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Athabasca University

Literature Bureau

The Papua New Guinea Literature Bureau was created in 1968 on colonial models already established in Africa, Asia and the South Pacific (Maynard 1971b, 17). The Literature Bureau was meant to give safe expression to any anti-colonial feelings that might arise during decolonization and to organize national sentiment for the process of nation-building (Lahui interview). Discussion had begun as early as 1966 among Administration officials, representatives of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), the Lutheran Church, and other mission bodies as to how to create an indigenous literature. When these talks stalled, the Administration proceeded with a plan to establish the Literature Bureau under the Department of Information and Extension Services (DIES). It was to publish a quarterly magazine and promote the writing and publication of creative texts. Its first director was to be New Zealand poet, Louis Johnson, who had experience with the United Nations and with literature programmes elsewhere in the South Pacific (Schild 76ff).

In assessing the Literature Bureau's participation in the literary life of PNG, it is constructive to look at other colonial Literature Bureau operations. The East Africa Literature Bureau (EALB), for instance, was established in 1948 under the joint administration of the three governments of East Africa. Its architect was Dr. Charles Richards, a missionary who had already spent twelve years working with writers in the region. Under Richards, the EALB had acted to teach writers, promote and publish their work, establish libraries to house their work, and create literary magazines for critical appraisal (Holdsworth 18; Richards 14-15; East 187). The EALB provided, in other words, the necessary roles for a mini-literary system in one well-funded, clearly directed, institutional body. Furthermore, it maintained these roles until other institutions were able to assume them. The libraries were eventually taken over by the three governments involved. The writers’ course, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, was taken over by the University of East Africa, and so on. In cases where a role could not be transferred, the EALB continued to support it, as it has with its Kenyan publishing operation.

The PNG Literature Bureau was not so nearly ambitious in its inception, so stable in its funding, nor so clear about its priorities. Nor was it so fortunate in the long tenure of one, committed director. When Louis Johnson arrived at the Bureau, he was its only staff member. For a year he worked on the first issue of the proposed journal. However, left without direction as to how he was to promote literature, without any approved financing for the proposed journal, and feeling that the Literature Bureau was a redundant arm of DIES' existing Publications Branch, he resigned his post (Schild 76ff).

Johnson's successor was Australian poet, Don Maynard, who tried hard to articulate a clear programme for the Literature Bureau from the outset. Its official purpose was:

to stimulate reading among the newly literate people of Papua New Guinea and to encourage publication of materials by them. These publications may be in English or in a lingua franca such as New Guinea Pidgin or Motu. (Maynard 1971b, 17)

Within this framework, Maynard defined literacy as the task of the Department of Education and providing material to support literacy as the task of the Literature Bureau. The literacy material would come from PNG writers. These aims of the Literature Bureau clearly supported the work of the SIL and the Department of Education and should have complemented the work of Kovave, the newly-created literary journal at the University. The assumption was that oral literature could transfer into written. Maynard's method crystallized around encouraging islanders to "transcribe their native legends and tales, and thus preserve them for later generations in dramatic or other literary forms" (19). Maynard felt the logical creative outcome would be in playwriting, given the strong tradition of performance art on the islands. His hope was that creative writing would not be an end in itself, but would lead to much needed indigenous texts on "law, education, agriculture, sociology, politics, economics" (19).  

At first, Maynard wanted to set up a publishing house for new writers, but the Administration was uninterested in such costly ventures, so the Literature Bureau contented itself with substitutes. The only book publication the Bureau ever managed was a collection called Stories of Papua New Guinea - Book I, which was advertised in issue 14 (1974) of NGW as the first in a series of short stories and legends for the newly literate majority and for upper primary schools. The book was supplied to primary schools free of charge. There was never a second volume.  

If book publishing was not to be a programme of the Literature Bureau, Maynard tried to establish the Bureau as an advocate for literature. As a "neutral" governmental body, the Bureau would act as a clearinghouse for its own efforts, commercial publishers, the mission presses, SIL, and Administration departments. Printed texts would be channelled through "news agencies, bookshops, public and village libraries, co-operatives, and local government councils" (Maynard 1970b, 32). Although this grand scheme was never realized, the director did his best to inform his readers of all literary activities in the colony, no matter which literary system supported them; this information was generally in the form of advertisements for publishers, information about writing courses, extensive biographical notes detailing the literary achievements of all the journal’s  writers, interviews with anyone involved in literature, reports on professional activities, etc. New Guinea Writing (NGW) and Papua New Guinea Writing PNGW (as it was re-named after Maynard left) was the only literary journal in the country to provide these services.

The editors of (P)NGW had to set priorities for their own journal, yet expand opportunities for writers wherever possible. (P)NGW, for instance, never published drama: its 25-page format would not allow the length of a drama. Nor would its mandate allow the politically controversial tenor of most drama produced during this period. The journal did, however, regularly offer to ABC (later NBC) for dramatization the plays that had been submitted to the Literature Competitions. Many of these were produced. In later years, stories sent to PNGW were offered to the Film Unit at DIES to develop as films (Mana Annual [1974]: 33). Once the Centre for Creative Arts (CCA) was established, the Literature Bureau co-operated with UPNG and the Department of Education in publishing anthologies. Finally, several of the poets whose work appeared in the Literature Bureau's journal (including Maynard himself) published with Beier's Papua Pocket Poet (PPP) series.

Don Maynard edited the first four issues (1970-72) of NGW. Under Roger Boschman’s editorship (1972-74), and re-named Papua New Guinea Writing, the journal focussed on using creative expression in the service of the developing nation. Boschman's accession as editor coincided with the first revival of the flagging literary scene. In fact, his enthusiasm is generally thought to be responsible for that revival. In the first twelve months of his tenure, Boschman doubled the sales of the journal. He introduced Writers Day at the end of September in 1972 to celebrate the annual prize-giving for the Literature Competitions and to honour PNG's writers. Under Boschman, the journal and the Literature Bureau were, almost completely indigenized.

Jack Lahui, a long-time DIES employee and winner of several National Poetry prizes, became the last Director of the Literature Bureau, and PNGW's last editor 1974-77).  Lahui was an unpopular editor, eliciting many complaints about the severity of his editorial hand. The most famous outcry came from Greg Murphy, English instructor at Goroka Teachers College (GTC). In his Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies (IPNGS) Discussion Paper, 18 (1976) titled "On How Not to Edit Poetry," Murphy spelled out the radical changes made by PNGW in the publication of prize-winning poems. In comparing Lahui's editorial work to plagiarism, Murphy said, "stealing something, especially a work of art, is not as bad as destroying it" (8). Needless to say, all but the newest writers in the country knew of these practices and avoided the journal if they could.

But disagreements with the country’s creative writers were the least of Lahui’s concerns. The new government saw little need for the Literature Bureau once independence had been achieved. By the end of 1976, the Literature Bureau had been re-housed within the Department of Education. The editor of PNGW was now required to sing a wholly educational tune: "It is our hope that the Bureau play an indirect 'Adult or Community Education Role' and supplement the Education department's national curriculum if required." The journal had been seconded to the Department's low priority literacy programme.

In 1978, PNGW was lodged with John Kolia at IPNGS in 1978, where it lasted for another two issues and then sputtered to a halt, absorbed into Institute publications like so many others at the time. The Literature Bureau (later called the Literature Board) remained with the IPNGS until 1988 when a re-structuring of several institutions (including IPNGS) created the National Research Institute (NRI).

Updated October 13 2016 by Library Services