NOOSA - Successive national and foreign governments and organisations have directed development aid to a range of programs in Papua New Guinea – some successful, too many not.
But in doing so they have overlooked a huge cultural influence that not only represents the beating heart and animated spirit of the nation but is also a bearer of learning, personal understanding and social cohesion.
The marvel to which I refer is a hardy creation that refuses to die even when denied nurture, encouragement and recognition.
It is a home-grown literature that will amplify the creativity, culture and spirit of Papua New Guineans.
But, lacking the required support, literature has not emerged in PNG as an influence capable of playing its vital role in education, in nation building or in people’s lives.
This marvel - the written word in all its forms - which, says Dr Anthony Olaoye of the University of Abuja in Nigeria, “opens people’s eyes to a wide range of experiences and a deeper understanding of these experiences [as] an authentic mirror image of its society and time.”
After nearly 10 years of seeking to revive a Papua New Guinean written literary tradition which emerged with substance only in the 1960s, here in 2020 my co-conspirator Phil Fitzpatrick and I remain bemused by the lack of insight and enthusiasm for a home-grown literature among the politicians and bureaucrats of Papua New Guinea.
This failing is also seen in most of the patron agencies and organisations contributing to PNG's progress, which habitually assure us they want to see the nation grow and develop in the interests of its people.
So the development of a national literature in Papua New Guinea continues to be overlooked, ignored or considered of little importance. And thus it is failing to emerge as the influential force it could be in education, nation building and social cohesion.
That literature does survive in the hearts and minds of many people despite the neglect, however, is a powerful sign revealing a powerful creative spirit awaiting the means to be enabled full expression, as Phil and I found soon after conceiving the Crocodile Prize national literary awards in 2010.
In a climate constrained by an acute shortage of the resources a successful enterprise requires, the Crocodile Prize managed to string out a living, including establishing related projects in publishing, mentoring and tours and networking both in PNG and overseas.
But it has always been hampered by its smallness, impoverishment and lack of organisation.
There have been white knights that have helped, however the necessary strength and scope could not occur in the absence of support from established institutions which could provide a home-grown literature with a permanent and sustainable presence.
That said, under the auspices of a small voluntary group, seven national literary contests have been held, six anthologies of the best writing from those contests have been published, and 50 books mostly by Papua New Guinean authors have been produced.
These have sold poorly – cost and distribution being deadly obstacles.
And, perhaps more important, the Crocodile Prize foundered in 2017 and attempts to revive it have not succeeded.
In desperation, in 2019, a group of Papua New Guinean writers composed a manifesto seeking to establish meaningful, tangible and sustained government and institutional support for PNG literature.
It was submitted to Papua New Guinea's prime minister, James Marape, but a promised meeting with him has been postponed twice and, to date there is no indication whether it will be held at all.
It reflects dismally on the commitment at an official level to an important cultural force that can be a critical component of nation-building and social strengthening, especially in a developing country.
The Crocodile Prize was both an organising principle and a source of motivation and in many cases, without it, the creative impulse has been blunted.
That said, however, hundreds of writers continue to write and PNG Attitude continues to publish their writing.
But without official Papua New Guinean encouragement, and a whole-hearted commitment to a home-grown literature, a gaping hole in Papua New Guinea’s cultural integrity may re-emerge 10 years after a renaissance was experienced after a long gap that dated back to the literary outpouring that surrounded the years around national independence in 1975.
The 2019 Manifesto for Literature in Papua New Guinea
We, the writers of Papua New Guinea, believe that our nation’s literature is something that needs to be encouraged and supported by everyone, but especially by the government.
Without a home-grown literature the story of our great nation cannot be told.
If our story is not told, future generations of Papua New Guineans will not be fully aware of where they come from, who they are and what made them.
A nation without a story is like a nation without a soul.
The writers of Papua New Guinea are currently struggling to tell our nation’s story.
There are no major publishers in Papua New Guinea interested in publishing our work. If we want to publish our books, we have to pay for it ourselves.
Our books are not available in schools. The students of Papua New Guinea cannot read books written by their own countrymen and women.
Instead, they have to read books written by writers from other countries.
Papua New Guinea has a poorly resourced public library system. Few of our own books are available in these libraries. In most cases Papua New Guinean authors have to donate books free of charge to libraries so people can read them.
Our national literary award, the Crocodile Prize, is struggling to survive. It is supported by limited private funding. The Papua New Guinean government has never shown real interest in supporting it. Nor has the government shown an interest in supporting Papua New Guinean writers.
It is time this situation changed.
We, the undersigned writers of Papua New Guinea, together with our readers and supporters, are calling upon our new Prime Minister, James Marape, to commit his government and future governments to providing the support our writers, our literature and our nation deserve.
It is time to secure the story of Papua New Guinea for present and future generations.
To do less is unthinkable