TITLE: NIU VOICES, CONTEMPORARY PACIFIC FICTION 1
EDITOR: SELINA TUSITALA MARSH
PUBLISHER: HUIA PRESS, AOTEAROA-NEW ZEALAND, DEC 2006
INTERNATIONAL ORDERS: http://www.huia.co.nz
REVIEWED BY DR. CATHIE DUNSFORD
As Teresa Teaiwa, founding member of the Niu Waves Pacific Writers Collective  says, in Niu Voices, “The word “niu” has two meanings in Pacific languages. It most commonly refers to the coconut, the ancient and enduring tree of life in most island environments, but in the pidgin ‘Niu’ also means new, novel or different.” In the original Niu Waves collection of Pacific Writing, published by University of the South Pacific, 2001, an inspiration for this current collection of work, the introduction stated: “Coconuts were amongst the first life forms to settle and anchor themselves on the islands of Oceania….the sea too is part of who we are and so are the waves that convey a sense of fluidity, movement and limitless possibilities.”
New, novel, different. Fluidity, movement, limitless possibilities. Surfing on the back of that exciting first collection, Niu Waves, in 2001, Niu Voices  lives up to all these predictions encased in the shell of niu. Anton Carter, Creative New Zealand’s Pacific Arts Advisor, describes the journey leading up to the publication of this anthology, beginning with a series of writing workshops initiated by the Pacific Arts Committee of Creative New Zealand. How inspiring to see CNZ take such an initiative rather than waiting for the artists to emerge and contact them. This is breaking new ground and long may such inspiration and creativity flourish.
As editor of some of the first collections of women’s writing in Aotearoa, Australia and the wider Pacific region from the 1980s onwards, which spanned into five volumes published by New Women’s Press through to Penguin, I know the huge work involved in taking writing workshops and hui and building confidence in new writers to explore their tentative voices until the work is ready to be published in a collection. Back in those days, we had no arts council support for the work. So it is with huge joy, and a deep knowledge of the hard work involved on the journey to this collection, that I greet and celebrate a truly innovative body of new work by contemporary Pacific writers based in Aotearoa. Mahalo, thanks, to Anton Carter for beginning this journey with such creative inspiration, to Selina Tusitala Marsh for her excellent editing of the volume and her thoughtful afterward and to Huia Publishers for supporting the mahi of Pacific Island as well as Maori authors. Tau ke!
Editor, Selina Tusitala Marsh, comments in her afterward on the differences between the first Niu Waves collection based in Fiji and Niu Voices, where the Pacific voices are located/dislocated on these islands of Aotearoa. The feeling of being ripped out of warm islands and being thrown onto wind ravaged shores like those of Poneke, Wellington, are reflected many times in this volume. This becomes a metaphor for the difficulties in negotiating the spaces between those Pacific and Aotearoan waves, some carrying the writer forward, some hurling him/her up on this strange shore. There are even some faint echoes here of Allen Curnow’s poetry where the child lands upside down on these shores and has to negotiate from a strange and foreign place. That could be explored further.
But this volume immediately stands out from other literary voices. Despite the struggles in negotiating a waka through unknown seas, these navigators, unlike their ancestors, do not always have the inner knowledge of the stars, the seascape, the landscape and they have to make new maps for the mind and the senses. They are negotiating multiple identities. This is where the collection becomes fascinating and the writing truly evocative.
One of the main features that entices us is the wild and wonderful humour that laughs out from the page husks. The choice to begin the collection with Taria Baquie’s work is a clever one. Few readers could resist the outrageous humour spicing the moving struggles just below the surface. Philip Siataga’s Fugue maps a different territory where he examines fugue as a “loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with the flight from one’s usual environment” [Oxford Dictionary] and dissassociative fugue, characterised by “sudden, unexpected travel away” from work or home along with memory loss. Like a musical fugue, the story works on several layers at once. This is part of a much longer work and I look forward to seeing the final manuscript. Like so many other writers in this collection, Siataga is a new voice with huge potential.
In the space of a review, it is impossible to mention all the writers in the anthology, but I urge readers to make the effort to get this exciting new collection of work because it has something to offer everyone. Karlo Mila’s Four Poems and Sione’s Wedding throws the taiaha to the Pacific Boys to get their act together and challenges them on excluding the girls, in a long line of exclusions leading up to the film, or using them as island stereotypes: “Riddleme ree/can you tell me?/ How does a wet/dream island girl get/to wear white/at Sione’s wedding? Where are the girls?/ Same old roly-poly roles/dusky maiden in her little lavalava/fertilising the taro patch/and the mum in her mumu/modern day Mary/her afro like a halo/hands clasped in prayer/for the sins of her sons.” The women writers in this collection more than make up for the stereotypes in Sione’s wedding. They are wahine toa, and not afraid to say it!
There is not only a novel, but a film latent in the extract from Priscilla Rasmussen’s The Return, telling the story of German Samoans interred on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour during the war and linking this to the narrator’s own feeling of being ripped from her warm island sands to these cold, blustery shores. A potential novel and film is also simmering in Marisa Maepu’s A Requiem for a Dream, where the narrator is visited by Robert Louis Stevenson in a series of moemoea and this relationship takes over the real life one. Jason Greenwood’s Palauli is a powerful tale that also has strong potential for cinematic exploration. It is to be hoped that the Pacific Journey begun by Anton Carter and Creative New Zealand will lead to some of these stories being explored in film and these are just three in this collection that really stand out for their cinematic potential.
Palagi make a huge distinction between fact and fiction, fiction and non-fiction, but the scintillating navigation of the word bifobology by Christina Tuapola makes a mockery of these colonial distinctions, as so many stories in this collection do, by implication. This is a terrific word play where the colonised redefine the terms, again a theme of this collection. Naila Fanene’s The Islander negotiates, with skill, the painful territory of being the outsider in a school setting, so familiar to so many of us.
Tusiata Avia warns us to be aware of the religious police and the palagi woman in the street who picks you out from the crowd. Both come from the same husk.
Many authors take up the theme of carrying your island home within you wherever you go, despite the circumstances. This is powerfully portrayed in Daren Kamali’s Pacific Migration, where the boy remembers villagers chanting the Fijian chorus “sa kau cake mai oqo; someday our Pacific people will rise”. Cherie Barford’s superb piece, Our Stories are Within Us, echoes the importance of carrying our stories with us wherever we go: “Our stories are within us. You’ll find them encoded in genealogies, embedded in our hearts, imprinted on our minds. They migrate with the tongues that tell them…”
Cherie Barford’s words sum up the power of this collection and the vital importance of keeping this wave of Pacific Voices flowing, in books, in performances, in films, in fiction, in poetry, in art, in sculpture, in gossip and talk, every place where the journeys can be navigated. They are already surviving in us, as she states: “But truly precious stories, those that hold sacred truths within them, can never be lost. They are kept intact by the universe itself. They exist beyond everything we can touch and name. They are in our blood, and like red hibiscus burnt by frost, recover and reveal themselves again. These stories are so powerful that only the pure of heart can carry them between worlds and survive. They change lives and their coming is signalled by the stars.”
The challenge now is to provide as many outlets as possible for the multiple voices that come from our mixed Pacific heritages. Anton Carter and Creative New Zealand, Selina Tusitala Marsh and Huia, have all contributed to this journey with passion and provision. Let us hope the Niu Voices niu wave is kept alive forever with this wonderful new series exposing the talents and range of innovative voices that chant ancient and modern songs to us, breaking open the husks and shells, singing to the seas.
Selina Tusitala Marsh sets the challenge in the opening of her terrific story Afakasi pours herself afa cuppa coffee: “That was it in a coconut shell. But how to flesh it out? To scrape out the meat? To flake out the metaphor, imagery, symbolism and a message?”
Niu Voices has grounded the waka in Aotearoa. The journeys from here, navigating new identities in these islands and between all our islands, looks to be as fantastic and memorable as all the navigations, past and present, where our words speak to each other about our differences and our similarities, our dreams and our aspirations, our continual rebellions against the forces of colonisation in all their myriad forms.
No longer will any of us be silenced by colonial forces and their literary clones like Afakasi, in Marsh’s story, before she began her first new sentence: “Afa’s thoughts cowered under the shadow of her pen about to trek the unexplored terrain of her paper. Its whiteness mocked her. But hasn’t that always been the case? The brown edges of her newly inked words mock her. Hasn’t that always been the case? She liked the sound of that first line.”
Niu Voices makes space for those first lines, first stories, that cast their nets out over the seas, will draw new writers, new artists, new voices into the flow, negotiating those spaces between the brown and white places inside and outside of us. This is long overdue. In the 1980’s, after we’d begun the collections of women’s writing and Maori voices were entering the literary scene, I suggested an anthology of New Zealand based Pacific writing to New Zealand publishers. Many of them laughed, said these were oral cultures and it would never happen. They said similar things of Keri Hulme’s the bone people. Maori come from an oral culture [true] and do not read [false]. How wrong could they have been? It has taken a long time for this anthology to emerge and but the waka has been launched and nothing will ever stem the flow of the coconut milk waves, the wash of these innovative ancient/new voices on our shores. The coconut tree is well rooted in Aotearoa and here to stay. Let’s hope Creative New Zealand continue to support the workshops, the series, writing festivals and publication, moving our words back out into the Pacific, the world, and the cross-fertilisation of our creativity in all forms of media.
To the international audience reading this review, I urge you to buy this book and share it with other writers in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. I was recently one of three keynote speakers at the first ever Asia and Pacific Writer’s Forum in Melbourne, November 2005, where we met some of the very best writers from all over the region, some with print runs of 500,000 to one million copies. The themes of this anthology speak to the issues raised by so many of us at this ground-breaking conference, whether Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Japanese, Aboriginal, Maori or Pacific Island and all the other cultures present. Many Asian writers were surprised to find we shared so many issues and keen to establish closer contact with Pacific writers. Mohit Prasad, one of the writers in the first Niu Waves collective and anthology has facilitated further contact and sharing of our cultures through his work at the University of the South Pacific. Let’s keep the journey we began in Melbourne alive. Take the opportunity now and order this book online today: http://www.huia.co.nz