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October 16, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Writing (Our) Stories

Praise for Pasifika art and writing is often connected to its authenticity. Nothing plastic, a real island guy. Who exactly we’re supposed to check this authenticity against, no one knows, but people are still adamant on some sense of realness. I used to be too, giving my judgemental side-eye at an afakasi taupou during a taualuga, or scoffing at people’s use of “uce” because they were tainting our precious language. But culture isn’t fixed, groups of people aren’t homogeneous crowds. Samoans, or Pasifika people, are not neat categories bound by restricted boundaries and unchanging borders.

The English language came to our islands as a tool of trade, religion, and control. It’s the language that many from my parents’ generation were forced to speak at school, lest they get hit by the teachers. It’s the language that, from my own experiences and observation, seemed to be the marker of intelligence. It’s also the language that, through literature, I came to enjoy and even fall in love with. It’s a language that I have bouts of resentment towards, for taking my attention away from my gagana Samoa. But it’s also the language that I’ve been building my future career on: studying English literature at university, publishing articles whenever I can, reading as often as possible. It’s now my language; it’s a part of me.

My middle name, Laura, comes from Laura Ingalls Wilder — the American author known best for her Little House on the Prairie series, which my family enjoyed so much that it gave them the idea to call me Laura. English literature was embedded into my being, before I spoke my first word. Names in Samoan myths and legends are most of the time related to important historical or local events; people’s names become markers of a place’s history. I like to think Laura acts in the same way — signifying the importance of literature in our family and in my upbringing.

The authors I grew up with include Roald Dahl, Ann M. Martin, Paul Jennings, and, of course, J. K. Rowling. When we moved to New Zealand, my access to books was burst wide open by our regular visits to the Clendon Library; the unaffordability of books no longer a boundary. However, I hardly read books by Pasifika writers in my youth. I visited my old high school recently and my English teacher told me they study Karlo Mila now. I’m jealous.

***

When I first read Sons for the Return Home by Albert Wendt, I didn’t like it. I didn’t get it. It was weird. The plot moved at a pace unlike what I was used to in a novel. The characters felt unfamiliar, unreal. I didn’t understand their motives, or I didn’t believe them. But I so badly tried to like it. I knew Wendt’s status as a pioneer of Pasifika literature. Who was I, undergraduate and unlearned wannabe writer, to say his work wasn’t good? What kind of literature student would I be, a Samoan one even, if I didn’t appreciate Wendt’s work?

To not enjoy his book felt like a failure and a betrayal. He’s the Samoan author. You’re going to dislike the work of the Samoan author?! I’ve come to realise that these anxiety-inducing questions were based on my misguided perception that Samoan literature was a narrow and restricted category. I expected Laughing Samoans humour, Christian morals, and a deep, unshakable obedience to parents. Sons for the Return Home did not give me that. With my miniscule sample population, disliking one book, one author, would mean I’d dislike most of the Pasifika literature I’d read. That didn’t sit right with me, so I looked for more.

Some of my favourite things to read, during these relatively early steps (that I’m still taking) towards discovering more Pasifika writers, are anthologies and collections. I like to read things that contain a multitude of voices. Because I’ve read so little Pasifika writing, I want to be exposed to as much as possible, within one text. In reflecting on her experiences of putting together the Pacific Studies program here at VUW in 2000, the late Dr Teresia Teaiwa writes:

“With over 1200 indigenous languages — one fifth of the contemporary world’s linguistic and cultural diversity — the region commonly known as the Pacific Islands is so huge and so varied, and the pedagogical tasks consequently so complex, that the notion of a single, all-knowing teacher delivering knowledge from the front of the classroom is ludicrous.”

Likewise, expecting one Pasifika author, curator, or editor to deliver an all encompassing product, that reflects the diversity within the great sea of islands and the diaspora, puts pressure on the work to do more than it can (or should).

***

Black Marks on the White Page is a collection of printed work edited by Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti. Reading it was the first time I didn’t feel the pressure, the obligation, the expectation, to like work by Pasifika writers (a group, the editors note in the introduction, that includes Māori, stating that they “want to remember our kinship in the wider Pacific” — another aspect I hadn’t considered in my Pasifika art and writing). In the book are short stories, excerpts from longer texts (some yet to be completed), photographs, and even poetry created from blacking out Wendt’s Pouliuli, something new created from the darkness. Ihimaera and Makereti write in the introduction, “none of us should be constrained by any sense of what we’re suppose to look or sound like. Creativity doesn’t live there.”

I was so excited to devour this collection, but I found I couldn’t just chomp right through. There was no seamless transition between each story. There was a break/ A sharp break after each story/ Oh, you thought our stories can be blurred into one homogenous voice?/ One form?/ Think again. Courtney Sina Meredith and Sia Figiel wrote in forms that didn’t immediately click with me. I left, tried another story, then returned. I wanted to understand. I no longer felt like I had to like it, or get it, to prove my literary intelligence. But I was just curious about new forms of storytelling. Figiel’s still doesn’t click with me, after three attempts. I don’t like it. But that’s okay; I have many other stories.

Black Marks is the kind of writing community I’d like to be a part of, or create — a collection of people who want to tell stories, brought together by circumstances related to the creative world and beyond it. It’s an example of what happens when we put our resources, talent, and voices together.

***

A monumental experience this year was interviewing the artists Witch Bitch from FAFSWAG. I wasn’t entirely sure how to conduct an interview with artists, and I stressed out trying to come up with questions they haven’t been asked before. (But we really are curious who inspired you!). I messaged a friend the night before (sorry Lote) to do the interview with me, because she was the perfect person, who would appreciate the weight of the experience, but also because I couldn’t go alone. The interview became more conversational as it went on, my questions becoming prompts more than anything.

There was so much laughter. Sometimes it was the kind that you do instead of crying, or hitting something. It was also laughter that signalled that I was safe and understood. Laughter that felt like home. Even though the interview was definitely not about me, I benefited so much from it. One comment that kept me glowing was when they thanked us for interviewing them in a way that didn’t make them feel like an Other to be studied — they didn’t have to explain parts of their worldview that, to us, were common sense, a feeling novel for them at the time (they’ve since gone on to be interviewed by many other Pasifika publications — slay). I felt myself relaxing.

This year I was also lucky enough to talk to artists Quishile Charan and Salome Tanuvasa, who I wrote about in Issue 13, about their experiences of belonging, indigeneity, and connecting to a sense of home. After a while the dynamics moved away from media and artist to just three brown girls sitting on the floor, talking about life and how ordinary and extraordinary it is. In the same issue I wrote about the Polynesian Panthers who were generous enough to talk to me, answer my questions, and let me tag along to their visit to Manurewa High School.

I’ve tried to expose myself to as many Pasifika narratives I could within the confines of this underfunded student publication I’m lucky to be at the helm of (alongside Tim). But I’m certainly not the only one who’s been writing about things Pasifika: Hanahiva, our Visual Arts Editor, has written about many exhibitions and works in a way that didn’t frame them within reductive genres, ethnic or otherwise, instead addressing more engaging questions around what the works were doing. Jasmine, Dexter, and Luka have all written features addressing topics they cared about. They’re writers who inevitably write from a Pasifika perspective — it’s a part of who they they are — but they only ever claim to write from their own perspective, never speaking on behalf of all (who even is this “all” that people think we speak for?).

***

“Do you feel the burden of being a Māori or Pasifika writer?”

This question, posed by an audience member to the e-Tangata Storytellers forum on October 2, echoes a question I’ve asked myself a few (thousand) times. I’m often too preoccupied with this question to even get words on paper (or screen). Tusiata Avia writes in an article published in e-Tangata:

“Whether we are fully conscious of it or not, whether we create in response to where we have come from, or whether we create in reaction to it, or whether we are trying to ignore it altogether — we are always creating as Pacific women. How can we not?”

Sometimes I feel like my mind is stuck at the time school children were surprised that I knew how to speak English when I first moved here; or when they asked, in a mystic voice, if Samoa had roads or electricity. They were kids without the internet, so whatever — but I’ve grown accustomed to explaining myself. I’m used to people asking me questions about myself that I find dull. I’m used to speaking to an audience to which I’m Other.

Writing for Salient is a strange experience, not really knowing who my audience is (lol no one reads Salient). I assume most of them are Pākehā, based on the student population at this university. But I’m used to speaking to an audience with a different contextual background to me. I was used to speaking to people I feel like an Other to — I’ve been training my whole life to learn how to exist in a world that I have to fit into, not one that fits around me, and the people I belong to. I’m still learning the rules.

In an interview with Vogue, Lupita Nyong’o was asked: “What was it like growing up in Kenya?” She replied, “…normal.” That blew my mind — you can just say that?! It’s that easy?? You don’t have to explain your entire background, give a comparative history 101 session, and draw conclusions?? I want to start seeing my own ordinary details as normal too. I want to stop Othering myself.

When mother speaks, she doesn’t ask for permission, or apologise for taking up space, or worry how people might attribute her words to a larger (arbitrary) group she’s a part of. She simply speaks her truth. I want to imitate her confidence. My words are my own — I will use them as best I can, but I don’t want the burden of representing others.

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