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Building a literature: early Oz & PNG writers had much in common

Red Page
The Bulletin's Red Page helped get an Australian literary school on the move (National Library of Australia)


TUMBY BAY - In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Australian writers struggled to establish a truly Australian modality of literature.

In many ways their struggle resembled the current efforts of Papua New Guinean writers to establish a Papua New Guinean school of literature.

Many of those Australian writers had Irish antecedents and were influenced by the burgeoning literary scene in Ireland.

The advice from the Irish writers to their Australian counterparts was to forget European and English literary models and concentrate on writing about Australia using Australian settings and vernacular.

This is the sort of advice now being given to Papua New Guinean writers by Australian writers.

To establish a truly Papua New Guinean school of literature its writers need to write about their own country using local settings and idioms.

Many early Australian writers had trouble finding publishers. Ironically, a lot of well-known and famous Australian novels and poetry collections were self-published and only published commercially after they were successful.

The majority of these writers never made much money from their craft, even those who published commercially.

That hasn’t changed much to this day. There are only a few Australian writers, usually of popular fiction, who can support themselves from their work; most writers need to maintain other sources of income.

All of this should sound familiar to Papua New Guinean writers.

The early Australian writers tended to lean to the left politically. Many were socialists and a few were communists. Others were utopian and against capitalism. These inclinations greatly influenced their subject matter.

Although many of them came from strong church traditions a lot of them became secularists and ended up eschewing religion.

This left-leaning politics and atheism or agnosticism also features in the work of many Papua New Guinean writers.

Australian literature probably wouldn’t have flourished as well as it did without the establishment of The Bulletin, a magazine established in 1880 and, from about 1886, under the editorship of John Archibald.

The Bulletin had a huge influence on the development of Australian literature.

This influence was further enhanced when Archibald employed AG Stephens in 1893 to deal with the deluge of creative writing coming in from Australian writers.

Stephens established the magazine’s celebrated literary column, initially on the inside of the back cover. This cover was coloured red and became the famous Red Page. Most of Australia’s leading writers of the time first appeared on the Red Page.

I don’t want to appear grandiose but I can’t help noticing the similarities between The Bulletin and Stephen’s Red Page and our esteemed editor, Keith Jackson’s PNG Attitude.

Both The Bulletin’s Red Page and PNG Attitude seemed to arrive at a crucial time in the development of literature in Australia and Papua New Guinea respectively.

PNG Attitude is still going of course but The Bulletin is gone. It was canned by James Packer in January 2008 because it wasn’t making enough money and he wanted to get into the more lucrative casino trade.

A similar thing happened to another great magazine, Pacific Islands Monthly. That was also canned because it didn’t make enough money. In its case the executioner was Rupert Murdoch.

I think both these cases ably illustrate that, for the capitalist and for capitalist governments, a bit of extra money is much more important than something like a literary tradition.

The only consolation I have personally is that I have seen my name attached to work in both The Bulletin and Pacific Islands Monthly.

And, of course, PNG Attitude.


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Susan Francis

One great, modern Australian poet was Ronald McCuaig, who wrote for The Bulletin for years.

His book of poetry ‘Vaudeville’, explored modern Australian life: people who lived in flats, and worked as clerks in banks or travelling salesmen.

The work reflected what he saw around him. He published this book himself in his own apartment near Kings Cross.

He provides the reader with images of love, despair, old age and domestic violence and reminds us of the grit of day to day life.

Rich subject matter. How beautiful to see those ideas reflected in texts created in PNG!

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