PORT MORESBY - It was like slowly scaling the steep ice-covered walls of Mt Everest. Hoping to make it, but not really knowing.
Three writers waiting for more than a month in Port Moresby to present a petition to prime minister James Marape.
A petition signed by more than 300 people seeking that the Papua New Guinea government recognise and support PNG literature.
And when the prime minister's front desk staffers asked us to wait for yet another three weeks, it seemed we had reached the death zone of that great mountain.
I was just about ready to pack my bags and go back to Wabag in the misty highlands.
But then, on Thursday 31 October, I received a message from the prime minister’s office asking us to immediately furnish information about why we wanted to see Mr Marape.
So Caroline Evari, Betty Wakia and I did exactly as we were requested, and – while we’re still awaiting the next move – I thought I’d share with you a summary of the contents of a letter the three of us wrote on behalf of more than 300 petitioners – including scores of Papua New Guinean writers, authors, poets, commentators, publishers and editors – who want to see the government support a sustainable home-grown literature in PNG.
We eagerly await that further message from Mr Marape which will see us ushered into his presence to share a few words on the massive benefits that will ensue from developing our own literary tradition in PNG.
In our letter, we began by informing Mr Marape that PNG’s writers and their supporters had decided to petition the government immediately after he was elected as PNG’s eighth prime minister. The story we told him went something like this….
We writers really like James Marape’s war cry to "take back PNG and make it the richest black Christian nation on earth". We figure that here is a prime minister we can trust. We believe every citizen must support his clear vision for the nation by engaging their talents fully in activities they are good at.
And we hold the strong view that literature can play a significant role in nation-building in our country. That it can have a powerful influence on improving education, strengthening culture and on focusing people on how to create a strong and progressive society.
Unfortunately the power of these contributions that literature can make has been ignored by successive PNG governments.
Billions of kina have been spent on education over the years, but there is little to show for it. Most schools are run down. There are few public and school libraries. Most students speak poor English. And our illiteracy rate remains one of the highest in the world.
A home-grown literature can do so much. It can impact positively on educational standards, it can preserve our traditions and cultures, it can encourage a sense of pride in our people and it can tell the story of our great nation to the world.
A nation without a story is a nation without a soul.
Papua New Guinea has writers. We have a lot of them. We have authors, editors and publishers who are largely unrecognised in our society. Worse, their books are largely unread.
PNG’s writers struggle to tell our nation’s story. There are no major publishers interested in publishing our works. If authors want to publish books, they themselves pay for them.
Because of this, most PNG-authored books would reach many fewer than 100 people.
PNG-authored books are not available in schools and libraries. Our students cannot read books written by their own countrymen and women. Instead, they read books from other countries.
In most cases Papua New Guinean authors pay to have their books printed and they donate them so people can read their own literature.
Our national literary awards, the Crocodile Prize, established in 2011, is struggling to survive. It is supported by limited private funding. The government has never shown real interest in it.
We writers feel this situation must change.
Our main wish is to see our books, including those already published, purchased by the government and distributed to libraries, schools, universities and other educational institutions in our country.
Our writers think of how good it would be if, in every government office, there was a small bookcase full of PNG-authored books – novels, biographies, poetry, children’s picture books, history, commentaries and the rest.
A bookshelf offering a clear and concrete statement about our culture, our sophistication and our civilisation.
The books exist that would do this exist, but the means of getting them on shelves do not.
To become a literary society and to develop a reading culture, Papua New Guinea needs to redirect some of its own book-buying budget to local authors – and to encourage NGOs and corporate business to help out in the same way.
A typical PNG-authored book costs less than K20.
The government and its agencies can assist by sponsoring the Crocodile Prize national literature competition and encouraging the formation of provincial writers associations.
We writers are keen to introduce a Prime Minister’s Award for the Best Book each year - one each for a male and female author.
The key government agencies that should be actively involved are the Department of Higher Education, Research and Technology and the Department of Education. Their roles should be to assist develop libraries and to purchase and distribute books.
We also feel the National Library, the National Cultural Commission and the Ministry of Tourism Arts and Culture can also play a major part in this project.
The outcome will be a win-win for writers, readers, educators, students and the people of PNG.
It will particularly encourage new writers and new readers to shine through.
Right now, Papua New Guineans – when they read – are mainly reading books written by outsiders.
Reading about their own country, their own people, their own stories and issues, will be a huge positive boost and a massive source of national pride.
Experts say Papua New Guinea does not have a reading culture. One reason for this is that are so few PNG-authored books available to be read.
We are confident this will change if writers can be connected to readers through the books they produce. But this will happen only if the government intervenes to ensure the necessary steps are taken.
If the Marape-Davis government responds to our request, this virtuous circle can be created – and the nation will benefit.
With a better informed, empowered and more literate population, James Marape’s vision to make PNG a prosperous nation will be well on track.