Skip To Content

Athabasca University

National Literature Competitions During the Colonial Era

The Literature Competitions were the chief vehicle through which the Literature Bureau promoted writing in PNG. Originally the idea of Roger Boschman in 1968 and sponsored by him personally, the National Short Story Contest (and then the other competitions) quickly became the national focus for literary output. They were absorbed as part of the Literature Bureau's operations in 1970, but continued to have a high proportion of private funding. Long after editors Maynard and Boschman had left the Bureau, they continued to personally fund prizes, as did the Creative Centre for the Arts (CCA), the Port Moresby Arts Council, Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and many interested expats.

The colonial era Competitions had three main divisions: short story, play, and poetry. Categories for Pidgin writing were added in 1972 at the request of, and funded by, SIL. Don Maynard also supported this category out of his own pocket. SIL provided the judges for the Pidgin story category. The Competitions had age-ranked categories from primary level to university/adult. They were, and remained for nearly three decades, enormously popular. From the original 70 stories submitted for Roger Boschman's Short Story Contest, to 700 stories in 1971, the strength of the Competition is obvious throughout its history (Schild 81ff).

Indeed, the whole notion of writing competitions was popular. The Port Moresby Eistedfodd had literary sections in 1970 (NGW 2 [1970]: 24) where the prize was money plus three weeks free tuition at CTC, Nobonob. The Drama and Arts Society sponsored the Waigani Writing Competition in 1969 (Nilaidat 2.3 [1969]: 15). New Nation sponsored annual literary competitions for its young readers, averaging 150 entrants (G. Powell 1984, 90). Kristen Pres operated a literature contest from 1970-73, from which they published three anthologies of prize-winning folklore entries: Tales From Long Ago (1972) and Return From the Unknown (1972), and Creation Legends From New Guinea (1972). Money prizes were offered by the Kristen Pres contest for biography and short story, for essays and drama in English or Pidgin. In addition, winners received free tuition at the Creative Training Centre (CTC) writing courses run by Glen Bays. Although most submissions to the National Competitions were encouraged (or even required) of students by their teachers, the Literature Competition winners' lists contain an impressive number of future published authors. From the 1970 contest alone, the prizes (Short story - Russell Soaba; Drama - Arthur Jawodimbari, Leo Hannet, John Waiko, John Kaniku; and Poetry - Kumalau Tawali, Jack Lahui) point to the literary "canon" for the next decade, as do all the prize-winning pieces published during (P)NGW's history. The perceived importance of (P)NGW's participation in this process is indicated by letters written to the editor by teachers who used the magazine as indigenous material for their English classes.

Yet there were problems with the Competitions. The first of these was cultural, the second structural. Plagiarism was a continuing difficulty. Many contributors simply did not understand the European concept of cultural property. The warnings are repeated often over the years. Sometimes the plagiarism was plain cheek, as when one entrant submitted an early poem written by the editor himself, or when someone submitted a page of Shakespeare. Other times, greed and sloth combined to submit the cribbed dedicatory poem to Camara Laye's The African Child. The judges had to be vigilant. Plagiarism was a problem for PNGW as well, since the journal paid for submissions. In 1976, Greg Murphy of Goroka Teachers College (GTC) acidly reminded the editor of his own plagiarism policy when the journal printed the poem "The Lonely Heart," by Gapi Iamo, originally published at GTC in O Mama (ed. G. Murphy), by the actual author Alois Ua (Murphy 8).

Time and again, judges had difficulty in their task or simply refused to award prizes because the manuscripts were not the right length, of a high enough quality, or because they resembled (or actually were) oral texts written down. Taban lo Liyong and Peter Trist were at pains to explain this difficulty to readers in 1977, although it was a continual problem. The policy of encouraging people to start with orality and then transfer into English and onto paper did not seem to be working. The concept of the westernized imaginative text was difficult to establish.

The other problem was just as difficult to deal with: in such a small literary community, it was hard to find enough non-involved judges. Paul Sharrad points out that the Literary Competitions became an in-bred system where the teachers and editors judged the prize-winners, who themselves became judges in subsequent competitions (Sharrad 1). The judges for 1970, for instance, were Albert Maori Kiki, Paulias Matane, Ulli Beier, Don Maynard, Greg Katahanas (drama teacher at GTC), Peter Trist (drama editor for ABC, later NBC), and so on. Many prize-givers were also judges. What Sharrad calls "in-bred" seems to be a manifestation of the self-sufficiency of a pioneer print culture system. As no cultural structures were in place to support literature, the new system had to be completely self-sufficient. This meant that everyone needed to be able to serve several roles.

The exact value of the Literature Competitions is difficult to ascertain. They provided a venue for writers who were not part of the UPNG group. And they provided a venue for those UPNG writers who were not part of the elite creative writing group. Whatever their ultimate place in PNG literary history, the Literature Competitions provided an early national indigenous writing exercise that was the direct continuation of mission attempts to maintain literacy both inside and outside of school. When John Kolia of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies (IPNGS), where the Literature Bureau had been housed in the late 1970s, published a collection of verse from the 1980 Competitions, Andrew Strathern commented that the anthology, Melanesia - Thoughts and Words, was a fresh, lively expression of the personal. The forms he encountered in this verse were unusual, some reminiscent of the oral tradition. The images had a Melanesian flavour to them. Ever so slowly, a truly indigenous use of language and form seemed to be emerging (Strathern 1982, 59). Clearly, by the early 1980s, the original goals of the Literature Bureau had been vindicated even if most of the programme links established by Maynard and Boschman were lost.

The National Literature Competitions survived the dismantling of the Literature Bureau and a series of Institutes until they were themselves discontinued in the late 1990s; however, they were resurrected in 2005.

Updated October 13 2016 by Library Services