Lani Wendt Young: “Writing and storytelling can be the light. Even in the dark times.”

This is an edited version of a keynote speech given by Lani Wendt Young — writer, publisher, editor, journalist and author of the bestselling YA fantasy Telesā Series and the Scarlet Lies romance series — at the 2018 New Zealand Society of Authors National Writers Forum, held in Auckland last weekend.


Toni Morrison said that if there’s a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. But Ms Morrison forgot to tell us: What happens when you write that book and nobody wants to publish it?

Eight years ago, I wrote Telesā, the first ever YA novel with an all-Pasifika cast, set in Sāmoa and around the Pacific. I tried to find a home for it, but more than 30 different agents and publishers rejected it. A New Zealand publisher was the only one to request the full manuscript. I was excited. I said to my children: “This is it. They’re going to read it, see how amazing it is, and then my book is going to be more famous than Harry Potter!”

Ah, the exuberant hopefulness of the newbie writer…

It took them months to get back to me, with yet another rejection.

“We like it, but we don’t think there’s enough of a market here for your book.” No market? There are more than 290,000 Pacific people in New Zealand. Nearly half of us are under 20 years old. That’s a lot of young adults.

What this publisher was really saying is that a book about brown teenagers wouldn’t sell. Why? Because brown people don’t read? Because brown people don’t buy books? Because, even if they do buy books, they’re not going to buy Young Adult fantasy romance to read about the glorious Daniel Tahi and his rippling muscles, glistening with coconut oil?

That publisher may have had a point there. Telesā was a first for that thing called “Pacific Literature”. When my mother found out what sort of book I’d written, she was unimpressed. “Sounds a bit trashy. Let’s face it, you’ll never win a Pulitzer Prize writing that stuff.” Mothers always know how to keep it real!

Either way, according to the gatekeepers of traditional publishing, there was no home for my book. And so, with the encouragement of my husband, I made a home for it myself, with self-publishing. Planting it in the rich soil of the lush rainforest, in that wilderness some call the margins, outside the mainstream.

There it has flourished and taken on a life of its own.

Since the first book’s release in 2011, readers of the Telesā series have taken this Pasifika love story to places I never imagined it would go.

But it took a lot of work, because that publisher was right. They could not have found a market for my book. For the simple fact, they had never marketed to Pacific Islander readers, and knew nothing about them.

I wrote Telesā, first of all, for Pasifika teenagers — for my 16-year-old self — and so I had to take my book to our teenagers and their families. We used social media and e-books to take Telesā to Pasifika neighborhoods in New Zealand and all over the world. We connected with community leaders, church congregations, libraries, youth groups, Pacific Islander radio stations and newspapers.

Now, I’m a hermit, I hate leaving my house. But for three years, I went everywhere.

I did writer talks, book signings, and launches at schools, church halls, Saturday markets, universities, book clubs, and even Pacific Islander grocery stores in New Zealand, Australia, Hawai’i, Sāmoa, American Sāmoa, and the mainland USA.

Every event was an opportunity to partner with other Pasifika artists and showcase their work in a celebration of music, dance, fashion, poetry, weaving, jewellery making, and fabulous Island food.

Every event was a collaborative one, fuelled by the generosity and enthusiasm of our people.

Everywhere I saw the transformative power wrought by stories written by us, about us, and for us — as a community revelled in a story that they could see themselves in, that they could embrace as their own.

To date, the book that publishers told me would not have an audience, has been avidly read and embraced by thousands of people of all ages worldwide. And not just brown people!

We have heard some discouraging words at this forum about greedy Amazon and its impact on authors and bookstores. But speaking as a writer who was only able to reach an audience because of Amazon’s platform, they are not the enemy.

They — and every other e-book publishing and distribution service, like Smashwords, Kobo, iBooks and Barnes and Noble — are the game-changer.

Amazon and others may be making life difficult for traditional publishers, but they pay authors 70 percent royalties. That’s a big difference from 12 percent.

I tell every Pasifika writer I meet about self-publishing, because until the traditional gatekeepers change the way they see us and our marketability, this is the fastest, most affordable way to take the stories of the Blue Continent to the world.

But, perhaps even more important, on our own terms.

I recently signed with a fabulous New Zealand publisher for the print rights only for Telesā, officially making me a hybrid author.

They are going to take the series to new audiences, and get it into those bookstores — and I’m excited to have them bring their expertise to my books.

This would not have happened without Amazon’s publishing platforms, eight years of indie publishing work, and the support of so many Pasifika readers. My books are still nowhere near as famous as Harry Potter, much to my children’s disappointment. But I’m able to help put dinner on the table with my writing — even if it’s just rice and a can of tuna! — which would never have been possible with traditional publishing.

And that may be the first message I bring to you from the wilderness, that there are many ways to be a writer and to take our stories to readers. Even when we have a publisher, we should be proactive in working with them. Question, critique, give suggestions. While they may be the experts in what they do, nobody knows your book or your readers better than you.

If we want to make a living with our writing, then we must be prepared to go outside our comfort zones and learn new things. We must believe in our work enough to keep writing and keep trying, even when the rejections pile up.

My message for agents, publishers, and booksellers — there’s a vast untapped market that is hungry for books where Pasifika peoples are centered, where we are the mainstream and not the marginalised Other.

We all know the importance of reading diverse books — for both white and non-white youth. But putting that aside, from a purely business standpoint, books written by Pasifika and Māori are good financial investments. The recent worldwide success of stories on-screen like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and Three Wise Cousins is evidence of what can happen when the usually marginalised are the center.

Magic happens, and you can make a lot of money with magic. Publishing is a business, and we are a good business decision.

I invite publishers to do more to actively recruit and mentor indigenous writers. I like what Huia Publishing and the Māori Literature Trust is doing with their programme Te Papa Tupu. The publishers of the New Zealand School Journal have done something similar. They had myself, Witi Ihimaera, and Joy Cowley run a workshop and mentor new Pasifika and Māori writers to write stories for the journal. We need more initiatives like this.

Which brings me to my second message from the wilderness, about what’s required when we want to make a living from our writing.

Like many women who write, I wrote my earliest novels in between work, kids who always get sick when you most need them not to, and housework that never ends. Writing happened in stolen moments.

I would think to myself: If only I could be a full-time writer, what a joy that would be. Oh, the words I would write, the stories that would flow …

And then the blessed day came when, yes, I was officially a full-time writer. The children were old enough to clean up their own vomit, the husband took over House Elf duties, I even had an office. A beautiful self-contained unit in the yard. A room of my own. Let the orgasmic creativity begin, yes?!

No. I couldn’t write a damn thing. I went in that office every morning, made charts of how many words I needed to write, marked lots of important publishing dates on my calendar. I updated my Facebook, wrote blogs about how much I loved being a writer. I lied on Twitter about how much fun I was having.

But actual novel writing? It wasn’t happening.

My supportive husband saw my struggle and gave me a pep talk. Wise counsel from his many years running his own construction company. He said: “Here’s what I do when I’m pouring concrete in the hot sun and it gets really tough out there. I want to quit. But I tell myself, Darren, if you don’t finish this building, then your children won’t eat. That’s what you have to do, Lani. When you’re stuck on your writing, tell yourself, if I don’t finish this book, then my children won’t eat.”

No pressure! I told him that artists didn’t work that way, thank you very much! We are creative spirits!

But he was right of course.

Writing is work. Like all work, it can be boring, exhausting, and that thing you dread doing. And like all work, it can also be thrilling, incredibly rewarding, and that thing which brings you joy. If we want to succeed at it — i.e. actually finish books — then we must find the right balance between nurturing our creativity and applying discipline to that creativity.

I love what the author Agatha Christie said about the writer work ethic. “There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.” I aspire to attain that level of professionalism.

Finally, writing is power.

Several years ago, I was invited to speak to a class of high school students. When I finished, a student leader gave a speech in which she said: “Thank you for coming to our school. Now we know that brown people can write books. And not just white people.”

I was stunned. But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. What stories about Pacific Islander peoples is she seeing in the news, in her school curriculum? When, for example, we have media describing us as “leeches” and our islands as “hellholes”, is it any wonder that a teenager would be so astounded to find that brown people can write books?

It’s said that whoever tells the stories in a society, controls it. Writing is power, and that means storytellers wield great influence and authority. It doesn’t matter if we are writing romance, crime thrillers, or the next Man Booker Prize winner. We can choose to either disrupt or uphold the status quo while we’re at it. We can choose to smash lazy stereotypes and surpass what the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie calls the danger of the single story.

I challenge you to check every book you write to make sure it passes the Bechdel Test — that most basic method for evaluating the portrayal of women in fiction, that asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

I invite you to try the Duvernay Test — which looks at whether “minorities”, Pacific Islanders, etcetera, have fully realised lives rather than serving as scenery in white stories.

For me, as a Sāmoan writer, I also endeavour to ensure that my books have third gender characters who are key participants in the story. Because there are many taboos in our Pasifika cultures around talking about sex, I make sure that my characters have those conversations — about the good and the bad. Everything from using condoms and having great sex, to breaking the silence and shame of abuse and family violence.

When three different generations of a family come to a book signing and rave about how much they love a story that has all those conversations in it, I am hopeful that seeds are being planted.

Ursula K. Le Guin said that we have to “rewrite the world” — that “resistance and change often begin in art.”

In this sense then, writing is disruptive. And that can make it dangerous. Some may see you as a threat. As a danger to their power and to deeply rooted attitudes and beliefs.

Some of you may know I’ve been dealing with a lot of online abuse and harassment over the last year. It’s taken a toll on me and my family. So much so that I went quiet for a while.

It’s not until you CAN’T write what you want to, that you most appreciate that freedom. When it’s taken away. When you self-censor. Because you have elderly parents and children that shouldn’t have to deal with the venom that your writing attracts. You hold back. Despising yourself for it because it feels like you’re writing lies.

You see other women being abused online by the same people, and you want to say something. But you don’t. Because the abusers will come for you more. You hate yourself because you’re writing scared and God didn’t give you the gift of words so you could hold them in your throat and swallow their fire.

And the unspoken words, they burn in your chest and keep you awake at night. It’s not a good place to be.

It was with great relief then that I published my tenth novel earlier this month. I don’t know if it’s the most amazing book I’ve ever written, but it’s definitely the book I’m most proud of.

I wrote this book through people telling me to kill myself, that I should be beaten and drowned, that they were going to chop me up and drag me in pieces behind their car.

While they said I should be gang-raped, and have my big mouth silenced in all kinds of unpleasant ways, I wrote about our Sāmoan goddesses. Fierce warriors. Women who fight to protect the earth, who can slash your throat with ease, pause to bestow blessings of protection on newborn babies, and then go sink illegal fishing boats. I wrote about men who know how to honour and respect such women, love them, and fight alongside them.

While they called me a fat whore adulterer who writes about things no good Sāmoan woman should say — I was swept away writing about romance, and love that endures loss.

While they attacked my parents and my children — I wrote about ‘āiga. Family. How a mother can love a child, how a father can sacrifice for his son, how a young man can forever be embraced in the alofa of his grandparents, even after they are long gone.

While my husband raised me up, comforted and championed me — I wrote about Daniel Tahi. Lover, protector, and proud provider. A man confident enough to walk beside a Fanua Afi, to love her in patience, to trust her even when he does not fully understand the fire she bears within.

This book is a testament of a commitment to write, even when there are 101 reasons not to.

And so I share this reminder with you. That writing and storytelling can be the light, even in the dark times. Both an escape to take us away, and an anchor to keep us focused on what truly matters.

I know we have all had those times in our lives where writing is our sanctuary, our refuge. I think sometimes we can take that for granted. I’m so very grateful for the gift of writing, the lifeline it can be for us. Because, sometimes, we are literally writing to stay alive. And the magic is that, when we share that writing, we can help inspire and empower others.

We are writers, which means we are change-makers.

As we write to live and live to write, I hope we can hold fast to the knowledge that, with every dream we dream, and every story we tell, we are rewriting the world.

With our words, we can resist. We can sow seeds of change. One book at a time.


Lani Wendt Young is a writer, publisher, editor, and journalist. She is the author of 10 books including the bestselling YA fantasy Telesā Series and the Scarlet Lies romance series. Lani is based in Sāmoa, and is the 2018 ACP Pacific Laureate.

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