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