TUMBY BAY - I’ve been ruminating about the successes and failures of Papua New Guinean literature since Keith Jackson and I kicked off the Crocodile Prize in 2010.
In the scheme of things, the prize and what spun out of it was really the only game in town for quite a while. Things were happening elsewhere but not on the same scale.
Many names of people who floated in and out of the old Croc’s orbit come to mind. Some had a fluttering acquaintance and others stayed the course. A few tried to exploit us.
The private sponsors of the prize, with much cajoling and caressing, provided a wobbly and rickety base. Some of them also came from unlikely and unexpected places.
We are eternally grateful to them all, even the fickle ones, but it is the individuals that bring back the best memories.
Who could forget the unflappable and indefatigable Ruth Moiam and her organisational skills, firstly through the Australian High Commission and then international organisations, where she really made her mark.
Or Jimmy Drekore, whose prodigious energy was brought to bear on several occasions, most notably in 2014 and 2015. Jimmy is a poet in his own right but more than that he is an organiser and motivator.
He rescued everyone during the 2014 workshop at the National Library when our catering plans failed by simply going out and buying everyone hamburgers, chips and Coke.
And, of greater significance, he was instrumental in setting up the Simbu Children Foundation and, later, the Simbu Writers’ Association which, ably assisted by people like Francis Nii, Jimmy Awagl and Mathias Kin, encouraged Simbu school children to read and write and even publish.
The contributions of Francis Nii probably deserve a special prize on their own and are far too numerous to mention. He pioneered the resurgence of PNG literature with his novel ‘Paradise in Peril’, not to mention his erudite essays which matched paragraph by paragraph the spectacular output of social commentator Martyn Namorong. But more than that Francis has been a solid rock in the literature stream – mentoring, motivating, organising, editing, publishing.
Mathias Kin was one of the first Papua New Guinean writers to have the courage to take on the established view of PNG history by writing stories from ‘the other side’ – the side of the colonised people themselves. Among other things he had to challenge the kiaps’ world view in his quest for balance and a voice of his people.
Writers like Daniel Kumbon joined him in this healthy revisionism, following from pioneers like Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin, who wrote the stories his forebears told so they would never be lost to time.
And then there’s Captain Bougainville, aka Leonard Fong Roka, who virtually pioneered a new form of PNG literature that was at once visceral and raw. Later on Baka Bina and others joined him in a quest for authenticity no matter how harshly its screech as it cut across the grain of good manners.
In seeking out these heroes, I should not omit retired naval captain (a Colonel in PNG parlance) Reg Renagi who, at a time when it was considered risky to put one’s head above the parapet by adding your name to what you wrote, did so – and in doing so encouraged so many others to do likewise.
In those early days of the Crocodile Prize we struggled to gain traction within the academic world. The unstated view seemed to be that we were upstarts and populists who wouldn’t last long.
Only Russell Soaba, the old man of PNG Literature, saw merit in what we were doing and extended his hand of friendship by participating as a key speaker in our writers’ workshops.
Another good friend was the prolific writer Marlene Dee Gray Potoura, who set us straight about the importance of literature for children.
And while Marlene was busy doing that, scientist Michael Dom set his sights on uplifting the standards of poetry in PNG. And through his own inspirational work, lauded not just in PNG but internationally, he encouraged other innovative poets, not least Wardley Barry.
In the realm of women’s writing Rashmii Bell stands out for special mention, particularly for her editing of the ground breaking anthology, ‘My Walk to Equality’.
The anthology has been a constant seller and copies of it have gone all over the world, not only bringing PNG women’s writing but also PNG literature in general to the attention of international audiences.
When the Crocodile Prize was flagging after it was taken over by a Papua New Guinean association several individuals worked hard to keep it on track, among them Emanuel Peni, author of the innovative novel ‘Sibona’.
Another significant arrival at this time was Jordan Dean. He was an early master of CreateSpace and digital publishing who, like Francis Nii, became a publisher of many other PNG writers’ works
Over the many years since 2010 numerous efforts have been made to interest the PNG government in literature but, to this day, it has resolutely maintained the deafest of ears to all these entreaties.
Among those who keep banging on the prime ministerial door are Caroline Evari, Betty Wakia and Daniel Kumbon. Perhaps the government is hoping they will go away if they are ignored long enough. It is unlikely that will happen.
There are many more people I could add to this esteemed list. In ways, large and small, they have all contributed to the renaissance of PNG literature.
Names like Philip Kai Morre, James Thomas, Samantha Kusari, Winterford Toreas, Diddie Kinamun Jackson, Arnold Mundua, Jeffrey Febi and Bomai Wine all come to mind.
One day, when all the names of the politicians have vanished from PNG’s collective memory, those people mentioned above, and many more, will still be remembered.
And their words will still be read.