As a Porirua 16-year-old, Susana Lei’ataua got a kickstart, in the 1980s, through the training courses set up at that time to attract Māori and Pacific talent into the media. Then she not only took advantage of opportunities to work in New Zealand newspaper, radio and television journalism, but she also spent years overseas, in New York especially, and branched out into academia, and the theatre and other arts.
It’s been an unusually varied path, and now, after becoming re-established in New Zealand radio as a newsreader and producer, she’s leading the Pacific news team for RNZ. Here, she and Dale look back on her journey towards this role.
Talofa, Susana. Could we talk first about your Sāmoan side, and how the connection with Aotearoa was made?
Sure. My ‘āiga are from Manono and our villages are Faleu and Salua.
My father, Leiataualesa Tapau Mulufuaina, came here on the Matua in 1954, as a boy scout. He was one of a troupe chosen to represent Sāmoa when Queen Elizabeth was first visiting New Zealand.
Those scouts did actually meet the queen and became Queen Scouts as a result — and that visit sowed the seed in Dad’s mind about coming back to New Zealand as a grown-up.
Which he did, in 1965, and he met my mum Shirley More a few months later at a dance in Wellington.
Tell us about your mother’s line too, please, Susana.
My mother’s family started arriving in Aotearoa in the 1870s. One of my great-grandmothers was born in a goldrush town called Waipori, just inland from Lawrence, in Otago, later submerged by the hydro-lake Mahinerangi.
Her mother and grandmother had come from the Ballarat goldfields. They were Irish and made their way from Bluff to Waipori, where my great-grandmother’s father and grandfather were already.
They, father and son, had come from Kent, in England. They weren’t miners — they were cabinet makers and undertakers. And the women, mother and daughter, were midwives.
Years ago, I managed the Ngāi Tahu leadership programme, and on my weekends, I’d drive down from Christchurch to immerse myself in that extraordinary part of Te Waipounamu.
When my tūpuna first arrived in Waipori, it was pretty much a tent town. But there were a couple of hotels in Lawrence, and I found Tuapeka Times clippings which described how some women were able to have their babies in these hotels. The reports named my great-great and great-great-great-grandmothers as having delivered babies there.
Let’s talk about names and their pronunciation. I’m picking that people might have butchered your surname through your school life. Then there’s been a change with your first name, too.
Yes. When I left New Zealand in 1991 to live in New York, I was Susan, and when I came back, I was Susana.
I decided I didn’t want an anglicized name — and it’s quite interesting how that one letter “a” has shifted things.
As far as my surname goes, anyone with a non-English name is prepared from childhood to have to spell it every time you say it.
There was a period where I cringed if I knew my name was going to be announced. Like, if I was at an airport, I’d think: “I’m going to have to tell these people how to say my name before they say it wrong.”
I think there’s much greater awareness now of the importance of getting our names right. In part, that’s a tribute to the courage we’ve all had to muster to correct people who weren’t getting our names right. And there’s a focus on it now too.
But I can also remember, when I was working for Radio New Zealand in the late 1980s, being criticised by Sāmoans who leaped on me with great ferocity because I was saying my own name incorrectly when I read the news.
They didn’t have a lot of care for how their message came across to me. I used to think: “What right did they have to speak to me like that?”
You and I in the media try our best to give the respect to those whānau names that they deserve. And, if we get them wrong, it’s not because we haven’t tried.
Absolutely. Getting names right always has to remain critical.
My surname, Lei’ataua, is my father’s name and, in the course of my adult life, I’ve had people from the Sāmoan community question how come I have the name that I have.
My simple answer is: “It’s my name.”
I understand the relevance of the name that I carry, both within the Sāmoan context, and within a New Zealand English-speaking context too.
So, whether our names are Sāmoan or Māori — or from anywhere in the world, for that matter — it’s essential that we treat people’s names with respect. Because when we do, we’re acknowledging our whakapapa, our gafa, and this includes place names too.
That said, I also know how harrowing it is as a newsreader when you’re confronted with a name without a pronunciation guide.
I also acknowledge that I have a responsibility to ensure that the people who are saying my name know how to say it and know how to spell it. It’s as much my responsibility as it is theirs.
We’ll touch on that news reading stuff down the track. Hey, I know you got involved in the media at a young age. How and why did you do that?
I was in the sixth form at Queen Margaret College in Wellington, intent on getting into med school.
But I also had a sense that that wasn’t what I really wanted to do.
Then, one day I spotted this typed A4 page on the school notice board about a one-week introduction to journalism course in Auckland for Māori and Pacific students. It invited us to write one page about why we should be chosen to take part.
And, if you were chosen, you’d get a bus trip from Wellington (or wherever) to Auckland, to meet journalists and to find out over the course of a week what this journalism life was all about. All expenses paid.
That intrigued me. Enough to write my one-pager and send it off. And, lo and behold, I was accepted — and that course changed my life.
It was run by Gary Wilson for the Journalists Training Board — and the people who spoke to us were real life journalists: Tapu Misa, Sefita Hao’uli, Fraser Folster, Tino Pereira, and Chris Winitana.
They spoke to us about their jobs and why more Māori and Pacific journalists were needed in our country’s newsrooms — and then we got straight into it. Writing stories.
There were typewriters set up in the Pacific Island Resource Education Centre in Herne Bay, and we stayed in a motel just along the street. And I thought: “If this is what grown-up life is like, I’m in.”
Back in Wellington, I wrote a story about taking part on that course, which the Kapi-Mana newspaper published. I then went into the Evening Post, which had this Newspapers in Education section. Audrey Young, who’s been the Herald’s political editor for many years, was running that page.
She was incredibly encouraging to me, so, I became a regular contributor.
If you’d made a good impression on any of the one-week courses, you were eligible for a two-week booster course. So, we had a fortnight in Rotorua where we set up a newsroom in the nursing hostel where we were staying.
I remember one of the journalists there being critical about a story that I’d written. And my 16-year-old self was quite upset by that. I retreated to my nurses’ hostel room.
And there was a knock at the door. It was Judy McGregor, the then editor of the Sunday News, who was helping out with the course.
“People are going to criticise you,” she said. “And it’s your decision how much of that you take on board. But I would strongly suggest you keep going.”
That was enough encouragement for me to show up the next day. And to keep showing up.
As a result, I gathered enough published clippings to apply for the full-time, six-month journalism course at Auckland Technical Institute (now AUT).
And I announced to my parents: “I’m not going to university. I’m not going to med school. I’m going to become a journalist. And I’m applying for ATI.”
It was all a bit of a shock for them and for my school. But that’s what I did. After I graduated from ATI in 1985, I was hired by the Evening Post — and that’s how my life in media began.
How important is the media for Māori and Pasifika people?
It’s critical that we have a voice. It’s critical that we use our voice to question. It’s critical that our questions are heard and that the people we’re questioning hear our questions and answer them.
Those questions will inevitably be about us and the environment, and I want to broaden it to include all the people of Te-Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa — from Aotearoa up to Hawai‘i, and as broad and as wide as we can go.
Let’s include all the people inside this conversation — whether they’re from a tiny atoll or Aotearoa.
So, to come back to your question, if the media is a platform on which we’re able to hear and use our voices, then it’s very valuable.
The Pacific culture is often seen as strict, conservative, patriarchal, and religious. How do wāhine like you — writers, actors, artists who are pushing the boundaries — fit within that?
I don’t see it that way. I think that these frames that you’re articulating are colonial frames.
I define myself as the granddaughter of my Sāmoan grandmother and of my Pālagi grandmother. So, I’m not interested in somebody else’s idea of what may or may not be conservative, or of what it is that I’m doing.
I have a responsibility to my ‘āiga that addresses both the genealogical lines that I embody. Am I being truthful? Am I being respectful? Am I prepared? And am I responsible? Those are the four things that really guide me.
I come back to the point that I am my grandmothers’ granddaughter. Were they conservative, or not? I find all that irrelevant. Questions of whether or how I fit, or how what I do is perceived, are for whoever is perceiving me.
My responsibility is to stay focused on my family, and to the wider communities that my family is a part of. I’m part of the Sāmoan diaspora, and so I have family who live here in New Zealand, in Sāmoa, and all over the world.
So, what about New York?
I consider New York to be my home — as well as Aotearoa, as well as Sāmoa.
I’ve lived in New York since 1991. I studied acting in New York and lived what I call a bohemian life there in the 1990s, writing poetry, performing music and working in the theatre. And I also spent years working in some great restaurants.
I know my way around New York better than I know my way around Auckland.
In 2007, I was invited to be artist-in-residence with New York University’s Asian Pacific American Institute and as a result I also became a Fulbright Senior Scholar.
After the World Trade Centre came down in 2001, I’d written a play addressing concepts of home. Where home was, and what made home, home.
I knew of a Sāmoan academic, Dr Anne-Marie Tupuola, who was teaching at Columbia University at the time. I sent her a copy of the play and asked if I could talk with her about it.
We had a great conversation and she had me speak to her students. An introduction to John Kuo Wei Tchen at New York University followed, and then speaking with his students. And that led to me becoming the artist in residence there, and then that being extended for another year.
The timing was extraordinary because that was when climate change was being talked about, and specifically how it would affect small island states in the Pacific. That led to them writing a resolution for the United Nations General Assembly, asking all members to put climate change on the Security Council agenda.
And that’s how, in June 2008, the threat of climate change began the process of becoming a Security Council agenda item later that year.
Now I have an art studio in Onehunga named LAKA. And I’m part of a group of women who work together there. At its heart is a fale lalaga — a place for weaving, literally and figuratively.
When I finish this conversation with you, Dale, I’ll be meeting on Zoom with four of those women. We’re learning about ngatu and the steps to make it — and you can’t do that by yourself.
As people of the Moana, we understand that we do things together, right? We don’t do things alone, even though I’m very, very comfortable in my own company.
You’ve also done a lot of production work over the years — most recently Lately with Karyn Hay on RNZ. What are the most important skills that you take into that mahi?
With both radio and theatre, there are just so many things going on behind the scenes.
And it’s thrilling to me to be responsible for that backroom stuff. Because for all the things you can prepare for, there is an equal number of things that you can’t predict.
So, hopefully, your experience allows you to act quickly when something rears its head.
It pays to be a good listener. It pays to have your eye on the ball and to have an overview, a vantage point from which you can see things.
I love the “liveness” and immediacy of radio. I love theatre for the same reason. You’re always trying to achieve the highest possible standard. Things are not always going to go the way that you’d like, and you know you can always do better.
Is there an example that you’d like to share with us?
When I was with MAU and Lemi Ponifasio, some performers came from Kiribati. When people are travelling on a Kiribati passport, there are hoops to jump through that people here probably don’t think about.
That was highlighted recently, with four of the Pacific Island nations having to withdraw from the Paralympics because the only way their athletes could get to Tokyo was through Australia. They couldn’t afford MIQ in Australia — two weeks on their way to Tokyo, followed by another two weeks on their way home.
During my time with MAU we did more than 40 productions in 28 cities, in 17 countries, and I always took great satisfaction in moving people smoothly through immigration.
It requires a lot of patience, tenacity, and a good head for logistics. It was also important that everybody’s families were comfortable while their young people were on tour.
An example from Lately with Karyn Hay was a moment last year when we went into a lockdown very quickly. From memory, that particular announcement happened in the evening.
Knowing that I could call people who’ve become household names, like Michael Baker, Shaun Hendy, Andrew Chen, so that they could share their information with listeners — their availability is something that, as a producer, I’m forever grateful for.
When you’re working at night, too, you’re calling outside of office hours. And so when you get someone to air, you think: “Yes! Thank you!”
You’re an awesome newsreader, too, Susana. I’ve listened to you a lot in the last couple of years. So how do you feel about that role?
Thank you. I read the news on RNZ back in the 1980s, and I didn’t realise I’d have the opportunity to do so again, which has been great.
The truth is that when I read the news, I’m so focused that I don’t have much of a sense that people are listening. The news booth is a very small space. I’ve got my headphones on, I’m looking at the clock, looking at the pronunciations and just wanting to make sure they’re all correct, and that I’m telling each story.
And when that bulletin is done, the next one is coming.
But, above all, I don’t have the words to describe what it means to me to be part of people’s daily lives. I feel humbled by that and I want to make sure that, whatever the news is, people are able to receive it clearly.
You’ve got great skill in that regard. And now you’re in a new role as RNZ’s Pacific News Editor.
Yes. RNZ Pacific is a team of 12 journalists, providing news, sport and current affairs on air and online, for Aotearoa as well as the wider Pacific region, about Pacific communities and te Moana.
My vision and my goal are that we have more and more coverage, and stronger and stronger coverage.
I’ve just had my first couple of months in the job and, to me, lockdown is underlining how critical it is that we continue to do what we do.
And another thing. I reckon all of us in the media, as Pacific and Māori, we’ve got to ensure that we have succession in place.
That means we’ve got to be able to provide training for all of our young people in the way that it was provided for me when I was a teenager. I’m committed to that happening.
What journalists provided for me in the ‘80s, I have a responsibility to provide for young people now.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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