THE very idea of ‘competition’ can leave a bitter-sweet aftertaste on the mental palate.
It seems to imply an egotistical, perhaps vain, desire to be ‘better than the rest’. An urge to be the victor in a kind of bloodless warfare.
But the results of competitive behaviour, even in literature, can be significant: improved performance; enhanced quality; rich learning; recognition of talent; reward for effort; establishing benchmarks…. It’s a long list.
Enter Papua New Guinea’s Crocodile Prize literary contest, now in its fourth year and with a budget in 2014 of approaching $40,000 ($20,000 in prizes, the rest spent on publishing and on a writer’s fellowship).
“The formula Phil Fitzpatrick and I adopted when we conceived the Prize in 2010 was that it had to be for readers as well as writers,” says co-director Keith Jackson, formerly a senior executive with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“PNG had two big gaps in literature– a lack of outlets for creative writers and a lack of home-grown material for readers.
“So we had to do something to encourage and reward writers while providing the opportunity for Papua New Guineans to read the literature of their own nation.”
The result was that the Queensland-based Fitzpatrick and Jackson, who spent many years in PNG as a patrol officer and broadcaster respectively,established both the Prize and an annual Anthology of the best creative writing from PNG.
To these initiatives have since been added writers’ workshops, held in conjunction with the Prize event each September, and a new writer’s fellowship which this year will bring Australian author Trevor Shearston to PNG.
“In future years we want the fellowship to also work the other way,” says Jackson, “to bring prominent PNG writers to Australia.
“But it all depends on sponsorship and sustaining an effective administrative organisation.”
The Prize and its many associated activities is governed by the Crocodile Prize Organising Group (COG for short), a voluntary committee of 15 members from Papua New Guinea and Australia.
COG maintains the core machinery of the competition which includes marketing, sales, event management, publishing, judging, editing and communications as well as administration.
In all, it’s quite an enterprise.
One of the critical building blocks of the Prize is sponsorship.
“Without it, there’s no Prize,” says Jackson.
Companies like Steamships, Ok Tedi Mining and Kina Securities, organisations like the PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum and NGO Buk bilong Pikinini [Books for Children], and private groups like the Cleland family have been instrumental in assuring the success of the Crocodile Prize.
The Australian High Commission in Port Moresby has also been a major supporter, especially with its material backing in the early years.
There are seven sponsored categories of the Prize: poetry; short stories; essays & journalism; heritage writing; writing for children; book of the year; and lifetime achievement.
This year’s new Ok Tedi Mining Book of the Year is a first for the Prize and a first for Papua New Guinea.
“Its introduction a sign of a new maturity in the development of a national literary culture,” says Jackson.
“We’d like to establish separate contests for drama and illustration in 2015, and this is entirely dependent on new sponsors stepping up to the mark.”
There are now less than two months to go until entries close in this year’s competition and, with a late rush by writers looming, the Prize has already received nearly 300 entries from some 100 writers.
“The quality each year improves,” says Jackson. “We’ve been knocked out by the sheer brilliance of much of the writing.”
PNG’s literary flame was lit by academic Ulli Beier at the University of Papua New Guinea in the late 1960s.
Beier nurtured the likes of indigenous literary stand-outs Russell Soaba, John Kasaipwalova and Steven Winduo and encouraged public figures like Vincent Eri (the Prize is named for his first ever PNG novel, The Crocodile), Michael Somare and Albert Maori Kiki to become authors in their own right.
This new literary flame flickered briefly and almost died in the years following Independence in 1975. The Crocodile Prize is now fanning it back to life.
If COG has its way, this competition will stand the test of time and continue to stoke the embers of that sacred fire.
If Papua New Guinea is are to preserve its living cultures, it is vital that COG and the Crocodile Prize succeed.
PNG has more than 850 languages with associated cultures, customs, beliefs, legends and ways of storytelling.
It also has a more modern history, with its accompanying ideas, issues, dramas and challenges. These too need to be related, analysed, understood and recorded.
We must write so future Papuan New Guineans will learn of us, about us and from us and be stronger, surer, wiser and more prepared to make their stand as citizens of our country and our world.
The Crocodile Prize has shown that there are hundreds of talented and emergent writers and poets in PNG who are keepers of old legends and translators of current issues.
Just as those Independence writers contributed to an early awareness of nation in PNG, one day some of these new writers will influence the definition of what our wonderful country can become.