Sto­ry­telling in the blood

It’s the won­der­ful writ­ing on our doorstep that no one knows about. Drusilla Mod­jeska cel­e­brates PNG lit­er­a­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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