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Unrequited dream: PNG books in PNG hands

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Authors Francis Nii and Francis Kumbon at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016

DUNCAN GABI
| Ples Singsing

MADANG - ‘A Manifesto for Literature in Papua New Guinea’ was part of a petition drawn up by PNG writers to present to prime minister James Marape a couple of years ago.

The manifesto stated: “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”.

In the past I read a few books by PNG writers. They included ‘My Mother Calls me Yaltep’ by Sir Ignatius Kilage (Oxford University Press), ‘Sana’ by Sir Michael Somare and ‘My Childhood in New Guinea’ by Sir Paulius Matane - all published outside PNG.

PNG has no major publishers. The Institute of PNG Studies no longer publishes books by PNG authors. Modern PNG authors, as stated in the manifesto, have to pay for their books to be published.

Local authors like the late Francis Nii and Jordan Dean set up their own publishing operations to help local authors get their books published and out to the market to earn a little income.

The earliest PNG-authored books I found in libraries when I was growing up were by Kilage, Somare, Matane, Nora Vagi-Brash and Josephine Abaijah.

These were bought by the government through the Department of Education and distributed to schools around the country.

Thus young Papua New Guineans growing up had a chance to read books written by their fellow countrymen and women. That was decades ago.

The Manifesto also stated: “Our books are not available in schools. The students of Papua New Guinea cannot read books written by their own countrymen and women”.

It is such a shame there are no books by current PNG authors on shelves in school or public libraries.

You will not find copies of book written by Daniel Kumbon, Francis Nii, Michael Dom, Emmanuel Peni or Caroline Evari in a school library in PNG.

The late Francis Nii wrote about how he and others established the Simbu Writers Association in 2014 to encourage the present generation to write and be published.

“Schools don’t have the money to bulk buy books so I hand out copies of my novel,” he said.

Publication and distribution are expensive, but for authors like Nii it was never about making money but promoting and encouraging literature in PNG.

Nii wanted PNG authored book on shelves in libraries; that is why he donated his books to schools.

Francis Nii had a dream to see PNG students and citizens enjoying PNG-authored books, he wanted to ignite and spark a child’s desire to read and to be able to relate to stories written by their own countrymen and women.

Like many other self-made PNG authors, he did not receive much support but all in their own small way continue to support and fight for the dream that one day shelves in homes, schools and public libraries will be full of PNG-authored books.

In another article Nii wrote:

“Recognise local authors. Make available their books. Stimulate opportunities for tangible benefits for authors and readers alike. The PNG government and the National Library and Archives need to make a drastic policy shift.”

After years of following PNG writers’ commentaries on literature published in the PNG Attitude blog, I have come to see that making money is a secondary motivation for their writing.

The primary motivation is to build a PNG literature. They are happy just getting their work out there and whatever little they earn they are satisfied with.

Selling books is not the stream of income for these authors. They have professional work lives and paid jobs and in their spare time write and publish books.

Author Daniel Kumbon has said, “We are seeking recognition and support from the government to sustain home-grown literature and to get it into schools, universities and libraries.”

For literature to grow in PNG and for the literacy rates to grow, the government should buy PNG-authored books and distribute them to schools around the country.

The grim reality for our authors is that PNG has way of connecting writers to a market.

That is why author and publisher Jordan Dean says, “Truth is you can’t earn a living through writing in PNG.”

Local authors are not well known. Ask university students in PNG if they know any PNG authors in and most of them will say ‘no’.

In an article by Ben Jackson, Francis Nii also expressing his frustration saying:

“The sad thing I found out later was that, while I struggled to write and get my story published, 30 copies of ‘Paradise in Peril’ were in the possession of the humanities department of Divine Word University in Madang.

“And the Theodist Stationery store in Port Moresby was selling copies.”

Nii never received a dime from his hard work and sweat. Other people were printing and making money off his work.

For now, writing will just be a hobby or part time job.

“Writing and publishing our own Papua New Guinean stories in the absence of government or donor agency support is a daunting and painful experience,” said Francis Nii. “We struggle to produce our own literature hoping that one day a good leader will rise up and see its importance.”

Nii held PNG literature close to his heart. Although he was wheelchair ridden for much of his life, his hands were sturdy and he wrote prolifically.

Francis Nii saw hope for PNG literature through the then newly appointed prime minister of PNG, James Marape. “We believe that day is now here. We believe the leader we have been hoping, praying and waiting for all these years is here today and he is James Marape”.

Until his last breath Nii saw in James Marape the leader who would help achieve that dream. It has not happened.

How can we make the dream of Francis Nii and other PNG authors a reality?

It seems that the next move must be made by the government of Papua New Guinea.

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