Writing from the Edge

6 Nov 2020

This content is tagged as Pacific arts .

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Head and shoulders shot of Maualaivao Albert Wendt. Photo credit: Raymond Sagapolutele
Maualaivao Albert Wendt. Photo credit: Raymond Sagapolutele

We’re thrilled to begin the Pacific Art Legacy series with Maualaivao Albert Wendt, who paved the way for many Pasifika artists working in the arts today.

We’re collaborating with Pantograph Punch to bring you the groundbreaking Pacific Arts Legacy Project. Curated by Lana Lopesi as project Editor-in-Chief, it’s a foundational history of Pacific arts in Aotearoa as told from the perspective of the artists who were there.

This paper was originally delivered on the opening night of the 2016 Going West Writers Festival.

The term ‘edge’ is multi-edged. Edge is the cutting side of a blade, the line where an object or area begins or ends, the brink, the verge. So for me edge suggests risk, toppling over into a chasm, you having to take care. The phrase ‘from the edge’ suggests moving from that position, from the brink, the outer, towards a less risky position and becoming part of a more acceptable position, a centre. It can also mean toppling over into another edge, another challenging unknown, into new dangerous inspiring territory. The final edge along which we tread every breathing moment of our lives is of course that tightrope. That line between breathing and not breathing, between being and not-being, between consciousness and unconsciousness. When we’re young and healthy, that edge seems far away because we’re busy being and discovering and creating: we feel youth-proofed against death, with a future that stretches forever.

One day, according to the Sāmoan Tupuaga, the Genesis, Tagaloaalagi, our Supreme Atua, asked his messenger to go into the forest and cut a branch off the Fue Tagata, the Peopling Vine, and spread it out in the sun in a place on the island of Savaiʻi. After a while, he asked his messenger to go and see how the Fue was. The messenger returned and told Tagaloaalagi the Fue had turned into ilo, maggots. Tagaloa took the ilo and shaped them into the first human beings and into them he placed the gifts of atamai (intelligence), loto (courage), poto (wit and cunning), masalo (the ability to doubt and question), finagalo (will) and agaga (soul). By the way, the place where the messenger laid the Fue is now known as Malae-la, the Malae-of-the-Sun.

Those marvellous gifts make for contradiction: they make us capable not only of enormous love and creativity, healing and invention, but also of arrogance, cruelty and violence. That contradiction is at the heart of all our cultures, philosophies and literatures. Tagaloa’s gifts have also made us the most destructive and violent creatures on our beautiful but sad planet. The other basic contradiction is: we can imagine ourselves immortal yet know we have to die. I grew up in the second half of the 20th century, a time of unprecedented invention in technology, science and the arts, yet also a time of horrific violence and suffering, brutality and injustice. Everywhere today we see a tragic continuation of that.

I and other writers emerged out of that terrible contradiction, context and mix, reflecting and contemplating it. We’d just suffered two world wars and throughout the world smaller but violent conflicts continued. The development of the atomic bomb and nuclear weapons intensified and threatened a holocaust that would obliterate us. Well over half the planet was colonised by Europe, when I came on the scene, with Great Britain possessing the largest colonial empire ever seen. And during my lifetime, the anti-colonial struggle erupted and reached its fiercest stage. Whole populations were turned into refugees and created such settler-colonial countries as America. That whole mix produced an almost overwhelming dread and pessimism in our artists. All the consoling universals were gone, shattered. Now the individual self – the ‘I’ – and the search for that took centre stage. Each artist was seen, or saw herself, as an outsider, at the edge, subverting her society, and in doing that created an individual vocabulary, style and imagery.

I was born and raised in Sāmoa, then known as Western Sāmoa, a colony of New Zealand, into a poor family with a hardworking grandmother and parents who believed that having a good Western education would get us out of poverty. And because we were afakasi (half-caste) we were classified as European so we could enrol in Leifiifi School (also called Ifi Ifi Government School), which was reserved for the children of the Papālagi administrators and other Europeans.

One day during my third year in Leifiifi School, our Papālagi teacher (Miss Bristol, who we all loved) told us during a social studies lesson that Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch explorer, had discovered Sāmoa in 1722. My imagination immediately conjured forth a vision of his magnificent masted ship breaking through the horizon in a blaze of sun and cloud. I considered this a radical addition to my understanding of our country, knowledge that made me look afresh at everything. And I wanted our grandmother, Mele – at that time the most influential person in my life – to know about it. So I rushed home after school and asked her:

“Did you know that a Dutch man by the name of Jacob Roggeveen discovered our country?”

Patiently, she asked, “Who told you that?”

“Our teacher,” I proudly divulged.

“Were we Sāmoans here before the Papālagi came?” she replied, slow smile on her face.

“Yes.”

“Was this man Roggeveen a Papālagi?” Her scrutiny was now focused on my face fully, patiently, expectantly. “Where do Dutch people come from?” She helped me.

“Holland,” I replied, with the truth of the matter sliding into my vision and occupying it. “So he was a Papālagi,” I admitted.

“So when you go to school tomorrow, tell your teacher that we discovered our country. Tell her we’ve been here for at least 3,000 years,” she said.

Now I was on fire with pride in my ancestors’ achievements, prouder than I’d been about Roggeveen.

I was very fortunate to have had that lesson about decolonising ourselves when I was so young. That set me off on a journey that continues today: of challenging colonial perceptions of us, our histories and our ways of life; of trying to understand how our ancestors viewed themselves, their environment and the cosmos; of trying to comprehend what has happened to us in our intermingling and fusing over the last few centuries. Much of my writing, and the writing of other Pasefika writers, has been about that. Pasefika artists, academics, intellectuals, writers have been at the front lines, the edge of our anti-colonial struggles throughout the Pacific and within Aotearoa since World War 2.

At the age of 13, I sat and won a New Zealand Government scholarship to boarding school in New Plymouth. That changed my life for ever. I had never been outside Sāmoa, never been on a ship, never experienced winter or snow, never worn a tie or a long-sleeved shirt or suit or socks, and had put shoes on only once. I didn’t know how to eat with a knife and fork or dress myself the Papālagi way. Most of what I knew about New Zealand came from the movies, books and teachers – and my grandmother who’d lived in New Zealand in the 1920s.

I was with six other scholarship students, travelling on the Matua. For the six days at sea I was seasick and wanted to suicide. We were distributed to our schools, and on my way to mine I saw Mount Taranaki – a white-topped symmetrical cone, which my travelling companion said was Mount Egmont. And as we moved along, the Mountain watched me, steadying my homesickness, wrapping me up in Its presence. During my whole time in school there it was present in my vision as a healing, wise, consoling elder. Taranaki has remained one of my ancestral mountains to this day.

For me writing was and is a very demanding – and mostly enjoyable – activity. Because language is a substitute for experience, trying to tame, explore and use it is like trying to discipline water: it keeps running out of your grasp. Practising your writing teaches you how to see, focus and work, and never being satisfied with what you write and make. Through the practice of writing I’ve learned to see through the surface faces of reality into its complex depths. That behind all that was, is, and becoming are profound contradictions and ‘truths’ about ourselves and reality itself. And if we’re fortunate, we catch those fleetingly in the process of writing and trying to see and understand.

My passion for writing and reading really intensified in New Plymouth. My first winter was a mainly miserable one. It was my first winter ever and for a long time I simply couldn’t get used to the cold. It settled into my bones and didn’t want to leave. Mr Alan Gardiner, our house master, must have sensed that many of us were not settling easily into the cold months. One evening, with the fire blazing in our sitting room, Mr Gardiner came in unexpectedly and told us he wanted to read Animal Farm, our prescribed novel, to us. We gathered in front of the fireplace in a semi-circle, with Mr Gardiner in an armchair, and many of us sitting or lying on the carpeted floor and on cushions. He opened the novel and without preliminary remarks, he read out the title, Animal Farm by George Orwell. I immediately began to feel I was back in Sāmoa in my grandmother’s fale, gathered round her listening to her fāgogo. Then he began to read.

And for the whole of that winter, every Sunday night sang to Mr Gardiner’s mesmerising voice as he unfolded the spellbinding satirical and allegorical tale of pigs and other animals and people competing for power, and what that does to them. The rise and establishment of the totalitarian state, the loss of individual freedom and rights, the struggle to restore justice, equality and freedom of expression – they were themes that I would later find myself exploring in my writing. I have never forgotten that winter and how we loved both that tale and its teller – and how we came to our first understanding of power and how it corrupts us.

Since that time (1953) I have watched and experienced and written about the whole migrant experience of our Pasefika people in Aotearoa, and witnessed the transformation of our home islands from being colonies into independent countries and what they are now. In that time I’ve observed and participated in the development of our arts and artists both here and in the Pacific. For me that development has been a vital force in the growth, shaping and survival of our Pasefika communities, in my own development as a writer and thinker, and in how we have influenced and changed the nature of the culture of Aotearoa. Our most obvious contribution to Aotearoa culture is being made through sports. I love sports and our magnificent sports people but I’m not going to talk about them. Except to say that our struggle for acceptance even in sports has been an extremely painful one against racism and sexism.

I belong to that group of Pasefika writers and artists who were born in our home countries but who have grown up and lived most of our lives here. Most of our artists are Aotearoa-born. But we all share one thing: we did not come out of a cultureless void. Our parents and grandparents who migrated to Aotearoa brought with them the diversity and complex depths of our ancient island cultures. So we were all born into families and Pasefika communities rich in history, spirituality, art, music, dance, and other cultural traditions. And despite the fact that the dominant colonial culture here denigrated our cultures and languages and tried to make us feel ashamed of them, our ways have survived in us and, by shaping who and what we are, have contributed enormously to the ways we make and practice art.

For many of us, our rejection of colonialism, racism and sexism, and our refusal to be colonised, Pākehā-fied and reject our ways of being, believing and dreaming is at the heart of the art that we do. Our art is our attempt to understand who and what we are, and the marvellous cultures, histories and situations we have come out of. Our art is the search for that and to map and shape the present. All artists everywhere are influenced throughout their lives by everything around them. And our artists, because they have grown up in a society and national culture and tertiary educational institutions that are largely Pākehā are conversant with Western art and practices and have indigenised those in their work and, over the last 50 or so years, have produced art that we can call Pasefika, a fusion that is unique to Aotearoa.

Arriving at this fusion has not been an easy or deliberate process. I want to illustrate that by talking about writing and literature because it is the form I know a little about. For me the Tāngata Māori Renaissance, which began to gain momentum after World War 2 and is now the most successful anti-colonial Indigenous arts movement in the world, was and still is the movement we have learned much from in our political and artistic struggle as a minority group in Aotearoa. So for me the start of what would later be called Pasefika literature and writing by Polynesians (fiction, poetry and drama) in English began in the 1950s and 60s with the writing of Hone Tuwhare, Jacquie Sturm, Rolly Hapipi, Harry Dansey, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Johnny Frisbie Hebenstreit, John Kneubuhl and Tom Davis, a remarkable pioneer generation who wrote as part of the anti-colonial struggle. (Incidentally, most of the literature about us was, and still is, not by us.)

In 1948 Johnny Frisbee and her father published Miss Ulysses of Puka Puka an autobiography. And in 1960, Tom Davis published Makutu perhaps the first novel by a Pacific novelist. This group all went on to publish large bodies of work – poetry, fiction and plays. For me and my generation of Pasefika writers, who began to publish in the late 60s, they became our models, our mentors, our inspiration. Sadly, Hone Tuwhare died in 2006, and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Jacquie Sturm and others died a few years ago. Those writers had to struggle against the prevailing racism and condescension that plagued even the literati of our country.

As you all know, for any artist, the search for your own voice is difficult enough and takes a lifetime, but it is even more difficult if you’re of a minority group trying to do it within a national culture and an international literary culture that enforces monocultural, colonial frameworks on everything. For instance because that first generation of our writers wrote in English, their work was always judged and evaluated according to rigid standards and criteria determined in England and by the Pākehā literati and academia. But they persisted because they wanted to find their own voices, visions, styles that suited our cultures and subject matter. And they succeeded, and my generation learned from them. And now I can proudly say that in our home countries we’ve indigenised the novel, drama, and so forth, and in Aotearoa we’ve made them Pasefika and Māori. I take this opportunity to thank that pioneer generation for the rich literature they have bequeathed to us, for the courageous stand they took against racism and colonialism, and for the pathways they forged for us to follow. I will always be grateful to them.

My generation of writers began in the late 60s, and since then other generations of writers, poets, dramatists, novelists and so forth have followed. Our literature continues to invent and define itself, clearing a space for itself in relation to other literature in Aotearoa. It puts us at centre stage, with our accents, dress, good and evil, dreams and visions. Much of it is angry and protesting but it also celebrates what all literatures celebrate: love, sorrow, joy, death, birth, happiness, and through it, language and the gift of speaking, saying. Now the work of our leading writers is influencing the writing of our younger ones. It is also shaping how we see ourselves and our cultures and how we are seen by others, and destroying some of the stereotypes and myths created about us by others.

The development of our other arts (such as the visual and performing arts) has followed a similar pattern and paths, which have been difficult and painful. Now we are flourishing in all the arts, in all the genres, from writing and publishing to music and dance, to tatau and weaving, to film-making and computer art, to sculpture, design and fashion, you name it and we’re into it. Perhaps per head of population we now have more artists and people in the arts than any other ethnic group in Aotearoa. Yet I am left in a beautiful bewilderment: how have we done this despite the fact that we continue to be the poorest community, suffering the worst statistics in employment, health, housing, education, life expectancy and so forth? And how have we done it despite the fact that making art is one of the most difficult ways of making a living?

Pasefika literature and writing is no longer at the edge. It is a dynamic strand of our country’s literature which in turn is a vital part of the very alive, edgy, varied, vigorous arts of Aotearoa that I am very proud to be part of.

This article was first published on The Pantograph Punch. Read more in the Pacific Arts Legacy Project series here