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Asking if we write is the wrong question

Dom top
Michael Dom - "Beier, Fitzpatrick and Jackson were opening up avenues for PNG writing". Dom and his associates are more likely to develop a design that will  enable it to flourish

Ples Singsing

A Tok Pisin translation of this article follows this English version

NARI STATION, MOROBE - It was my impression that one of the questions bothering Philip Fitzpatrick around 2010, as he ruminated about his once adopted Melanesian home, was that, if Papua New Guineans are writing, then where is the published evidence?

The question I raise is about the field of literary endeavour rather than the academic and workplace necessity of writing.

I refer not to that boring stuff which earns money but the thrilling stuff that returns to us nothing but self-satisfaction and relief.

Of course, Phil is a literary aficionado and writer of no mean talent, leaving a footprint across the literary landscape of PNG and Australia, with books such as Bamahuta: Leaving Papua, Dogger and Two Sides to Every Story: A Short Guide to Cross Cultural Awareness in Papua New Guinea.

It was Phil’s, and Keith Jackson’s, overriding sense of confidence in the creative abilities of PNG people that encouraged them to go ahead with the creation of the Crocodile Prize after testing the waters through publishing PNG-authored blog articles.

Are Papua New Guineans writing? That same question was probably posed before, by no less a character than Ulli Beier, the godfather of PNG literature.

Beier took on an active, some say far too interactive, role as a guardian of the cause of Indigenous writing and as a facilitator for local publication.

Call him what you like, there weren’t and still aren’t many like him around – none in fact.

By hook or by crook he took PNG writing out of absolute obscurity and thrust it, warts and all, into the public arena when it was about time to do just that, and in a way that was his own way.

Today we can look back at the many different achievements of Beier and assess his methods and means with the knowledge and wisdom gained from our high seats, raised above the dirt and sweat of those tasks executed during that historic period.

Such reviews may be useful if they have meaningful purpose, in much the same manner as Beier’s efforts were.

And we may even do a much better job than he did, when gifted with the supreme intelligence of hindsight.

The question for Phil and Keith in 2010 was, ‘Are Papua New Guinean’s still writing?’

I don’t think those were their only questions but it would appear in hindsight that all three men, Beier, Fitzpatrick and Jackson - were seeking, waiting, then opening up the avenues for PNG writing to be (re)discovered, with the fervent hope that the answer was affirmative.

And, of course, the evidence in those days was pretty thin on the ground, so like the good ol’ kiaps and teachers of yesteryear, Phil and Keith put their backs and their bucks to the task of unearthing the buried treasure.

(Ah, the proud arrogance of white men knows no bounds, huh!)

So some years have passed since we laid the Crocodile to rest in deep waters.

That’s exactly what happened historically during the early 1970s and 1980s when a few writers reignited the flames for writing our own stories, poems, drama and novels, before later the flames died out.

In 2020, before we began championing contemporary PNG literature at Ples Singsing, my three colleagues and I were asking similar questions of ourselves.

We created the Ples Singsing blog six years after the Crocodile Prize ended. But were our colleagues still writing?

Our recent experience seems aligned with Professor Steven Winduo’s historical descriptions of the phases of PNG literary movements and it will be interesting to learn how our period will be defined.

Our literary advances pass in waves - short amplitude, high frequency waves, but waves nonetheless. As in the rest of the world there are surges and then troughs in continuity.

There is a signal. Papua New Guineans do write. It really goes without saying.

It was obvious, at least to me, that after all of Phil and Keith’s hard-won battles encouraging Papua New Guineans to take up the cause of our own national literature, we ourselves have far less inclination to do so.

Sure we’re writing, but we can’t be bothered doing much more with it.

That’s a similar outcome to what happened at the end of Ulli Beier’s era, except our failing again happened with less controversy, Phil and Keith being such fine and proper gentlemen.

The one common element appears to be us Papua New Guineans, so it’s more than likely that we have no one else to blame for the parlous state of our national literature.

Two branches which have continued to burn strongly are drama and poetry, because they have more cultural relevance as oral literature.

These two creative forms tend to be open to interpretation by the authors and actors and require, or receive, almost no editing.

However, I don’t think that is an appropriate approach to advancing their development, especially for a national audience to celebrate.

I have been doing my fair share to promote more PNG poems to be written with translations into our vernacular languages.

I hope that a colleague at the University of Goroka will soon share her thoughts on the state of local theatre and drama production.

Nevertheless, at this time, Papua New Guineans have published many more books which have contributed to increasing quantity and quality of national literature.

Their lack of exposure and availability to readers is a separate and major issue.

Many PNG-authored books arose as a direct result of the Crocodile Prize when writers were directly or indirectly inspired and challenged to publish manuscripts, some of which were gathering dust on forgotten shelves.

No one has done the numbers, but it seems to me that the output inspired by the 2011-16 Crocodile Prize era rivals that from the early 1970s.

In those days, despite the institutional support and assistance for writing organisations, Ulli’s disciples and latter day followers were unable to maintain the fervour and flame of writing and publishing.

These days there is no institutional support whatsoever. And yet local efforts and enterprises have evolved for publishing PNG writing. Core elements of publishing which need better trained capacity and experience are proof reading, editing and review. These are still severely lacking in PNG.

Our literary godfather Ulli Beier was a great editor of PNG work and that seems to have gotten him into a lot of trouble with his peers, past and present (strewth!).

I can relate to the trials, tribulations and temptations of proof reading, editing and review, since I do this on a daily basis at work, and then in my obsessive pastime as a writer. Editing is not easy for either the author or the editor. Nuff sed.

So, another commonality with the era of PNG’s literary growth spurts is the challenges associated with preparing manuscripts for publication and subsequent distribution.

That was the least of Ulli’s troubles since he used his considerable profile and personality to PNG writer’s benefit. (That sounds like a certain former PR specialist whom I know.)

Today it would be entirely appropriate to respond to prime minister James Marape’s statement that he will “help PNG writers to write” by saying that what PNG writers’ really need is the facilitation of better editing, proofreading and publication processes and the fostering of a small print on-demand industry to supply the local market, which is yet to be explored.

The terms public private partnership and small-to-medium enterprise come to mind.

The embers are still burning in the fireplace of PNG literature.

Ples Singsing is one such place where such a fire is nurtured. There are other places too, such as Hibiscus Three, Poetry PNG and the stalwart writer’s societies in Simbu as well as in Enga, the cultural elder brother of Hela, Hon. Marape’s homeland.

At this juncture of our nation’s history asking if Papua New Guineans write or still write is the wrong question. Rather we should ask ourselves how are we going to embrace, value and improve what we are writing, and how are we going to make our stories available to future Papua New Guineans.

The right answer will be the legacy of a creative entity, the diverse peoples of a truly independent state.

Askim sapos ol Papua Niuginian’s isave rait emi rong askim

Dom - poet
Michael Dom is recognised internationally as Papua New Guinea's leading poet. He also has a PhD in agricultural science

Ples Singsing

NARI STATION, MOROBE - Long luksave-tingting bilong mi wanpela askim ibin sikirapim het bilong Philip Fitzpatrick long 2010, taim em i tingim bipo asples bilong em ibin olsem, sapos ol Papua Niuginian’s isave rait, orait we stap mak tru bilong ol insait long pablikesen?

Dispela askim emi ikam long giraun bilong ol litireri wokmak na ino long ol kain skulwok na wokples we igatim nid long raitim, ino dispela raitim we nogat hamamas bilong en tasol igat pei moni, tasol dispela hamamas raitim blo sampela lain we inogat pei moni tasol ol iet i kisim wanbel na belisi olsem bekim.

Em nau, Phil em isave laikim tumas ol kainkain litiritia na em iet i wanpela raita igat namba, we ol lekmak bilong em istap long graun bilong PNG na Australia, wantaim ol buk olsem Bamahuta: Leaving Papua, Dogger na Two Sides to every Story: A Short Guide to Cross Cultural Awareness in Papua New Guinea.

Em ibin Phil, na Keith Jackson tu, husait igatim gutpela luksave tru long pasin na save bilong yumi ol PNG na ol igo het long kamapim Crocodile Prize, bihain long ol ibin testim wara tasol long pablisim ol wanwan PNG raita long blog.

Ol Papua Niugini isave raitim tu o?

Dispela wankain askim ibin kamap bipo tu, na ino kam long liklik nem emi Ulli Beier tasol, godpapa bilong PNG litiritia.

Beier em ibin kirapim wokabaut, we sampela itok em i putim em iet igo insait, olsem wasman blong ol wok yumi ol asples i raitim, na halapim long kamapim lokol pablikesen. Yumi iken mekim nek long em ibin wanem kain man, tasol inogat narapela olsem em istap nau – nogat tru.

Emi tromoi huk na mekim hait wok long kamautim PNG raitim long ples tutak, sua istap wantaim, igo long pablik ples, long dispela taim bilong en long kamap na long wei em iet isave laikim long en.

Mipela istap nau tete iken lukluk long ol wanwan hanmak Beier ibin putim na skelim ol pasin em ibin mekim wantaim sampela kain save yumi igatim antap long sia king, em yumi sindaun long ples we inogatim doti na tuhat bilong dispela wok long taim bipo.

Ating dispela lukluk igo bek ken igatim gutpela as na kaikai bilong en, wankain olsem wokmak bilong Beier iet. Na ating yumi iken mekim wok ikamap moa beta long em, bilong wanem yumi igat bikpela save long ol samting ikamap pinis.

Askim bilong Phil na Keith long 2010 emi olsem, “Ol Papua Niuginian’s raitim iet o nogat?”

Mi noken save sapos dispela askim tasol em istap long tingting bilong ol o nogat tasol long lukluk igo bek gen emi olsem ol tripela man ia ibin painim na weitim, na bihain opim ol kain rot bilong PNG raiting iken igatim luksave gen, na ol igatim bikpela laikim olsem dispela bekim bai olsem yesa.

Na, em i kilia olsem long dispela taim inogat liklik mak long giraun, em nau Phil na Keith mekim wankain olsem ol kiap na tisa bilong taim bipo, ol i putim bun baksait na moni igolong dispela wok bilong kamautim gol long giraun.

(Oh, biket kusai bilong ol wait man inogat pinis. E!)

Orait, sampela yia igo pinis long mipela ibin lusim Pukpuk igo silip idai long bikpela wara. Emi wankain olsem bipo long 1970’s na 1980’s taim ol wanwan raita man-meri ikirapim paia gen long raitim ol stori, tok-singsing, pilai-stori na buk-novel bilong yumi iet, na bihain gen paia igo daun isisi na idai.

Long 2020, bipo long kirapim wok sambai long PNG litiritia bilong yumi naunau long Ples Singsing, mi wantaim ol tripela wanwok bilong mi mas igatim wankain askim long mipela iet. Mitripela i kamapim Ples Singsing Blog long sikspela yia bihain long Crocodile Prize emi pinis tasol, ol wanwok i raitim iet o?

Wokabaut bilong mipela ikamap wankain olsem long bipo-taim we Professa Steven Winduo i makim ol kirap na pundaun bilong PNG litireri wokabout, na ating bai yumi laik lainim wanem kain mak dispela taim bilong yum iet igatim.

Em nau, litireri wok bilong yumi iluk olsem solap bilong solwara, emi sotpela, ikam klostuklostu, tasol em igatim maunten bilong em tu, wankain olsem long olgeta ples giraun. Namel taim wok igo daun.

Igatim signol. Yumi Papua Niugini save raitim. Na inogat as bilong toksave long hia.

Emi bin kilia tumas, ating long mi iet, olsem bihain long olgeta hatwok pait bilong Phil na Keith, long halavim ol Papua Niugini long sanap long nem bilong nesenol litiritia bilong yumi iet, mipela gen inogatim gutpela bel tingting long mekim – itru yumi raitim tasol sikin iles long surukim wok moa iet.

Emi wankain olsem ibin kamap long taim bilong Ulli, em nau dispela pundaun bilong yumi iet emi kamap gen, tasol nogat ol kainkain paul stori bilong en, bilong wanem Phil na Keith ol i gutpela man igatim naispela pasin tasol.

Em yumi iet ol Papua Niugini istap namel long ol dispela asua bilong pundaun, olsem na ating inogat narapela lain bilong yumi sutim pinga long ol i bagarapim kamap bilong nesenol literatia bilong yumi.

Tupela han diwai tasol i lait istap strong true em pilai-stori (drama) na tok-singsing (poetry), bilong wanem ol dispela istap insait long kalsa bilong yumi pinis olsem orol litiritia. Long dispela tupela hanmak bilong art ol lain husait i wok long en igat fridom long tromoi save na laik bilong ol iet igo insait long mekim ikamap no inogatim wok long stretim. Tasol, mi iet ting olsem dispela em ino halavim yumi tumas long putim wok igo het we bai soim mak tru, na tu long yumi hamamas olsem emi nesenol samting.

Mi iet mekim liklik wokmak bilong mi long putim tok-singsing igo pas we istap long ol tokpisin na tokples bilong yumi iet. Ating bai yumi kisim belgut taim wanpela wanwok long Yunivesiti bilong Goroka emi raitim ol tingting bilong em long wanem mak bilong lokol tieta na drama prodaksen.

Tasol naunau, long dispela taim, yumi Papua Niugini igat planti moa buk we i kamapim nesenol litiritia bilong yumi igomoa moa iet. Asua istap iet olsem emi hat long ol buk long kam long han bilong ol rida.

Planti bilong ol dispela buk ibin kamaut olsem wokmak bilong Crocodile Prize na ol arapela long ol lain husait i lukluk tingting na bihainim wok blong pablisim, ol kain pepa we sindaun longpela taim na das i karamapim antap long bukself ol i lus tingting long en.

Inogat wanpela man i kauntim namba tasol mi ting olsem wokmak bilong Crocodile Prize emi klostu wankain olsem wokmak bilong 1970’s. Long bipo taim ol institute ibin putim halavim igo long ol raita ogenisesen, tasol ol disaipel bilong Ulli na ol husait i bihainim ino bin holim pasim dispela bel sikirap na paia lait bilong raitim na pablisim.

Nau tete inogat wanpela institute i sapotim, nogat tru. Tasol igat lokol wok ikamap na liklik bisinis ikirap long pablisim wok mipela PNG i raitim. Sampela bun-baksait bilong wok pablisim em long kisim skul na save long wok bilong ridim gut ol wok (pruf-ridim), mak-makim (o editim) na luksave long ol kainkain wokmak (em revuim). Ol dispela yumi inogatim long PNG.

Em litereri godpapa bilong yumi, Ulli Beier, igat bikpela save long editim ol PNG wok na dispela pasin emi putim em insait long trabol wantaim ol wanlain bilong em, long bipo taim na long nau tete (olomania!).

Mi iet isave long hatwok, bikpela hevi na ol kain traim iken kamap long taim bilong pruf-ridim wok, editim na revuim wokmak bilong ol narapela raita long olgeta dei bilong wanem emi wokmoni blong mi iet na tu emi wok we mi iet isave sikirap long mekim long en olsem wanpela raita. Editim wok bilong narapela em ino isipela samting long edita na raita wantaim.

Em nau, narapela samting istap wankain long taim bipo na long nau insait long wokabaut bilong PNG litiritia em ol kain hevi bilong stretim na stretim ol buk-pepa long pablisim na salim igo aut. Dispela emi liklik hevi tasol long Ulli husait isave putim biknem na pasin bilong em iet long kamapim ol PNG raita. (Ating dispela i wankain pasin bilong wanpela forma PR saveman mi save long em.)

Tete em bai strepela pasin long bekim toktok Prime Minister James Marape ibin mekim olsem em bai “helpim ol PNG raita long raitim”, wantaim toksave olsem mipela ol PNG raita nidim tru halavim long dispela editim na pruf-ridim wok na pablisim, na igo moa, long kirapim liklik bisinis bilong printim-long-oda bilong saplaim lokol maket, we inogatim luksave long en ikamap. Ol kain nek olsem pablik praivet patnasip na small-to-medium entaprais ikam long tingting bilong mi.

Ol sid bilong paia istap iet long paiaples bilong PNG litiritia. Ples Singsing emi wanpela hap bilong lukautim dispela paia. Igat ol narapela hap ples tu istap, olsem Hibiscus Three, Poetry PNG na ol strongpela lain bilong raita sosaiti long Simbu na tu long Enga, em ol bikpela brata insait long stori tumbuna bilong Hela, as ples bilong Hon. James Marape.

Long dispela mak long nesenol histori dispela askim sapos Papua Niuginian’s isave rait emi rong askim. Moa beta yumi iet askim olsem, inap bai yumi holim pasim, litimapim na strongim ol dispela wokmak yumi raitim, na putim dispela ol stori bilong yumi istap bilong ol Papua Niuginians bai ikam bihain bihain.

Gutpela bekim blong dispela askim em bai kamap bikpela mak bilong soim yumi husait, yumi ol kainkain man-meri blong trupela independen state.


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Lindsay F Bond

Report is of science that is now probing human "tendency to perceive language at the sensory-motor level".

This is said to be searching particularly via poems for "palpability of language, i.e. sensory saturation."

While that may be pursued at Tallin University, Estonia, consider that it might be measured in many languages.


Lindsay F Bond

This comment may find readers to be most excited by the output and tenacity of writers, citizens of PNG, where the national government has yet to evidence clear policy and support for a home frown literature.

I venture the notion that an item in LoopPNG on 29/07/2021 is a call for assistance to benefit all who frequent the Kuri Dom Building at UPNG.


The building location is at Southern Hemisphere GPS-9.406305, 147.170826, and in plan appears more interesting than the many nearby rectangular edifices.

While I have no knowledge of those facilities, the GPS map reference shows the nearby Gunther Building has the roof hue of a clear used-by dating.

Of such roof sheetings in places of past endeavours in PNG, I am familiar as of 15 years visiting PNG in this century.

Of the Kuri Dom Building, this notes a verification from 06/07/2012:

'The Kuri Dom Building is one of the most neglected buildings on campus. Several classrooms, staff offices, and general offices have leaking roofs, wet floors, exposed telephone cables and old fans, lights and power points.'


Philip Fitzpatrick

Michael and I have just endured an incredibly dispiriting battle with Amazon Kindle over an extremely trivial matter of copyright and the Ples Singsing anthology of student essays from the 2020 competition. This has thankfully now been resolved and the anthology is now available on Amazon as both an eBook and a paperback.

Amazon served us well in the days of the Crocodile Prize but it has now evolved into a gargantuan monster which gobbles up and spits out organisations like Ples Singsing for breakfast. It now won't ship books to "shithole" countries like Papua New Guinea necessitating double handling and double costs in Australia to get them there.

In its early days there was a hint of a benevolent and philanthropic spirit in its business model but the ogre of profit at all costs has overtaken all other considerations.

While its still a viable option for writers in Australia and other "non-shithole" countries it's become an impractical option for PNG writers.

In that sense I totally agree with Michael that its time for PNG to set up its own "small print-on-demand industry to supply the local market".

I'd go so far as to suggest that once such an industry was operable the "editing, proofreading and publication processes" would naturally follow in its wake.

Way,way back the University of PNG Bookshop was looking at setting up its own print-on-demand service in association with the University of Melbourne but nothing came of it.

Now is definitely the time for a reconsideration of that idea.

"Rait ples, rait papagraun, rait pipol" is a delightful slogan that such an industry could adopt.

Michael Dom, Strategic Leader | Masterminds | Ples Singsing Writers & Associates

"Today it would be entirely appropriate to respond to prime minister James Marape’s statement that he will "help PNG writers to write" by saying that what PNG writers really need is the facilitation of better editing, proofreading and publication processes and the fostering of a small print-on-demand industry to supply the local market, which is yet to be explored.

"The terms public private partnership and small-to-medium enterprise come to mind.

"The embers are still burning in the fireplace of PNG literature."

On 11 June, Ples Singsing Writers & Associates held its first writers kivung, Kirapim Paia Long Ples Singsing, in the Language Laboratory L241 of the Kuri Dom Building at the University of Papua New Guinea.

We were hosted by Sakarepe Kamene, senior lecturer in the Language & Literature Strand and president of the PNG Linguistic Society.

Noteworthy attendees included Emmanuel Peni, author of Sibona, Imelda Griffin, co-founder of Eve PNG magazine and Baka Bina, a shortlisted author in the Commonwealth Prize (the winner was announced yesterday https://youtu.be/H6MQA78Q5ds)

Rait ples, rait papagraun, rait pipol.

We discussed the first issue noted the above 'facilitation of better editing, proofreading and publication processes.

Long namba tu wari, bai yumi noken weitim gavaman, em ol bisi man meri tumas laka.

Kam sindaun arere long paia na sikirapim wanpela kaukau. Ino long taim bai pik igo insait long mumu.

More information on this action by Ples Singsing Writers & Associates will soon be published.

Readers will be interested to note that the Kuri Dom Building Michael refers to was named in honour of his late father, a distinguished academic - KJ

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