New Fitzpatrick novel at the world's end
The end of the world? Or a new dawn?

PNG literature looks for a guiding star


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“The new national literature of PNG emerged from the [University of PNG’s] literature department beginning in the mid-1960s shortly after the institution was established. Leading up to formal independence from Australia in 1975, the curriculum of the literature department was deliberately developed with a decolonising agenda. The first cohort of creative writing students self-consciously penned what would be considered the first texts of the new nation. Yet, this pioneering endeavor was subject to outside impositions of ideas of cultural authenticity” - Marlo Starr in Ondobondo’s visual publics: Small print culture in PNG

Creative collaboration in the arts and literature


We did learn some hard lessons during the Crocodile Prize.

Maybe one factor was ourselves, perhaps everyone involved at the time did not offer the right mixture of characters to gain sufficient traction for political mobility.

We now have people like Daniel Kumbon, Baka Bina, James Kuri, Joseph Ketan and a contemporary group of published and award-winning writers and poets that may turn the tide in our favour.

Maybe the Crocodile Prize was meant to be one small step before the giant leap.

I am interested in the process, the activity, of creative collaboration within the arts and literature.

That would be valuable as a cultural nexus, and one that is within our Melanesian context.

I wonder about the works that might arise as a result of collaborations and the inevitable dynamic tension of competition.

I am quite sure that the last vestiges of the colonial hangover are gone.

As far as real writers are concerned, anyone who grapples long enough with the material knows how to seek advice and assistance and the availability and willingness of expatriates assist with our creative endeavour is a bond forged in the crucible of creativity.

It is quite resilient to the fake morality of neophyte postmodern theorising.

And by their own terms, expatriate collaborators understand that ours is the lived experience.

Searching for a home for our writers


For some time now, my concern has been to find an institutional home for writers.

Back when I was at the University of PNG Press & Bookshop, John Evans and I hoped the Bookshop would become a natural home for writers given our role in publishing Papua New Guinean authors and republishing old titles.

We registered a writers and publishers association and were building up our PNG titles and from 2011 to 2013 the Bookshop was the most profitable section of the Univentures commercial entity.

The PNG Museum is a good home for artists through our Contemporary Arts Department.

In 2015, when we finally recruited a curator for this department, he registered an association for artists and for a brief time they met at the museum.

That curator has since gone on to work for the National Cultural Commission and the position is vacant again.

From 2018, when Amanda Donigi started her Spoken Word sessions, I hosted their weekly readings at the Old House of Assembly in downtown Port Moresby.

I hear that the Museum is now managing the building again. Given that the late Nora Vagi Brash used to be a Museum board member and we have an outdoor amphitheatre named after her, I hope we can become a more inviting space for artists and writers alike.

In terms of the literary agenda I think we should reach out to the National Library and Archives. Given its mandate to secure legal deposit and its concern with the works of authors and composers, it should by extension have an interest in the process of producing the works.

Regarding the article Ondobondo’s visual publics: Small print culture in PNG, I should add that the role of the Beiers was crucial to that period of creativity at UPNG.

If the new technologies that made our own redundant came from external sources, then the ability to adapt to related changes rests with an appreciation of how foreign others have wrestled with similar changes.

Coming from an Africa that was in the process of decolonisation, or where many countries had already gained independence, there was much the Beiers had to teach. 

Partly misunderstood was Narokobi's Melanesian Way which called for a rootedness in our cultural identities.  Not to hold us back or regress but to find commonality as we embraced progress.

Our conference as writers should be based on our common passion for writing and not race or nationality. In more recent times Keith, Phil and other like-minded people, bloggers, have been the catalyst for our literary endeavours to adapt and move to a more fluid and appropriate platform that suits better our need as writers without borders. 

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Conflicting priorities are restraints on literary growth


I have not totally ignored my interest in literature even though, as a leader for my people and their only home, the Sepik River, I am caught up in their struggles.

I write this on a special day.  When I arrived home at 5pm from work, I found my nephew, Koisen Wanori (social media influencer at KB Media on Facebook - poetry and photography), 26 years old, and my son, Tumunjuwang, 14 years old, experiencing existential angst.

They had both just read a series of books by Jostien Garder, the Norwegian author famous for his work, Sophie's World.

I had bought the whole series of these books for my son in April 2024. He had past all the children and teenagers books and I was moving him to an introduction to philosophy.

Koisen and Tumunjuwang were conversing on human curiosity, the intersectionsectionalities of life choices and different realities based on belief sets.

I shared this because I miss these conversations.  No matter how or when we create these conversations. I believe this is something for prioritised leaders and leadership. No part timers.

Leadership within these creative spaces has to be a priority of those who dream, live, eat and dance. Eight days a week!

Philip and Keith will be interested that I have purchased several books from Archives Fine Books (at 40 Charlotte Street, Brisbane).

My observation there in April 2024 was of not many Pacific books stocked, and almost none by PNG authors. 

The best part was my standing in line to buy old books. Why? Because the queue showed books were in demand.

There’s no need to stand in line to buy books at the UPNG Bookstore.  Readership is small in PNG.

The sad truth is we cannot get quality writers if people do not read, and read broadly and widely.

Again we need leaders and leadership in this space.  Our culture does not create readers. Every home usually has chairs and couches facing a TV as the masterpiece, not circling around a coffee table stacked with books or facing a bookshelf.  That is where the problem lies. 

At 14, my son, Tumunjuwang, has read Animal Farm, Brave New World, 1984 and many more classics.

He’s also ventured into adult books - all of Bill Bryson's works (his favourite is A Short History of Nearly Everything). 

We need leaders who want children have bookshelves in their home because the family has internalised incentives to read and write.

In the three years Gretel and I volunteered for judging the Crocodile Prize, in all categories in which prizes were offered submissions from females outnumbered those from males.

Over those years, the trend in increased quality was also noticeable. Again, the women were slightly better. So there was no question of structural limitations hindering female participation.

Governor Allan Bird once asked me to do something for East Sepik Province and I Replied, “Well help me talk and act on sustainable development so I do not have to sit around looking for arguments with my government but instead let us take the lead in creative outlets for a population starved of leadership and incentives”.

I look back to this and realise it was a poignant comment that holds true today.

Martyn Namorong and many of us are responding to challenges, problems, issues and conflicts, and always we see negatives and these do not allow the happy drugs to lead us creative people.

We need more people being in bliss, happily loaded with serotonins, oxytocins, endorphins and dopamine so we can find the time to be creative.  This circles me back to leadership being divided with conflicting priorities.

I would like to be more involved but my fight to help the Sepiks protect their only home, the Sepik River, continues to consume much of my time.

However I am grateful for being kept informed.  I am happy to be involved with discussions and in sharing my thoughts about needs, experiences and my opinions on what we can do.

Keep trying to get the government on board


After discontinuing Pukpuk Publications a couple of years ago I still get emails from PNG writers asking how they can publish their work and it makes me sad to advise them that I’m not able to do it anymore and don’t know where else they can go.

The sad thing is that the whole process that we employed with Pukpuk is so simple and cheap. It would take peanuts for the PNG government to set up its own system. The cost of a Maserati would cover a good two years’ worth of publications.

The only danger would be political interference in what’s published. A statutory authority would fix that problem. Then it would only be corruption that would kill it.

I’m convinced that’s the way to go. The campaign to get Marape on board needs to be revived.

The talent is there; resources are the problem


I truly appreciate these thoughtful – and wise – words on the condition of home-grown literature in Papua New Guinea, the health of which is somewhat akin to my own: surviving but not in the best state.

But I refuse to be disappointed, dismayed or disconsolate about this.  First, because there are people like yourselves and many others who understand the importance of PNG literature. Secondly because you and many others continue to write and publish books, essays and poetry despite the difficulties you face. And thirdly, because of these largely individual activities, the idea of a strong literature is kept alive.

Reviewing the peaks and troughs (mainly troughs) of the last 50 years we see that the drive to write for an audience is powerful enough to overcome repeated failures to organise the kind of structure that would transform literature from an individual pursuit to a mass movement.

Such an innovation would achieve many things, most importantly create a publishing and distribution infrastructure to make home-grown literature a transformative influence in PNG society.

The Crocodile Prize was arguably, for a while, the most successful effort to come close to achieving the greater organisational objective.

But volunteerism proved not to be a stable basis for sustainability.

Similarly the efforts of Michael Dom (through Ples Singsing) and Daniel Kumbon (through advocacy that got to the door of a prime minister who sounded enthusiastic but no further). 

In the years it flourished (2014-16) the Crocodile Prize demonstrated what could be done with minimal resources.  But minimal resources meant it could not be sustained.

The successes were noteworthy. Beyond the contest itself that engaged many scores of writers and many thousands of readers, the Prize spun off a publishing house (the final tally of Pukpuk Publications’ output was an amazing 50 titles), writing workshops, nascent writers associations, significant private sector sponsorship, valuable mentoring and editorial collaboration and a fellowship program to enable literary-centred visits to Australia. 

Each of these projects existed at various levels of maturation but none had the organisational capability and revenue to develop and ultimately to survive.

They did demonstrate, however, what latent talent there is in PNG and what could be achieved permanently given strong organisation and sufficient resources.


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