By DUMBON KUMBON
IT WAS like slowly, scaling the steep ice-covered walls of Mt Everest as we three writers waited for more than a month to present a petition for the Government to recognise PNG literature to Prime Minister James Marape.
And when front desk staffers asked us to wait another three weeks it seemed we had reached the death zone of that great mountain.
I was just about ready to pack my bags and go back to Wabag in the misty highlands.
But then on Thursday, Oct 31 I received a message from the prime minister’s office asking us to immediately furnish him with information about why we wanted to see Marape.
So we did exactly as we were requested, and – while we’re still waiting for the next move – I thought I’d share with you a summary of the contents of our letter, which was written on behalf of more than 300 petitioners – including scores of Papua New Guinean writers, authors, poets, commentators, publishers and editors – who want to see the Government support sustainable home-grown literature in PNG.
So, at this moment, Caroline Evari, Betty Wakia and I await a further message from Marape which will see us ushered into his presence for a few words about the massive benefits developing our own literary tradition can bring to PNG.
We started by informing Marape that PNG’s writers and their supporters had decided to petition the Government immediately after he was elected as PNG’s eighth prime minister. The story we told him went something like this….
We writers really liked James Marape’s war cry to ‘Take back PNG and make it the richest black Christian nation on earth’. We figured that here was a prime minister we could trust. We believe that every citizen must support his clear vision for the nation by engaging fully in activities they are good at.
We hold the strong view that literature can play a significant role in nation-building. It can have a powerful influence on education, on culture and on focusing people on how to create a strong and progressive society.
Unfortunately the power of these contributions has been ignored by successive governments.
Billions of kina has been spent on education over the years but there is little to show for it. Most schools are run down. There are few public and school libraries. Most students speak poor English. And our illiteracy rate remains one of the highest in the world.
A home-grown literature can impact positively on educational standards, it can preserve our traditions and cultures, it can encourage a sense of pride in our people and it can tell the story of our great nation to the world.
A nation without a story is like a nation without a soul.
And Papua New Guinea has writers. It has authors, editors and publishers. But these people are largely unrecognised in our society and their books are largely unread.
PNG’s writers are struggling to tell our nation’s story. There are no major publishers in the country interested in publishing our work. If they want to publish books, they pay for them. Because of this, most PNG-authored books would reach fewer than 100 people.
PNG-authored books are not available in schools and libraries. Our students cannot read books written by their own countrymen and women. Instead, they read books by writers from other countries.
In most cases Papua New Guinean authors pay to have their books printed and donate them so people can read them.
Our national literary award, the Crocodile Prize, established in 2011, is struggling to survive. It is supported by limited private funding and the government has never shown real interest in it.
We writers feel it is time this situation changed.
Our main wish is to see our books, including those already published, purchased by the Government and distributed to libraries, schools, universities and other educational institutions in our country.
Our writers think of how good it would be that, in every government office there was a small book case full of PNG-authored books – novels, biographies, poetry, children’s picture books, history, commentaries and the rest.
A bookshelf offering a clear, material statement of our culture, our sophistication and our civilisation.
The books exist but the means of getting them on the shelves do not.
To become a literary society and to develop a reading culture, Papua New Guinea needs to redirect some of its own book-buying budget to local authors – and to encourage NGOs and corporate business to help out in the same way.
A typical PNG-authored book will cost less than K20.
The Government and its agencies can assist by sponsoring the Crocodile Prize national literature competition and encouraging the formation of provincial writers associations.
We writers are keen to introduce a Prime Minister’s Award for the Best Book each year- one each for a male and female author.
The key government agencies that should be actively involved are the Department of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology and the Department of Education. Their roles will be to assist develop operational libraries and to purchase and distribute books.
We also feel the National Library, the National Cultural Commission and the Ministry of Tourism Arts and Culture can also play a part in this project.
The outcome of the project will be a win-win for writers, readers, educators, students and the people of PNG.
And it will particularly encourage new writers and new readers.
Right now, Papua New Guineans – when they read – are mainly reading books written by outsiders.
Reading about their own country, their own people, their own stories and issues, will be a huge incentive and a massive source of national pride.
It is argued, even by experts, that Papua New Guinea has no reading culture. One reason for this is that there are so few PNG-authored books available to be read.
We are confident this will change if writers can be connected to readers through the books they produce. But this will happen only if the Government intervenes to ensure that the necessary steps are taken.
If the Marape-Davis Government responds to our request, this virtuous circle can be created – and the nation will benefit.
With a better informed, empowered and more literate population, James Marape’s vision to make PNG a prosperous nation will well be on track.
l Daniel Kumbon is a freelance writer.