04 May The Love story that is Telesa.
Five years ago, more than thirty different publishers rejected the Telesa book manuscript. They said there was no market for a fiery Pasifika romance set in Samoa, not even for one with a boy as dalashious as Daniel. Five years ago, my dream of writing stories that people in many different places all over the world would read, seemed pretty impossible. So perhaps you can imagine then, how thrilled I am to be here in American Samoa. I just got back from an author tour to Utah and now Im here connecting with so many people who either read my books or my blog (or who have gotten angry at me because of some of my newspaper columns). I see many familiar faces, either from Samoa or from Facebook, so I feel at home, like I am amongst family and friends. Tonight feels like a celebration of some of the things that make our Samoan heritage a rich and vibrant one. The warmth of community, laughter, young and old coming together as extended family aiga, and the presence of so many strong fierce Pasifika women who are so often the backbone of our families. Thank you all for coming.
I was asked to talk a little about the Telesa book journey and then open up for questions –
My Telesa Series is a love story about Leila and Daniel and all they must overcome to be together. But it’s also a love story in a few other ways.
First, the publishing journey of these books is also a love story about how a man called Darren encouraged his wife to go ahead and publish her book even after it was rejected so many times. This was no small thing. We’d just moved to NZ with 5 children, neither of us had a job at that point and we certainly didn’t have the money to make print books happen. But he was insistent and so we took out a loan on our home to get the 1st bk printed. I was terrified it would crash and burn, but Darren reassured me, “It doesn’t matter what happens – the important thing is that we give your dream 100%. Me and the kids are here for you no matter what.” My writing career continues to require many sacrifices and Darren’s willingness to support me goes beyond money. There aren’t many men who can be the quiet, sure strength that enables a woman to pursue her creative dreams – that kind of love is rare. If any of you have been readers of my blog since the beginning then you’ll know just how patient the man is! Actually, for the longest time, he didn’t realize what I was blogging about. He never went on the internet because he was too busy working and running. He’s not here (because somebody has to stay home and look after the five kids) but I want to pay tribute to the man whose love helps make my books possible.
Secondly, SAMOA: Telesa is also a story about how much I love Samoa and the cultures of our cousins in Tonga, Niue, Tokelau, Fiji, Cook Islands, Hawaii and many more. The food, the natural beauty, the flowers, the horrible heat, the bugs, the buses, the humor, family, the (sweaty half-naked guys playing rugby) – it’s all in there. One of the greatest highlights for me, is to take these books home, do a book reading in the fale in my parent’s garden, go back to my old school Samoa College to talk to the students about the importance of education in pursuing their dreams, to see my Dad’s pride with every new book. My father always believed I would be a writer, he would tell me, ‘one day you’re going to be a famous author’. I’ll always remember the time I wrote a story for my new English teacher in Samoa College and she gave me a zero because she said, I had plagiarized it from somewhere because ‘its too good. Theres no way a teenager like you could have written a story like this.’ My father was so angry and he came to school to tell her how wrong she was.
He had to wait more than 35 yrs before being able to hold my book in his hands and even though teen romance isn’t his thing, he tries so valiantly to read them and tell me I like it, very good! Parents have such a vital part to play in nurturing our creativity and our dreams – and I’m grateful to my mum and Dad for their support.
This series was the first by a homegrown Samoan author to enter the e-book world. Having a Samoan novel available in digital format makes it readily accessible – and takes the unique appeal of our stories to an untapped global audience. As a parent and an English teacher, I’m passionate about literacy – which is why I have made my first Telesa book available for free download several times in the past few years, specifically for Pasifika youth and students worldwide who otherwise would not be able to afford the book. More than 60,000 people have gotten a free copy this way (and that’s only the legal downloads). The key is accessibility – and then through these stories, more people can discover our unique home and heritage.
A UK book reviewer said, ‘Samoa is like a whole other character in the story that I couldn’t help falling in love with. I had never heard of the place but now, I can’t wait to go there.’ I get many requests from readers for recipes for the delicious Samoan food in the books, asking for recommendations of where they should stay when they come visit, directions to Daniel’s workshop… One American reader was so enamoured of the country and culture she found in these books that earlier this year, she came on a budget journey of discovery to Samoa. She stayed on a remote plantation in a broken down fale that she had to weave her own pola and harvest her own food. She was posting all these pics on Facebook with tags like, ‘Look, I’m cutting grass with a sapelu just like Leila!…’ and ‘I’m grating coconuts to make fa’alifu kalo like what Leila’s aunty makes in the book!’ and ‘Here I am at a forest pool, hoping to meet Daniel…
I wrote Telesa because it’s the kind of book I wanted to read – one with people and a culture I could relate to, a story that we Pasifika women could see ourselves in. (or at least dream ourselves in…) And it’s this which so many Pacific readers worldwide are embracing, as they too, like Leila long to connect more with their own cultural heritage. Many of us can also identify with Leila’s feelings of being ‘too brown to be white and too white to be brown’. Identity and belonging are strong threads running thru the books. Leila comes to Samoa in search of family and a place to belong and I think her journey mirrors similar experiences for many of us at some point in our lives.
My love for Samoa – as my home, my family, my heritage – is on every page of these books, and I feel so very privileged that I can share it with readers all over the world.
Which brings me to the third key feature of this journey. YOU. My books are written with you and for you. Thanks to social media, the Telesa writing journey is not one I took alone. Many of you kept me company along the way and it was your passion, excitement and love for this story that fuelled my own creativity and writing fire. The only reason why these books have gone anywhere is because You – and thousands of other readers like you throughout the world have proven those publishers wrong as you helped take this Samoan love story to a global audience, to places I never imagined it would go. I have been particularly blessed to connect with so many awesome Pasifika women doing awesome things in their families and communities – women who have embraced the books and worked tirelessly to share them. My author journey has been one which has taught me the power to be found in sisterhood. Which is fitting for a book where all the main characters are powerful female authority figures (with the exception of Daniel).
You have shown what is possible when we support/nurture Samoa stories. Let us resolve to show that same support as parents, teachers, leaders and a community – to all those with a quiet creative spark within them. There is a hunger worldwide for our stories and we need more of them told – whether it be through song, dance, music, fashion, art or the written word. From experience, I know its never too late to follow a dream, to fight for a dream – you are never too old, too busy, or have too many children – to unleash the creative fire within.
Keynote address, Telesa Talanoa Evening, Barstow Public Library, American Samoa.