Inception of the Crocodile Prize

The Crocodile Prize evolved from a discussion between Phil Fitzpatrick and Keith Jackson, both of whom had worked in Papua New Guinea, in the context of the PNG Attitude website, which has a policy of encouraging and publishing Papua New Guinean contributors. The concept of a national literary competition was triggered by Fitzpatrick’s concern that creative writing in Papua New Guinea had fallen upon hard times, and that this was a cultural constraint that needed to be addressed.

The initial year, 2010-11, was one of determining whether or not a project of this kind could be managed successfully given geographical, financial and other constraints.

Using PNG Attitude as a vehicle for publicity and publication, the progenitors soon discovered that this was a project that met with enthusiasm from Papua New Guinean writers. They were assisted greatly by subsequent material and financial support provided by the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby. This made it possible for a range of associated activities to be instituted, including an awards ceremony, the publication of an anthology of the best PNG writing and the establishment of writers’ forums.

After the first awards in September 2011, during which there was discussion between the Australian organisers and Papua New Guinean writers, it was agreed that The Crocodile Prize should begin to both formalise and nationalise its structure to become a permanent part of the literary landscape of PNG.

It was also decided that the Prize would grow in all of its key aspects: more writers, more readers, more sponsors and more literary activities. Such growth and strengthening implied that more people – administrators – were required to manage the Prize.

The Crocodile

The Crocodile, by Vincent Eri, was the first novel to be written by a Papua New Guinean, and was first published in 1970 by Jacaranda Press.

“Crocodile is a well-written and enjoyable novel. It is, however, more than this. It is impossible to review the book without being conscious of two things: first, that it is the first novel by a Papuan writer and, second, that whether intentionally or not it is to a certain extent a political document, as it is a major contribution to the growing body of writing which expresses a specifically Papua New Guinean identity.” [Ron May, State and Society in Papua New Guinea, 2004]

Sir Vincent Serei Eri (1936-93) was born in Moveave in the Gulf Province and attended the University of Papua New Guinea, working as a school teacher after graduation. He became Director of Education, PNG’s first Consul General in Australia, founder of the People’s Action Party, a Member of Parliament, and Governor-General.

The Crocodile is set in PNG before and during World War II and is a coming of age story about Hoiri, a boy of about seven when the story starts, whose life poses a continuing contradiction between tradition and modernity.

May writes: “Hoiri is essentially a tragic figure. Already partially alienated from the traditional society by his schooling and the church association of his father, he does not fully comprehend the balance between the material and supernatural worlds of a culture which has no real concept of natural death; still less is he able to come to terms with the reality of a dominant European culture which seems to be reaching out to him yet offers him neither respect nor the gift of understanding. Eri portrays this confusion with sympathy, elegance and power.”

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