Alice Somerville

Alice Te Punga Somerville is having a breather from some of her academic work at Waikato University, where she is now an associate professor.

Fair enough, too, because Alice and her husband, Vula, have a three-month-old daughter, Titilia Ngaere Vakarau, who figures she is a higher priority than all that global Indigenous Pacific (including Māori) stuff that’s been occupying so much of her mum’s time for many years at universities in Auckland, Wellington, Honolulu, New York, Sydney, and now Hamilton.

Dale’s focus, in this chat though, is mostly on the scholarly stuff.


Kia ora, Alice. Now let’s look at this name Te Punga. It means anchor, doesn’t it? So I imagine there’s a story about how that came to be.

Well, the name Te Punga was gifted to my great-grandfather, Hamuera, and his full sister Metiria, whose mother was Māori from Te Ātiawa and Taranaki, but their father was Chinese. The marriage didn’t last, and they were raised by relatives, who realised having the last name “Hing” would have invited racism and made whānau connections less visible, so the kids acquired the last name “Te Punga”. Honestly, there’s 50 million whānau stories of why that name specifically was created. For me, it means that if I ever meet a Te Punga, they’re probably a close relation.

Ka pai. And that must be your baby girl I can hear in the background — could you tell us about her names?

My three-month-old daughter is Titilia Ngaere Vakarau. Her first and second names are after two of her great-aunts: Titilia is her father’s mother’s sister, and Ngaere is my mother’s father’s sister. They are both still very much alive. But Titilia lives in Suva, and Aunty Nanie (as Ngaere, named after a place in Taranaki, is known) lives in Sydney.

Vakarau is the family name of my husband, Vula. His whānau are iTaukei or indigenous Fijian. Their iwi is Udu and his (and Titilia’s) village is Vunikodi. Through his mum, Vula, and now Titilia, also whakapapa to the Solomon Islands.

Vula and I were introduced by a mutual friend when he was living in Australia and I was on sabbatical in Toronto. It was a whirlwind courtship held mostly on Facebook and over the phone. After we married in Suva, we’ve made our home in Honolulu, Sydney, and now Hamilton.

Where did you grow up?

Mostly in Auckland, although I was born in Wellington. I’m from the Te Ātiawa lot in Waiwhetū. So Wellington is home for us. We moved up to Auckland when I was five for Dad’s job. So I had one of those childhoods with school days in Auckland and holidays with my grandparents in Wellington. I guess I grew up in both places.

What can you tell us about your mum and dad?

Mum’s a teacher. She talks about how, in her day, Māori girls who were doing well at school were encouraged to be teachers or nurses. She didn’t like the sight of blood, so she became a teacher.

She’s been in education her whole life — as have, actually, most people in our whānau. We joke that, if you’re a Te Punga, even if you think you’re going to set out on another pathway, you eventually find your way back to teaching, or at least being involved in education. Dad has had a range of jobs, mostly to do with photography.

Have you got brothers and sisters as well?

I’ve got an older sister, Megan, in Wellington. She’s working in education programming for the Department of Conservation. Her son Matiu is just finishing at intermediate but has gone through a mix of immersion and mainstream schooling. He’s the first kid in a couple of generations in our whānau who can speak the language.

And what was your secondary school in Auckland?

I went to Glendowie College which has kids from Glendowie and Glen Innes. I didn’t really enjoy high school — I didn’t go a lot in my last couple of years. The only reason I ended up going to uni was that there was a whānau expectation that I would.

When I was a third former — which is what we were called back in the day — there were heaps of us Māori and Pacific kids in my year, but by the time I got to seventh form, there were only two of us Māori kids left. Out of maybe 90 students. My brown friends were weeded out one way or another.

University was my first chance to study anything Māori, and it was also the first time to be in a large cohort of Māori students. For me, that was really profound.

What was the cultural make-up at Glendowie College? You had rich and poor there, I suppose.

Totally. I have to say, it changed over the time I was there, as the brown, poor part was shrinking, and as there was more of a focus on turning it into an upmarket Auckland school. Which some people may see as a good thing, but I don’t.

I’ve got a granddaughter that goes to a school where there are no brown kids, and I’ve got a grandson that goes to school where there’s no white kids. This is what happens to suburbs when the house prices become unaffordable. I wonder what we’re losing when our tamariki are schooled in those sorts of environments?

One factor was Housing New Zealand selling off their state houses in the neighbourhood. That definitely made a difference after the time that I left.

But I think, frankly, there was also structural racism within the school. That meant you ended up with a lot of brown kids coming in the front door, but not many departing out the same front door after five years.

The brown kids weren’t given the same opportunities, the same kind of benefit of the doubt. I was there at school in the early ’90s. There was no option to take te reo at all. Yet many of us would’ve loved the opportunity to learn that at school.

But you did go on to uni. And you homed in on a really interesting area, too. Māori and Pasifika literature. Not many people are drawn into that. Can you explain how that came about?

To save a bit of money in my first year, I decided to take all the same subjects my sister had taken, or pretty much, because she started uni two years ahead of me, and that way, I didn’t have to buy all the books. I was actually a bit disappointed that she’d taken English because I wasn’t interested in English, although it turns out that was my thing.

In my first year, our tutor was Witi Ihimaera. And our lecturers for that paper were Witi and the Samoan writer Albert Wendt and a Kahungunu professor, Terry Sturm. So, suddenly, I was in this environment where literature was a Māori and a Pasifika thing.

And Witi said to us several times over the course of the semester: “I know a lot of you are enrolled in law and other job-related degrees … ” And I was. I’d originally enrolled in a law degree. And then he said: “I know you see this stuff as fun, but we actually need our people working in these areas.”

I stuck at law for a couple of years, but it wasn’t me. I didn’t have any passion for it, whereas I became really excited about the work I was doing in English and history. So, after two years, I pulled out of law.

As you can imagine, I got heaps of advice not to do that. I was throwing my life away and this was terrible. All the way down to: What about your responsibilities to our community? We need lawyers.

On the other hand, my grandparents supported my decision. They were big-picture people, with a strong sense of heritage and also faith. They looked at me when I was talking it through with them, and said: “We don’t really understand why, in this generation, we would have someone with a passion for poetry. We would’ve thought that a lawyer might’ve been handy. But, if this is the passion that you have, who are you to not follow that?”

So, with their encouragement, and also encouragement from the rest of my family, I pulled out and set out on this less populated pathway. Looking back on it and knowing a bit more about what I do, I think of the Cherokee writer Thomas King, who says: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”

That helps explain to me why I felt so drawn to the study of Māori and Pacific literature. Our stories, and the stories that we tell, and the stories that others tell about us, ultimately create and shape who we are.

I wonder whether you sense there’s now more freedom of expression. Are we seeing an opportunity for us to look at ourselves differently and write about our world in a different way than we used to?

Yes and no. Definitely there’s a greater diversity of people writing, and a diversity of genres that they are working in. One of the limitations when we talk about literature is that we’re generally talking about highbrow novels or poetry.

But there are Māori writers who’re doing amazing things with science fiction and romance — and all kinds of other genres. There are lots of Māori writers based outside New Zealand who’re doing great work. And maybe we don’t get to see it because we think that Māori writers are New Zealand-based.

But, of course, one in five of us isn’t living in New Zealand. There’s a massive diversity among our writers — certainly more than you’d ever realise if you trotted along to your local Whitcoulls or any other bookshop.

The reason I also say no, is that one of the things that has increasingly interested me is looking at Māori writing throughout the 20th century. There’s an assumption that the first novels and short story collections started coming out in the 1970s, and not much came beforehand.

But, actually, Māori were writing prolifically and diversely for many, many decades before that. The story of a lack of diversity or a lack of vibrancy in Māori writing just doesn’t stack up when you start combing through the archives.

I’m just starting on a new project, looking at all the writers who were writing in the government publication Te Ao Hou, which came out from 1952 to 1976. There were 75 issues. Many of who we think of as our first writers were in there. But heaps of other writers who we don’t remember were doing amazing things, too.

No doubt you’ve come across a lot of interesting stuff. Anyone really special?

Probably the first book of Māori writing that I ever bought that wasn’t on a university book list was a book of poetry by Jackie Sturm. Maybe it was my Taranakitanga that guided me to that book. Jackie was an extraordinary writer who wrote short fiction as well as poetry, and also wrote amazing book and record reviews in Te Ao Hou.

Te Ao Hou is available online for free, by the way. So, you can sit on the train or bus reading all of this Māori writing on your phone. But Jackie was an important starting point for me.

As for a favourite novel, that’s Patricia Grace’s Baby No Eyes. It’s a novel which I’ve taught a lot. There’s something timeless about it. It always seems to speak to the now.

One of my favourite poets is Vernice Wineera, who’s based in Hawai’i. She’s part of the Mormon diaspora there. She was actually our first Māori woman to publish a poetry collection in English, but she was published in Hawai’i, so we kind of forget about her. And it’s very difficult to access her work here in New Zealand, which is a real shame.

She wrote a poem called Heritage, which ends with the words: “We’re taking our place on this vast marae that is the Pacific we call home.”

That spoke to me as someone who grew up in a neighbourhood that was both Māori and Pacific — and as someone who was intrigued and a bit frustrated by these conversations about us and by us, as if Māori-Pākehā is our only, or primary, relationship.

And I thought: Whoa. Here’s someone talking about Māori as Pacific people, as if that’s a normal way to think about ourselves. And, of course, it’s a really expansive way to think about ourselves.

It’s clear that your interests go way beyond our people. You’ve got no problem with Māori being seen as a Pasifika people. For instance, there’s your book Once Were Pacific, where you delve into that.

Well, the genesis of that whakaaro was my experience growing up in a neighbourhood where most of us were Māori or Pacific. And when I got to uni, there were all these discussions about who we are as people.

But there wasn’t a lot of talk about our connections with the Pacific or with Pasifika communities, other than to acknowledge our navigation traditions and also Hawaiki. We’d make that gesture.

But I was really intrigued that we didn’t carry on and go: Oh and by the way, the experience of many, if not most Māori people living in cities in New Zealand and overseas, is about a complex contemporary relationship with Pasifika.

And I noticed that we kept flying between Aotearoa and Hawai’i and saying “aloha, my long lost cousins!”, but literally all of Polynesia and heaps of the rest of the region is physically closer to us than Hawai’i.

And why is it easier or more fun to connect with cousins over there than cousins in our neighbourhoods? It’s not that we aren’t connected to Hawaiians, or that we don’t share a lot of things with them, but how about everyone else?

I was interested in asking questions about why we don’t think about ourselves as Pacific, and then asking when do we think about ourselves as Pasifika people.

You’ve had a number of university positions, including in the States and Australia, where you’ve been able to pursue your research and also teach. And you’re now at the University of Waikato. What’s your role there?

I’m in the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies as an associate professor with responsibilities for global indigenous and Pacific ways of thinking about Māori. The University of Waikato has recently shifted the focus and structure from a school of Māori and Pasifika development to a faculty of Māori and indigenous studies, which means we have more autonomy — and more focus on the whānaungatanga between indigenous communities around the world.

My initial studies were at Auckland Uni. I went up to masters level there, and then went overseas to do my PhD at Cornell in the States. That gave me the chance to take American Indian studies, along with English. I also went over to Hawai’i as part of my doctoral studies to connect with the Pacific literature there.

Then I came home, taught for a few years at Vic in Wellington, and left again and spent a year at the Aboriginal studies programme in Toronto. I went back to Honolulu to teach Pacific literature at the University of Hawai’I in 2012, followed by a couple of years teaching Indigenous studies in Sydney before coming home again. My own life has shifted between Aotearoa and these broader contexts, and my research and teaching has as well.

I’ve come to Waikato because Waikato is making this move to say: Yes, it’s important to look at Māori, but what happens when we look at Māori alongside other indigenous communities. There are some really great scholars and students here asking these questions. So that’s the mahi that I’ve come to be a part of.

People who have grown up in Taranaki have a unique attitude to Māori issues because of the injustices there. How much of an influence has that background had on you?

I think it’s been an invisible hand all the way through. Maybe we’re talking about the unconscious level, the wairua level, the tūpuna level. Probably all three.

I didn’t grow up in Taranaki, so I wasn’t used to thinking about myself as: Oh, I’m doing that because I’m a classic Taranaki person. But I think there are threads through the way our whānau talks about who we are, and the histories of how we ended up in Wellington. These sorts of things.

Also, Taranaki’s refusal to accept the Crown as our only frame of reference, to me, provides a way of thinking about Māori in relation to the Pacific and indigenous communities globally. I’m not satisfied with the idea that the Crown is the only frame that we sit within.

It’s not that I don’t have this strong sense of being someone from Taranaki because I didn’t grow up there. It’s not a case of poor me I don’t have an identity because I grew up somewhere else. It’s more that I’m coming to understand my Taranakitanga and the way that, maybe, where we come from can shape us even if we don’t personally and consciously know the names and the stories.

That’s one of the learnings that I have from my reading of indigenous writing: that we’re not limited by the things that we don’t know about ourselves.

Do you feel that indigenous literature can provide a challenging front, pushing into education, culture, sport, to enhance our overall development? And are you satisfied with the contribution that you’re making through your mahi?

I have to say that it’s a privilege to spend so much time working with the written words of Māori and Pacific and indigenous people. I think sometimes we can place this pressure on ourselves and on each other to produce solutions to very particular problems.

That’s important, and I think all of us are called to make a contribution if we can, to right the very clear wrongs and to ensure that the injustices in and between our communities are addressed.

But, in the back of my mind, I have this question. Who will we be once we solve all of our problems? If we’re talking about development, once we get to this imaginary place of being developed, who will we be?

I know that I and other people who do work like me sometimes get criticised because it looks like we’re just sitting down and reading poetry instead of helping our people. Or trotting down to the library to comb through archives to find novels that no one knew existed until you found them at the bottom of the dusty file. Or writing poetry. So it’s fair to ask how that contributes to our people.

But I think our people are always bigger than our problems. Our people are much bigger than the colonial parts of our history. But there is a contribution we can make by our explorations in the creative area. And I feel it’s a privilege to be working in this area.

Well, Alice, we have weaved our way through all manner of kaupapa in this kōrero. But perhaps there’s something else you’d like to touch on?

I think the bottom line for me is our variousness, which is a term that Patricia Grace has used. There’s our variousness and our incredible diversity. Historically and contemporarily, that’s been our strength. And so it will be in the future. And any story told by us or others, which is a restriction of that diversity is something that we really need to be suspicious of.

We need to take every opportunity to think about the Māori world as ever expanding and becoming ever more complex.


© E-Tangata, 2017

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