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PNG literature – the olden days

Albert-maori-kiki-dealing-with-rioting-women port moresby 19741
Albert Maori Kiki's '10,000 Years in  a Lifetime' (1968) was a  pathfinder in PNG literature. He became a prominent politician. Here, in Port Moresby in 1974, he tries to calm a group of angry women

| Ples Singsing

GOROKA - Writers have always played an important role in societies, both traditional and modern. Every society, every country has its own literary tradition and its own literature.

Whether, American, English, Australian or Papua New Guinean literature, the significance of literature in a society can be grasped from the fact that there has never been a society without a literary tradition, whether oral or written.

The world is created by writers, based on their experiences and observations of the real world that they live in.

PNG literature is as diverse as the cultures and traditions of the country.

Stephan Bernard Minol once described PNG literature as “truth-telling, myth-making and mauswara.”

The description obviously highlights the point that our stories tell a proper, all-encompassing national narrative.

It is also shows that PNG writers have reasons to write. They aim to search for an identity which is embedded in many themes in the stories written today.

Before independence, there was little indication of the feelings and responses of Papua New Guineans towards colonisation. They remained silent not knowing how to expose the bias of the European discourse.

The successful journey of Papua New Guinean writers began with the establishment of the University of Papua New Guinea with creative writing considered an academic subject and with the arrival of Ulli Beier as the creative patron professor.

In the development of the indigenous contemporary literature, Beier played a significant role in encouraging and motivating Papua New Guinean writers and making their work publishable and available to the public.

Between 1968 and 1973, indigenous writers emerged using literature as a political weapon in protest against colonisation and unjust treatment.

The books written by Papua New Guineans illustrated an anticolonial sentiment and even raised voices in protest against unfair treatment by the Australian colonisers.

One of the first writers, Albert Maori Kiki, emerged as a pathfinder in indigenous literature. In bringing his biography to publication, Kiki was assisted by Beier, who played a significant role in encouraging and assisting young writers.

Kiki’s autobiography (‘Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime’, 1968) gave rise to the emergence of many indigenous writers. The autobiography reveals something of an indigenous Papuan boy born to a traditional lifestyle and brought into the world of the white.

It is also a record of disappearing traditional culture and a commentary on the colonial regime.

Another literary milestone for PNG came in late 1970 with the publication of a well-written and pleasant novel, ‘The Crocodile’, by Vincent Eri.

The novel demonstrated the clash of cultures in which Papua New Guineans were manipulated and deceived by white men.

Most PNG writers of that time emerged from the University of Papua New Guinea (whose first graduates came in 1970).

Other writers then began to appear from Goroka Teachers College and the four national high schools. There were also a few public servants and others who tried their hands.

In much of the indigenous writing of the time there was both a search for identity and exposure of colonisation and of the colonisers.

For example, ‘Wait Dok na Black Dog’ by Leo Saulep, with a light but telling thrust at Australian colonialism.

There are poems that mocked the Australian colonialism featured in the literary journal, Kovave, and other indigenous books.

The growth of PNG literature at a more populist level had some counterpart in the presentation of three notable Pidgin and English newspapers: Pangu Nius (first issue, April 1970), Bougainville Nius (first issue 1970) and Wantok (published by the Catholic-owned Wirui Press, first issue, August 1970.

These newspapers allowed the indigenous people to express their opinions and were geared to the local audience.

Just a year after Kiki’s autobiography was published by Cheshire in 1968, Kovave appeared under the editorship of Beier and published by Jacaranda Press.

Kovave offered creative writing in English and Pidgin, traditional folk tales, poetry, some literary criticism and notes on traditional art.

The first four issues included stories by Vincent Eri, John Kadiba, Kumalau Tawali, Peter Lus, Wairu Degoba, John Waiko, as well as the cook islander Marjorie Crocombe, Maurice Thompson and Lazarus Lami Lami.

There were poems by Pokwari Kale, Tawali, Allan Natachee and the Indian lecturer, Chakravarthi; plays by Leo Hannett, John Waiko, Rabbie Namaliu and Arthur Jawodimbari; traditional translations of folklore and poems by Kiki, Don Laycock and others; and a critique of the poetry of Natachee,the  first Papuan poet ever to get into print, by Beier.

Besides Kovave, which ceased publication in 1974, there were other books by Papua New Guineans that were educational, inspirational and entertaining published by the Kristen Press in Madang.

The government-run Bureau of Literature assisted with the publication of a low-cost quarterly, New Guinea Writing, as well as organising residential creative writing courses and literary competitions.

Literature in PNG in those early days acted as a forum for reflection on world and domestic affairs from the standpoint of PNG. 

Through PNG literature, which has progressed in fits and starts from then until this day, we have the gift of the written word and the privilege of being free.

We can reflect on our past and on the modern life. We can bring to the world the treasure of our civilisation. For far too long we have known ourselves through books written by others.

It is vital for PNG writers to write readable stories of their traditional cultures before these cultures fall apart, because there is no doubt that Papua New Guineans will greatly benefit from, especially the coming generations of our country.

I pay tribute to Papua New Guineans who have taken up the noble profession of writing to expose and portray our culture and to put an end to misconceptions and misinterpretations of PNG.

What an encouragement this is for other PNG writers to follow in their footsteps and promote a PNG indigenous literature.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

This is a good summary, Kesia.

It's interesting to note how those earlier writers like Albert Maori Kiki used their writing and their books to get across their message about colonialism, not just to Papua New Guineans but particularly to expatriates and the Australian administration.

I don't think they were so much strident anti-colonialists in the African sense but rather people who thought it was time to take the next step towards independence and they used their writing to lay the groundwork for that goal.

I worked in Maori Kiki's department for a while and didn't find him to be particular anti anything really, he just took things at face value and tried to change those he disagreed with.

What really stands out today is how those writers used their work to create change. You don't see that among modern day politicians in Papua New Guinea. With a few exceptions the idea that writing about something might create change just doesn't occur to them.

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