The halcyon days of literature occurred in the 10 years or so leading up to independence in 1975 and a few years afterwards. It was then that Vincent Eri published the first Papua New Guinean novel, The Crocodile, and when books by writers like Albert Maori Kiki and Russell Soaba appeared.
Those were the years when Papua New Guinean written literature was born and when it blossomed. At the same time there was a relative abundance of work by expatriates based in Papua New Guinea, both fiction and non-fiction.
The elements that conspired to make all this possible are worth exploring to see if they have any relevance for literature in Papua New Guinea today.
One of those elements was the mood of the times; change was in the air. It was clear that independence wasn’t far off and this created a completely new atmosphere, both social and political.
The old days of simply hanging off Australia’s apron strings were coming to an end and people were filled with optimism for the future. People felt that they were no longer under the heel of the colonialists.
Most of all it meant that Papua New Guineans could take charge of their own future and would be able to express themselves in their own way. It was a fecund time for Papua New Guinea writers because they were the ones charged with imagining the future.
Another element was the presence of sympathetic and dedicated motivators; people like Ulli Beier and the staff at the University of Papua New Guinea. These people gave direction and rendered valuable assistance to the nascent writers. Without them the tide of literature would have foundered on a barren beach.
These people also created places where the writers could display their wares: magazines, journals and forums. The presentation of plays and other visual events brought oral traditions and literature together in a new and exciting nexus.
Another crucial element in this mix was the existence of publishers willing to print Papua New Guinean material. Foremost among these was Brian Clouston’s Jacaranda Press but there were others like Lansdowne Press, Angus and Robertson and AH & AW Reed. Without them such works as The Crocodile wouldn’t have seen the light of day.
There was also a large book-buying public in Papua New Guinea in those days, mostly expatriate but including many educated Papua New Guineans. Without mass media like television reading was an important educational and recreational activity.
Most big towns had a bookshop or two, the big stores like Steamies (a sponsor of The Crocodile Prize) and BPs sold books and there was a healthy mail order business between Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Finally, there was proactive government encouragement and assistance for literature. The Department of Information and Extension Services funded and produced a range of publications using Papua New Guinean writers; it ran literary competitions and generated a sense in the schools and the general public that literature was an essential ingredient in the makeup of a successful nation.
There were many other things at play but these are the main ones. How does this contrast with the situation in Papua New Guinea today?
Let’s start with the atmosphere. In those days it was optimism that fed the cause of literature. Nowadays it’s pessimism. This doesn’t matter as much as you might think. Extreme pessimism works just as well as extreme optimism as a catalyst for writers, perhaps even more so.
There are plenty of writers around, just like in the old days. Nowadays Papua New Guinea’s most elegant writers overwhelmingly occupy social media. Every blog publisher is a writer at heart.
What about motivators? Well, the University of Papua New Guinea, except for a few diehards like Russell Soaba and Steven Winduo, seems to be a lost cause. Years of government neglect has rendered what was once a powerhouse of opinion and dissent effectively mute. None of the other tertiary institutions seem to be interested in taking up the batons and cudgels.
What about publishers and readers? There are no real publishing houses in Papua New Guinea, except for the Christian presses and they just churn out insipid dogma. The University of Papua New Guinea is trying to revive its publishing program but it is hamstrung by costs.
Russell Soaba’s classic 1977 novel Wanpis is again available but it costs around K50, that’s a lot of money for most Papua New Guineans. The number of readers is at an all-time low, not least because of the appalling illiteracy rates. There are also very few bookshops. In how many houses in Papua New Guinea will you find a bookcase filled with books?
And the government? This is one of the most frustrating aspects nowadays. There is a complete lack of interest. In fact, they seem to be more interested in suppressing writers than helping them.
So let’s summarise. The atmosphere, although pessimistic, is ripe and there are plenty of writers about. Apart from social media, which still has a very limited reach and doesn’t provide any real income, there is nowhere else to publish and even if there were it is doubtful that there are enough readers to support the writers’ efforts anyway. And lastly, there is an apathetic, anti-intellectual, uneducated and moronic government in place.
The conclusion is obvious; literature in Papua New Guinea is virtually doomed. It cannot even sustain itself as a cottage industry using social media and small-scale presses. If you take away the efforts of outsiders like PNG Attitude all that remains are a few scribblers penning diatribes on social media that is basically timid and has a limited readership.
And yet the tools are there. Modern technology has given us print-on-demand presses that can spit out books for next to nothing. There are now e-books and Kindles and Kobos to read them on; you can even read them on your mobile phone. Books are now distributed internationally using the Internet. It would be easy for a determined Papua New Guinea to tap into these changes.
The solution is as unavoidable as the conclusion. The government has to get involved. It has to be a hands-off effort that is non-manipulatory and tough skinned enough to cop criticism. Literature in Papua New Guinea, if it is to have any hope of survival, needs to be nationalised.
The question is, are there any politicians out there with the brains and balls willing to grasp the nettle?