KUNDIAWA - Writing and publishing our own Papua New Guinean stories in the absence of government or donor agency support is a daunting and painful experience.
But we write because stories are part of our culture and books are repositories of our culture. What is it the authorities don’t understand?
I would like to relay the many struggles and hardships I went through to get my first book published only to find there is a trifling level of readership in Papua New Guinea. My story, unfortunately, is similar to many PNG authors.
I started writing, mainly poetry, in the 1980s while doing my economics degree at the University of Papua New Guinea and published in Ondobondo and the PNG Writers’ Union magazine.
Some of the poems were later republished in a collection by lecturer Ganga Powell with Macmillan Press Australia in a book titled, ‘Through Melanesian Eyes’, now available on Amazon.
My first serious writing, a novel, came in in 2003-04 while I was recuperating at Sir Joseph Nombri Memorial Hospital in Kundiawa from a near fatal motor vehicle accident.
When I felt that the story was complete, I sent a hard copy by airmail to the author Sir Paulias Matane, who was then Governor-General of PNG, at his Government House address. I asked him to assess and critique the work.
Some weeks later, I received a letter from CBS Publishers and Distributors of New Delhi, the same publisher that published Matane’s and other Papua New Guinean writers’ books. The letter said CBS had received my manuscript, was happy with the narrative and was ready to publish.
For a novel written by a first-time writer to be accepted for publication by a renowned foreign publisher was unusual and quite a feat, I thought. I was very happy.
After a number of expensive letters going to and fro, and with the benevolent assistance of Caritas PNG courtesy of Dr Jan Jaworski, I got the first batch of hard copies printed and ocean freighted to Lae in 2005.
Unfortunately, I traded two boxes to meet customs and storage costs because I didn’t have the money to pay the fees.
The sad thing I found out later was that, while I struggled to write and get my story published, 30 copies of ‘Paradise in Peril’ were in the possession of the humanities department of Divine Word University in Madang. And the Theodist Stationery store in Port Moresby was selling copies.
In both cases, I hadn’t supplied the books and I had no idea how they got hold of them. Some people had obviously benefited from my struggles and toil by getting the books delivered on golden platter thanks to the PNG government’s indifference to copyright law.
After that experience, I kept an eye out for a cheaper way of republishing ‘Paradise in Peril’. I made enquiries of publishers including the PNG government printing office and all of them wanted hefty upfront deposits I couldn’t afford.
That was until 2011, when the door opened. The new national literature competition, The Crocodile Prize, came along, initiated by Australians Keith Jackson AM and Philip Fitzpatrick to promote and encourage Papua New Guineans to write their own stories using the PNG Attitude blog as the platform.
Keith and Phil each had long standing connections with PNG in various capacities dating back to the pre-independence Australian administration of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. They understood the development of PNG literature from the time of Ulli Beier, writer, scholar and pioneer mentor of modern PNG literature.
They knew the burgeoning interest in writing around the time of independence and the sharp decline into dormancy after independence. They were the right people to initiate this important project of rejuvenating a home-grown PNG literature.
I was introduced to the Crocodile Prize in 2011by award winning poet and founding president of Simbu Children Foundation, Jimmy Drekore. I have been writing for the competition and PNG Attitude ever since.
Through my association with the two Australians and the competition, the opportunity opened up for the republication of ‘Paradise in Peril’. I hired a typist to retype the book and after three hours a night for 10 nights, I had the badly needed soft copy in my hand.
With the help of Phil Fitzpatrick, I got the revised version published by Amazon in 2013under the Pukpuk Publications imprint. It was a trial and error effort because we were both new to Amazon’s CreateSpace self-publishing platform.
Pukpuk Publications had been established to accommodate the influx of writing as a result of the Crocodile Prize and to publish its annual anthologies. Many Papua New Guinean authors including me benefited greatly from the selfless voluntary editing and publishing support provided by Phil. In many aspects, it was a sacrifice for Phil as he did everything without charge.
I then published my English textbook with kind support from Amos Dagma and Mika Kekemo.
At the same, I was also studying how Keith Jackson was editing my writing for PNG Attitude.
My own first editing was for the ‘Ku High School Anthology 2014’. Philip Fitzpatrick published the print-ready version I sent him. This was followed by the ‘Simbu High and Secondary Schools Anthology 2015’ under the Simbu Writers Association banner.
The Crocodile Prize has been very successful thanks to corporate and agency sponsorships. It is an annual anthology of the best writing by Papua New Guineans from all walks of life and it has been published and distributed free of charge throughout PNG through a network of volunteers.
The competition has inspired and helped to develop some of PNG’s finest writers like Leonard Fong Roka, Wardley Barry, Corney K Alone, Rashmii Bell, Baka Bina, Gordon Dean, Daniel Kumbon, Emmanuel Peni, Marlene Potura, Caroline Evari and ‘poet laureate’ Michael Dom to name a few.
When Philip Fitzpatrick decided to retire Pukpuk Publications, I felt the work was so important and must continue, and took up the challenge of editing, designing and publishing.
Editing, designing and publishing are great skills and I could have operated as a business entity but, when I reflected back on how it all started, my heart ached.
The intention of two mentors Keith and Phil was not making money but to foster a spirit of volunteerism. They want Papua New Guinea to have an abundant supply of PNG books in libraries and homes written by PNG authors about their own unique history, culture, development and progress in politics, science and technology instead of just books by foreigners writing about our country.
My story is the story of many authors in this country. They went through the same hardships to get their writing published knowing well that there is no market for their work.
They knew well that there is no government and donor support for their work. They knew well that our education system does not have systems in place to encourage students to read books authored by Papua New Guineans.
Nonetheless, we struggle to produce our own literature hoping that one day a good leader will rise up and see the importance of our literature. A leader who will embrace our effort with both hands and put smiles on our faces. A leader who will promote our stories.
A group of PNG writers is gearing up to bring to the attention of the prime minister the voice of writers, mentors and readers of PNG literature within PNG and abroad so the PNG government will recognise PNG authors and our books.
There is no better time for prime minister James Marape to make a grand statement than at this time as the 44th independence anniversary nears. This would be a great gift to the indomitable flag bearers of Papua New Guinean literature.