This piece by Tusiata Avia, a poet, performer and writer, began as a talk presented at Conchus Conversations: Pacific Women’s Theatre Summit — a gathering of senior to emerging Pacific women theatre practitioners and creatives, at Circa Theatre, Wellington, in February 2017.
It is dedicated to “the extraordinary creative Pacific trailblazer”, the late Teresia Teaiwa.
I would like to share with you my experience as a creative practitioner and as a Pacific woman, and talk about how those two things are inextricably linked — how they are woven as closely together as Siamese twins joined at the heart. And how I believe this is true for all of us.
I feel as if I occupy an odd space in theatre. I am a fringe dweller. Mostly, I’m a writer. I’m a poet and a performer — a performer mostly of my own stuff. For a period of my life I found myself on the stage performing my one-woman show Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. Mostly, I felt as if I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had no training and very little experience.
In 2001, I arrived back in New Zealand after a decade overseas. I was in my 30s and had never been involved in the arts. If I knew then just how much I didn’t know, I probably wouldn’t have embarked on writing and performing a one-woman show — which, incidentally, I ended up doing on and off, from 2002 to 2008.
Like many people who seem to know what they’re doing, I often feel like I don’t. Or at least I feel as if I’m on the very edge of what I know, which is not always a comfortable place to be. And like lots of people who seem to be in the thick of things, I often feel on the fringes.
For a large part of my life, the fringes felt like a curse to me: a curse to be so far from what looked like the centre, the normal, the mainstream.
I came into the world this way, far away from the mainstream. I came into the world afakasi, mixed race, split focus, fruit salad, culture clash. I remember at my parents' custody hearing — when their marriage finally broke down — the magistrate announced the failure of this marriage was due to a “culture clash”.
And, like every afakasi whose Pacific language was not spoken at home, I had that experience of feeling too brown to be white and too white to be brown. In Christchurch, where I grew up, I was that “big Māori girl”. In Samoa, with my father’s family, I was that “too big Pālagi”.
From a young age, I became an expert at trying to fit. Imagine me as one of those full-figured Victorian ladies trying to stuff herself into a whalebone corset. I’ve spent a good deal of my life lacing myself into impossible shapes, pulling myself in so tight that my eyes nearly popped out of my head. So tight, I could only take the shallowest of breaths.
It wasn’t until my mid-30s, when I entered a life in the arts, that I discovered what a gift my life had given me. Many gifts in life start off as painful ones. Not fitting was great training. Not fitting was a gift. It was a spiritual gift.
It allowed me to walk between worlds, to become a boundary walker, a shape shifter. It enabled me to inhabit a number of different worlds and write from inside those worlds in a voice that rang true.
I’ve always imagined writing is a bit like channeling. Mostly it’s work, and like any other work, you’ve got to turn up, sit down, and do it, whether you feel inspired or not. But sometimes — every now and then — it’s like channeling, like receiving something from somewhere mysterious, somewhere unknown.
In those moments, all I need to do is pick up the pen and let it come. And then I sit back and read this thing that has appeared.
Sometimes, a little bell chimes, alerting me that I am in the presence of this mystery — this thing I don’t know, yet know that I know. I have to write it out, for it to appear. I have to write it out, to teach myself what it is.
It is the experience that I imagine a sculptor might have when faced with a block of marble or wood or pounamu: she chips away until the thing of beauty inside the block reveals itself. I don’t know what that thing of beauty might be until it is released from the block. Then I can stand back and take it in. Then I can marvel: who knew there was a goddess in the stone?
What I have to say from here applies to everyone in their own context, but in particular, I am speaking to Pacific women creatives.
Whether we are fully conscious of it or not, whether we create in response to where we have come from, or whether we create in reaction to it, or whether we are trying to ignore it altogether — we are always creating as Pacific women. How can we not?
Whether you were bought up in the village, learning songs and stories at your grandmother’s knee, or whether you grew in the most colonised of English rose gardens, or in the most culturally sandblasted hood. Even if you never heard a single syllable of your Pacific languages — let alone the stories — you are still a Pacific woman.
There is something deep inside you — you can call it spirit or DNA — that knows. There are all kinds of things you can do to nurture this knowing, to keep this knowing in good company, to grow this knowing.
You can also ignore this knowing, at a significant cost to your self, but there is nothing you can do to tear it up by the roots and destroy it. Nothing. You cannot un-be what you are. You can not un-know what you know. Even if you don’t know it, yet.
This knowing. This creative and spiritual DNA, is my creative source. Again and again, it is my source. When I’m not looking for it, it is my source. When I’m telling myself that I need to write for a more “mainstream” audience, it is my source. When I’m feeling beleaguered by those sly voices that tell me again — for the ten-thousandth time — AGAIN, that my work is too brown, too niche, that again, I probably won’t be programmed in the “mainstream” event, it is still my wellspring.
When I write about the legends of Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war, or of Taema and Tilafaiga, the Samoan Siamese twins, I have to spend hours combing through dusty books written by nineteenth-century male German anthropologists, because: I was brought up in Christchurch.
I didn’t learn these stories at my grandmother’s knee, in my father’s village in Samoa. I may not know the plotlines, but there is something inside me that knows, that recognises the spirit in these stories. There is something in these stories that matches the spirit in me.
Years ago, when I was writing my second book, Bloodclot, I received a friendly warning from a mentor to be careful when writing about Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war, to be aware She has a gafa or whakapapa, that She has living descendants.
This warning froze me for a while. I thought: Who am I to be writing about Nafanua? I looked at my piles of research and promptly stopped writing. But, after a while, the answer to my question came: I am a Samoan woman and I can’t claim physical whakapapa to Nafanua, but, as a Samoan woman, if I can’t connect to this mighty goddess, this potent source of inspiration and guidance, if She can’t be a guiding force for me — then who can?
I don’t claim physical whakapapa to Her, but I do claim spiritual and creative whakapapa. The goddess — and we all have our Pacific (and other) goddesses: Hina, Pele, Lilavatu, Hinenuitepō — belongs to us all. As Pacific women, we belong to Her.
This is the knowing. The thing we do not yet know that we know. The thing embedded within us that we are chipping away at to more fully reveal.
All artists have this. In fact, I believe all humans have this. But I’m here now, speaking to all creatives — but, in particular, to my sister practitioners — to exhort you to trust what you know. And to trust what you do not yet know, that you know.
It is the beautiful thing within you. Maybe it’s looking like a block of wood right now, but the goddess waits to be freed. And only you can chip away until She is revealed.
Sometimes you’ll need to do this chipping alone, but much of the time you will need the support of others. We need each other. In this current paradigm of competition, of contestable this and contestable that, it is easy to believe there is not enough to go around.
It is easy to believe that we are not sisters and allies and midwives to each other’s beautiful things, but that we are fighting each other tooth and nail to survive, that the failure of your beautiful thing’s funding or award or good review means the greater possibility that my beautiful thing might have a chance at life.
This is a lie. Again. This is a lie.
There is a reason the Samoan deities Taema and Tilafaiga are Siamese twins. There is very good reason that we come from eons of honouring the Vā: the relational space between us. There is an excellent reason for the Samoan phrase Teu le Vā: Decorate the sacred space between us; beautify the sacred space we share. As Pacific women we are already good at doing this. Most of us are intuitively aware of the Vā, whether we know it termed this way or not.
We mustn’t be lured into seeing each other as competitors fighting for air and food and water. There is enough to go around!
I’m not completely away with the Samoan fairies. I know there is only so much funding in the Creative New Zealand pot. But there is enough in the Va of our communities; there is enough in you, and in me, to nurture the beautiful thing, and to midwife for each other.
We have all given birth to someone or something. This is our nature. It is also our nature to help midwife for each other. It is only fear that stops us.
This is what fear sounds like. When I started to write this, I became aware of you. I didn’t know who you were at that point, so I made you up in my head. Soon you became a scary audience. An audience who would sit in judgment of me and just know, somehow, about my deficits.
Who was I to be telling you, Scary-Judgmental-Audience-in-my-head, about theatre? Surely you know more than I do? Surely you have been to drama school? Surely you have an arsenal of techniques, knowledge and secrets that I’m not privy to?
And surely, you will find me out? Find out I’m a fraud, an odd misfit who fell into theatre almost by accident, who occupies a fringe-dweller position and doesn’t have the authority to speak to a Scary Audience about theatre!
Welcome to the voices in my head, the Monstrous-Fear-Driven-Voices in my head.
These voices have dogged me all my creative life, reminding me that I am not enough: not experienced enough, qualified enough, old enough, young enough, white enough, brown enough, thin enough, academic enough, street enough, theatre enough, literary enough, disciplined enough, relaxed enough, prolific enough, enough enough.
The voices have never gone away, but I have learned over the years how not to let them take me over completely. How do I do this? I go to my sister-artists and we talk. Honestly. I out myself, and this usually gives others permission to out themselves, too. It is a huge relief. We confess to each other and realise how much the same we are. We ignite courage in each other. We act as mother-confessors and absolve each other.
A host of high-level women creatives are tortured at every stage of their projects by their own Monstrous-Fear-Driven-Voices: the international, multi award-winner who fears she is a has-been, the professor who fears she’s not qualified, the celebrated writer who lies face down in the grass in despair, the senior practitioner who is busy in her own head writing bad reviews of her latest work before the reviewers beat her to it.
If you have never suffered these voices, you are extremely lucky and extremely rare. If you have, welcome! You and your voices are welcome here.
I share this with you to keep your Monstrous-Fear-Driven-Voices company, to let you know we are teeming with them, struggling with them, too. But I also point you back to the Samoan Siamese twins.
We need each other. We need our sisters to help point us back to the knowing that lives inside our bodies. We need to honour the Vā, to decorate it with our beautiful things, to beautify it with our sacred creations. We need to help midwife for each other.
We need to speak our fears and struggles — to help soothe the fears and struggles of our sisters and inspire the great courage that also resides within them. And we need to make room for the goddess: the mighty Nafanua, Pele, Hinenuitepō.
We do not become overrun by these voices from out of the void. We are colonised from the moment we utter our first word. We learn early our place in the hierarchy of Western society and then — whenever we enter it — our place in the creative industry.
We will come up against racism (fancy and plain packaged), we will be othered and underestimated, we will be relegated to the brown box or the diversity box and expected to stay there, we will be interpreted and misinterpreted by the mainstream. We spend our creative careers decolonising ourselves and our audiences.
I’ve experienced the goddess in many guises. The six Pacific women who now perform the new ensemble version of Wild Dogs Under My Skirt embody the goddess. The women who midwifed the show since its conception in 2002 — Mishelle Muagututia, Tanea Heke, Fiona Collins, Rachel House, and most recently, Anapela Polataivao — they are the goddess in action.
I have to add here an honorary goddess, in the shape of Victor Rodger, producer of the new version of Wild Dogs Under My Skirt — we all know the goddess is a shape-shifter, too!
As Pacific women practitioners, we continue the work of the women who have gone before us and who walk alongside us.
For me, there are many who have inspired me, who have been the goddess for me: Sima Urale, Sia Figiel, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Nina Nawalowalo, Rachel House, Diana Fuemana, Fiona Collins, Lisa Taouma, Makerita Urale, Anapela Polataivao, Goretti Chadwick, Tanya Muagututia, Lindah Lepou, Rosanna Raymond, Patricia Grace, Hinemoana Baker, Teresia Teaiwa.
And we will be the goddess upon whose shoulders the women who come after us can stand.
Tusiata Avia was born in Christchurch to a Samoan father and Pālagi mother. She is an acclaimed poet, performer and children’s book writer. Her poetry collections are Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, which she also staged as a one-woman show around the world from 2002–2008, Bloodclot, and Fale Aitu—Spirit House.
She has held the Fulbright Pacific Writer’s Fellowship at the University of Hawai’i (2005), was the Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence at Canterbury University in 2010, and the 2013 recipient of the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award.
This piece is also published in The Fuse Box, a collection of essays edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price, and published by Victoria University Press.