Teresia Teaiwa, who died last month, aged 48, after a short battle with cancer, was a trailblazing Pacific scholar, poet, activist, teacher, and mother of two sons (Manoa and Vaitoa). She’d been a good friend of e-Tangata’s since we first met her in 2015, after an interview with Dale Husband where she gave us a lesson in the complexities of the Pacific.
Teresia set up the Pacific Studies programme at Victoria University in Wellington, and most recently headed Va’aomanū Pasifika, which houses both Pacific Studies and Samoan Studies. She influenced, inspired, and changed the lives of countless Pacific students who came into her orbit.
Here, four Aotearoa Pacific women: April K. Henderson, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Alice Te Punga Somerville and Laura Toailoa — scholars, writers, and poets also — reflect on their friend and mentor.
Laura Toailoa: So much of what I learned was from Teresia
I used to think, like many others, that Pacific Studies at university was a frivolous subject created by people who wanted an easier topic for brown kids to take at tertiary level. It wasn’t something that would get you a “good job” — or any job at all.
I don’t know how many times Teresia had to deal with undoing this mentality. These days I roll my eyes at people who sound like the Laura of 2013, and just ignore their ignorant comments.
Teresia, on the other hand, would patiently, with unwavering mana and passion, guide students through PASI101 and expand their perception of the Pacific: that it was more than Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji. There was Banaba, Guam, West Papua, and many more I now have to learn about without her.
One benefit of being the only islander in a classroom was never being questioned about my knowledge of the Pacific. People either understood that they knew less than me, or were too afraid to challenge me. Either way, I was used to being the authoritative Pacific perspective in any given situation. I couldn’t get away with that in her class. It was humbling, and much needed.
From her hospital bed, she delivered an impassioned message to her new students this year, urging them to value all the knowledge they bring to their academic journey, to value the knowledge of their parents, knowledge that they will not find in our vast libraries.
Her body was weak, her mouth moved slower than usual, but her spirit was strong, and her love for her students so apparent.
Teresia’s world was larger and more complex than any Pacific person I’ve met: Kiribati and African-American descent, born in Hawai‘i, brought up in Fiji, and finally settled in New Zealand. And, listening to her speak, in a lecture theatre or during Happy Hour, meant listening to knowledge rooted in deep, wide-ranging wisdom.
Teresia taught me the importance of trying new ways: of thinking, of writing, of learning, of being. Try something, see if it fits. If it does, wear it until it doesn’t fit anymore. If it doesn’t, try something else. Look at the ways things are done according to academics, according to your parents, according to your ancestors, according to your friends, and see what combination fits for you.
She saw the world with a deeply critical eye, but she wasn’t without hope. She’d lived, studied, and witnessed great oppression, but she believed in the resilience of our people. I’ve seen academics who’ve seen so much of the world’s problems, who understand its roots, but lose hope in things getting better. Smart people are good at providing commentary on the world — and good at dusting their hands of it, too.
Teresia refused to work that way. She threw herself — her whole self — in. She marched in protests, she attended community meetings, she ran workshops, she taught her sons about feminism.
Learning is personal. Academia is personal. People study what they care about. She taught me that.
She’d tell honest and gritty stories of her past that painted her less like the ethereal figure we like to believe her to be, and remind us that she’s only human. That she was just one person who’s lived through one life and learned all she could from her experiences. Like, or so she told us, that as a university student, she’d easily out drink all her white friends.
I’ve been conditioned in all of my formal education to learn how to be right, how to find the right answers, how to become the right kind of successful. Teresia taught me how to deal with being wrong — that it was inevitable, and a crucial (or the most crucial) part of learning. She once told us students: grades matter, grades don’t matter … it all depends, really.
I’m immensely sad that she’s not here to see the progress I’ve made — the progress she’s inspired. Not to receive her praise — although her endorsement was basically my measure of success — but because I knew the achievements of all her students, past and present, were her source of pride. I hate that she never saw her department adequately funded. I’m selfishly disappointed that I won’t be able to have her as a Master’s supervisor.
Teresia was inspired by many others before and around her. She never claimed individual self-fulfilling success. That’s probably the biggest lesson from her. Learning is a shared experience and knowledge should not lie in the hands of a few privileged people.
All I know, all I’ve accomplished, all I’m yet to do, is possible because of the many who’ve gone before me, those who support me, and those I learn from.
And so much of what I learned, was from her.
Laura is graduating with a BA with honours in English Literature next month. She’s also an editor on Salient, the Victoria University student magazine.
Alice Te Punga Somerville: Teresia refused to be the only Pacific voice in the room
In 2001, I was a PhD student enrolled at a university in upstate New York and I took a five-hour bus ride down to New York City for the Pacific Islands, Atlantic Worlds conference. At the conference I met for the first time so many thinkers and creators from around the Pacific region. Teresia was there, and during one of the cuppa-tea sessions she asked if I would consider working at Vic when I finished my PhD.
She didn’t ask like an empire-builder. She didn’t ask territorially. She didn’t ask like she wondered if I would finish. She asked like someone who expected me to finish, expected me to come home, and hoped I would come to Vic. Over the years I have come to understand that I was one of hundreds of students exposed to her combination of high expectations and no-strings-attached connection.
Other people can speak to other aspects of Teresia’s life, but I want to focus on her scholarly work because, although I count Teresia as a friend, I first met her, and then worked alongside her, as a scholar and colleague.
And, as Professor Lydia Wevers said at Te Herenga Waka: “Teresia was a thinker.” Her poetry, her lived connections and her extensive regional networks were a part of her thinking. But so was her commitment to rigorous, critical, careful, curious and theoretical scholarship.
Teresia’s scholarly work was not “stuck in the ivory tower” but neither did it disavow or sidestep the privilege of working in the academy, including — or especially — opportunities to remake the university according to its own higher principles rather than the baser neoliberal managerialism which can coerce and smother.
She spoke and wrote explicitly about what kind of work the university and academe can make possible, producing key essays about pedagogy and the discipline of Pacific Studies, while maintaining a trenchant and careful critique of these institutions and their limits.
Teresia’s work on Fijian women in the military, for which she won prestigious Marsden funding, was a significant, timely and sensitive project. I heard her present several times on this project as she carried out the research, but my favourite time was when she presented at the University of Hawai‘i in 2012, and talked about how much her thinking had changed over the course of the project.
Tears streaming down her face, Teresia admitted that she began the project with some scepticism around why people in Fiji would sign up for the military, but she became more aware of the severe lack of opportunities facing Fijian young people who finish high school in an economy which offered them few options. You cannot understand or theorise militarism in this context, she was saying, without considering these realities.
I remember sitting there, listening, thinking about what kind of genuine and generous research is possible when one is brave enough to question her own questions to the point of turning them upside down and admitting there are other questions to be asked.
One of the things I appreciated about Teresia’s scholarly work was her refusal to be the only Pacific voice in the room. I recall conversations when she spoke about checking, when invited to speak or write something, that there were other Pacific or Indigenous people involved. What an inspiring and strategic vision: to assume there could and should be many Pacific and Indigenous voices rather than to accept the position of being the one and only. She has made so many other Pacific voices audible through her teaching, her mentoring, her nurturing, and her citations of so many other Pacific scholars and artists.
Teresia brought people together: on and beyond the page. During the service for her at Te Herenga Waka marae at Victoria University, a large group of Pasifika and Māori students stood together to sing something they had prepared for her. I was sitting next to a friend who leaned over and said: “It’s so good to see our Māori and Pacific students doing something together like this.”
And, of course, although it shouldn’t be remarkable, it was. The relationship between tangata whenua and Pasifika is complex, and this is a relationship Teresia grew to understand and nurture during her many years in Wellington.
Of course, farewelling Teresia from Wellington is in its own way an oceanic act. Kupe first entered the same harbour many years ago as he explored the islands on his journey from Hawaiki, used its shelter to recharge and as a base while he was here, and departed from here to go home and report on these large islands in the south.
Like others, I have reflected on Teresia’s passing in terms of the passing a few years ago of the great Tongan scholar and writer Epeli Hau’ofa. But I have also been thinking about Te Rangihiroa — Sir Peter Buck — who back in 1951 passed away in Honolulu after several years lived in scholarly exile which, it turned out, gave him a regional perspective from which we continue to benefit.
Because of his role in producing scholarship which was foundational for Māori Studies in the early days — in which he explored the links between Māori and the rest of the region — he is depicted at the base of the first poutokomanawa you see when you enter the whare at Te Herenga Waka.
Teresia’s world, like Kupe’s world, and Te Rangihiroa’s world, and Hau’ofa’s world, is expansive: not in a cliché flattening-out “global village” sense, but in the sense of a mind-bogglingly-vast and ever-connecting ocean. It is not lost on me that I met Teresia in New York, we worked together in Wellington, and I last saw her in Honolulu.
Teresia, e hoa: to borrow a phrase from one of your recent poems, “in my ideal Pacific”, there would still be numerous cuppas and criss-crossing paths in our future yet to come.
Dr Alice Te Punga Somerville is an associate professor in the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies at Waikato University.
April K. Henderson: She sang. She swore. She famously cried.
My first encounter with Teresia was unforgettable. It was 1995. I was 22 years old, recently graduated from university, and back home in Honolulu. The “good job” I’d expected my anthropology BA to get me hadn’t materialised. I’d spent months working in food service, retail sales, and as a live-in domestic labourer.
Knowing my interest in Pacific issues, and concerned I was wasting my intellect, a friend’s academic mother suggested I sit in on the annual Center for Pacific Island Studies (CPIS) conference.
Titled Contested Ground: Knowledge and Power in Pacific Island Studies, the conference is rightly remembered as a landmark moment in Pacific Studies for the range of now iconic papers delivered by Indigenous Pacific scholars.
But it was Teresia’s paper Yaqona/Yagoqu: Roots and Routes of a Displaced Native that grips my memory.
Written creatively and evocatively in the language of a film treatment, the paper swooped between extreme close-ups of her Banaban grandfather’s dry, cracked skin, and the arid, decimated landscape of his ancestral central Pacific homeland — uninhabitable after decades of mining by the British Phosphate Commission.
The paper equated land with bodies and bodies with land, and tied the dispersal of Banaban soil — in the form of the phosphate fertiliser that has for decades underpinned New Zealand’s own agricultural productivity — to the dispersed routes of displaced Banaban people.
In between the camera pans and establishing shots, Teresia’s mode of address was raw, honest, conversational and deeply personal. She sang. She swore. She famously cried. Many of us in the audience cried with her.
I was stunned. Teresia was everything I’d missed in anthropological discussions of the Pacific. No bullshit attempts to feign objectivity or rational distance. Here were critical takes on Pacific history, politics, economics and culture that put the stakes of engagement in our faces.
This was an intellectual space premised, at the outset, on the knowledge that we were talking about our region, our families — whether those we were born to, or those we’d fashioned ourselves — and our own part in that which we seek to speak about. And there was no option of tidily wrapping up this research project some day and walking away. This was Pacific Studies.
The following year, I enrolled in the master’s programme at the Center for Pacific Islands Studies. Coincidentally, fatefully, Teresia’s younger sister, Katerina, was in my cohort and became — and remains — a close friend.
It was Katerina who invited me to her family home in Tacirua Heights, Suva, in 1998, when I passed through Fiji. Teresia was by then lecturing at University of the South Pacific. We spent time with her at the opening of USP’s Oceania Centre, at a literary event featuring her poetic collaborator Sia Figiel, and at Epeli Hau‘ofa’s house. Throughout, Teresia’s unmistakable warmth helped me negotiate my awe of her.
Without her knowing, Teresia guided my next step after CPIS. I entered the doctoral programme in History of Consciousness at University of California, Santa Cruz. I have to confess I didn’t know much about it when I applied. I just wanted to go there because Teresia had gone there, as had Pacific scholars Vince Diaz and J. Kehaulani Kauanui.
I wanted whatever they’d had. And I got it: two years of gruelling academic training, amid the guidance, mentorship, and provocations of world-renowned scholars.
Teresia had long since departed Santa Cruz for Fiji by the time I arrived, and made her momentous move to Victoria University of Wellington soon after. But we had in common the same lead supervisor, James Clifford, and dissertation committee member Angela Y. Davis.
Teresia and I began encountering each other more often from that point. In these encounters, Teresia was always supportive — but she also always gently pushed. She asked questions no one else was asking about what we do in Pacific Studies, how we do it, and why we do it.
Whether Teresia was using our moments of encounter to carefully appraise me, I can’t say for sure. What I’ve since learned about her indefatigable capacity for forward-planning and strategising suggests she probably was. It was nevertheless a surprise to me when she suggested I join her in Victoria’s Pacific Studies programme as a teaching fellow in 2002. And a surprise again when she announced that she’d secured a permanent position the following year and expected me to apply.
In the ensuing 15 years I’ve worked alongside Teresia as her close colleague in Pacific Studies at VUW — in truth, for nearly half that time as her only colleague in Pacific Studies.
Throughout this time, her labour has been characterised by a relentness commitment to building our programme and field, and an unshakable belief in our students: they’ve inspired her as much as she has surely inspired them.
When I think of the scores of people whose lives have changed as a result of far briefer encounters with Teresia and her work, I’m profoundly grateful that I’ve had the privilege to work with her every day in our humble little house at 6 Kelburn Parade, building this programme that we’re both so proud of.
Teresia taught us all so much — about the Pacific and Pacific Studies, about feminism, poetry, politics, scholarship, humanity, life, love, courage, and ourselves. Amid our shock and grief at her passing, our rage that she was taken from us too soon and had so much more to give, we have to believe that what she taught us was enough. It is up to us now to take what we’ve learned and do, and be, and create the Oceania, and the world, that we need.
Dr April K. Henderson is a senior lecturer and acting director of Va‘aomanū Pasifika (Programmes in Pacific Studies and Samoan Studies) at Victoria University of Wellington.
Selina Tusitala Marsh: A loft of one’s own
Tere was, among other things — black star, Moana mother, examiner for my PhD, scholar-poet-activist-writer — my Te Whanga-nui-a-Tara writing buddy. Whenever I found myself in Welly for New Zealand Book Council meetings or Wai-te-ata Press poetry readings or Pasifika Union Talanoa sessions, I’d text her and we’d do our damnedest to run our own “shut up and write” group.
You see, so much is required of mums, academics, teachers, activists, poets, wives, in-laws, and global travellers, that when you combine all of those selves, the self that misses out is often yours. Your own project.
Tere’s been working on her book about Fijian women in the military for years and years and years. Based on her doctoral thesis Militarism, Tourism and the Native: Articulations in Oceania, it was supervised by the esteemed Professor James Clifford when she studied at California’s History of Consciousness (2001). It is a trailblazing piece of scholarship.
I don’t know if you can give too much. The thousands of people from around the world who have made their alofa and admiration clear for her seem to indicate to any self-respecting PI that it’s a question that shouldn’t even be asked.
But didn’t Tere always ask the tough questions? Isn’t that what she taught us to do?
So, in that spirit I’m going to pose a few of my own tough questions. When I saw Tere kanohi-ki-te-kanohi over the years of our furious writing sessions — lasting anywhere between two hours to overnight — I often wondered, do we give too much? Are we too many things to too many people/causes/issues?
If I, for a moment, give my Papālagi side the mike, dare I ask whether she was spread a little too thin a lot of the time? Because who I saw was a writer who wished she could write more. I saw me. I saw many of us. I saw her squeezing in her book work — original, forceful, purposeful, critically rigorous — in between every other worthy thing.
But for those precious hours together, we were nothing else but writers working on our books, wanting to get our research out there to a waiting public. Not articles, not book chapters, not editorials, not conference papers, not keynote addresses, but our ideas given birth between our own covers, developed through chapters, given life in our own book.
I remember when I’d scored a friend’s luxury loft in the Wairarapa for a few nights. I’d flown down for a meeting, then Tere and I drove up State Highway 2, through the swirling Rimutaka ranges, 62 kms to Featherston. Tere was a careful, thoughtful driver and we took our time engaging in talanoa about our ideas. She was always so connected with community. I felt like a hermit in comparison. It was all I could do to keep a job and an aiga happy. I was in awe. I was along for the ride most of the time but she had the ability to make you feel, well, precious. Valued. For exactly who you were, for exactly the work you were doing.
It was during that trip, nestled high overlooking a lemon orchard, spoilt with Egyptian cotton linen and fine pinot noir, when I realised, I gave her something back. She valued my take on life. She valued the knack I had of dragging her out of her relentless schedule to demand writing time on her book, with me. Whether in cafes, libraries, hotel rooms, her house, or in that luxury loft, I gave her a little time to work on her book — and she gave me herself.
Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh is an associate professor at the University of Auckland. She teaches Pacific Literature and Creative Writing.
– Selina Tusitala Marsh