2012 WAS THE SECOND YEAR of the Crocodile Prize literary awards, with more than double the number of writers entering than in 2011.
The awards ceremony was accompanied by a day-long forum for 20 or so writers, and also the publication of The Crocodile Anthology 2012.
It was a great day, the mood hopeful; I found the forum particularly interesting. My tentative assessment is that this resurgence in Papua New Guinea writing (the extent of which has surprised even the founders of the awards) does speak to a much-needed generational shift.
Most of the writers at the forum were in their 20s or 30s, all were politically oriented, and, while they didn’t directly assert themselves as a generation to bring about change – although exactly what that might mean is not clear - it was more an attitude than a program.
It made me think of Regis Stella, the PNG writer who died in 2012, who liked to quote Wole Soyinka on the writer as witness and moral voice.
The writers at the forum fell into two broad groups:
1) The bloggers, most of them men, who were more interested in the potential of social networking than in writing as an art form, or in the technicalities of writing. For some, writing was articulated as the transcription of speech.
The bloggers were the most overtly politically engaged of the writers, and the most aware of themselves as agents or a force for change.
Emmanuel Narakobi said he went into social media hoping to make money and found instead that he could make social change. Martyn Namorong was a Crocodile Award winner in 2011, and in May this year toured Australia, meeting several federal politicians in Canberra. Alan Griffiths impressed him, though most did not, their knowledge of PNG full of ‘gaps’.
Australians, Namorong said at the forum, will represent their own interests even when they are being helpful. He has no truck either with the notion of a golden age before Independence, or of the fatal impact of colonialism. It’s the role of the blogger, he says, to understand the conditions of the present and articulate a better way forward. ‘Freedom from fear’ is the banner of his blog.
Interestingly, after years in Port Moresby selling buai to make a living, he is going back to his Province. With Digicel’s cheap mobile technology revolutionising communication across the country, he can continue his work from there; this resurgence won’t make its mark, he says, if it doesn’t bring the villages and the provinces with it. (The impact of Digicel cannot be overemphasised)
2) Those writing poetry, essays and fiction, who were interested in writing as a craft and an art form. Russell Soaba (who won the Crocodile Award for life long achievement as the only writer who continued from the Independence era, through the long, hard years to the present) spoke to the forum about the importance of understanding form and making it their own.
There was a strong sense among the writers that Melanesians have their own ways of telling stories, their own rhythms of language, and this was matched, I felt, by a concomitant openness to learning about literary techniques and protocols.
Russell and I did a small presentation on beginnings, reading from various Pacific and PNG writers to make some preliminary points about point-of-view, perspective, person etc, which had a good response, especially from a number of the women.
There are some promising writers among this group, though for the most part their technical skill is limited. They have a lot to write about, they have a strong sense of the importance of local writing about local characters and in dialogue with the broader culture of PNG. They, too, see writing as part of social change, though not in the immediate and direct way of the bloggers.
With no access to editing, writing workshops etc, and with limited access to books, they have a way to go. There is a little small-scale publishing at the university, but printing costs in PNG are very high.
Bookshops are few; importation and exchange rates makes books very expensive. The writers at the forum rely on the book exchange at Ela Beach market on Saturdays (where, I gather, the novels are mostly fantasy and genre).
Well edited by Amanda Donigi, and well designed, it has the sorts of articles you’d expect from a women’s magazines – tips for dealing with springy hair, accessories and clothes under 15 kina ($7.50), interviews – including with Samoan fantasy author Lani Wend Young. There are also articles on leadership, preserving cultural tradition, disability, workplace harassment and ‘what it is to be a Papua New Guinean’.
Two of the Crocodile writers, Emma Wakpi and Michael Dom, contributed to the first issue. Retailing at K9.95 ($5), it is selling for well under cost and has a way to go before it is sustainable.
But Amanda Donigi, a very impressive young woman, has backing in the short term and a business plan she is determined will work. Stella, it seems to me, is indicative of the generational shift that seems to be coming into focus: the writers, the writing – and , perhaps most significantly, the audience.
Copies can be purchased from Amanda Donigi. firstname.lastname@example.org. I think they are available in Cairns, but otherwise not in Australia. It’d be great if they were.
A few of the writers:
Michael Dom won the poetry prize with a sonnet I met a pig farmer the other day, which is about a lot more than meeting a pig farmer. Michael Dom is an agricultural scientist and advocate for small-scale agricultural production and ‘attainable development the PNG way’.
He submitted a number of sonnets this year after Russell Soaba had talked about sonnets as a form at last year’s Crocodile forum. (His talk can be found on his blogsite (worth reading by anyone interested in PNG writing) http://soabasstoryboard.blogspot.com.au/).
Dom’s essay in the August issue of Stella is about what can be learned from the Transformer series (for example) ‘to liberate our best dreams for tomorrow….’
Emma Wakpi won the essay prize for Hauntings which is a plea to Papua New Guineans to take heed of the submerged (and not so submerged) threats – hauntings – within their own culture.
Unlike the first-wave writers of the Independence era, she does not look back to the colonialism and its baggage and legacy, but to the modern complexities of PNG. Her poem in Stella, The Making of Me, is as much a poem about the making of PNG. She works in community health education.
Charlotte Vada won the short story prize with The Fan. It was the most accomplished and confident of the stories; it tells a story of two schoolboys, an accident and the resolution between them that bypasses blame; ‘payback’ takes an unexpected turn.
She uses Tok Pisin as part of the story’s texture. [A few poems are written in Tok Pisin, by the way, and a few stories use it, occasionally Tok Ples is used, but for the most part the Crocodile writers are writing in English, the language of education in PNG and of official business, policy etc.].
Regina Dorum didn’t win a prize but I was impressed by her story Angel about a bar girl in Port Moresby, especially when she told me she’d written it in an afternoon!
She kills Angel off precipitately, and it doesn’t quite work as it stands, but her ability to create atmosphere and character, her dialogue and the interactions between Angel and the Australian man in the bar are very good. If she can do this in an afternoon with only the Ela Beach book exchange for inspiration, I’d like to see what she’ll do with more.
Workshops are being planned for 2013, with the hope of taking one to Madang, possibly also to Goroka, where there are a number of writers. With travel and accommodation etc, these are expensive.
If anyone thinks their institution is able to offer any assistance, contacts are listed below.
There is a great need for books: novels, especially of a post-colonial kind, poetry, essays etc. There was talk in September of starting a Crocodile book exchange. I am gathering a box of books in Sydney to send up.
This can be done at no cost from Sydney and Brisbane, though it does require someone to take the books to the depot of the company that will put them in their container. I can do this in Sydney if anyone has any books they’d like to donate. If publishers could be persuaded to donate copies of appropriate novels it would be a terrific contribution.
Contacts for Crocodile Award personnel
Set up in 2010 by Australian writer Phil Fitzpatrick and Keith Jackson of the blogsite PNG Attitude, the running of the awards has now moved to the newly established PNG Society of Writers, Editors and Publishers (SWEP). However, Phil and Keith are still much involved in everything Crocodile.
Amanda Donigi, president of SWEP. Editor of Stella magazine
Jimmy Drekore, vice-president of SWEP. A chemist with Newcrest Mining, and founder of the Simbu Children Foundation in 2005. Crocodile prize-winner for poetry 2011
Ruth Moiam, secretary of SWEP. Public Diplomacy Coordinator at the Australian High Commission and a communication & journalism graduate. Also a poet