Tuesday, 24 July 2012

True confessions of a teine Samoa

So I'm going to tell you something just a little bit scandalous for a Samoan girl. I imagine that your eyes are already skipping down the screen to read my revelation.... yes I know you and your faikakala-ness so well! Well slow down and I'll share my school girl fantasy, for the very first time ....EVER.....

Oh wait.....I don't need to, because Lani Wendt-Young somehow read teenage me's mind! Then she wrote all about it in "When Water Burns"! I feel like the "bride stripped bare".  Ok I know you're all nodding in agreement and understanding, and thinking, it's Daniel.... *heavy sigh* and Keahi.... *even heavier sigh*, it's the fact that they're both super hot paddlers in an outrigger competition, and they're both super cut, that they both have tattoos, that they have super powers, and that they are fighting over me Leila....Ok I admit that may play a very very very small part in it...but kicking one of those guy's butts when he gets a bit too cheeky... now that's what extravagent and unrestrained imagination is ALL about!

The first book in the Telesa trilogy "Telesa-The Covenant Keeper" had left us on tenterhooks. Sure Daniel's responsible, and really good looking, sure he was head prefect, and sure he plays rugby, and sure he is close to perfect to take home to your parents if anyone ever does that in Samoa, in my day you'd have had to have a death wish .  Those are all great qualities, but they're not necessarily the type of qualities that will turn a girl's head in high school.  Plus I'm, I mean, Leila is a fire goddess... so he kind of needed to step up his game.  So when, at the end of Telesa the sea returns Daniel safe, I was already imagining him swimming  in various states of undress with sharks and I couldn't wait to see that birthmark again how his super powers would manifest.

When Water Burns built brilliantly on Telesa, using the clever character development and scene setting in the first book, to make this second book faster paced and even more impossible to put down.  I was smiling wryly to myself, reading about iphone 4 conversations, on the kindle app on my iphone 4s (I obviously had to get the gratuitous mention of my iphone in there, you know I did!).  Yes it was wrecking my eyes, but it was enabling reading while doing the domestic duties that desperately needed the most attention you know little things, like feeding my child.

When Water Burns delves more into the "dalacious" Simone, who really comes into her own in the second book of the series. Simone is still screamingly funny (see Tim Baice's write-up in Simone in the City for some great insights), but in this book Simone is the girlfriend we all wanted, wise and witty, making sure Leila sees sense... such as ensuring she makes appropriate arrangements for her Louboutin shoes (appropriate arrangements being willing them to Simone of course, I said wise, not lacking in self-interest!)

I'm a reader, a book worm, a super geek. I embrace it! As anyone who has ever glanced at my blog will know, for me reading has been a real joy, a comfort and a constant companion.  Perhaps it's because we all love sharing our own passions, that I loved how Telesa and When Water Burns appealed to many people who don't necessarily have those particular proclivities. It's one of the things I love about both books. Like Twilight, and The Hunger Games Series, it opened up reading to so many young Samoans, who may not have otherwise have been interested in reading.  That's an amazing thing.

But for me, an even more amazing thing, and what I liked best about When Water Burns was how it confronted the issue of sexual abuse, a serious and difficult issue, especially in Samoa.  The fact that When Water Burns wove in this issue that we avoid, that we don't address or talk about, into this Young Adult fantasy romance, that is reaching so many, really made this book more than just a great read.  As a child who was sexually abused, I know too well how this topic is taboo. How it can be swept under the carpet. How victims are too often voiceless.  I remember the deep feeling of shame I had all through school, how it was so unspeakable, because I thought this was only something that had only ever happened to me. But I grew up. And I realised that I wasn't the only one, that it had also happened to an awful lot of others, others who hadn't spoken out and stopped it as I did as a child, that it was in fact, all too common.  I realised that it's something that we, as a society, need to speak about.  Because here's the thing about all the secrecy that surrounds sexual abuse, there is an unspoken implication that it somehow reflects on those who suffered. We never hear about the survivors, or, if we do, we never hear about their successes. We only hear survivors' stories when they are recounted as part of a tragic tale about a person who has gone off the tracks.  This is why, a long time ago, I decided to no longer be silent. To say openly, I was sexually abused, and that does not define me or mean I am damaged.  To say I was sexually abused, and I refuse to be stereotyped, I am no longer ashamed, and I don't need sympathy. To say I was sexually abused, and I'm a succesful member of society. And to say that as a member of society, not just as someone who was sexually abused, I applaud an author who can bring this issue front and centre in a fun racy Young Adult romance that people will read and relate to.

And so, just as she pays "tribute to the generosity, commitment, and fortitude of those who work with survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse", I pay tribute to Lani Wendt-Young, who was brave enough to write about it. To say I appreciate it and oh teenage me also appreciated the gratuitous descriptions of both Keahi and Daniel in that outrigger competiotion, and LOVES how Leila can kick ass anytime. Write on!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

An unshakeable sense of self

"Life in plastic, it's fantastic"

Is there anything more powerful than a parent's love? I remember reading Lemalu Tate Simi's seminal poem "Identity"* when I was in school. Even then, well before I had imagined what it would be like to have a child, to have someone hold my whole heart in his chubby little hands, to lie in the dark, listening to his breath heavy with sleep, and hope for everything for him, even then, one of the things that touched me most about Lemalu's poem, was that it was written for his eldest son. That poem captures a parent's love and the prayers and plans we make for our children. 

Perhaps I recognised in those poignant words, a reflection of my own parents love, and what they strove to give me.

My parent's chose to bring me and my brothers up in the bosom of my family and fa'asamoa. Yes the full fa'asamoa. The 'leave-you-very-lucky-to-eat-elegi-because-we-have-to-give-every-sene-for-your-father's-great-uncle's-cousin's-step-son's-saofai-and-smile'fa'asamoa. The 'you-better-be-paying-attention-because-we-all-automatically-assume-you-were-born-knowing-how-to-ta'i-sua-and-fai-folafolaga' fa'asamoa. The fa’asamoa that emphasises the fegaiga between brothers and their sisters, and brings families together. The faasamoa that we all know and love to whinge about because it's a way of life, a way to look at life, and an integral part of who we are.

I say "chose" because by the time I was born, my dad had almost finished his PhD, and my mum was one paper away from finishing her Masters, so they both had options and opportunities overseas. Instead they went back to the struggle that living in Samoa can be. I have always been unbelievably grateful for that decision. Particularly to my palagi mother, who left her friends, family and her country, to raise me in mine.
So I don't say 'even with', but rather because I had a palagi mum, who loved me and wanted me to have a strong sense of identity, and who sacrificed so we could grow up in Samoa (and because I had a Samoan father stubborn about serving his country, and a close and loving aiga who never treated us differently), I grew up never thinking of myself as anything but Samoan.  I have read many touching stories about Samoans searching for identity.  I was not one of them. I have never struggled with who I was or where I came from. I know how fortunate that makes me.

But I also know it doesn't make me any better than people whose parents chose another path, who moved overseas, so often motivated by that very same love. Samoans whose parents or grandparents often worked in factories and freezing works, hard and heavy work, but welcome because it was a way of securing good schooling, of seeking opportunities, and of forging a future for their children.  The legacy of those parents' love, those parents' choices, those parents' sacrifices should never be undermined by pejorative remarks that their progeny is "plastic" or "too palagi".

That kind of prejudice within our own society perplexes me.  I remember when I first went back to work in Samoa I was somewhat surprised when a lawyer I knew said she wanted to be the first Samoan woman to be Attorney-General. Now obviously that ambition, in and of itself, wasn't surprising.  Rather what shocked me was that she somehow didn't think that that  particular milestone had already been achieved. Particularly because, at the time, we had a Samoan woman as Attorney-General.  I voiced my puzzlement.
No, I mean a real Samoan, you know, from Samoa

I didn't know. Was the AG at the time, a "fake" Samoan? Was her "palagi-ness" going to pop out at any second and surprise us? Or was it rather, that having nothing of substance to use to undermine her with, she turned to bigotry and bias to try to belittle this brilliant colleague.

I still don't know why we differentiate and discriminate amongst ourselves the way we do.  It saddens me, and it is not just against Samoans who live or grow up overseas.  Oh no, there are so many more levels.

 I remember being honestly confused when I was in school and someone said “We better get to Apia Park early… you know how those Samoans are”.

I questioned, “What are you talking about? We’re all Samoan

There was a rolling of eyes. “Oh you know what I mean! Samoan Samoans! Like from the village!

Hmmm… I find that offensive. I’m Samoan, my father’s Samoan, my family is Samoan and I’m from a village, several actually

More rolling of eyes “Se don't be a drama queen; I didn’t mean it like that”. There seemed to be general agreement that I was ruining a perfectly pleasant day by pointing out the prejudice.

I didn't escape this type of silliness on leaving school, or on leaving Samoa. Years later when I went to University in Auckland, a friend who was also on scholarship from Samoa, cajoled and convinced me into going to an Asosi meeting with her. "It will be sooooo  fuuuuun." Her  wheedling won but we weren’t exactly welcomed.  While it was a Samoan Asosi, it seemed like we were just a little too…. wait for it…Samoan. Our fabulous fresh-off-the-boatness was just obviously not for everybody. “Don’t worry” said one of my Samoan law school buddies sympathetically, “Didn’t you know you’re not allowed in that Asosi if you’re less than a size 18”.  Though he was perpetuating the stereotypes I'm now railing against for my amusement, I have to admit at the time... I laughed.

I could tell many more such stories- more recent and each more ridiculous than the next- and I'm sure every other Samoan could too- but I only recount enough to reflect the cross-section of prejudices that we subject ourselves to within our own society. Whether it's because you're "too white" as Leilani Tamu recounts in her opinion piece "White, but not quite" or "too Samoan", or for whatever reason, it's really just such a waste of time. We should be better than that. Isn't that what we should really want for our children? A strong enough sense of identity they don't feel the need to stereotype and stigmatise.

Now that I am a parent myself, I plan and pray about what is best for my child.  My son is Samoan, lo'u toto, ma lo'u ivi (oh, and that's right, and his dad is Samoan too, that may have something to do with it...). While I know that I don't need a salu lima, or to raise my son in Salailua to show he is Samoan, a large part of me still longs to give him the childhood I had. Surrounded by warmth and beauty, family and faikakalas.  I, like all parents, worry about whether we are making the right choices.  I suppose at the end of the day, whether we are in Sydney or in Samoa, I just want to give him what my parents gave me- an unshakeable sense of self.

by Lemalu Tate Simi

Educate yourself enough
So you may understand
The ways of other people
But not too much
That you may lose
Your understanding
Of your own

Try things palagi
Not so you may become palagi
But so may see the value
Of things Samoan
Learn to speak Samoan
not so you may sound Samoan
but so you may
feel the essence
of being Samoan

Above all
Be aware and proud
Of what you are
So you may spare yourself
The agony of those who are asking
“What am I ? “

Monday, 2 July 2012


About eight years ago I went to a Peace and Reconcilliation conference.  It was hosted by a University in Queensland and this was obviously new territory.  As you may have picked up from my blog, I am ALL about peace and recocilliation- they are topics near and dear to my heart.  So I had answered a call to present a paper, although all these years later, I can't quite remember what I wrote that particular paper about.

What I do remember was that they had invited delegates from different parts of the Pacific that had experienced recent conflict- Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga.  Having brought out these delegates, the organisers decided that it would be a fantastic idea to have a panel of Pacific delegates.  As a Pacific Islander, and a person with a keen interest in Pacific history and politics, I was particularly interested in this session, although I didn't actually know what was being addressed, and the agenda item "Pacific panel" wasn't particularly enlightening.

 It was a year or two after the break down in law and order in the Solomon Islands, and the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) had obviously created curiosity and concern-  the audience was packed.  The lecture theatre was bursting with about 200 people as the Pacific delegates took the stage. A professor introduced the session explaining that the Pacific delegates had not been told what the question would be for maximum drama and effect so that the answers would not be practiced.  The audience shuffled in anticipation. The professor pronounced the question with unseemly relish, "You are all from countries who have experienced some conflict, but what we would like to hear from you today is, how do you think Australia and New Zealand have treated their indigineous populations?"

There was silence. Even all these years later I can still see the flashes of discomfort on the Pacific pannellists' faces before they schooled their features.  A microphone was thrust into the hands of the delegate on the far left, who politely thanked the professor for the question, and for having her as a guest, and then said she did not have an opinion before passing on the microphone.  Each pannelist took a virtually identical stance, some elaborating that they did not know enough about the history of the country in which they were a guest to venture an opinion. The Professor looked somewhat desperate. It was obvious that he had been courting controversy and had hoped to create a lively debate.  He started trying to prompt and was met with polite and very patient repetition of their stance.  I was outraged at the complete and utter lack of any culural sensitivity.  I could not believe that the organisers had put the pannellists in this position- it was obvious that each of these Pacific Islanders felt it would be the very height of rudeness, to criticise the country that was hosting their attendance. 

As I was not a guest, I did not feel so constrained. I had that morning read an article about "stolen wages".  From the 1890s until the 1970s the Queensland Government "controlled" the wages and savings of Aboriginal Queenslanders and Torres Strait Islanders. While it was hard to fathom, in 2003 people had still not received the wages they earned. The article in the paper that day related to the fact that the Queensland government had set up a scheme, a one-time offer, where if you had your wages stolen and you were still alive, you could have a one-off payment of $2000 and relinquish any claim to your actual wages and any interest that may have accrued. I cried when I read that article.  I had heard so many Australians claim that whatever happened in the past was the past, that they could not be held accountable for something that previous generations had done.  But this was not ancient history, it was a continuing injustice, it was happening that day.  People who had been deprived of a way to generate wealth, a way forward, people in abject poverty were not being given what was owed to them (over two decades after it was owed), they were told to take the $2000 and be grateful.

So I stood up and said I was Samoan and also happened to be Australian by accident of birth, and that I had only moved to Australia a couple of years ago, and that neither of my parents were Australian.  Regardless of the fact that it was not my ancestors that visited these atrocities on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, each one of us who live in Australia today benefit from the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land was taken from them, and each one of us should take responsibility for what was not a historical issue but a current and ongoing one. That while I had only arrived in Australia, I recognised that, I felt reparations should be given, and I wanted to say "sorry".

In 2008 the Prime Minister of Australia said sorry too. It was a true example of a leader leading with his conscience and with courage.  I include the full text of his apology here:

"Today we honour the indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, indigenous and non-indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

There comes a time in the history of nations when their peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future."

This week is NAIDOC week in Australia.  NAIDOC celebrations are held around Australia in July each year to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year's theme "celebrates the champions who lived to renew the spirit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972. Forty years ago, the embassy became a powerful symbol of unity. Its founders instilled pride, advanced equality and educated the country on the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. To move forward, we must acknowledge our forbearers, learn from their experiences and ask ourselves… what have their sacrifices meant for me and my family today?"  I honour the spririt of struggle and perseverence in the establishment and maintanence of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy- it plays a pivotal role in the Australia that I wish for me and my small family to be a part of, an Australia that acknowledges the indigenous people of this land, and treats them equally. This country has been a land of opportunity and reward for me and for millions of other non-indigenous Australians. It should be nothing less for the indigenous peoples.

This post is a small tribute to the indigenous people of this country.  "Sorry" is only the first step.

Mamalu, modesty and the modern Samoan woman

Most Samoan girls are brought up to dress modestly. I won't pretend that I was a paragon of  this particular virtue. In fact, I'll go all out and say I am really not a paragon of ANY particular virtue at all. When I was visiting my family for Uni holidays, my dad would say in a sad and concerned voice "Darling, don't you have enough money?.... we can help you out....  obviously you didn't have enough to buy the rest of that skirt ".  My brothers would  alternatively tease me about my vae ta'amu, or tell me to go change or I was not exiting the house. I was pretty dutiful then, I'd just throw the offending article on the floor in a huff fold them away quietly, plotting to put it straight back on the moment my scholarship took me back to FREEEEDDDOOM Auckland. I know it's shocking! I should wear a scarlet letter!

That said, even a rebel-without-a-pause, like 18-year-old me knew that one could not strut around the nu'u in short skirts or skimpy shorts, just as I knew you couldn't turn up to family lotu in the evening without covering your shoulders.  Dusk would be falling and we'd hear the dong, dong of a metal pipe hitting a hollowed out rusted old iron tube, that may or may not have once been a fire extinguisher, and we'd all start the mad scramble, looking for big button up shirts or lavalavas, to drape around our shoulders like scarfs, concealing our singlets or the boys' bare chests, before sitting down, crossing our legs and joining the pese (and yes even my pa'ulua voice would be raised in praise).

I can accept that there were, and are, expectations of modest dress in certain settings (whether or not you consider that those expectations to be traditional to Samoan culture is a seperate issue, and one which I have already addressed). Of course these expectations are not exclusive to Samoa. Whether backpacking around Europe, or sojourning in Central America, I've always made sure that I've either worn or carried a long skirt and a shawl in my day pack, so that I could enter churches and other holy places respectfully. Whether in Sydney, Suva or Sri Lanka, what I wear to work is conservative and in keeping with the country and culture I am in. So I don't think there is a need to skirt around the issue, rather than just saying directly that it seems that much of the recent furore around displaying the malu was, and is, actually about dressing modestly, and appropriate behaviour for a Samoan woman.

Unfortunately it also seems that this was an inconvenient truth. After all, if a malu doesn't make one any more Samoan (a point I completely agree with), then having a malu should not bring one's behaviour as a Samoan woman under any additional scrutiny.  We all know that"tausi le mamalu" isn't something we suddenly get taught when we come of age, or when we are about to go under the 'au, it is something intrinsic in every Samoan girl's upbringing. If you're going to dictate others' dress standards, or if you're set on telling others how to behave in what you consider to be a culturally appropriate manner, then there is a certain expectation that your own behaviour and manner of dress will withstand similar scrutiny.  Otherwise it's just "Hello Kettle, my name is Pot, and I have noticed that you are rather black"

That is also probably why most people don't start lectures on cultural proprierty with "I was up in the club and...". It's not normally seen as the most traditional or cultural of activities for a young Samoan lady. Don't get me wrong I am all for going out, I am just not for going out, and then getting up on your high horse. It is so 1950s to try and control the way another women dresses, but cite culture and we're all ok. We'll just tidy that pesky feminism away, it really is so unbecoming.  Cite culture and noone is supposed to reflect on why some women seem so upset at seeing other's dressed in a way that emphasises they are at the height of their youth and beauty (or at the height of their foolishness). Either way it doesn't bother me. It's a long time since I was 18, and I'm self-aware enough to say that the only issue I have with hot pants, is that, despite the promising name, they do not in fact look hot on me! Oh the outrage! It's just so totally deceptive and misleading! I would threaten to sue (for the very first time ever in my life) except that I've heard that it may upset some insects! A similar amount of self-reflection for all those throwing stones would go a long way.