‘The courage to say it out loud’: Pasifika in the spotlight
This weekend, after a four-year hiatus, the Pasifika Festival – the largest Pasifika cultural celebration in the world – returns to Auckland. The festival has taken various forms over the past thirty years, but 2023 is a return to popular form: seven ‘villages’ set around the lake at Western Springs, celebrating the food, crafts, music and art forms of Aotearoa, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Niue, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu. The Fale Pasifika hosts Kiribati, Tokelau and Tahiti on Sunday 18 March, and Tahiti returns, joined by Hawai’I, on Sunday 19 March.
Each village has a performance stage for traditional and contemporary entertainers: space for dancers, singers, drum groups and kapa haka. Schedules for these stages are available on the Pasifika Festival site. Tens of thousands are expected to attend the free festival, including a slew of local and national politicians. In 2014, Hamilton composer Lin Manuel Miranda attended Pasifika – along with fellow composer Mark Mancina and Opetiaia Foa’i, founder of Te Vaka – as an essential first-stop before they began work on the score of Disney movie Moana.
Scenes from Pasifika, 2017. Photo credit: Tom Moody.
Pasifika follows an extraordinary sold-out run at the Auckland Arts Festival of The Savage Coloniser Show, a stage adaptation of Tusiata Avia’s award-winning poetry collection The Savage Coloniser Book, published in 2020. At the 2021 Ockham NZ Book Awards, Avia became the first Pasifika woman to win the main poetry prize. The theatrical production now moves to the Wānaka Festival of Colour.
The show was created by playwright Victor Rodger and his company F.C.C. (Flow, Create, Connect). ‘We started in 2015,’ he says, ‘with the express aim of putting Pasifika narratives front and centre and giving Pasifika practitioners a chance to be at the heart of the narrative.’ Their first production was a six-woman theatrical version of Avia’s Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, which debuted in 2016 at Mangere Arts Centre, then played in festivals around New Zealand. In 2020 it had a two-week run at Soho Playhouse in New York, winning the Fringe Encore Series prize for outstanding production.
Avia’s work is visceral, provocative and clear-sighted, interrogating the past and present – from the arrival of James Cook to Jacinda Ardern at the Pacific Forum in Tuvalu. In poems like ‘Unity (ii)’ and ‘How to be in a room full of white people’, she addresses the racism Pasifika people continue to experience, as recent profoundly racist and misogynist social-media attacks on her attest. (Among other things, Avia, born in Christchurch, was accused of being an ‘overstayer’.)
‘She speaks the truth, plainly and unapologetically,’ says Rodger. ‘Not everyone likes to hear the truth, but it’s undeniable and for many of us POC she is saying things that we have only thought (and bitten our tongues and refrained from saying out loud) or said to family/friends in the privacy of our own homes or in bars. Tusiata has the courage to say it out loud.’
Poetry can be dangerous, Avia told Radio New Zealand, ‘because it pushes hard against the status quo’. Her refusal to engage with personal attacks was supported by many other Māori and Pasifika writers. ‘We have to remember Toni Morrison’s admonition,’ says novelist Tina Makereti, ‘that the function of racism is distraction, to stop us from being and doing all the things we can be and do.’
Wild Dogs was a natural fit for theatrical adaptation. For six years, Avia toured the world performing her work as a solo show, as well as publishing the poems in a 2005 collection. Director Anapela Polata’ivao – who also worked on Wild Dogs – and the cast of seven more than met the challenge with The Savage Coloniser. Former Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh took a group of students to see the production, marvelling in its ‘sublimely theatrical storytelling’, including the score by David Long and choreography by Mario Faumui and Tupua Tigafua. The show, she says, cannot be ‘ghettoised as just another angry brown woman’s diatribe against white colonial culture. It’s a sophisticated engagement with global culture’s imperialist centre, creatively subverting power hierarchies with intellectual and historical vigour while re-centring brown voices, bodies and hearts.’
At Pasifika this weekend, books by Avia and Marsh will be on sale at a stand run by the Coalition for Books. The Coalition – a collaborative body representing local writers, publishers, booksellers and festivals – initially planned to have a book stand at Pasifika in 2020, with performances on various village stages by poets David Eggleton, Daren Kamali and Tayi Tibble, until Covid forced the festival’s cancellation. Now, with Pasifika back on the calendar, the Coalition plans to repeat its successful five-day run at kapa haka festival Te Matatini, held at Auckland’s Eden Park in February.
‘We reached lots of interested readers at Te Matatini,’ says Melanie Laville-Moore, Publishing Director of Allen & Unwin NZ and Coalition chair. The best-selling title at that festival, she notes, was the landmark essay collection Imagining Decolonisation (BWB 2020); its authors include the late Moana Jackson. ‘At Pasifika, the widest variety of Pasifika and Māori writers will be front and centre. We’re confident that these books will be met with the same enthusiasm.’
The stand will be situated near the Aotearoa village, the largest of Pasifika’s compounds of stalls and cultural stages. The Coalition’s eight-page catalogue showcasing recent Māori and Pasifika books – from novels to children’s books to Ruby Tui’s memoir Straight Up – can be downloaded here.
The catalogue features some of the Māori and Pasifika books longlisted for this year’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Pasifika titles include Coco Solid’s debut novel, How to Loiter in a Turf War; Paradise Camp by Yuki Kihara, the first fa’afafine and Pasifika artist to represent New Zealand at the Venice Biennale; and Sadat Muaiava’s Lāuga: Understanding Samoan Oratory.