emerged a popular, people’s literature challenging the hallowed ground of an academia that had virtually run out of steam. What to do? Jump on board and help it along or ignore it and hope it would go away?

Remarkably, and except for pragmatists like Russell Soaba, the latter is what happened. The academics didn’t want a bar of it. Perhaps they thought it was beneath their dignity and an affront to the closely guarded status of a Papua New Guinean literature that had hardly continued to exist.

When Crocodile Prize organisers came knocking with invitations to join in the doors were locked and there was a pretence the newcomers weren’t there.

If there was ever going to be any glory attached to literature in PNG, it seemed they wanted it for themselves.

There has been a deafening silence since.

They sit in the mouldering innards of UPNG and stew and write learned articles about each other that never get published.

Imagine if this had happened in Britain or the USA. We would never have had all those great writers, from Shakespeare to Mark Twain to JK Rowling.

They would have been still looking for a publisher.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Steven Winduo was always been an interested observer of our efforts to promote PNG literature Michael but despite numerous attempts on our part could never be convinced to put his weight behind them.

I found this most curious, especially given that Russell Soaba came on board right from the beginning. Indeed, Russell's involvement contributed to our success.

It would be good to hear from Steven on this issue.

Michael Dom

One small step for PNG writers.
One giant leap for contemporary writers.

Rashmii Bell

My experience with PNG academia and my writing: praise my efforts in private, but never publicly.

Just as they have sat in the same room with me in front of prominent Australian literary identities and discussed the need for more PNG voices to be included in major Australian writers festivals - only to insert themselves on that platform without a thought of extending the opportunity to me.

Harry - great information on Henry Lawson, thank you. Last year at the Brisbane Writers Festival, I presented on a panel with Australian academic Kerrie Davis, the author of 'A Wife's Heart' - a bio of Henry Lawson's wife, Bertha Lawson. Your comments remind me I should revisit their story.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I rather like Walter de la Mare's poem 'The Listeners', written about 1912. If you substitute the traveller for a writer and pretend the house is the university it works well.

"Is there anybody there?" said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest's ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
"Is there anybody there?" he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:--
"Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word," he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Harry Topham

Phil - I think you’re on to the money here. Intellectual snobbery is a good ruse for bad authors who attempt to cloak their so-called esoteric wisdom with academic scholarly license.

Henry Lawson the Australian poet and writer never had any problem finding publishers for his works as his works found the readers mark so to speak.

The trouble with “riting”as Henry Lawson would pen is that it is all in the eyes and minds of the reader.

Lawson chose a particular writing style that he knew would resonate with his readers however his literary peers at the time in good old merry England severely crticised his writings as being uncouth and boorish and deemed his works and as such were not worthy for publishing.

What they failed to realise that in fact Lawson’s indomitable intellect was far more formable than theirs.
It was recounted that he agonized over his writings continually editorialising and rewriting his prose and poems until in his words “he got it right”.

Despite the non-recognition from the English literary mob his credibility as a serious writer Lawson was widely recognised by his Australian contemporaries of the time who lauded his style and intelligence indicating his clever use of the metaphor and symbolism in his writings as his strongest suite.

I think his philosophy in life was more than likely influenced by his meager circumstances, which like many a true artist, gave him a clear insight into the mindset of the common man.

Always broke and looking for a few bob to wet his whistle he was known to put the bite on any one that might help him out.

I like his anecdote about once meeting a couple of the clergy passing by and when denied a bit of largesse, commented: “ Three men on a street met, one was a priest, the other also and the third had no money too”.

Anyone interested in Lawson’s writing would find the book entitled ”Henry Lawson by his mates” published by Angus and Robertson a good read.

Francis Nii

Like Jordan Dean, I also sent an email to a professor and writer with whom we did preliminary year together asking for advice and help to get my manuscript published.

But the good professor never replied and I wondered why?

Now I know the reason. Thank you, Phil.

Jordan Dean

Bingo Phil!

Tried to publish my books with UPNG Press but ran into brick walls. I am assuming the academics want to maintain their status quo as PNG literature legends.

They should be encouraging and mentoring upcoming writers.

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