NOOSA – According to their first president, Micheal Yaki Mel, in late November 1984 “a group of eager young writers based at the University Papua New Guinea got together to express their dissatisfaction over the lack of publishing outlets for their work.
“Many had poems, stories and other tattered manuscripts tucked away which they couldn’t get published because they were unknown. From that meeting was both the Papua New Guinea Writers Union.”
Anyone in PNG was eligible to join – adults K5; students K2.
This was the second wave of efforts to establish a sustained creative writing culture in PNG, the first having flourished under the guiding presence of Ulli Beier around the time of independence, and then wilted.
The archives of the online Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada, tell the story of the second wave and the Writers Union and its short-lived publication, The PNG Writer, as well as other university-based literary efforts in PNG.
I have extracted the story of The PNG Writer both because it is interesting in its own right as an attempt to drive a writing culture in PNG but especially because the vice-president of the PNG Writers Union was Francis Nii.
Mel had urged his colleagues to “nurture [The Writer] along so PNG literature becomes a living reality: not just something academics talk about.” But, sadly, it was unable to fulfil that noble sentiment.
However, in a Kundiawa hospital bed 20 years later, the by now paraplegic Francis Nii – his spine severed and legs made useless in a vehicle smash - remembered those times and, his career as a banker also wrecked, began to write.
Between then and now, as we mourn Francis’s death and the people of south Simbu prepare for his burial, Francis Nii and PNG Attitude came together in the Crocodile Prize, the third wave of creative writing in PNG, which also did not survive but seems, after 10 years, to have left a permanent imprint.
We did not know it until now, but Francis was the link connecting those ‘eager, dissatisfied young writers” of the mid 1980s and the Crocodile Prize era.
And, as the story will unfold in our latest project, The Francis Nii Collection, from his hospital bed, our dear friend was trying to guide a home-grown literature in an even more complex and far reaching way than those writers had dreamed of three decades before.
On the tenth anniversary of Independence, the Papua New Guinea Writers Union was able to obtain financing from the National Literature Board to fund a periodical, The PNG Writer, which appeared in 1985.
PNG Writer was a lively journal, published twice each year. It was about 70 pages long. Most of its content was in English.
It featured essays, poetry, short stories, plays, interviews, and reviews with only one or two items in Pidgin out of an average 15 items.
The genres were labelled and collected in sections, except for verse, which was interspersed. Reviews and interviews were generally located at the end.
An academic bias in PNG Writer was demonstrated in the proportional representation of essays and reviews -- about half of each issue.
What is encouraging about PNG Writer is that these essays and reviews were by the writers themselves and about PNG literature.
One interesting aspect of the PNG Writer is its black consciousness, evident in reviews of several African and Caribbean works. This continuing "spiritual" connection between Africa and PNG literatures had survived Ulli Beier's tenure in several ways.
Joseph Sukwianomb had studied and worked in Kenya for five years. Sukwianomb authored reviews of Kenyan writers Mwangi Ruheni, Maina wa Kinyatti, and Sam Kahiga and an essay on Ngugi in PNG Writer and Ondobondo.
Charles Hood wrote a review of Aimé Césaire. In 1986, Ben Nakin and Steve Winduo returned from the Black Writers Conference impressed by the power of black organisations, committed to the new union, and to black control of editing and publishing.
But this black consciousness was not identical to the Black Power movement on campus a decade earlier. Rather than a political identification, it seemed directed in two ways: the first was professional achievement and acceptance for the black writer; the second was a kind of cultural affirmation.
If there was a backlash in this journal, it was not anti-colonial, but directed toward the first generation of PNG writers as too elitist, too political, and not committed enough to literature.
It is significant that the only older writers who contributed to PNG Writer were Vincent Eri (an essay about writing), Allan Natachee (poetry), Kumalau Tawali (poetry), and Russell Soaba (poetry). Eri and Natachee were always a-political. Tawali and Soaba were two of the most committed of PNG writers and two of the least systemically aligned.
The Writers Union was at pains to dissociate itself from what was generally understood as university writing: i.e., the Beier/Kovave school. It did this in part through forewords and editorials that sounded as though they were written for Papua New Guinea Writing. The message was populist and written in clear, simple English:
“...there is a wealth of creative talent in this country. Let's nurture it along so that PNG literature becomes a living reality; not just something which academics talk about. The best way to do this is to join the PNG Writers Union or to set up a branch in your school, college or home district” - Micheal Mel, 1985
Mel's appeal for broad participation was echoed in D'Arcy's editorial. His pitch was very reminiscent of Roger Boschman's editorials for Papua New Guinea Writing in the early 1970s. The Union was receiving manuscripts from all over the country, so many that he could not publish them as quickly as he would like; but contributors were to be patient.
D'Arcy was especially clear that PNG Writer was not elitist. Although the journal was based on the UPNG campus, it was to be understood as a national magazine.
The journal welcomed manuscripts from provincial writers and from women. Drama, that very political genre used by the first generation of PNG writers was not at first forthcoming, so D'Arcy had plans for including articles on playwriting.
But the a-political nature of his approach was clearest in the admonition that direct "political diatribe" was boring. Criticism, he suggested, might better be directed into satire and humour.
In other words, the journal was conceived as yet another entry-level populist literary magazine intended to bear the full weight of forming whatever character the national literature might come to have.