For Karlo Mila, poetry is the gift that keeps on giving. The highlights have been a Montana Book Award for her first book of poetry; representing Tonga at the poetry Olympics (before the real one) in London, in 2012; and a Fulbright-Creative New Zealand award that’s given her a spell of full-time writing in Hawai’i.
Here, the poet and academic talks about growing up “not-white” in Palmerston North, her love of poetry and all things Tongan, her research on New Zealand-born Pacific youth, and how she came to develop a Pacific healing approach to mental health.
How did you get into poetry?
I was eight and in Year Five, otherwise known as Standard Three. That was when I wrote my first poem. I was in Miss Rowe’s class and at Highbury School in Palmerston North. Later at Intermediate, I won the school poetry competition.
I remember positive praise about my poetic ability at Palmerston North Girls’ High and writing a poem of farewell when I left Tonga High School. At Awatapu College, I fell in love for the first time with a poet who sent me poetry. The huge swell of feelings that I had went into poetry. I was seriously addicted after that. It was a good way to work through my feelings.
What was your background? Tell us about your family.
I was born in Rotorua and grew up in Palmy. My mum is Palangi and my dad is Tongan. What can I say? We weren’t rich. We lived on the wrong side of town, but my Palangi family was very warm, well-educated and middle-class.
My dad was a stowaway migrant from Tonga. He was from Kolofo’ou, the main city of the capital of Tonga, Nuku’alofa. He can’t read or write but he’s one of the smartest and most stubborn people I know. Part of his huge confidence and determination as a migrant to this country was because of his sense that he was a city boy. We live on the same street as the Royal Palace in Tonga, and despite our humble position in New Zealand he was not afraid to “think big” — one of his favourite phrases.
My dad got an apprenticeship in painting and wallpapering from his two uncles who had settled in Rotorua and ran big businesses back in the day. He had big dreams for his “New Zealand” girls. I think he wanted my younger sister and me to be New Zealanders and leave everything Tongan behind. He has learned that neither of us is willing to do that.
And your mother? How did they meet?
My mum was at teachers’ college training to be a kindergarten teacher when they met.
My Palangi family has a long history of involvement in Tonga because they are Methodists. My great-grandfather’s second wife was a Methodist missionary in Tonga and taught King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV. My mum’s older sister was a VSA (Volunteer Services Abroad) in Tonga.
My dad’s sister, Tupou ‘Ulu’ave, was bright enough to get into Massey University in Palmerston North, and, through connections, she came to board with my nana, Alice Hunt. She shared a room with my mum. My dad was paying all of Aunty Tupou’s school fees and board, and so that’s how they met.
My nana was very used to having large households of extended family around her. Her mother was born in Samoa.
So you have Samoan connections on your Palangi family’s side. Tell us about those.
My nana’s mother migrated to New Zealand from Samoa in 1917. Grandma Florence lived until she was 98 and spoke fluent Samoan, German and English. All of my great-grandmother’s siblings migrated to New Zealand, including her mother, Susana King (nee Key), who was from Saleaula. Susana was the daughter of Mary Stowers — so we trace back to the original Stowers family.
On my dad’s side, we have many Samoan connections also. My great-grandmother was Amy Leger, whose parents came from Samoa to build the Palace for King George the 1st. Through that line we are also connected to the Tiumalu family in American Samoa. Amy’s mother was Magela Tiumalu from Pago Pago. We still have relatives living in Pago Pago.
How connected were you to your Tongan side growing up?
We didn’t have that much contact with our Tongan family early on. Some cousins came and lived with us. We went to Tonga twice.
It wasn’t until I moved there in 1989 with my dad, after my parents split up, that I really started to understand all that I was connected to culturally. That love affair with Tonga and all things Tongan never really ended after that. I wanted to be Tongan.
In New Zealand, I was more or less “just brown” or just “not-white” — something different. Going to Tonga meant that I could pin some meaning to that otherness. There were hardly any Pacific peoples in Palmy then. It’s different now.
You attended Tonga High School. What was that like?
I was 13, 14. It was a bit difficult to adjust from being a typical New Zealand teenager and then find myself in a school uniform that required matching ribbons to my dress. I didn’t even know how to plait my hair before I went to Tonga. I remember getting sent home on mufti day because I wore trousers. I remember jogging around the streets and being laughed at because it was weird over there then. I remember finding it hard to make friends at first, even though everyone was friendly.
I was sent there to learn Tongan, but my Tongan was pretty limited. I went to an English-speaking school and we lived in town. My Tongan has never been fluent and it is always a source of embarrassment. I have been shamed out about it by so many Tongan academics it’s not funny. I’ve written some poems about it, actually. I lived there for six months and went back to teach after my first degree, for six months.
Going to school in Tonga was so different. The main thing, I think, was that it was so cool to do well in school. If you were smart, you were cool. It was completely upside down and different from what I was used to in New Zealand, where if you did well you’d be called a nerd.
What was it like growing up “not-white” in Palmy?
I think having a Palangi mum who understood how we would be racialised as “brown kids” meant that she was always very conscious of how we presented ourselves. We were taught to be very well-mannered, polite, well-spoken, confident and able to charm our ways into circles that weren’t used to having anyone “brown” within them. I had so many comments from parents when I was growing up, that I was “very good for a brown girl”.
I remember once, I was invited to spend my holidays at a friend’s timeshare in Taupo. Her older brother reacted so violently to having someone brown come with them, they uninvited me. I think at the time, you brush a lot of it off, but at the same time, you are very vulnerable to it. Some of my Palangi family members had openly racist friends who I tried to avoid. One was even the photographer at my mum’s second wedding (to a Palangi). He was a well-known racist.
What do you do? I learned early to confront that kind of behaviour head on, but as a child I often had very limited power.
I really struggled to make sense of a lot of this, which is why I went on to take sociology at university. When you can put all the pieces together, you can resist it in a powerful way.
You said there weren’t many Pacific people in Palmerston North. What about Māori?
I grew up surrounded by “brown” people who looked exactly like me but they were Māori. I had so many friends and almost all my boyfriends in Palmy were Māori. We stuck together in lots of ways but I also learned how they were positioned differently.
For me, in a reasonably racist place, they were a safe haven of acceptance and non-discrimination. There were no underlying, unspoken racist assumptions that you had to navigate carefully and avoid. You could just ‘be’. It was a lot of fun.
But I also learned serious lessons. For example, I learned that I was not tangata whenua and if anything I was manuhiri, a visitor. That was hard to get my head around at the time and it was a painful discovery.
Finding out the real history of New Zealand — different to what I’d gathered anywhere else — was also intensely painful. I realised I’d been fed a lot of biased information, if not lies, and it made me really angry.
You have to question everything they teach you, I realised, and it started off a career of writing, researching and activism against all of that rubbish they try and make you believe.
How does your Tongan/Samoan/Palangi background influence your work?
I can think of three things on top of my head. First, I was contending with a largely white, totally Western-dominated culture that was demeaning of anything brown and different. I fought against that in a variety of ways. One way was through poetry.
Second, being Tongan and engaging with that rich cultural heritage and trying to work out my place within it inspired a lot of poetry.
Third, being both, but not either “fully” meant that I was never completely at home. I was often the outsider, the observer. Politely welcomed in both spaces, but never “the thing” that everyone else was. Always a wee bit different. And I think that this creates a space of watching and observing carefully. People who do that often end up being writers I think. We tend to soak in everything around us and observe.
You focused in your PhD research on the New Zealand-born Pacific population. Tell us about that.
I really wanted to understand better what was going on for Pacific peoples. Why the racism? Why the under-employment? Why the educational under-performance? I would NOT accept that we were dumber and lazier than other people. I knew that wasn’t right. I wanted to really understand everything. My research explored the identity, health and well-being issues for Pacific peoples growing up in New Zealand.
The quantitative part of my thesis involved just over a thousand Pacific young people and the stats I generated showed that, if you felt accepted by your own Pacific culture and by others, you were 70 percent less likely to make a suicide attempt. And if you said Pacific values were still important to you, and you were proud of your Pacific heritage, you were 50 percent less likely to attempt suicide.
So I felt that pride in identity, values, acceptance and belonging were huge issues for our generation. How do we end up feeling that we are accepted for who we are and how do we manage to feel proud of our heritage in a culture that often disparages all things Pacific? When we experience racism and rejection, not only from Palangis but also from first-generation migrants and our homelands for being “plastic” and not Pacific “enough”, how do we feel good about ourselves?
I coined the term polycultural capital, which is this idea that we can hold many cultural resources — Palangi ones, Tongan ones, whatever — and that we can draw down on these in different spaces in different ways so that we can connect with, and be accepted by others.
That probably deserves another article. But what happens when our cultural resources tell us to do completely different things?
It can be disorienting and confusing sometimes. For example, it is good to be humble in many Pacific contexts or you are rejected. But if you are too humble in Palangi contexts, you are totally overlooked or disregarded.
What I found, though, is that in an increasingly globalised world, to operate in polycultural ways was advantageous compared to being monocultural. This cultural complexity was, like, wow — all of our Pacific kids are superstars. It takes so much skill to navigate the ever-changing cultural terrain.
What I did realise was that many Pacific kids struggled to access their own Pacific cultures — which led me to developing Mana Moana.
Mana Moana — that’s the Pacific mental health intervention you developed as part of your postdoctoral research. Tell us a bit about that.
I’ve always had a passion for mental health. I experienced depression in my last year of school and uni. I think that it can happen quite easily to people who feel and think too much.
Because I’ve had my own experiences of being treated by the mental health system and thinking that the treatment was pretty dumb, I was interested in how our ancestors would have done it. My research began with the question: “What is healing in a Pacific mental health context?” How had we healed people in the past? Could we use some of those good ideas now? It was my aim to develop something that would work for us.
This led me to developing an indigenous healing intervention, Mana Moana, which is constructed from a collection of 70 archetypal words and concepts shared in many Pacific languages, and the proverbs and stories and mythology associated with those words.
Words like Maui, mana, tapu and so on.
These, to me, are power words that are intrinsic to many of our cultures. I’ve researched the Tongan, Samoan, Niuean, Cook Islands, Maori and Hawaiian proverbs that use these words. These are like small bits of wisdom that our ancestors have passed down to us.
Together, many of the words create a world (and a worldview) — our ancestral world, and our shared common landscape of island, shore, ocean, village, gardens, mountains and forest. If you think of that shared landscape as a library, they are embedded within these words, proverbs and stories that we often share.
Which brings us to Hawai’i, where you’re working on a novel and a book of poetry inspired by your Mana Moana research. What’s Hawai’i like?
Oh, it’s hard to describe the awesomeness of Hawai’i. I write lists every couple of days so that my mates in New Zealand have some idea of how it is. I love it. I think I’d live here if I could. It’s hot and rainy and mountainous and the beaches are stupid-beautiful.
But it’s the people. I have so many friends here who are Pacific poets, epistemologists, artists, activists, writers, scholars, theorists, students, jokers, leaders, laughers. There’s a lot of decolonising going on! It’s a real hub of creativity and energy and brains.
My boys (Karlos, 11, and Nikolas, almost 10) are at an indigenous Hawaiian Charter school called Halau Ku Mana. I am stoked to be immersing them in Hawaiian culture. They learn hula (dance), oli (chants), gardening, and sailing (on a traditional vaka). Their school is in a forest next to a stream.
One funny thing is that at Halau Ku Mana they have been renamed Matani and Mila because they prefer to use their indigenous names.
What are your dreams for the future?
I dream of writing full-time in hot places forever! I dream of Mana Moana spreading and thriving and making a difference in people’s lives.
I dream of living a full life, not a good life. Most of the amazing things that have happened to me aren’t things I’ve dreamed of, because I’ve been raised to be quite pragmatic and practical and not expect too much. I’ve exceeded my own little mean and meagre dreams so many times over.
What does poetry give you?
Poetry is the freaking gift that keeps on giving. It is almost all the good stuff in my life, crushed and condensed into haiku. It is all the sad, tragic and disappointing stuff in my life — the sediment and dried leftovers of it. I try and capture everything meaningful and jam it into poems. I like going back later and being tele-transported back to that moment, that feeling, that train-wreck, huge disappointment, or massive crush.
It also means I’m invited to cool places to read and I get to engage with people and create instant intimacy because they are familiar with my work, and therefore, in some weird way, with me.
What would you say to someone skeptical of poetry or someone wanting to get into it?
Oh, man, it has a bad rap, but it’s actually just writing without any rules. No punctuation — no grammar — nada. It can be as long or short as you like, as nonsensical or as serious as you like. How can that be dumb?
I would say to someone wanting to get into it, go where the flow takes you. As Alice Walker says, “Write what you see as clearly as you can.” Or what Audre Lorde says, “Your silences have never protected you.” I love writing into silences, revealing what cannot be said without using poetry.
I would say read Audre Lorde’s ideas about silences. I would say read some poems by Alice Walker. I would say read some poems by Mary Oliver. Read Konai Helu Thaman, read Albert Wendt, read Selina Tusitala Marsh, read Tusiata Avia, read the Maori and Pacific anthologies. I would say spend some time finding your voice and then write about everything and everyone that is important to you.
Poems are just words. We all have them.