I'm not sure if I've talked about this here before, but Pacific Literature is a passion of mine. Last week I had the privilege of attending the 2013 SPACLALS Hui in Auckland, for two days of inspiration & learning.
SPACLALS is the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature & Language Studies. Quite a mouthful, I know. Having attended the Wellington Hui a couple of years ago I jumped at the chance to repeat the amazing experience. So I found myself heading to Wellington airport at a ridiculously early hour on a stormy Thursday morning. It was dark. I was cold. I parked my car in the long term car park & was thrilled to find the complimentary shuttle driver had followed me to my park so I didn't have to brave the weather. We made small talk on the way to the terminal and he asked what I was heading to Auckland for. "A Pacific Literature conference", I answered. "Oh, so you'll be seeing the likes of Albert Wendt then." Yes. Yes I would.
The flight was amazing. We sat above the clouds in skies that turned blue as we travelled north, the sun rising outside my window seat. Dawn. Beginnings. Hope.
At some point during the hui SPACLALS Chairwoman (and Wilder Woman) Selina Tusitala Marsh talked about writing your metaphor, and I immediately thought of the story of The Ugly Duckling. For years, as an English student, I have felt isolated from my supposed peers. I've had to take the required pre-20th century papers to get my degree. I've had to listen as friends value Shakespeare & Dickens & Austen over Grace, Ihimaera & Wendt*. I've felt like the clumsy grey cygnet, an outsider trailing behind groups of cheeping fluffy ducklings. But SPACLALS? SPACLALS is where I feel like a Swan. This is where I find my grace. Where heads are held high & the salt water of Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa adds buoyancy to my passion. SPACLALS is my literary family.
I tried to jot down notes as the conference happened so I could remember every moment of awesomeness, but sometimes I would get so caught up in the Hui that I forgot my pen & paper & was absorbed in the moment. I'll do my best to relate some of the happenings.
We had Fijian performance poet Daren Kamali kick things off with his beautiful words. This was followed by a poem from Selina ~ WRITE! Albert Wendt answered our many & varied questions & talked about, among other things, the importance of physical fitness & stamina for writers, making a Will, & why he doesn't write bad reviews. We were joined by the Consulate-General of Samoa who wanted to honour Albert Wendt with the rest of us. We heard beautiful songs & poetry offered in thanks. We were joined by high school student Zac, in his shorts & blazer, who blew me away with his brave performance of a poem that explored the disconnect of belonging to a culture that rejects his sexuality. The youth in attendance gave me so much hope. Among them were the students of Tagata Pasifika alternative education. They introduced themselves with "My name is .... & I was expelled from ... for bad behaviour" and then went on to deliver the most thoughtful poetry. There were tears, & beatnik clicks. A poem I heavily identified with as a "well-upholstered" woman included the lines "If beautiful gets any smaller no one is going to be able to fit anymore" & "I would rather have smudged lipstick than mascara". We saw power point presentations as a backdrop for spoken word. And we were fed. Boy, were we fed.
The feeding continued on into Thursday evening on K Rd, where the Tagata Pasifika students had laid beautiful tables for us. The plentiful meal was interspersed with performance from the Black Friars Theatre Company & their Hawaiian style band, accompanying stunning hula dancers with the ironic juxtaposition of a wild thunder & lightning storm outside. A heartbreaking & unrehearsed version of Summertime featured the acoustics of a torrential downpour beating on the roof. A southern hemisphere hula was performed in black tights, mini skirt & woolen jumper. It was all incredible, touching, moving, enlightening, & exhausting. I was grateful to jump in a taxi & head to bed at the end of the night.
Day two was equally impressive. I feel like I took less notes on the Friday, but I'll attempt to convey some of what went down. My mind was opened to the concept of facebook status updates as literature. I gained a new mantra from Wilder Woman Reina Whaitiri: "You can't be disappointed by anyone but yourself". We were fired up by Lani Wendt Young's success stories of social media & self publishing. I immediately added the Telesa series to my reading list, while other more tech savvy people instantly bought copies on their phones as Lani talked. Tina Makeriti's Rekohu Chatham Islands novel was also added to my reading list. I will be anxiously anticipating its publication next year so I can use that bridge of historical fiction to enter a world I know little about. We took our brown bag lunches to Auckland University's Fale Pasifika & strained our brains as artist in residence Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi explained his complicated systems to us using the Tongan alphabet. String theory? Yikes. The arts has always been a way for me to avoid mathematicss & sciences. I gave up on the maths & instead spent most of his discussion mentally comparing the ways in which he looked just like my father. Back at the Pat Hanan room Grace Taylor said of young people "They want a sense of belonging, whatever that belonging looks like". I think this is true of everybody, certainly me, and that is what SPACLALS is for me ~ belonging. Grace is one of the most talented poets I've come across in recent years. Her tears while performing are testament to the emotional depth of her words. Emelihter Kihleng had us all wanting to wear the beautiful Urohs, even if some of them did make us giggle. We saw dramatic vignettes in a crowded theatre, & the smallness of New Zealand was made known when the woman performing to us turned out to be a fellow Sacred Heart College alumni. At the end of the day I was more invigorated than exhausted. I headed into town with two of my new friends to geek out on Pacific Literature over a bottle of wine, a clumsy cygnet no more. (Okay, maybe a little clumsy. Wine will do that to you.)
I returned home to a storm stricken Wellington, covered in debris. My city had changed in those few days, but so too had the landscape of my mind. Those fallen branches that litter the streets are like the seeds of the poems that now fill my head. The stones that have tumbled down from hillsides are my new friends. Fences have been blown over & I am reminded to follow my passion, to not be distracted from the course, to not let anything keep me from my passion. To not buy into the irritating cheeps of the ducklings.
Write your metaphor.
* For the record, I am a fan of Shakespeare, Dickens & Austen. I just don't think their work is any more important than that of Pacific writers.
My photos of the event can be found here.
My photos of the event can be found here.
Massive thanks to Naiomi for her input.