The story began about this time two years ago, when author, anthropologist and ex-kiap Phil Fitzpatrick proposed – half joking – that this website, PNG Attitude, should initiate a national literary contest in Papua New Guinea.
The idea made sense. Papua New Guinea had a flourishing written literature around independence in 1975. In fact, it was the then newly emergent Papua New Guinean writers who did much to define and explain the cultural significance of those momentous times.
But, as the years passed, that literary tradition – based as it was on the oral traditions that had been a cultural bedrock for millennia – began to wane.
You see, there was much money to be gained from coffee and copper and aid, but creative literature seemed, well, a bit of an indulgence.
Little thought was given to, and certainly no value attributed to, the role of literature in delineating, reinforcing and guiding the new nation
And so the writers, essayists and poets languished. There were efforts made by individuals and, to give it some due, The National. But this was a puny effort in comparison to what was required to both develop the latent literary talent in Papua New Guinea and, just as important, enable the people to read their own literature.
Under aid programs, eventually, thousands and thousands of books were distributed throughout the land. But a mere handful were written by Papua New Guineans about their own society, culture, issues and feelings; and most of them were self-published.
And so the thought of a national literary contest that would encourage people to write, bring out writers of high talent and, through a publishing program, allow the people to read their own literature was dreamed up.
The first institution to support the initiative was the Post-Courier. The second was the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby. Without Blaise Nangoi, Patrick Levo and Ian Kemish, the idea would have been dead in the water.
Since those days in late 2010, there’s a lot that’s gone right with the Crocodile Prize (named after Vincent Eri’s famous first Papua New Guinean novel, a landmark creation), and a bit that’s gone wrong, as you’d expect with any human endeavour.
In the first year of the prize, 2011, we received 160 entries (stories, essays, poems) from 80 writers.
We collected enough from sponsors to provide about K10,000 in prize money and, thanks to the High Commission, publish an anthology of the best writing with a print run of just 200 copies.
The winners in that inaugural year were geologist Jeffrey Febi (short story), analytical chemist Jimmy Drekore (poetry), buai vendor Martyn Namorong (essay) and international relations student Lapieh Landu (women’s award).
In conjunction with the prize-giving, we ran a one-day writers’ workshop, which was well attended, held a reception (which was fun) and launched the Anthology (which was satisfying). All this activity was made by possible by the Australian High Commission.
So then we turned our attention to the 2012 contest. We knew it would be bigger, as the word spread, and we realised we would have to cope with and cater to that growth.
There was another critical requirement: to ensure the sustainability of the Prize as a Papua New Guinean enterprise by transitioning responsibility for its administration from a couple of Australians to a credible local organisation.
This organisation had to be established – and so the PNG Society of Writers, Editors and Publishers Ltd was incorporated late in 2011. It now has a membership nearing 100 and is encouraging writers, and people committed to literature in Papua New Guinea, to join.
The Society had its inaugural general meeting yesterday, electing a wholly Papua New Guinean leadership and adopting a constitution.
Meanwhile, Phil Fitzpatrick and I had divided our responsibilities. Phil took over the literary side (mainly editing, judging and publishing) while I looked after administrative matters (mainly management, promotion and sponsorship). We were supported by a small voluntary working group within PNG of Amanda Donigi, Ruth Moiam, David Kitchnoge and Jimmy Drekore.
By the time this year’s closing date arrived at the end of May, there were 576 entries from 135 writers – an exponential increase over 2011.
The categories in which awards are offered were dominated by poetry, with 353 entries; then 73 short stories, 61 essays, 59 student entries and 24 in the heritage literature section.
Each category carries prize money of K5,000 and a magnificent Crocodile Prize trophy.
The entries were drawn from every province except Sandaun. A great national result.
Central and the National Capital District provided 25% of entrants; Morobe 16%; Eastern Highlands 9%; Simbu 8%; and Madang, East New Britain and Western Highlands 5% each.
And this year, a major shift: the numbers of entrants was pretty evenly split by gender – 53% male; 47% female.
The oldest entrant was Dave Korahi Doriga from Kira Kira near Port Moresby, who is a grand 71-year old. The youngest was Otto Paige Lebeshiivah who, at age 9, is in Grade 4 at North Goroka Demonstration School.
On the sponsorship side, we also did well with some prominent organisations coming to the party including Steamships, Ok Tedi Mining, British American Tobacco, the Chamber of Mines and Petroleum, AustAsia Pacific Health Services, MRSM Group, the aforementioned Australian High Commission and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Queensland.
Major private donors included the Cleland family, Paul Povey, former PNG director of education, Ken McKinnon, and a group of former expatriate teachers in PNG, organised by Ed Brumby, Mike Ahrens of Transparency International, the Star Mountains Institute of Technology, and 98-year old Daisy Henry in the United States. There were also scores of other donors, far too many to mention here.
The net result of all this activity is that K5,000 prizes will be awarded in seven categories of literary endeavour: short stories, essays, poetry, heritage literature, students writing, women’s writing and the award for lifetime contribution to Papua New Guinea literature.
And, in addition, some 3.000 copies of the anthology of the best Papua New Guinean writing have been published, most of which will be distributed free or at minimal cost throughout PNG.
Now let me mention that photograph. It shows Director-General Wen-cheng Sung of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Brisbane handing a cheque to me for the printing of books in Papua New Guinea.
It struck me at the time as being very ironic that the people of Taiwan would support this project when the Australian International Cultural Council (a branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs) had turned its back on the initiative.
In a short-sighted decision earlier this year (despite earlier telling us the project “clearly has merit” and offering “to assist with it”), the Australian foreign affairs department used a form letter to fob off our request for assistance.
Of course knock-backs are not uncommon to those of us who deal constantly with bureaucrats, but – given the nature of this project – this was an especially stupid and uncomprehending refusal.
The people of Papua New Guinea are entitled to and must be enabled to read their own literature. This seems to me to be a fundamental right.
The failure of the Australian government at a broader level to fund book production was a blow. But readers of PNG Attitude were generous and, through private donations, provided enough funds to increase that print run from 200 to 3,000.
Any people on the face of this globe who don’t have the opportunity to read their own literature are an impoverished people. It is a shame that DFAT and, for that matter, the government of Papua New Guinea, is asleep to that deep truth.
And now you know the story behind the picture.