Wellington writer Maria Samuela’s first book, Beats of the Pa’u, published in March by Te Herenga Waka University Press, is a collection of short stories about first- and second-generation Cook Islands New Zealanders. In this piece, she writes about the importance of writing stories about “people like me”.
I read Sons for the Return Home by Albert Wendt in the sixth form (Year 12). The opening line drew me in: “He was bored with the lecture.” The sex scenes were frank, the language at times poetic, the settings familiar. But it was the characters in all their beauty and flaws who stole my heart.
It was the first book I’d read about characters like me, who reminded me of the people I knew. It was written by a Sāmoan. And it was good enough to be taught in schools — schools like mine and other schools probably nothing like mine.
Imagine. A book about people like me, and other people wanting to read about us. It showed me we were good enough already, worthy of success and happiness and love. And Albert Wendt became someone to look up to. Writing books became a worthwhile goal, maybe not too unrealistic.
That was over 30 years ago.
In 2017, I wrote the first draft of Beats of the Pa‘u for an MA in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. But that’s not where my writing journey began. That revered workshop room overlooking Wellington harbour, once occupied by such writers as Eleanor Catton and Tusiata Avia, was worlds away from the echoing corridors of Porirua College.
I studied at PC, as a teen in the ‘80s, where my mother once cleaned the lino floors and classrooms. No harbour views. No international reputation for academic excellence. Just a community of local students, predominantly Māori and Pasifika, doing their best to get through.
I did wonder whether I could write a book about Cannons Creek ensconced inside a tertiary institution like Victoria University — whether it would provide me with the support I needed and teach me skills I’d yet to learn.
Because, unless you’ve grown up in an environment where your prospects can be limited by the expectations of others, mainly outsiders, you may not realise the value of a kind word. Of having someone to look up to. Of being told you’re good enough already. You may not understand how the negativity of those outsiders can seep into your psyche.
Declaring in public that you want to write a book can be intimidating for anyone. But it’s even worse when you’ve grown up weighed down by discouraging assumptions — and when you see so few representations of yourself and your world in literature.
Those realities reinforce the false belief that you’re undeserving, and that your ambitions are not only daunting but probably absurd.
I was one of the lucky ones. Even before I discovered the words of Albert Wendt, I grew up surrounded by people to look up to. People like Steve, my big brother.
The year before I did the MA, Steve died. I write a lot about death, but it can’t be helped. When you’re born into a large extended family, death is inevitable, and you soon accept that it’s a part of life. It’s not something I use in my writing to shock. It’s just a part of the world I know.
Steve was a maths teacher, and, when he died, he was the deputy principal at what was then called Tertiary High School.
Tertiary High in Ōtara, South Auckland, was for students who found mainstream education a challenge. Like PC, its students were mainly Māori and Pasifika, and Tertiary High offered them a way into education, a path that might have been shut off to them otherwise. Steve died before he could take up the principal role he’d accepted. But I knew he had big plans, that he wanted to keep showing his students they mattered.
It wasn’t until Steve’s funeral that I realised how much his work and my writing aligned. While I don’t teach in a classroom, my stories are read and studied in schools. Sons for the Return Home resonated so profoundly with me that I swore other Pasifika students wouldn’t have to wait until high school or beyond to see themselves in books. Some would never make it that far.
I wrote my first story for the School Journal sitting in my car parked outside Victoria University, 16 years before I did the MA. I was an average English lit undergrad, barely scraping together a C+ in my first year (I got better), those feelings of unworthiness forever looming. But I always felt I had stories worth telling, an audience of readers worth trying to reach.
I worked seven years in advertising before I started my BA, negotiating advertising space with media and creating media plans for clients. This was the ‘90s so it was all letterbox drops and black and white teasers in the daily metros. An occasional TV spot in Shortland Street. A lot of radio.
I was terrible at it. The cut-throat nature of advertising clashed with my desire to hide in my room and dream. But it would teach me how to step away from my stories, see it as its own thing, separate from me, and then identify the right market.
After I graduated, I sold a few stories, and with my seven years of work experience and a degree in English lit and history, I started temping. I temped for years, writing on the side, the jobs paying my bills, most of the time. I was living week to week, some weeks begging my literary agent for money (I had one back then). Too proud to ask my family for help.
Whenever I feel like life is too hard, I imagine my parents arriving in Aotearoa, leaving behind their homes in the Cook Islands. I remember what they sacrificed, like all our pioneering tūpuna, and I carry on. Whenever I want to quit writing — and it happens a lot because writing is hard work — I remember my “why”.
I learned to articulate my “why” at Whitireia Polytech, seven years before I did the MA. On the first day of a diploma in creative writing, we were asked to explain to the class why we write.
It’s a simple question that sounds basic and cringe. But it takes some soul searching, and it’s probably the best lesson I’ve learned about writing.
If you’re honest with yourself, eventually you’ll realise all the “whys” you thought were important to you — winning competitions, your name on bestsellers lists, international fame, fortune — aren’t important. They’re superficial, non-sustaining, and probably unlikely anyway. They’re out of your control.
My “why” at that time was the need to reach those students sooner.
The day after Steve’s funeral, we shared stories in his kitchen. There’s a 13-year age gap between me and Steve — and at least nine years between me and my other brothers. We’re practically a generation apart. So I’d not been privy to some of his experiences.
They included the advice he got from our mum.
“Be like a butterfly,” Mum had told him.
It filled me with joy to hear it. Ah, I thought, the gentle wisdom of our mother. So poetic and progressive, dismantling masculine stereotypes. Encouraging her son to get in touch with his feminine side, be gentle with the first girlfriend he’d brought home in his teens.
“Don’t stay with the same flower,” is what Mum meant. “Try other flowers.”
The line stuck. It made me laugh. So, back in Wellington, I wrote a story with that wisdom. The only requirement being that the story would make me laugh and also get me into the MA course the next year. I didn’t want a sad story to remember my brother by. It got me into the MA programme. And later, it was longlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize.
But I never included it in Beats. It’s a story just for me now.
We didn’t have a lot of money growing up in the Creek, but we had riches in other ways — aunties playing euchre on the floor in the sitting room, church picnics at Queen Elizabeth Park, peeling spuds for the mainese salad, Sunday night rosaries, bullrush with the cuzzies. I would value these small moments even more as an adult. But it wasn’t just the good times that inspired me to write.
I had a lot of respect for my third form (Year 9) English teacher. She was smart and tough and, if she gave you a good grade, you earned it. One morning, I peered over her shoulder as she read a sick note from my mother. Her red pen hovered over the letter. She corrected the spelling, her proofread marks on the page glowing like judgmental crosses. I was embarrassed for my mother and then later I grew angry. Later still, it drove me forward. I perfected my spelling, worked on my grammar. My writing improved. A fire was lit.
Halfway through the MA year, the family travelled back to South Auckland. It’s tradition to return to the burial plot for the unveiling of the headstone, on the one-year anniversary of a loved one’s death. But Steve had been cremated; there was no burial plot to visit. Instead, we returned up north for my brother Tou’s funeral.
At Tou’s funeral, there were more stories, memories, tears. Tou was the eldest and the only one of us siblings who grew up in the islands. Separate from the rest of us. The only one who could speak the reo.
I don’t even remember the first time we met. He was a young man; I hadn’t even started primary school yet. But I remember the day he showed up to the house when Dad died. Barefoot and drunk, a brown paper bag full of who knows what. He wasn’t being disrespectful; he was a grieving son. But the memory was so strong I made it the opening scene in my book. Everything else is fiction.
When my brother Harry died, the youngest of the brothers, six years before I did the MA, he was only 48. His death was the most shocking. Losing a sibling at any time, let alone the first time, hits different, harder, from losing a parent, say. Like Steve, Harry was a teacher, and because he taught in primary schools, it meant he taught my stories.
The last time I’d visited him in Picton, where he taught for most of his career, I found one of my kids books on his bookshelf. He didn’t tell me he had it. I stumbled upon it by accident, so I signed it with a private message, before slipping it back in its place. I don’t know whether he found what I wrote. He died a year later.
While each brother was different, with talents and personalities that defined them individually, each one of them gave me someone to look up to.
I dedicated Beats of the Pa‘u to them — Tou, Steve, and Harry — my beloved book bouncers, protecting my book and me as I walk this book journey. Not a new journey; an ongoing journey. Full of new beginnings and endings, disappointments and joys.
Maria Samuela was born in Wellington, where she still lives, and is of Cook Islands descent. She has an MA in creative writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters. Beats of the Pa’u is her first collection of short stories.
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