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Literatures find a time to blossom

Evelyn Ellerman - "I remember the very day in 1963 I was able to walk into a bookstore and actually buy something written by a Canadian author"

| Ples Singsing

ALBERTA, CANADA - It’s a funny thing about national literatures. It seems as though they find their own time to blossom.

Like Papua Niuguineans, I live in a former colony, Canada. Different circumstances, but many of the same challenges.

We achieved our political independence in 1867, but it wasn’t until almost a century later, 1967, that we awoke as a culture.

There are many reasons for this, but the influx of many European cultures through immigration, added to over 60 pre-existing indigenous cultures, meant that it took us a long time to figure out what the collective term ‘Canadian’ meant.

It happened with a bang in the 1960s, centring on a year-long celebration of our first century as a political entity.

I was in high school at the time and remember the very day in 1963 that I was able to walk into a bookstore and actually buy something written by a Canadian author.

Just one book. But it was in the window. I couldn’t believe it! It was a poetry anthology called ‘The Blasted Pine: An Anthology of Satire, Invective and Disrespectful Verse - Chiefly by Canadians’.

It changed my life. I began to look for more books about my country and gradually they appeared, mostly because our national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, made a point of  introducing us to authors on the radio, and because one publisher, McClelland and Stewart, made a point of publishing Canadian authors and sending them on tour across the country for us to meet them.

Publishing and distribution are essential and this is how it was for English Canadian writing at that time.

But there is another factor that is crucial to growing a national literature: children need to grow up reading about the world through the eyes of their own culture. Throughout my entire schooling, the children’s readers, the textbooks and all the cultural references were foreign.

When I entered university in 1966, there was no university program anywhere in the country for studying Canadian literature. It was next to impossible to even find a single course in Canadian literature. I know. Because I looked.

Today, it’s a different story. Today, if you were to ask people about Canadian literature, they would be able to list their favourite authors.

But, when I first went to university, and well into the 1980s, whenever I talked about Canadian literature, people would laugh and say, “What Canadian literature? You’re joking.”

So, it is critical to reach children and youth, so that they grow up knowing who they are as a people.

But that was then – the chief publishers and distributors of literature used print and the radio, much as Papua Niuguinea literature did when it started.

Come to think of it, this was at basically the same time as Canadian literature: the mid 1960s. People in Canada started with publishing their poems in newspapers and magazines and read their work aloud on the radio.

Then publishers came and went for book length works. Publishing is always a problem, as it is difficult for local or smaller publishers to compete with the big houses.

Today, Papua Niuginean writers, and other writers around the world, are using the internet, which is a wonderful technology for publication and dissemination.

A colleague of mine once told me that his first books were all printed in the usual way. Then, he decided to publish a book using an open access online platform and suddenly, he found that he had ten times as many sales because of the reach of the digital platforms, as well as a rapidly developing network of readers and fellow writers.

My advice to any writer these days is to explore all the possibilities of such platforms. In my view, the internet not only provides an almost limitless audience for creative writing, it has actually given poetry a new birth, because it is such an oral/aural technology.

The internet has re-vitalized the genre by enhancing what is at the core of all good verse: the music of the spoken word.

I applaud the efforts of Michael Dom and all the other writers and friends who are responsible for this new blog. I believe it will provide a cornerstone for the community of writers from Papua Niuguinea.

Dr Evelyn Ellerman is an academic at Athabasca University in Alberta Canada


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Chris Overland

Phil, I think that the main barrier to an Australian Republic is a deep seated suspicion of our political class, not a nostalgic fondness for monarchy or a long gone empire.

Our politicians are far too unprincipled and untrustworthy to successfully develop and market a credible republican model of governance to a very cynical and sceptical public.

Maybe Peter Fitzsimon and his colleagues in the ARM can do this but I won't be holding my breath.

Maikel Dom

Planti ol lapun man-meri bilong Papua Niugini igat bikpela laik long Mises Kwin, na tu ol bik mm an na bikmeri bilong nau, na tu ol yangpela isave igat laikim long pasin bilong luksave long ol Royals.

Mipela ol Papua Niugini ibin lain bilong pait na kisim giraun, mipela save long pait tumbuna wankain olsem ol tumbuna bilong Mises Kein ibin kisim giraun na kamapim longpela lain Royal.

Em orait bihain taim bai yumi skelim tingting long dispela 'monarchy'.

Long nau iet I nogat bikpela bel hevi long senisim nem.

Philip Fitzpatrick

My sense of the situation is that a "uniquely Papua New Guinean culture" has already emerged Chris. What seems to be going on at the moment is structural development.

Literature has certainly contributed to its development but so too have other elements, not least the merging of all the old multiple cultures into a nationally representative fascade. Into this mix has also been added a range of western cultural aspects.

As for Australia I think we have a way to go. I don't think we will be able to truly call ourselves Australians until we ditch the monarchy and replaced the union jack on our flag.

Canada has ditched their old flag but are still a constitutional monarchy so they've got a way to go yet. PNG has its own flag but is still a constitutional monarchy too.

Michael Dom

Evelyn Ellerman has provided us with the historical and social context of literary birth in Canada to help us understand that the creation, the blending of many cultures and forging of a national conscience is a phenomenon which happens naturally everywhere, in so-called developed and developing countries.

That means we can really do this!

Here's one way how: explore these pages

And another way is here:

Chris Overland

Like Dr Ellerman I was born into a country that was still trying to shake off the last vestiges of its past history as an imperial dominion.

In the mid 1950's we Australians were still celebrating what was called "Empire Day". On that day my primary school would be festooned with Union Jacks and we would all sing the Australian national anthem ("God save the Queen") which was also the British national anthem.

The last Empire Day was celebrated on 24 May 1958. By then the British Empire was being busily disestablished by a Britain that had been impoverished and irretrievably politically weakened by two catastrophic world wars.

Even Australia's most hidebound conservatives had at last understood that we could no longer cling to the illusion that we were still part of a viable empire.

Despite this, my primary school education in subjects like history and geography emphasised that Australia was British. We studied maps of the new British Commonwealth, with the member countries coloured in pink just as they were in the old maps of the Empire.

But the influx of immigrants from countries like Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe and the various Balkan states inexorably began to change how the country thought about itself.

Many things began to change: there was new food to consume, new beverages to drink, new entertainments to be had and new ideas to consider.

As in Canada a nascent Australian literature began to appear more frequently in bookshops and in the best seller lists. The "cultural cringe" which had inhibited Australians from exploring and celebrating their particular and unique culture began to collapse at last.

The 1970's saw an explosion of unusually virulent Australian nationalism which was duly reflected in its language, sport, literature, film, television and politics. It was a time when being an "okker" and speaking "strine" was celebrated, not regarded as an indication of social inferiority.

This was epitomised by the emergence of comedians like Paul Hogan and Barry Humphries whose humour both satirised and celebrated all things Australian.

The last vestiges of imperialism simply evaporated in the face of an onslaught of what might be called Australian exceptionalism.

A similar pattern emerged in literature, with many new Australian authors being published and very widely read. When in 1973 Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for literature it could be said that Australian literature had at last achieved recognition as a distinctive part of broader English literature.

Suddenly, universities became interested in Australian history and culture in its own right, not as an adjunct to British history. Thus I became, albeit largely by accident, one of the first university graduates with a major in Australian Studies.

Now, in the face of the globalisation of culture, including literature, film and television amongst many other things, it is once more a struggle for the Australian voice to be heard above the cacophony of other voices being blasted across the world through the world wide web.

Despite this, there still is a uniquely Australian culture developing and being expressed in a host of ways.

Contrary to the fears and prejudices of some people, large scale immigration from non-English speaking countries has broadened, deepened and reshaped our culture rather than diminished it in some way.

I think that it can fairly be said that a nation is not a real and viable entity unless and until it develops a body of its own literature that reflects its distinctive culture and history.

Right now, my sense is that the ruling elite in PNG is struggling to understand this but my hope is that the efforts of its emergent intellectuals and writers will eventually enlighten them and that a uniquely Papua New Guinean culture will emerge that both animates and unites its peoples within a truly national identity.

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