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Tok Pisin as a language of literature

Michael Dom - "Tok Pisin is underestimated and undervalued as an appropriate form of contemporary literary pursuit"

| Ples Singsing

LAE – I am grateful for PNG Attitude’s support of Ples Singsing, a space for Papua Niuginian creativity, most recently by publishing my current series of Tok Pisin essays.

On Friday, Keith Jackson commented on Twitter that the series was also emerging as a history of the development of modern Papua New Guinean literature. This really hit home for me.

My intention was to highlight the utility of Tok Pisin as a national vernacular language which remains underestimated and undervalued as an appropriate form of contemporary literary pursuit.

In designing the series, it appeared to me that in a sense we Papua New Guineans had been brainwashed into a singular sense of inadequacy about Tok Pisin as a means of serious literary creativity.

Tok Pisin is one of our national languages, it is the main language of communication in daily life, it has wide currency in song, it is vital in the mass media - such as Wantok Niuspepa and on radio and TV - and of course it is much used in written communication between individuals and groups.

Nevertheless, these modes of use are not the same as the paramount arena of literature, the cultural structure where we tell our stories in our own way in a form that is meant to last.

To be sure, translation is a hurdle and Tok Pisin lacks the universality of English, but these are not good reasons and nor should they distract us from using Tok Pisin to form a significant part of our own literature.

The feeling of Tok Pisin – its words, its emotion, its nuances, its deeper meanings - is genuine and authentic to us as Papua New Guineans.

And so it is for others who know Tok Pisin and who have experienced PNG and know my people and one or other of our languages.

This is a powerful reason why I am so grateful to Ed Brumby for being willing and eager to torture and extend himself by translating my brutal paragraphing.

There are definitely ways in which Tok Pisin as a literary form has fallen short of where it needs to be, and that is also part of my starting a conversation on just this topic.

In storytelling, writers may work in a fictional world. This does not mean, however, that the words and the ideas or even the fictionalised facts are devoid of truth.

In some ways fiction can be more profoundly true than reality because it licences the author to travel beyond tangible reality into other zones intangible but no less real.

The essays I’m writing are a genre that enables us to discuss the writing that we appreciate is true to us as Papua New Guineans.

It remains an abiding pleasure for me to talk and write about what my fellow authors, essayists and poets produce in contemporary literature. For me, as a poet, the pleasure especially resides in the poems.

I approached the essays, three so far and two to come, by thinking of their structure and composition in Tok Pisin. I expected this to be of great challenge. To my surprise, it was not.

It is my hope that we modern writers of PNG can grow stronger by taking on the challenge of using our national vernacular, Tok Pisin, in creative writing.

Ples Singsing is moving on with this agenda to support and promote Papua New Guinean writers.

We look forward to meeting them all in our own powerful and expressive language

'Vernacular Traces in the Crocodile Prize.' An essay in five parts

Part 1 - PNG writing: Stop reminiscing. Start again, 6 January 2022

Part 2 - A pity so few of our poems come in translation, 12 January 2022

Part 3 - Let the writers of PNG rise again, 26 January 2022


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Michael Dom


Philip Fitzpatrick

When you try to jam a traditional culture into the tight confines of western culture lots of bits tend to fall off, including language, both native and creole.

As I alluded to in a comment on the esteemed Baka Bina's article on translation, Tok Pisin developed primarily in rural areas and was never meant to be used by smartarse elites.

That form of Tok Pisin, the so-called archaic version, is it's beauty.

Same thing with Motu, which is a beautiful language to listen to but gets buggered up when you try to incorporate technical and modern junk into it.

If you want to wax eloquent about modern western ideas use the language that is designed for that purpose - English.

If you want to celebrate PNG culture and literature Tok Pisin and Motu is the way to go.

Just don't get them all mixed up.

Michael Dom

This morning on FM100 TalkBack, Acting Director National Literature Awareness Secretariat Mr. Nicholas Nembo.

Video at 4:23 - We have to educate our people to read and write. And to read more books, because once you learn the skill of reading and writing and you don't have books to read, then the skill is lost along the way, just like a person who learns to drive and he doesn't drive a vehicle, ah he loses the skill of driving".

Ahem, i.e., "reves-fowod, reves-fowod"

Michael Dom

Thanks Bernard and Baka.

Here's a 'live' tanka in Tok Pisin (with English translation) from a conversation I had at lunch hour.

ol yut i pait ken
na blok emi bagarap
yumi stap-stap t'sol
lukim len-draiva long kar
reves-fowod, reves-fowod

youth fighting again
and the block is destroyed
we all stay the same
watch that learn-drivers car
reverse-forward, reverse-forward

Bernard Corden

Keep up the great work. I find PNG Tokpisin far more creative than English and much of its artistry and originality is lost during translation.

I expect much of the imagination from Guy de Maupassant is similarly lost during the translation from French to English although many of the Anglicised versions of his ingenious short stories are still very concise and descriptive.

Michael Dom

Thanks to Karen Otu and Douglas Dimagi of Kalang FM100 for the one hour interview yesterday where Ples Singsing was highlighted as we discussed this article as well as other related topics on Tok Pisin, PNG writing and the future of PNG literary creativity.

Baka Bina

Yes Doctor, it is a doable thing but it needs people who can generate it in print. Tok Pisin sometimes is kaksi and is evolving so fast that Port Moresby Tok Pisin em narakain stret.

We need plenty more writers to make Tok Pisin a language of literature. We need to capture the oral utterances and put them in writing. We need to capture Tok Ples and put them in writing.

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