Teresia Teaiwa is a poet and award-winning teacher at Victoria University, where she lectures in Pacific Studies — a field she’s described as “literally oceanic in proportions”, covering a region with 1,200 indigenous languages and 20,000 islands spread over a third of the earth’s surface. Here, she talks to Dale, about the complexities of the Pacific, why Pacific Studies matters, and her own complicated cultural heritage — as the child of an African American mother and a Banaban and I-Kiribati father whose community was relocated to Fiji because of British phosphate mining.
Teresia — a nice place to start, often, is names. So could you tell us about your whanau, your aiga, your mum and dad and where you were when you grew up?
I was born in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, but I was raised in Fiji.
Teaiwa is my grandfather’s first name. In Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bas) it wasn’t customary to have last names. That was a colonial introduction. So my father took his father’s first name as his last name. My father is John Teaiwa. John wasn’t his birth name — that was the name the priest gave to him when he went to school.
Teaiwa is a name from the island of Tabiteuea in Kiribati, which is the largest island in the Gilbert Islands group. Teaiwa is composed of te meaning “the”, ai meaning “fire”, and wa meaning “canoe”. I like to interpret it as the fiery canoe. But when you look for the word aiwa in the dictionary, it has a less poetic rendering — agitation is one of the interpretations that comes to mind.
Tell us about your folks. What were they involved in?
My parents were both studying at the University of Hawai‘i when they met. My mother, Joan, is African American from Washington D.C. She moved to Hawai‘i to do her masters in teaching English as a second language. My father went to Hawai‘i as a Fiji scholarship student to study agriculture.
Three generations of his family — his grandfather, his parents, him and a couple of his siblings — were relocated to Fiji after World War II, with their whole community from the island of Banaba in Kiribati, because the British wanted to continue mining their island for phosphate.
So, that’s how we came to be in Fiji, because of the phosphate mining. My dad, from the age of six, grew up in Fiji. I was born in Hawai‘i, then we moved back to Fiji in 1969.
My mother was a high school teacher, first, and then lectured at university for a while before working as an editor and course developer for distance learning. My father rose through the ranks of the civil service, eventually retiring at permanent secretary (CEO) level.
Teresia, cross-cultural marriages are not uncommon in New Zealand, but in that Pasifika setting, was it acceptable? Did it at times create some problems?
There were a few problems. In the Pacific Islands there have been cross-cultural relationships ever since contact with Europeans. And, of course, Pacific people have been mixing among themselves for millennia. But I guess what was unusual at that time in the 1960s, early ‘70s, was that my father married an African American. Didn’t marry a Palagi — didn’t marry someone white. And so that was different.
Fiji was a British colony at the time. And unlike other British colonies, Fiji had actually petitioned to be colonised. So there’s a very fierce kind of loyalty that indigenous Fijians have toward the British. They very much identify with the British Crown and with English culture.
And one of the things my mum found, was that in the early days, the racism she experienced, as someone of African American descent, was not from white people — there weren’t actually that many white people around — but from indigenous Fijians who thought she was inferior because she was descended from people who had been enslaved.
So that was a really difficult dynamic for her. And also ironic, because my mother is a light-skinned African American with blue-grey eyes.
But my mum’s lived most of her life in Fiji now, and Fiji’s become home. She’s really comfortable there now. And she often gets mistaken for being Fijian herself.
I notice you don’t use the term “black” when describing your mum, that you use African American. I just wonder is the term “black” something you’d rather not use?
No, I’m fine with black. But I’m careful when using it. I don’t mind using black for myself because I am black (laughs) — I’m dark. Whereas, if I told people: “Oh, my mum’s black”, and then they met her, they’d be like: “Hey, your mum’s not black”. But if I say my mum’s African American, then the rainbow of colours is open to us.
The light-skinned people in my mum’s family deliberately chose to identify as black, as African American. They never tried to pass as white. When I’m speaking to people who aren’t African American, I use the term African American. But if I was talking with other African Americans, I wouldn’t have to use the term.
It bothers me when New Zealanders use the term “negro” and when Polynesians use the other “n” word — it drives me wild. I’ve taught my sons not to use the word. It’s an insult to our African American ancestors.
Our thinking about race is very complicated in the Pacific. I’ve always been fascinated by that historical moment, in the 1970s and a little bit into the 1980s, when Māori were really embracing of the term “black”, especially the Māori feminists who called themselves black feminists. And it’s also interesting that it has passed, and, for Māori now, it’s like: “Oh, we’re brown”. The colour politics have shifted.
Being born in Hawai‘i, did you ever feel that Americanism had suppressed Hawaiianism?
Absolutely. The years I lived there while I was doing my masters were really intense because that was 1989 to 1991. The Hawaiian sovereignty movement was really building momentum, and I had the amazing good fortune to be able to study with Haunani-Kay Trask, who was one of the catalytic figures in the sovereignty movement at the time.
Hawai‘i was incorporated into the US as the 50th state, when it really should have gone onto the UN decolonisation list. The vote for statehood that took place in the late 1950s never had the option for the people of Hawai‘i to become independent.
A lot of people forget that when Pearl Harbour was bombed in 1941, Hawai‘i wasn’t an American state. It was a colony — a territory. It had been annexed illegally to the United States.
Up until 1893, Hawai‘i was a sovereign monarchy. It had embassies all around the world. It had its own currency, it had its own stamps, and was a fully-functioning modern state. ‘Iolani palace had electricity before the White House and Buckingham Palace. So Hawai‘i was sovereign, it was independent, it was modern. And unfortunately, now, as a result of American colonialism, native Hawaiians have some of the worst health and social indices in the United States.
With your connections to Kiribati, the story of that and the sadness on Tarawa is something I just can’t get out of my head. All of those American soldiers who fell, effectively defending the Pacific. I wonder whether you have angst toward the Japanese. I had a high school teacher whose husband couldn’t bring himself to buy a Japanese vehicle because of what he’d witnessed in the Pacific during the second World War.
My background is in history, and one of the things I try to do as a historian, even though it’s difficult — I try to encourage empathy in my students. And what that means is, try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
So, it’s true that during World War II there were great atrocities that the Japanese were responsible for, and certainly on my island of Banaba, when the Japanese landed, they executed a number of our people.
But I also know, as a historian, that where Japan already had some Pacific colonies — what’s now the Federated States of Micronesia — and even in their encounters with people in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, the Japanese made friends.
For me, it’s complicated. I want to hold Great Britain to account as much as I want to hold Japan to account for what happened to Kiribati.
As someone whose island was mined by the British, almost making the island unliveable, and whose whole community had to be relocated to Fiji, thousands of miles away, I thought when I was growing up that I should hate the British.
And then I had an opportunity to study in England, and when I got there, I realised, well, British society is really complex. There were old white people who were really kind to me. And there were awful young people — skinheads — who were terrifying. And there were so many Indian, Pakistani, and African Brits.
And then I realised: “Wow, you can’t just paint one brush stroke over a nation and say that’s who they are.” The young skinheads — they didn’t mine my island, but the hate and the disregard they showed was similar to that demonstrated by some of the people who mined my island. By the same token, there were good people in England who didn’t know what this company, the British Phosphate Commission, was doing.
You’ve lived in some pretty volatile communities. What was it like growing up in Fiji?
Because of my father’s postings through the Ministry of Agriculture, we got to live in different parts of Fiji, from Nausori to Savusavu, Levuka (the old capital) and Lautoka, before we finally settled in Suva.
For me, this meant going to schools in all these places, and as a result, having wonderful friends and very special memories from across the country. We lived in Savusavu from 1973–1974 and I didn’t go back until 1996, but when I did, people recognised me even though it had been almost 20 years since I had last been there. That’s what I love about having grown up in Fiji. Fijians attach tremendous importance to human relationships, and their memories for faces and names are incredible!
That hasn’t changed after all the political turmoil that the country has been through with four coups since 1987, but I would say there are more and more people falling through the cracks with increasing urbanisation, growing disparities between the very rich and the very poor, and rising rates of violence.
An unintended outcome of the coup culture and political instabilities is that there is a robust civil society — lots of NGOs, quite politically-engaged churches, and growing confidence among young people in terms of political participation and commentary, especially through social media.
If there’s one thing that coups have done for people in and from Fiji, it is that they have made the concept of “democracy” less abstract and distant.
What did you do after university in Hawai‘i?
I went on to do my PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I followed another University of Hawai‘i graduate, and after me a whole string of other Pacific scholars came along in our wake.
Because our PhD programme specialised in critical theory and cultural studies, a lot of the Palagi academics who were used to being unchallenged about their expertise on the Pacific often described us dismissively (and erroneously) as “postmodern”.
But the reality is that a small number of academics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, produced more confident, creative, and activist Pacific PhDs in a 20-year period than any southern hemisphere university had. And some of us came back to the Pacific to kick arse and show our people that we can engage at the highest levels of education and that pursuing intellectual self-determination is not only possible, it’s necessary.
You’re here in New Zealand now. How did that come about?
I was the first academic hired when Pacific Studies was founded at Victoria University in 2000. This was the first university in the world to establish Pacific Studies as a major in the BA degree.
After an international search, I was appointed the first lecturer, and I started in 2000, teaching all the courses. Three years later we were granted another full-time lecturer position, and now Pacific Studies has expanded to offering a BA Honours, MA and PhD degree as well. We had our first PhD in Pacific Studies graduate a couple of years ago, and by the end of this year we will have four PhDs graduating, which is pretty remarkable for a programme with a full-time academic staff of 2.5.
I think you’ll find in a lot of organisations around New Zealand that Pacific programmes and staff “punch above our weight”. We have learned to make the most out of the little we are given.
But we can never take for granted that universities will be committed to having us, and supporting us. We have to keep proving that we’re relevant — not just locally, but internationally. So, part of my sense of responsibility as an academic is getting my colleagues, and my students, to publish in international venues — to get our korero out to global audiences — so that we’re protected at home.
But also, we understand that the work we’re doing is not just important for our people, but important to other people in other parts of the world. We have something to teach the rest of the world as well.
I’m curious — when you talk about Pacific Studies, do you factor the Māori story into that? Is it all of us in the same waka together?
Pacific Studies was first housed in Te Kawa a Maui, which is the school of Māori Studies. So that’s a really important part of our whakapapa at the university.
Even though Māori studies exists as its own discrete area of study, we can’t do Pacific Studies without acknowledging our location, and that our own location in Aotearoa has its own indigenous histories, and that those histories are Pacific.
Māori are integral to our story. If you did Pacific Studies in Hawai‘i, California or Fiji — Māori are always considered part of Pacific Studies. But it’s only when we’re here in Aotearoa, we have to conscientiously think about this relationship between us as tagata o le moana (people of the sea — Pacific people) and tangata whenua (people of the land — Māori).
How well are Pacific students doing at university?
In 2014 our undergraduate students in Pacific Studies were achieving at rates 10 percent and even higher above the overall rates for Pasifika students across the university (78 percent compared to 68). By comparison, the overall rate of achievement for all students at Victoria that year was 88 percent.
In some of our courses the failure rate for Pacific students can get as high as 25 percent. That’s really alarming when you think about how these students are putting themselves into debt to the tune of around $1000 per course, and if they fail, they still have that debt even though the course will not count towards their qualifications.
A lot of our Pacific students straight out of high school are not emotionally prepared for the kind of independent learning you need to be hungry for at university. Our young people are used to being disciplined by their parents or high school teachers — most of them have not yet developed internal discipline and motivation for themselves.
Sometimes I think it would be better for some of our students to have a “gap” year, or take a break from institutionalised learning and get some life or work experience before coming to university. But there is a lot of pressure from parents, extended families and church communities — whose sacrifices for their children can paralyse rather than motivate them. It’s tough, and sometimes students crumble under the weight of such expectations.
You’ve won a number of awards, including the Ako Aotearoa award for Sustained Excellence in Tertiary Teaching last year. Many of your students have also commented on how inspirational and life changing it’s been having you as a lecturer. How does Pacific Studies help Pacific students?
Pacific Studies helps a lot of Pacific students to experience for the first time how academic learning can be dynamically engaged with who they are, where they are from and where they live. Many of my students had not been exposed to the writings of Pacific authors before coming to university, and our introduction to Pacific Studies course helps them trace an intellectual history of the Pacific that many of them did not know was there.
University learning can be alienating, so when students find their feet in a knowledge base that not only stimulates them mentally, but touches them spiritually, it gives them the confidence to tackle the knowledge that they will encounter in other disciplines. For me, it’s gratifying to see students who excel in our classes go on to excel in other courses. It becomes a virtuous cycle.
How do you think PI communities in New Zealand are faring?
I think PI communities in New Zealand are in an interesting moment. Politically and culturally, there’s a strong sense that this country has been good to them, or good for them. As a relatively recent migrant, I can see that.
But it also feels like PI communities are a bit lost at the moment — all the successes and gains that have been made in politics, sports, the arts and entertainment have not eliminated ongoing problems in health, education, employment.
It’s not clear who our real friends are anymore — which political parties or institutions we can rely on to champion us.
Is there anything you’d like to add, Teresia?
There are so many issues that are pressing, urgent, and, actually, that the rest of the world is watching us on. Climate change is one. I have a lot to say about climate change.
But there’s also a way that I feel that climate change is colonising the Pacific and people’s imagination of the Pacific. And as a Pacific Studies teacher, that’s what I resist. I’m constantly resisting other people’s attempts to reduce the Pacific to one thing — to one issue. Whether it’s climate change or their relaxing holiday in Fiji. I want to disturb all that.
For us, it’s never one issue. We live complicated lives. We’re constantly having to negotiate different challenges. And that’s my job as a Pacific Studies academic. It’s to raise those things. It’s to remind people of the complexity and not let them try to paint us with a single brush stroke.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.