Since then we’ve had two years of the Crocodile Prize literary competition, which conclusively proved I was awry in my assessment.
There is nothing wrong with literature in Papua New Guinea. It is very far from being in decline. On the contrary, it is absolutely booming!
There are hundreds, that’s right, hundreds of talented writers out there scribbling and typing away every hour and every day of the week.
You name it and they are writing about it – love and romance, politics and war, social issues, history, the future, pigs, dogs and everything.
How can that be true, you ask? And, if it is true, how come we can’t go into a shop and buy their books? After all, this is what we want to read, it is much more interesting than those second hand and distant books from overseas.
And, of course, that is the nub of the problem - you’ve got it in one. There are plenty of shops that would sell Papua New Guinean books if they could get them, especially if they came at a reasonable cost. The trouble is, there are no books being published for the shops to sell.
Why not? The answer is that there is no money to be made from publishing Papua New Guinean writers and their books. Production costs are too high, distribution is difficult, the market is too small and people need to buy food and other necessities before they spend money on luxuries like books.
Try this for an example. It has cost us close to K50,000 to print 3,000 copies of the 2012 Crocodile Prize Anthology. That’s K17 per copy without the cost of editing, design and distribution. If we wanted to get our money back we’d have to wholesale it for at least K35. With the retailer’s profit margin that would take it up to around K50 a copy. And that would be a really cheap Papua New Guinean book. You can buy a lot of rice and tinfish for K50.
But books aren’t luxuries, you say. The heart and soul of a nation are defined by its literature; no luxury, surely? And besides, with declining literacy rates, our kids need good Papua New Guinean books to read. How else can they learn about their country, its past, its prospects? Someone needs to do something about it! What is the government doing, for goodness sake?
And here you would be hitting the nub of the problem on the head. What is the government doing?
The answer is a very sad ‘absolutely nothing’. Isn’t that appalling? Isn’t that shameful? And to make matters worse, it isn’t just the current government or the one before that or even the one before that; it’s all of them, ever since independence and, to Australia’s shame, even before that.
Why on earth did they launch a new nation without ensuring it had the beginnings of a literary tradition (although there was a spike, never seen since, around independence)? Not one single collective government or prime minister has given the remotest thought to literature in Papua New Guinea. Truly amazing!
But that’s how governments are, you say. They’ve got more important things to worry about, literature will have to wait. If we want to do something about literature in this country someone else will have to do it. Even though it should be the government, it just doesn’t care enough.
So who is this someone else? There is always someone else in Papua New Guinea when it comes to owning problems. Who is it this time? The answer is, ‘there is no one else’, simple as that! Why? Because there’s no profit in it!
Think about it and you will realise that the government is the only one who can fix the problem.
It has to set up its own independent publishing arm. It has to publish at least 10 new books a year without fear or favour and without undue censorship. It has to make sure the books get distributed all over Papua New Guinea. It has to make sure that every kid in Papua New Guinea has access to Papua New Guinean literature.
The government has to take the initiative; no one else can do it. It has to spend kina capital to earn social capital. It has to forget about making profits or lining the pockets of some public servant.
In return, it will reap huge rewards. The intelligentsia, the elites and the common people will laud a government that does it and come in behind it. It will create national solidarity.
People will learn to be Papua New Guineans first and Engas, Hulis and Motuans second. Every child who reads a book about PNG, be it fact or fiction, will see the government publisher’s imprint and be proud of their far-thinking politicians who made it possible.
Someone has to tell them to get started as soon as possible. Who should that ‘someone’ be? The answer is ‘you’.
That’s right; if you’re reading this now when you are finished you must write a letter to your local member. If you live close enough go and knock on their door and tell them to their face. Write a letter to the prime minister; let him know what you think.
It’s up to you. That’s right, you! The person sitting reading this. Go do it now, before it’s too late!