Pacific Writing in New Zealand: The Niu Wave
Victor Rodger wonders where all the Pasifika novelists are.
They stand, with their broken yellow spines, somewhere in between War and Peace and Linda Goodman’s Love Signs. They’re two of Mum’s books on the shelf: Sons for the Return Home and Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree by Albert Wendt.
They’ve always been there – or at least that’s how it seems. As a young Afakasi Samoan growing up with a Palagi mother, I think of them as The Samoan Books; the same way I think of mum’s LP with the smiling dusky maiden on the cover as The Samoan Album; the same way I think of my absent father himself as The Samoan Father – that is to say as Other. Foreign. Of no particular interest.
In 1986, my last year of high school, I begin to reassess my identity. I take Sons For the Return Home down from the shelf. The pages are thick and stiff; they don’t flop open easily like the works of Jackie Collins or Sidney Sheldon to which I’ve grown addicted; the binding is all but kaput, and the book has separated into three sections.
He was bored with the lecture…
And so begins the story of a young Samoan student in New Zealand juggling the Palagi world he has entered and the Samoan world he has left behind, and his doomed-to-fail relationship with a Palagi girl – a relationship which echoes that of my parents. Just as James Baldwin’s Another Country opens up another world for me around the same time, so too does Sons For the Return Home – it opens up the unknown world of my father. It’s a revelation.
When my father died last year, the last thing I grabbed before I flew to Brisbane for his funeral was my own copy of Sons For The Return Home. As I re-read it on the plane, I became something of a son for the return home myself, reassessing both book and author.
The boy of seventeen who was just beginning to explore his Samoan heritage couldn’t appreciate how provocative Albert’s work must have been in 1973 when it was first published. But the man of 46 who had become a playwright in the interim could certainly see how Albert pushed the envelope, bravely training a spotlight on some of the hypocrisies inherent within the culture, and making ‘us’ the protagonists; he’d taken charge of how we were represented.
I named my first play Sons (1995) in homage to Sons For The Return Home: it’s a book that’s meant a lot to so many writers. But mention this to Albert (as I did recently) and he’s bemused, like the veteran rock star tired of hearing people’s effusive praise of his long-ago hit song. In fact, it’s over forty years since he first laid a stake in the literary ground.
And so, in the beginning, there was Albert. But when we talk about other Pasifika novelists to come out of New Zealand, we have very little else to say.
Yes, the late Alistair Campbell and John Pule both produced well-received novels in the 80s and 90s. Campbell was born in Rarotonga and Pule in Niue, but they both moved to New Zealand at a young age. Campbell published four novels between 1989 and 1999, the first – The Frigate Bird – a regional finalist for the Commonwealth Prize. Pule published The Shark that Ate the Sun in 1992 and Burn My Head in Heaven in 1998. But Campbell was best-known as a poet, and Pule is more active today as a visual artist. Albert’s the only Pacific writer writing in New Zealand to consistently produce novels.
Where, then, is Albert’s successor? Where’s our Zadie Smith with a Poly-esque White Teeth? Where’s the PI book that a niu generation will cherish? Perhaps the novel isn’t a form to which Pasifika writers are traditionally drawn. Perhaps they’re hardwired for the oral versus the written. It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to suggest the average Pacific Islander is more likely to read the Bible than the latest Ockham New Zealand Book Awards winner.
Poet David Eggleton, of Tongan and Rotuman descent, has been editor of Landfall, New Zealand’s oldest and most prestigious literary journal, for the past five years. He isn’t quite so quick to start issuing last rites. ‘We’ve begun receiving more work, mostly poetry, from a number of PI writers,’ he says, ‘especially ones associated with the MIT [Manukau Institute of Technology] programme in Auckland. This partly reflects recent numbers, increasing confidence in literary self-expression and new academic structures in place. So I think a big upsurge is currently underway.’
But this suggests that poetry is the medium of choice for the niu wave, the new kids riffing on everything from deadbeat partners and sexuality to those time-honoured classics, colonization and Christianity. Poetry is the starting point for many new voices, like Grace Taylor (Samoan, Japanese, English) – who moves between spoken word and theatre (My Own Darling). Taylor, a key player in the Rising Voices spoken-word movement based in South Auckland, was named the 2014 Creative New Zealand Arts Pasifika Emerging Pacific Artist. In May she was awarded the Auckland Mayoral Writer’s Grant to work on a new poetry collection.
Chances are if you ask your average non-University–going PI kid in New Zealand to name a Pacific Island novelist, the Wendt they’re more likely to have heard of is Albert’s Samoa-based niece Lani Wendt Young. Her self-published Telesa series for young adult readers are a Pacific version of Twilight, complete with an Afakasi Samoan/American heroine who journeys from Washington to Apia, discovers she has supernatural powers, falls in love with the hot captain of the First XV and has a fa’afafine BFF.
PI readers may be familiar with Sia Figiel and her groundbreaking 1997 novel Where We Once Belonged, which features one of my all time favourite first lines: The first time I saw the insides of a woman’s vagina I was not alone. But in terms of Pasifika fiction writers here in Aotearoa? Almost nada. Why?
Albert has a theory: ‘Trying to make a living through your art is very, very difficult,’ he says. ‘It’s hard enough getting a job and staying alive and feeding your family. So I think our younger artists are into art forms that have a greater possibility of making them a living. Writing novels also takes time and experience. I’ve been able to do it because I’ve also worked full-time as a teacher to feed my family. Teaching has allowed me time to write, especially at university level where writing, researching and publishing were part of my job. Very few of our writers get that opportunity.’
Some of Albert’s best-known successors – all primarily poets – concur. Selina Tusitala Marsh (who made Waiheke-to-Westminster headlines when she performed her poem ‘Unity’ for the Queen in March) teaches Pacific literature and creative writing at the University of Auckland. ‘Many of us have a novel within, but poetry wends its way up through the dirt and into the light,’ she says, suggesting that ‘it takes less time away from the two jobs, the three sons, the elderly parents that need caretaking, the church responsibilities, [and] the social commitments towards our variously imagined Pasifika communities.’
My cousin, Tusiata Avia, whose latest collection Fale Aitu / Spirit House was published in May, teaches creative writing at MIT. She toured the world for eight months with her show (and subsequent poetry collection) Wild Dogs Under My Skirt: my theatre platform, FCC (Flow, Create, Connect), will re-mount it this September in Auckland. She thinks the prospect of writing a novel is especially challenging for ‘women writers who have children and jobs, [and] simply don’t have the time to write long-form fiction.’
It’s true that many of the better-known names in Pasifika writing in New Zealand are poets, like Leilani Tamu, Daren Kamali and Karlo Mila, author of Dream Fish Floating – who Albert Wendt credits with coining the phrase the ‘Caramello Generation’ to reflect the multiple identities and ethnicities of the Pasifika diaspora in New Zealand. ‘Poems have always fit in the cracks of my life,’ says Mila, who was awarded the 2015 Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer’s Residency at the University of Hawaii.
Avia and Mila have long-gestating novels on their hard drives, and Tulia Thomson, whose short fiction was featured in Huia’s Niu Voices anthology in 2006, is writing a Fiji-set novel that began life on the University of Auckland’s Master of Creative Writing programme.
But in the short term, two debut short-story collections may provide the inspiration for a new generation of PI fiction writers.
Gina Cole (Fijian, Scottish and Welsh) is a barrister by day and writer by night. Also a graduate of the University of Auckland’s MCW, she’s soon to publish a story collection, Black Ice Matter, with Huia. The collection includes stories about a woman caught between traditional Fijian ways and the brutality of the military dictatorship; a young child in a Barbie Doll sweatshop dreaming of a different life; and a glaciology researcher who falls into a crevasse and confronts the unexpected.
Courtney Sina Meredith (Mangaian, Samoan, Irish) is a poet and playwright who will publish her first story collection, Tail of the Taniwha, in August. To me she’s the embodiment of the new breed of Pasifika writers: unapologetically ambitious, and someone who demands and commands attention (witnessed when we were on the same panel at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, where she launched her poetry collection, Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick).
She can work a room with a seemingly effortless combination of charm, charisma and chutzpah. Thanks to a $25,000 grant from Creative New Zealand, she’ll be attending the University of Iowa’s International Writing Programme later this year, followed by a residency at the Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska.
Meredith gives props to her grandparents for her drive and self-belief. ‘All four of my grandparents were fierce migrants with a lot of personality.’ They had ‘big dreams and big ideas. They followed their hearts and that’s still what I see when I look around our communities today.’ This, she says, is ‘the heat, the energy that I want to capture on the page.’
Meredith’s just 30 but she’s been around long enough to witness ‘a changing scene where Pasifika artists were pushing down barriers and moving beyond the tiny corner we’d been assigned as our space to create with. I remember watching Sia Figiel read at Samoa House and feeling all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.’
Still, arguably the only homegrown PI writer who’s a household name is Te Atatu’s own Oscar Kightley, because of his comedy – the Christchurch collective Pacific Underground, and later the Naked Samoans – and acting gigs. His collaborations with (mostly Palagi) writers have produced cross-platform successes in theatre (Niu Sila), film (Sione’s Wedding 1 and 2) and television (the animated hit bro’Town and the detective drama Harry).
Although Albert Wendt’s take on younger Pasifika writers suggests many of us find better-paid work in television or movies, we’re still not well-represented in key writing or decision-making jobs. Oscar and I are the only two PI writers to score long running gigs on Shortland Street as either a script writer or storyliner. ‘Maybe we’re suckers for seemingly unbearable workloads,’ Oscar suggests, ‘and other PI writers are more sane.’
Some PI comedians – including Rose Matafeo, James Nokise and Josh Thomson – have moved from stand-up gigs to writing for TV comedy. But beyond Shortland Street and Harry, you’d be hard pressed to find a PI writer who’s been shoulder-tapped for TV drama, and when shows are produced – like Justine Simei-Barton’s Good Hands: Lima Lelei in 2002, or Rene Naufahu‘s Otara-set The Market in 2005 – they were given late afternoon or late-night time slots, ensuring the smallest-possible audience.
Three recent films written and directed by Pacific Islanders – Shopping by Louis Sutherland, The Orator by Tusi Tamasese and The Last Saint by Naufahu – all received critical kudos but didn’t set the box office on fire. However, there’s clearly an audience for PI stories, as the recent film Three Wise Cousins demonstrates. Shot for just $80,000 by Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa, and set in Auckland and Samoa, the film has already made $1.6 million at the box office in New Zealand and Australia.
But of all the written forms, theatre may be the likeliest place to find the niu wave of Pasifika writers. It’s certainly where some of the older guard broke out in the 90s, including myself, Kightley, Makerita Urale (Frangipani Perfume), Dianna Fuemana (Mapaki), and Toa Fraser (Bare and No.2).
A quick snapshot of PI plays in the last five years shows a diversity of practitioners and subjects, if not tone: there’s a clear reluctance to present truly provocative work. Arts Laureate Vela Manusaute made history with the first PI musical, The Factory; Iaheto Ah Hi represented for Tokelau in works like Tautai; Aroha Awarau took the shooting of Halatau Naitoko in 2009 as the inspiration for Officer 27; Suli Moa Fanamoa paid homage to a strong Tongan mother in The Kingdom of Lote, while David Mamea’s Goodbye My Feleni saluted PI soldiers who served with the Maori Battalion.
Arnette Arapai and Jason Manumu’a created the wonderfully daft Tongan Morris Men; Louise Tu’u explored homelessness with Providence; Moana Ete and Miria George waved the flag for Wellington with Versions of Allah and The Vultures, while The Conch are about to reprise their critically acclaimed White Guitar in Wellington and Auckland. In August Tanya Muagututi’a and Joy Vaele give us girls n gospel in Angels (re:Born), and the Black Friars – ‘educators and counsellors, facilitators and enablers, theatre-makers and storytellers’ – present Something Wicked This Way Comes, a Poly-fied Macbeth, at the Mangere Arts Centre in September.
The energy in PI theatre in New Zealand (acting, directing, writing) reflects, perhaps, the increasing importance of PIPA – the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts – based in South and West Auckland, nurturing dramatic talent the way MIT is nurturing poets. Two graduates, Leki Jackson-Bourke and Amanaki Prescott Faletau, took out the Playmarket Plays for the Young award for their transgender rom-com, Inky Pinky Ponky. Auckland Theatre Company has snapped up fellow grad Jono Soo-Choon’s The Eel and Sina for their Mythmakers youth initiative. Could it be a PIPA graduate who becomes a novelist post-drama school – like Emily Perkins, who was an acting student at Toi Whakaari: Drama School?
Perkins now teaches at Victoria’s International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), where Assistant Vice Chancellor Luamanuvao Winnie Laban has organised a talanoa in August for PI writers from all over New Zealand – including myself, Albert Wendt and Selina Tusitala Marsh. The talanoa will address the dearth of Pasifika applicants to IIML’s writing courses. The Pacific Island graduates from all of IIML’s courses in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction and writing for the stage/screen – like Avia and Tamasese – can virtually be counted on one hand.
In 2014 IIML introduced an undergraduate workshop for Māori and Pasifika writing. Convened by novelist Tina Makereti, this class will next run during the summer trimester in January/February 2017, and Makereti is hopeful this timing will attract larger numbers.
The writers in her course ‘have very urgent, important stories to tell,’ says Makereti, ‘and often have that elusive thing, “a voice”. But in their previous lives and studies, they haven’t had the opportunity to use those things.’
At the creative writing programme in Auckland, Pasifika writers tend to be represented in higher numbers. Both Selina Tusitala Marsh and novelist Paula Morris, convenor of the Master of Creative Writing programme, are active in schools outreach at schools in South Auckland. Morris is working with Avia in an MIT/Auckland Writers Festival initiative to offer after-school writing workshops to students from three local high schools; she was also part of the Book Council’s Otahuhu project in 2015.
University creative writing courses ‘can’t just sit around waiting for applications,’ says Morris. ‘We have to be more proactive in our neighbourhoods, which includes the South Pacific, sharing skills and nurturing talent. And we need to offer scholarships, so university creative writing workshops aren’t prohibitively expensive.’
Will these initiatives lead to books getting written and published? We have to hope so. There’s nothing quite like seeing yourself represented specifically in literature, or of writing yourself into existence, as Albert did – and continues to do. ‘We are all shit scared,’ he says in his 2015 essay Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater, ‘of having no meaning or worth.’
Victor Rodger is a Christchurch-born playwright and television writer of Samoan and Palagi descent. This year he became the first writer of Samoan descent to take up the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago. His plays Black Faggot and Puzzy (co-written with Hawaiian-based writer Kiki) will be performed on a double bill in Honolulu in 2017.