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Athabasca University


Prithvindra Chakravarti's energy and commitment to PNG literature ran as a leitmotif through the twenty years of literary decolonization. Chakravarti was largely responsible for the strength of PNG writing in the 1980s. His chairmanship of the Department, from 1977 to 1984, under increasingly impossible restrictions, was nevertheless characterized by a resurgence in creative writing. After Independence, writing had languished from a lack of purpose. Kovave stopped publication in 1975 and PNGW in 1978. By the early 1980s, Creative Centre for the Arts (CCA) (now the National Arts School) had ceased to be a force for publication. The Institute for Papua New Guinea Studies (IPNGS) had provided a narrow outlet for writing in its cultural journal, Gigibori. What this meant was that from 1978 to the establishment of Ondobondo in 1982, there were no local literary journals in PNG at all.

Although some established authors were still writing and able to find publishers, the new generation of the early 1980s needed to create their own publishing opportunities. When the third South Pacific Festival of the Arts was held in PNG, one of the activities organized by the Literature Department was publication of the sixteen Ondobondo Poster Poems. Twelve of the poems appeared before the Festival. The poetry represented the work of new writers (with the exception of Russell Soaba). Chakravarti was convinced that there was hope in trying to organize these writers in some way. Accordingly he arranged a night of recitals on April 21, 1982. The only established writers to attend were Nora Vagi Brash, Ignatius Kilage, and Teloti Kaniku. But there was enough interest from others to start the Ondobondo Club, which began to meet once each month with 25-30 people attending. Some of the first writers involved with Ondobondo were Cathy Natera, Loujaya Kouza, William Ferea, Samson Ngwele, and Russell Soaba (Kouza 29-30).

Money made available through the Kirsty Powell Memorial Fund was used to start another literary journal. Ondobondo's first issue appeared in 1982; the journal was published twice each year until 1987 when the fund was depleted. Ondobondo was meant as a forum for young writers:

The editors seek to make it fresh without being light weight, original without being clever, and Melanesian without looking like every other literary magazine in this part of the world. (Editorial 1[1982])

Ondobondo was about 30 pages long. It carried a balance of stories, poems, book reviews, plays, and excerpts from novels. In fact it remains the largest single published source in PNG's literary history of excerpts from unpublished novels. Ondobondo's reviews were (with the exception of Joseph Sukwianomb's African reviews) mostly of local writing. The journal thus served as the first instance in the history of PNG literary magazines of indigenous criticism of indigenous writing. Ondobondo was an interesting journal for another reason as well. It succeeded in attracting female writers -- Loujaya Kouza, Joyce Kumbeli, Nora Vagi Brash -- who contributed regularly to the journal throughout its lifetime.

Members of the Literature Department all took turns editing the journal, or in serving on the Board: Prithvindra Chakravarti, Ganga Powell, Alan Chatterton, Pat Hardy, Russell Soaba, Bernard Minol. But Ondobondo took its role as the country's only literary magazine seriously. The Board and the contributors represented UPNG writers, people from Goroka Teachers College (GTC), PNGW writers and staff, several writers who published with or worked for mission institutions, and writers with no affiliation to any institution at all. Arthur Jawodimbari and John Kasaipwalova were there, but so were Greg Murphy, Kumalau Tawali, Benjamin Umba, Jack Lahui, and May Amo. Ben Nakin published with Ondobondo, the Times, and New Nation. One of Ondobondo's contributors was editor of the Niugini Lutheran; another worked for Wantok. The artwork was provided by the National Arts School.

Thus Ondobondo was the first major literary magazine in the country to successfully bridge all three institutional camps. And this balance showed in the content of the creative pieces contained within its pages. They dealt with change and culture clash; they wove oral narrative into written; they examined the relationship between urban and rural life; and they mused over personal relationships. They were not polemical; they avoided folklore. They were primarily concerned with contemporary Melanesian life seen from the inside. The hand of the expat is rarely visible.

Even though Chakravarti hoped the Department could expand its publishing ventures with Books Ondobondo and, later, under the "Owl" imprint, it was unable to garner the funds to achieve its goals (Chakravarti 1980, 27-28). Occasionally, though, it managed to complete a project. A fine example of this effort was Poems by Benjamin Nakin (Literature Department 1982), edited by Kevin D'Arcy. In the third issue of Ondobondo (1983-84), the editorial was unsure as to whether the journal could survive the impending staff cuts. The Literature Department had been slashed to two people. This action was the culmination of a decade of deteriorating governmental support for literature. Chakravarti left two years later, in 1986. With his resignation ended two decades of literary decolonization in PNG.

Updated October 13 2016 by Library Services