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Poet weaves together a ‘living memory’ of the Pacific

Leilani Tamu

Poet Leilani Tamu … “Growing up in New Zealand we didn’t learn much about the Pacific and its history.” Image: Spasifik Magazine

Through colonialism a lot of Pacific knowledge has been erased because it has not been taught. But Asia-Pacific Journalism meets a poet who has rediscovered her history through study and “living memory”.

Pacific Scoop:
Profile – By Sonja Schalin

our Pacific
they entered her and scoured her
for gold and silver
they named us and translated us
into their own way
of seeing the world

These are the opening lines of Leilani Tamu’s poem “Paradise Pasifika”. The poem shows a strong message of a hidden story about the Pacific Islands Tamu is expressing with her new collection of poems called The Art of Excavation.

“Growing up in New Zealand we didn’t learn much about the Pacific and its history,” she says.

“There weren’t a lot of resources that I could access in the libraries. That’s why I decided to study history at university.”

APJlogo72_iconLearning about the history of the Pacific has made Tamu see how history is written according to someone’s interests. The wider context of events and circumstances become invisible.

Tamu’s family migrated to New Zealand from Samoa. In Samoa, like elsewhere, there are a lot of traditions around people and places, but through colonialism a lot of that knowledge has been erased because it has not been taught.

It was not until Tamu went to university that she had an opportunity to learn about how the first German merchants, Godefroy and Company, came to Samoa to establish their trading interests, which were later contested by the British.

“During the 19th century these trading interests connected Samoa with New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawai’i … all of the islands were actually very connected,” she says.

Shifting interests
“But in the 20th century, with colonial interests shifting and the development of new technologies, a lot of that got lost – the knowledge about the history of the wider Pacific and its significance for international relations.”

“New Zealand is a Pacific Island nation. You would think that that history would be part of our national identity, but in actual fact, it isn’t,” Tamu says.

A large number of people from the Pacific Islands live in New Zealand. Many first generation New Zealand-born Pacific children live a life where they struggle to find their identity.

Tamu notes that many New Zealanders often make the false assumption that individual island nations are similar.

However, through her writing, Tamu seeks to challenge this perception and provide some insight into the rich and complex histories that have shaped the different island nations.

Tamu’s mother-in-law, Inisurane Mua, who is from Niue, tells how different Niue is from Samoa.

No nightlife
“Niue is beautiful, and there are only about 1500 people in Niue. It’s very peaceful and quiet – very different from Samoa. There is no shopping and no nightlife,” she says.

Tulia Thompson, a Pasifika poet who knows Leilani Tamu and her work from Auckland University and the Pacific poetry community, says essentially most of the Pasifika poets today are writing against the realities of colonialism, which Tamu is approaching in her own way.

“Leilani’s interest in uncovering the history is a great contribution to Pacific poetry. She has a deep knowledge of the people of the Pacific,” Thompson says.

Tamu’s method is to weave together the “living memory” of the island communities through the use of poetry. Living memory for Tamu is the way in which the past is kept alive through stories and traditions.

The oral tradition reveals parts of the hidden history of a region. She has also been reading old documents and works of writers, for example Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent time in the Pacific.

In the Pacific, there are a number of different sayings and proverbs that refer to the idea of memory being alive in the present. Tamu explains:

‘Living memory’
“In the Pacific, history, or living memory, is actually essential to everything you do – even if you don’t realise it yourself. It’s through something your grandmother has said to you or taught you; from things like teaching you to put coconut oil in your hair in a certain way – like my daughter learned from her grandmother.

“The reason for that goes back to a story that was once lived.”

The Art of Excavation ... a decade in the making.

The Art of Excavation … a decade in the making.

The Art of Excavation has been in the making for 10 years.

Tamu’s life and work keep taking her to visit the Pacific Islands. She keeps going back and forth to Samoa, she lived in Tonga almost two and a half years as a diplomat.

She has spent time in Hawai’i, the Cook islands and Fiji. The next island nation she is planning on visiting is Niue, where her husband and father of their two children is from.

A feeling of wanting to focus on art and family led to her changing career path from diplomacy to poetry.

Now, according to Fuimaono Tuiasau, a Pacific leader and lawyer with a keen interest in Pacific literature, Tamu writes ambitiously with a fresh way of using the English language.

Independent style
He thinks her style is independent and educated; she is not duplicating any of the renowned Pacific writers.

Fuimaono says poems “sing”, he says he can “feel the words”. According to him they have a force that draws one into the stories of the people and places.

Thompson describes the poems as vibrant, and as a necessary contribution to Pasifika poetry.

According to Tamu, her work is meant to empower young Pacific people through providing them with an alternative way of learning about their history.

“The idea with my writing is to make sure that it’s accessible without losing the deeper meanings contained within the stories and poems. So for my children, they can enjoy the stories now. But when they pick up the book in 10 years they should be able to find the deeper meanings in the text; and continue to re-read it throughout their life and continue finding more and more,” Tamu says.

“It’s important to talk and write about history. From a Pacific perspective, if you don’t talk about the past, you might as well cut off an arm or a leg.”

Sonja Schalin is a student journalist from Finland on the Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme at AUT University. She is reporting on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course.