Sunday, April 22, 2012

Unfolding Petals

Dear Reader,

This review was done before the unexpected passing of the late Dr. Regis Stella on last Wednesday 18th April, 2012. He was looking forward to this review to mark the launching of the book on Thursday. I remember him at this time of losing one of Papua New Guinea's robust, dynamic, and original writer scholar. May his legacy live on....

Now a new book on reading Papua New Guinean literature is out. It is a collection of critical essays published over the years in various international and local journals. The essays are brought together under one title: Unfolding Petals: Readings in Modern Papua New Guinean Literature (2012). It is compiled and edited by Regis Tove Stella of the Literature and English and Communication Studies program of the University of Papua New Guinea. The book is published by the UPNG Press and Bookshop.

 A number of leading authorities in Papua New Guinean literature are represented in this book. The book looks at the beginning of Papua New Guinean literature, the development of a critical voice, and analysis of particular works of literature. Some of the early critical perspectives published are now made available in this book. Papua New Guinean writer scholar, Apisai Enos, who was a member of the teaching staff of the Literature Department in the 1970s wrote the piece “Niugini Literature” in defence of the kind of writings Papua New Guineans were producing. In some sense the attempt here was to define the place of literature in Papua New Guinea, but more specifically to point out that Papua New Guinean writers were creatures of their cultures and society as reflected in their writings. The influence of oral tradition is evident in the writings produced in that period, which no doubt has continued to the present.

 Elton Brash, a literature specialist, who later became the Vice Chancellor of the University of Papua New Guinea in early 1980s wrote about creative writing and self-expression in Papua New Guinea. This essay was written to argue for the place of literature in the education of Papua New Guineans. WilliamMcGaw took a step further with his essay on the role of literature in a newly independent country. The title for this book came from Nigel Kraught’s essay “Unfolding like Petals: The Developing Defintion of the Writer’s Role in Modern Papua New Guinean Literature.”  The essay is based on the first Independent Papua New Guinea Writers’ Conference between July 1-4, 1976 and published in ACLALS Bulletin in 1978.  In summarizing the literary development of the earlier era, Krauth has this to say:

“The first phase, usually in the time immediately before Independence, has as its impetus a desire to “set the record straight”. In this phase the conflicts between traditional village life and Western religion and colonization are reexamined and reassesed. On the other hand the rich oral traditions of myth and folklore are reestablished, on the other bitter memories of racial injustic are purged.The centre of focus is the erosion of the indigenous culture. The Crocodile [by Vincent Eri] and “The Ungrateful Daighter,”[by Leo Hannet] are part of this phase. In the years immediately following independence, there usually ensues a second and broader phases in which themese are deepened and clarified. It is a period of consolidation. The centre of focus may transfer from cultural erosion to the new and modernized world in which it finds itself.”

The next group of essays in the book consider the development of a critical voice in Papua New Guinea. Critical voice refers to critical analysis made about Papua New Guinean literature. The essays in the order of apperance in this book include the following: William McGaw’s “Th Sense of the Past in Pre-independence Papua New Guinea Poetry,” Gillian Gorle’s “Writing in English: Freedom or Frustration? SomeViews from PapuaNew Guinea,” Russell Soaba’s “The Writer’s Place in a Different Society,” Steven Winduo’s “Unwriting Oceania: The Repositioning of the Pacific Writer Scholars Within a Folk Narrative Space,”, Regis Stella’s “Papua New Guinea Literature at the Crossroads: Islands, Languages and Culture,” and Ganga Powell’s “Looking Thru Those Eyeholes: The Dilemma of the Papua New Guinean Writer in the ‘80s.” Each of these publications has shed much light to the way literature has been developing in Papua New Guinea. In particular these essays helped developed the critical tradition, which was absent in the earlier phase of the literary culture in PNG. Papua New Guinea literature, in Regis Stella’s words, is “at the crossroads of islands, culture, and language” and “is about negotiating a political and cultural space within the spectrum of disciplines, in situations, and new configurations of power. It is through the medium of writing that such a negotiation can best occur, because in writing, the “gulfs of silence”, which exist between languages, islands, and cultures are traversed through the integration and reincription of indigenous cultural experience.”

The discussions generated from these essays helped readers of Papua New Guinean literature understand the role writers played in representations of cultural and national identities in nation formations. Our attention is directed to the need for critical self-evaluation as a people, culture, and nation. The call to read the literature and writings penned by our own writers seemed to have taken over the preoccupations of the 1990s and beyond.  This is reflected in the last group of essays, which focus on particular texts of Papua New Guinean writers.

Bill Ashcroft, a leading theorist of postcolonial theory and practices, accords a critical treatment of Russell Soaba’s second novel, Maiba (1985).  Stella Inimgba highlights the need for a unique theatre and drama that is Papua New Guinea. She analyzes Voices from the Ridge, a play written by Peter Kama Kerpie. France Devlin-Glass and Steven Winduo provide a critical reading of The Crocodile by Vincent Eri. A rare contribution by Evelyn Ellerman on the biographical responses to decolonization in Papua New Guinea completes the book.

 “The fact that no other publiations of such material exists up to now is itself indicative not only of the need for such anthologies but also of the state of criticism of modern Papua New Guinean literature. As that literature becomes more and more an object of serious and systematic study, the need for critical material and for greater accessibility of such material as exists, is being sharply felt,” Regis Stella.

 The book is available at the UPNG Booshop for anyone interested in it.

Serious Buai Books

There is no shortage of creative writers in Papua New Guinea. There is, however, a shortage of publishers for all our writers to have their works published. The books that we read and buy for our schools are all published by overseas based publishers and writers. Budding writers are in search of publishers, which are either non-existent or if they exist their interests are confined to institutions, organizations, and narrow business interests.

With this kind of scenario some of us decided to become self-publishers—a decision that is both a curse and a blessing, depending on what we are able to do with limited funds drawn from our own pockets.

A curse because we come from a land of so much resources that the government is happily earning from it, but turns a blind eye on supporting the literary arts and culture develop to full maturity. It is a curse because the road from writing to publishing is not part of the developmental package of this country. Writing and publishing are seen as individual pursuits falling outside of government scope or notions of development.

It is a blessing because we inherited the gifts of expression and creativity from our ancestors. It is a blessing because through the free and creative spirit we are able to give meaning to our lives. The verbal medium which served our ancestors well throughout our history are our pride. We draw from the well springs of our ancestors’ wisdom from time to time to define ourselves.

It is a blessing because self-publishing allows a writer the control what materials get published and how it is marketed. Self-publishing also depends on how much money a writer can raise to meet all the publishing, printing, and marketing costs. The challenge is to sell the books once they are published. From the sales of a book a writer can decide on reprints or to publish another book.  

The main huddle has to do with getting the books into the hands of buyers and readers. Many of the bookshops in the city and country do not have many books written by Papua New Guineans. Stationery shops of various kinds and specialization have sections on books, but they shy away from selling books written by local writers.

The bookshops and stationery shops in the city like the Christian Bookshop and Catholic Bookshop in Garden City Boroko, Seeto Kui, Star Stationery, Theodist, Brian Bells, and hotels such as Holiday Inn and Gateway have limited titles written by one or two Papua New Guinean writers. I acknowledge Theodist for making sure I have one of my books on sale in its shop. These bookshops, stationary shops, and others in the country can do more to help our writers market their books.

I have been fortunate in my partnership with the UPNG Press and Bookshop over the last few years to have a number of books published through a co-publishing arrangement. Through that partnership an important link was established with Masalai Press in USA. Dr. John Evans of UPNG Press and Bookshop and Thomas Slone of Masalai Press are two individuals with whom I have come to respect for their efforts in publishing new titles written by Papua New Guineans. So far, a number of us have our books published through a joint venture arrangement as described above.

This year a new publishing initiative was hatched. The BUAI series: an original publishing initiative of UPNG Press and Bookshop, and Masalai Press of USA. BUAI stands for Brochures, Useful Articles, and Information. The first book in this series is Nora Vagi Brash’s book of poems. Other books are now in press and should be on the shelves in the next few months.

I have been fortunate enough to get my fourth book of poems written in Tokpisin and English published in this exciting new series. A number of anthologies produced by my students in the course I teach on writing, editing, and publishing will finally get published under the BUAI series.

UPNG Press and Bookshop is a single most important business run by UNIventure, the business arm of the University of Papua New Guinea. Dr. John Evans who manages UPNG Press and Bookshop knows what it means to develop a book industry in PNG. He is helping many Papua New Guinean writers, especially those associated with UPNG, to see the publication of their books.  A number of important books have been published or reprinted so far under Dr. Evan’s leadership.

In our conversation, Dr. Evans expressed an alarming concern about the way in which the Education Department had gone about using the millions of Kina in the purchase of books for schools around the country. Books published by UPNG Press and Bookshop or the stock of relevant books for use in schools had not been purchased by the Education Department. Something sinister seems to be happening.

I fear it could be true. Late last year I signed a contract with the Education Department for the purchase of two of my new books, published independently or copublished with UPNG Press and Bookshop, for use in schools around the country. To date I have not heard anything about that countract, leaving me to conclude that some officers in the Curriculum Division of the Department responsible for the purchase of books had duped me or have used my contract to collect the cheque for their own use.  

It is troubling to live with the knowledge that an opportunity to encourage local writers and publishers is again mishandled to the annoyance of many of us involved in writing and publishing books.

UPNG Press and Bookshop is doing an excellent job in getting new books published and making available reprints of PNG classics. It needs all the support it can get to realize its production value as a publisher and book distributor.

I hope the BUAI series will become a brand name to mark the publishing of new PNG writers who will help shape the future of this country.