Thursday, September 22, 2011

A benchmark in PNG literature

Some of the writers at the workshop at the Australian High Commission on the eve of Independence celebrations
This year’s Independence celebrations will no doubt include over 40 years of Papua New Guinea writing, now having come of age as our national literature.  By a national literature we mean those works on Papua New Guinea written by Papua New Guineans. The first such works were gathered for literary journals as early as 1968, and these were immediately published as “words of paradise” in several journals and anthologies such as Kovave, Words of Paradise and Black Niugini Writing.

Since 1968 Papua New Guinea literature took many forms and a categorization of these as we have noted innumerable times range from protest writing to autobiographies, social commentary, oral literatures and traditions, criticism and genre experimentations. Somewhere along the line feminist theory took its place as a PNG literary discipline under the subheading of gender studies.

Today, through the publications of such works as The Unpainted Mask by Steven Winduo, Gutsini Posa by Regis Stella, Ripples in the Pacific by Paulias Matane and A Remarkable Journey by Carol Kidu we see that such writing, as a “holistic” representation of all creative endeavours, forms a new benchmark in the nation’s literary development. Such writing is now being read widely and studied at universalities throughout the world, including the Pacific region.

Such a literary development was noted to be steady in progress, though there were decades when writers fell silent for one reason or another, but that rate of progress indicated a sure homecoming of a new type of national as much as global literature that was destined to look complete.

A question that comes to mind now is whether or not Papua New Guinea has written enough. That question is best answered by a member of the present generation of writers and scholars, Charmaine Sialis, through the following observation.

“Can PNG literature in its current state of existence be questioned? Absolutely not! It is evident through the number of authors and their works we are reading now, and from the various points of view drawn from these writings, that there is definitely such a thing as PNG literature.”

Sialis continues: “But it is now up to each and every one of us to familiarize ourselves with the material available in PNG literature for educational purposes. Young people are the ones that will benefit more from this because they will learn more about their background and where they originated from. Since [the present generation] grew up in a modernized society, many may not know about their traditions and cultures. By reading PNG literature and applying it [as knowledge], they will be able to preserve our cultures and traditions; therefore, as future leaders, this will ensure the prosperity of Papua New Guinea.”

A question of importance, however, dwells on the amount of intellectual impact this national literature has on off-shore readers, critics, researchers and scholars. That question is usually answered by viewing the thoughts and opinions of outsiders on what we have produced so far as our literature. Critics from the immediate neighbouring regions, such as the Pacific itself, eschew PNG literature but only to a cautious degree. Critics and scholars such as the Indo-Fijian Subramani usually remark that PNG literature can be viewed separately and in its own right. Viewers from neighbouring Australia and New Zealand are seen to be more direct than that, but with a certain air of empathy.

Paul Sharrad from the University of Wollongong in Australia had this to say when he visited UPNG last week. At a private function hosted by Dr Steven Winduo he was somewhat of the opinion that though much has been written to date, that could only be recognized globally if there were seen some pro-active participation from our literary crowd with the international one.

Of course the implication noted there is how much we can achieve at global level after having (for an undergraduate, for example) spent some four years working towards a basic degree in literature. We can only market ourselves internationally if the content of what we study runs shoulder to shoulder with what other tertiary institutions in the world offer. At present, what we see as challenging from assessments and evaluations such as those of Sharrad’s is the fact that what we study at home as literature might lack the substance of canonization in literary studies overall. What Sharrad is hinting at there is that our literature students might leave after four years of strenuous study without knowing who William Shakespeare is or what province he comes from. After all, what is a cultured individual if he lacks the classical aspects of his own culture?

One other point raised by Sharrad which storyboard found intriguing as much as challenging. That since Sharrad himself specializes in postcolonial literature which covers much of the Pacific including Papua New Guinea, and since he is the only one in Australia teaching such a trend in course offerings, there is apparently no one else to teach it upon his retirement. That implies that either there is no one else, apart from his own students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, or that none of our own academics (particularly the young crowd) is considering taking up such a challenge in Australia or in any Australian university as yet. But the amount of professorial movements Dr Steven Winduo seems to be doing these days should indicate some bright prospects in that direction.

Paul Sharrad is highly regarded in this field of academic preoccupations. We must be grateful for his honest opinions on PNG literature to date. That certainly gives us, as a group from this little corner of our nation’s development, cause to celebrate. Paul’s postgraduate students once upon a time included Regis Stella, along with several other Papua New Guineans, including Australians themselves. His extensively researched book on the work of the Samoan writer, Albert Wendt, called “Albert Wendt and Pacific Literature: Circling the Void” has become a monumental publication both for PNG, the Pacific region, and the world. He himself is no stranger to Papua New Guinea having spent the best part of his youth at the Port Moresby International High School.
The seniors: Paul (left) and Russell at UPNG.