THERE'S NOT OFTEN GOOD NEWS in our papers about Papua New Guinea, and when it comes to local writing there's no news at all. PNG writing flourished in the years leading to independence in 1975, part of the process of decolonisation, but in the decades that followed it dwindled and waned.
By 2000 it was said to be dead, which it wasn't. A few brave souls had kept writing, but for the most part literature hasn't been part of the nation's creative character. Dance, performance, oral narrative, but not fiction or poetry.
Well, until now, that is, with a new generation of writers flushed out, encouraged and made visible by the Crocodile Awards, which celebrated their second year last month.
Named after the first novel by a Papua New Guinean, Vincent Eri's The Crocodile (1971), the awards were founded in 2010 by Australians Phil Fitzpatrick and Keith Jackson for the best writing by Papua New Guineans in fiction, poetry and the essay.
The start was slow: no one knew what was out there, but by the first closing date in the middle of last year there were 160 entries from 80 writers, 34 of whom made it into the Crocodile Anthology that is published as part of the awards.
This year there were almost 600 entries from 135 writers. Prizes were given in seven categories and the 2012 Crocodile Anthology published 63 of the writers. With ongoing sponsorship secured, the running of the awards has been handed over to PNG's new Society of Writers, Editors and Publishers. Quite a revival.
In September, during Independence Week, the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby, as one of the sponsors, hosted the awards. The mood among the writers gathered for the day-long Crocodile Forum was celebratory and determined.
The constitutional crisis of earlier this year was resolved. The recent elections had returned the first of a new generation of younger parliamentarians, with some of the worst of the old guard voted out.
The writers, most of them in their 20s or 30s, spoke of themselves as part of a generational shift to redefine the potential and direction of the country. Older guests at the reception that evening were hopeful. "Cautious optimism" was how retired politician Dame Carol Kidu expressed it.
Eri's The Crocodile told the story of a young man torn between two cultures, with magic and sorcery tugging him in one direction, and the new white ways making demands in the other. It was a theme common in those years. Eri's crocodile was literal and an image of all that was submerged and threatening.
There are still submerged, and not-so submerged, threats - "hauntings" is the word used by Emma Wakpi, the winner of this year's essay award - but this next generation of writers no longer looks back to colonial baggage.
We must find a way, Wakpi says, to confront the hauntings within our own culture. The modern reality of PNG is to be met on its own terms.
Other essays in the anthology confront the failure of leadership, corruption and the gross inequities of wealth that have come with the misuse of government power and money. Some are pessimistic, a grim catalogue; others a rallying cry.
Michael Dom's defence of buai (betel nut) market vendors is about a great deal more than buai and the red stains on the pavement where the chewers spit.
Dom, an agricultural scientist and advocate for small-scale agricultural production and "attainable development the PNG way", won the poetry prize for his sonnet, I met a pig farmer the other day, which, similarly, is about more than meeting a pig farmer. To him, poetry is a "powerful means of expression of the collective conscience of people".
For bloggers Martyn Namorong and Emmanuel Narokobi, it's not poetry but social networking that will bring about change. Narokobi says he went into social media hoping to make money and found instead that he could promote social change.
Former Greens leader Bob Brown and Labor senator Anne McEwen gave him "great gifts"; Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop was attentive; former Labor minister Alan Griffiths came up with "real practical advice - thank you, dude". Others failed to impress him, with 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 back 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.
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 in PNG, 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.
But for most of the writers at the forum, town life is their reality; audience means readers and publishing means print. Papua New Guineans are great newspaper readers, but beyond that there is little other than church publishing.
Another sign of change, another green shoot, is the arrival of Stella, a magazine for PNG women, edited by Amanda Donigi, the new president of SWEP.
Well edited and beautifully produced, Stella is pitched to younger, educated town women. There are tips for managing the springy hair that keep heads cool, and recommendations for stylish but affordable clothes and accessories.
There are interviews, including with Samoan fantasy author Lani Wendt Young. There are also articles on leadership and what it means to be Melanesian in the 21st century.
The magazine also publishes poetry, and Wakpi's The making of me is also a poem about the making of PNG. Dom uses the Transformers series as an allegory "to liberate our best dreams for tomorrow and to educate our hearts and minds on the path to the realisation of those dreams".
Stella has a long way to go before it is self-sustaining, but its appearance is a sign of confidence in a new generation of readers and writers.
The sadness of the forum was the absence of critic and writer Regis Stella, who died suddenly and far too young in April. He liked to quote Wole Soyinka on the "special responsibility" of the writer as witness and moral voice.
He wasn't there to see his friend and colleague Russell Soaba receive the Crocodile Award for lifelong achievement.
Since his first novel Wanpis was published in 1977, Soaba has kept to that vision as a poet and a novelist, a teacher and a columnist. Maiba, a fine novel, was published in 1985; his poetry includes Naked Thoughts (1978) and Kwamra (2000).
The mind that relaxes itself in form, Soaba told last year's forum, opens to experimentation. Take the form, he told this year's writers, and make it your own. Melanesians have their own rhythm of language and storytelling.
There was no doubting that at the forum, nor the openness to learning, the interest in form and the hunger for books, signs of the "dynamic adaptation" that Soaba, like Samoan writer Albert Wendt, sees at the core of post-colonial Pacific writing. Storytelling is in his people's blood, Soaba says. There is reason to hope.
The 2012 Crocodile Prize winners
Steamships Prize for Short Stories: Charlotte Vada
PNG Society of Writers, Editors and Publishers Prize for Poetry: Michael Dom
PNG Chamber of Mines and Petroleum Prize for Essays and Journalism: Emma Wakpi
Cleland Family Prize for Heritage Literature: Lorraine Basse
Ex PNG Chalkies' Yokomo Prize for Student Writing: Angeline Low
Ok Tedi Mining Prize for Women's Literature: Imelda Yabara
British American Tobacco (PNG) Prize for Lifetime Contribution to Literature: Russell Soaba
The 2012 Crocodile Prize Anthology is published by Pukpuk Publications. More information at www.crocodileprize.com.
Many of the pieces in the anthology can be found at Keith Jackson's PNG Attitude website: http://asopa.typepad.com.
Stella magazine's website is www.stellamag.com.
Drusilla Modjeska is a writer and editor who lived in PNG before moving to Australia in 1971. She was a guest at the Crocodile Forum. Her latest novel is ‘The Mountain’