08 Sep The Courage to Lead

I’d like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land and elders past, present and future. For its through their stories and their wisdom that we learn and grow. It’s good to be here. Brisbane readers have a special place in my heart because you were the very first ones to host me when I was a very new, very scared author with my first novel TELESA. In 2012, hardcore readers (and Daniel Tahi fans) like Alice Burgess and many others were instrumental in bringing me to Brisbane and working together with Glenda Stanley and Griffith University. That first booktour planted the seeds for abiding friendships and created working relationships that have continued today and seen me return to Brisbane several times. In fact, it was because of that launch I got to meet the shamahzing Gau Siaki Nautu, a woman Im blessed to have as a friend and who’s humor, generosity and baking helped to inspire the Scarlet Series.

You were among the very first to believe in me and my stories – and to keep believing in me with each new book published. For that I thank you. My blog readers will tell you I’m a hermit who hates leaving the house and travelling anywhere, but I’m never scared to come to Brisbane.

This event is particularly significant I feel, because it represents the unifying effort and vision of the Pacific Students Associations for three different tertiary institutions. Maori have a saying, Whakataukī (proverbs –  Naku te rourou nau te rourou ka ora ai te iwi.

With your basket and my basket the people will live

This speaks to the importance of co-operation and the combining of resources so that we all might survive and flourish. We Pasifika people come from different islands and cultural backgrounds, we are Samoan, Tongans, ni Vanuatu, Kiribati, Fijian,  but just as we are connected by the blue continent of Oceania, so too are we united by our desire to see our communities, our families, our children/youth  succeed and flourish here in Australia. It’s my hope we will all be fed tonight.

Brisbane was my first book tour and since then I’ve visited many other places, most often hosted by Pasifika communities and organizations.  A common thread of concern that links all these Pasifika communities whether they be in NZ, Hawaii, Brisbane, or America – is that of the education of our people, and barriers to the academic achievement of our people. I wish to speak to that tonight. I’m not an academic, I’m a storyteller.  I’ve got a few of stories that might be helpful. A few of my favorite F-word stories.

The first one is about being Fia poto.  Hands up if you know what that word means? Hands up if you’ve ever been called that, fia poto?

When I was born, my great-aunty Ita announced to everyone that my name was Poto. It didn’t matter to her that my parents had actually already given me a name, Lani Jade. Oh no. Aunty Ita was the matriarch of our aiga and  #LikeABoss she said my name was Poto. From the beginning then I was somewhat of a special child to my Aunty Ita. Every time we visited, she would welcome me loudly with the greeting given to high chiefs and titled taupou, she would say, “Ia ua susu mai le afioga Poto…” She was this wizened little old lady who couldn’t walk properly, so she would sit in her chair and yell at people to bring me a piece of puligi, cups of koko. She had me sit beside her so she could interrogate me, are you saying your prayers? Are you learning your times tables? Are you reading your Bible?  When we got our report cards, I had to go show mine to aunty Ita. In Samoa students sit exams twice a year in every subject, then theyre graded and then ranked by their exam scores and everybody knows the scores. They give out prizes for first in class and first in each subject, the top students for each school are in the newspaper. I always remember in Yr 9, I came second out of several hundred students. I was feeling pretty good about myself and my skillzzz. She looked at my report and nodded, Ia lelei. Manaia. Good. Then her wrinkly face got more wrinkly and scrunched up. She wanted to know who had beaten me? Who came first in class? I told her it was my friend Sinalei. Aunty Ita recognized Sinalei’s last name and her eyes narrowed, she shook her boney/skinny fist and said, “I know their family. They are pigs. Sinalei is a daughter of pigs. You cant let that family of pigs beat you! We are Wendts. You must work hard. You must fight. You must kill her, ua iloa?”

There’s a reason Aunty Ita was so intense. At that time, there was no university in Samoa and we had to work hard for a scholarship to a university in New Zealand. The competition was fierce. Only 100 scholarships awarded each year. Rich families could afford to send their children overseas to university but there were six of us kids and theres no way my parents could afford that. They liked to remind us, “We cant give you money or land as an inheritance, but we can teach you to work hard at school, get a scholarship then a good job, then you can get your own money and your own land – and share some with us.”  Aunty Ita wanted that for me and all my siblings. Our education was something that was important to the whole extended family and we had a tradition of being scholarship winners. My father and his younger brother Albert were among the very first group of scholarship students to go to NZ, back in the 1950’s. Many of my uncles and aunts and cousins were scholarship students and in our family are professors, engineers, accountants, teachers, lawyers, and authors. This commitment to education originated from my grandfather – aunty Ita’s brother.  He was a plumber who had finished school at Grade 8 because his father died and so he needed to get a job to help support his mother and his siblings. Perhaps because he didn’t get a chance to have much schooling, my Papa had very high expectations for all his children and grandchildren. He didn’t believe there were smart people and dumb people no. He believed there were people who worked hard and set high goals. And people who were lazy.

I liked to think that my name Poto suited me. Because I did well at school and I was obviously very poto. But something happened in my first year at university in New Zealand. I didn’t pay very much attention to my schoolwork because  I was too busy paying attention to other things like boys, and going to parties and more boys and more parties. At the end of the year, I failed my main course at Uni and almost lost my scholarship. I was shocked. What happened? How can this be, Im so poto! Id forgotten my grandfather’s most important lesson, it doesn’t matter how clever, or talented or gifted you are – you won’t succeed unless you’re willing to work hard. Hard work beats talent. Especially when talent doesn’t work hard.  To all the students in the house, I hope you will stay focused on your goals and always make the most of every learning opportunity given you.  Now my name is a personal reminder of how fia-poto I can be.

Second story is about being Fia palagi. Hands up if you know what that means? Hands up if you’ve ever been called that?

 My family moved to America in my senior year of high school when my father was appointed Ambassador to the US and Canada. It was something of a shock to find how different it was. In Samoa, the students who get those top placings are the popular students, theyre the ones who are considered cool and special and everybody wants to hang out with them and be like them. And hope that some of their cleverness rubs off on them. In Samoa, no extra-curricular activity is as important as schoolwork. Not sports. Not cultural dancing.

Suddenly it was the athletes who were looked up to and those who focused on academics were seen as geeks…nerds…uncool. Not only that, I had my first experience of being a minority Pacific Islander – there were only two of us in my entire high school in Washington D.C. I looked forward to the Samoan community events where I could meet other P.I teenagers like me. I noticed though that with most of them, being academic, working hard at school and prioritizing education was seen as something that palagi’s do. University wasn’t a goal for most of them. And if it was, it was because college sports would take them there. Football for the boys and volleyball for the girls. For them, sports would be their ticket to riches and glory. When I talked about university and my big dreams of being a lawyer or an English professor or an author – I even got some Samoans telling me I was fia palagi. Which puzzled me. In Samoa all my friends wanted to go to university. All my friends were fighting to get one of those 100 spots. Im not being palagi, this is being Samoan.

I continue to see this misconception in Pasifika communities overseas. In America, even in New Zealand. I meet teachers who tell me that Pasifika parents don’t value education. I meet young people who join Pacific student groups at their schools and think that being Samoan, being Tongan is all about learning how to dance the siva and eating lots of good food. I meet many palagi who are amazed I’ve been to university, who are shocked that my father, brother and sister all have phd doctorate degrees, who say, wow you speak such good English…who think its so amazing to find a brown woman who writes books.

I see these attitudes and I am astounded. And sad. When did we start believing that Pasifika people are not naturally eager to learn and hungry for knowledge? When did we start thinking that rugby is what we do best and school learning is something we struggle at? Our ancestors were explorers who set out across a vast ocean precisely because they were hungry for knowledge, eager to learn more about the world around them. Our ancestors were mathematicians and astronomers who navigated by the stars using complex calculations and  an advanced understanding of how the universe worked. They were architects and engineers who built the massive Pule Melei’i star mounds in Savaii and many other amazing structures scattered throughout Oceania. Not only that, we were philosophers and storytellers. We are not just rugby n football players, boxers and The Rock movie stars. We are academics and scholars too. We’re nurses like Gau, PhD candidates in education like Glenda Stanley, we’re double majors in Business Management like Junior Levi, we’re doctors like Taralina who are studying a PhD in philosophy.

Being Pasifika people, also means that our education, our knowledge is not just for us, for our personal benefit. Its so we can better serve our family, our people, our community. My siblings and I went to high school at Samoa College.  where the school motto is, Atamai e tautua mo Samoa. Knowledge/learning to serve Samoa.   If you earned a scholarship you had to sign a bond contract saying we would go back to Samoa and work there for at least three years when we finished university overseas. My parents would remind us often about the importance of that commitment. Even when I was only in Junior High, they’d be like, “eh, don’t you even think about trying to run away from your bond when you finish university eh, no daughter of ours is going to forget her commitment to Samoa and shame us by not serving her contract.”  (and Im like, umm I haven’t even graduated from high school yet…) When I finished uni, I went back home and worked as an English teacher at Samoa College. Following in the footsteps of others in my family like my big sister who was a Geography teacher there before she continued her education and got her PhD. She’s now a professor of Education at Auckland University in NZ.  My other sister became a lawyer and another was the first woman from Samoa to be a chemical engineer. All of them returned home to serve. They have since gone on to high profile careers overseas that have taken them to many different countries all over the world.

As Pasifika youth, none of you is an individual flying solo your parents and families have made sacrifices for your education. Your teachers have worked hard to help give you the tools you need to succeed. They are the ones helping to give you wings to fly up there. You carry with you on your shoulders – the combined hopes of your parents, your family, your community. That’s a big help but it’s also a responsibility you carry. Im not saying you gotta go back to the islands to serve your people. No, our people are right here. Your education is to better your life, your family, your wider aiga, your community. Right here, right now.

Next story is Fa’amalosi.  I’ve wanted to be an author since I was a kid and in 2010 I finally finished my first novel, Telesa – a story about a young afakasi girl in America, called Leila who goes to Samoa because she wants to learn more about her culture and her mother’s family. Some call it the Pacific Twilight because it’s a romance with elements of the supernatural – but I gotta tell you, Im a HUGE twilight fan but Daniel Tahi in my book is so much hotter than Edward Cullen. (just saying!) It wasn’t easy to write a 400 page book in between work and 5 children. But I did it and when I was finished, I thought, the hard parts done. Now all  I have to do is send my book to a publisher, theyre going to see how amazing it is and then my book is going to be more famous than Harry Potter.  I submitted my book to more than 30 different publishers and agents in NZ, Australia and America.  All of them said NO.  I was tempted to chuck that manuscript in a drawer and forget all about it but writing this novel had been my lifelong dream. You don’t give up on those. You don’t trash what you’re passionate about, the thing that sets your soul on fire. I started my own digital publishing company and published my book online as an ebook. My husband believed in my book dream so he took out a mortgage on our home so we could print several  thousand books to supply the NZ and Pacific market. I’m grateful my book was rejected so many times because it made me learn new things and take my writing in a new direction. 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. In five years I’ve written nine books and if I stop falling off treadmills, the tenth book should be out real soon. My journey has shown me that rejection and disappointment are merely an opportunity to start again, in a new and wiser direction. When a door shuts in your face, go in thru a window or smash the house down. Remember, failure can be your friend. IF we learn from it and work harder to try again. Fa’amalosi.

 No Fefe.  When I first started sending  my stories to magazines and competitions, I would use made up fake names because I didn’t want anybody to know it was me. I was too embarrassed to own the stories of my imagination.  Especially because I am afakasi. Do we have any other mixed folks in the house? Any other fabulous fruit salad fobs. Growing up kids would mock me because my Samoan language wasn’t fluent. Or people would question my opinions at my work because they said, I didn’t understand the Samoan way of doing things. So with my writing, I worried that people would judge me and say, what does she know? She’s not a REAL Samoan. Then one day I got invited to be on a Writer’s Panel at the National University. I was thrilled. I told my mum and she said, “A panel for writers?! So why did they ask you for?” I was hurt, so mean, my own mother doubting me! But then I realized – if I cant even put my name on my stories, if I cant tell people yes Im a writer, then how can I expect other people to believe in me? It was a scary thing for me, but I started then being brave enough to put my name on my writing, and being strong enough to share my author dreams with others. Saying Yes Im a writer, Im writing a book. Surround ourselves with others who are brave enough to dream big and then work hard to make those dreams happen. Support and nurture each other.  None of this would be happening if I hadn’t let go of my fears and allowed myself to dream big. I hope each of you will have the courage to Dare to Dream – Big, bold, beautiful, fierce dreams.

A bit more about the importance of No Fefe. Many of us are mixed afakasi, It can be a beautiful vibrant thing to be made up of several rich ethnic identities/heritage, but it can also be challenging and even hurtful when we’re trying to figure out who we are and where we fit/belong. As the main character in my book Leila says, “Im too white to be brown and too brown to be white. I don’t belong anywhere.”  We do need to give our children that strong vibrant foundation that their sense of self can build on. A foundation that values all the different pieces of their mixed heritage. But we should also be careful that we don’t get stuck in a rigid box of what we believe our culture to be – at the expense of our happiness and well-being. I am proud of my heritage. But there are some things in our culture that I’m not proud of, things that are harmful to women (and men), that oppress and burden people. Culture is a living breathing growing changing thing and as such it doesn’t remain constant. I love this quote from Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie – Culture does not make people. People make culture.  Culture is about the preservation and continuity of a people. so we must look at what is harmful. What hurts us? What puts our well-being in danger? We must have the courage to ask the difficult questions and the strength to do something about the answers. Especially when it comes to the widespread problems of violence against women and children, and sexual abuse. It’s not fia palagi to want my children to be safe and happy. It’s not fia palagi to see that something in our culture is not working and to try to change it.

Fa’aaloalo.  My daughter Bella. She’s our youngest. Shakespeare’s words come to mind – Though she be but little, she is fierce. She’s everything I wasn’t when I was growing up. She’s outspoken, she’s not afraid of the dark or of bugs. She questions everything and everybody. Loves roller coasters and wants her Dad to drive faster! My husband says she’s kuoli. That means she’s a rebel, she’s fearless. Some of my family disapprove. They say we need to fa’atonu her better. Make her be quiet.

But I don’t want to shut her up and shut her down.  My goal as her mother, is to guide that fearlessness so that its tempered with respect. I want her to keep questioning and challenging – but with words and actions that are respectful of those around her. Too often I think we confuse fear with respect. We think our children have to be scared of us or else they wont listen and be willing to learn from us. We think our youth have to be threatened and strong-armed into obedience. Many times I see us Samoans discourage questions, debate and discussion. I would teach a class of Pacific Islander kids and nobody has anything to argue or question. Teach a class of palagi kids and whoooa, you want them to stop being so argumentative. We say its le fa’aaloalo, disrespectful. It’s fia palagi. But is it really?

My father is the high chief, the tama aiga of his village and has been for many years. His title ranks him as the senior of his village matai but it doesn’t make him the boss. Have you been to a village council meeting? Or sat outside of one? They go on forever. Everybody gets to talk and share their ideas and opinions. Even the lowest ranking matai. Yes, they use very eloquent language dotted with lots of lengthy proverbs and flowery descriptors to get their point across but it’s a debate and discussion all the same. Just a very respectfully expressed one. Same with the meetings of the aualuma and Womens Komiti. Decisions are made via consensus. I don’t know about you, but that’s a Samoan cultural practise and value that I want to maintain/keep hold of. We may not all live in a village but we can certainly model our family communication on the pattern practised by a Village Council. We can model leadership that is inclusive and that welcomes difference. We can teach our youth how to ask questions, challenge ideas, and discuss differing viewpoints with respect, honesty and openness.

I’m so grateful for the sacred opportunity to be a mother. My children test me, challenge and amaze me – and Bella is no exception. She teaches me every day. Bold, funny, witty, fierce and often way too smart for us, she gives us great joy.

 I’ve told you bits and pieces of my story and now I leave you with a question –what will the story of YOUR life be? You are young, gifted and blessed with precious opportunities. There is no limit to what you are capable of. Other than the limits you place on yourself and your imagination.

Our families are our greatest strength, supporters and inspiration. But they can only do so much. The final choices are with you and you alone. When it comes to your education, we can encourage (and yell at you)  but your path, your journey – where you go and what you achieve will rely on YOU and what you choose to do with the opportunities you have been given

You are the master craftsman of your life’s story. Have the courage to write it the way you want it to be. Don’t let your story be one of regrets, half-hearted effort and missed opportunities. Make it one worth sharing.  One that moves and motivates. Fill your next chapter with big bold and beautiful dreams – made real through your hard work and commitment. I can’t wait to read your stories!

Keynote address given at the Australia Launch of the Scarlet Lies Series, Queensland University of Technology, Australia. 

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