08 May We are storytellers and scholars too

‘I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams.’

The Samoan word for writer is ‘tusitala’, which means, storyteller – and that’s pretty much what I do.  I tell stories for a living. I get to wear my pyjamas and sweats and never leave my hermit cave all day. I’m the author of ten books, lots of other stuff like stories for the NZ School Journal, and a bunch of other stuff. I also worked as a journalist and an editor for an online newspaper.

As a writer, I love words. And today I’d like to share a few of my favorites with you.  My favorite F words. No, not that kind of F word! Your faces just now reminded me of my face yesterday.

The first one is 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 HER NAME IS 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?  Aunty Ita and her siblings didn’t get a chance to have much schooling, but they had very high expectations for all their children and grandchildren. They didn’t believe there were smart people and dumb people no. They believed there were people who worked hard and set high goals. And people who are lazy. So they taught us, that if you work hard then you will excel.

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 they’re 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 skills. 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 can’t let that family of pigs beat you! We are Wendts. You must work hard. You must fight. You must kill her, ua iloa?” Whoa aunty,  a bit over the top there!

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. Many of my uncles and aunts and cousins were scholarship students and in our family are professors, engineers, accountants, teachers, lawyers, and authors.

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! I’d forgotten the most important lesson,from  my great auntie Ita and my grandfather –  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.

Learn from my first year mistake. Make the most of every learning opportunity. Now my name is a personal reminder of how fia-poto I can be.

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

 In Samoa, the students who get those top placings are the popular students, they’re 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. Not even rugby.

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. 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 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. 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 are fighting to get one of those 100 spots. I’m not being palagi, this is being Samoan.

Being Samoan 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 Year 5, 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 got to high school yet…)

When I graduated from high school, I went to Georgetown University and then transferred to university in NZ where I completed my degree in English Literature and Women’s Studies, followed by a postgrad studies in Education. I then went back to Samoa 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.

I share this with you so you will remember, we are more than successful football players, wrestlers, boxers and The Rock movie stars. We are academics and scholars too. Remember, that as Samoan 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 its also a responsibility you carry.

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, they’re 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. 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. Fa’amalosi.

Finally, 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? I don’t know what its like to be afakasi here in Tutuila, but in Samoa, sometimes it’s a challenge. 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 I’m 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. My books have found many thousands of readers worldwide and inspired many other artists and dreamers. 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.

 I’ve told you bits and pieces of my story and now I leave you with a question – as you begin the next chapter 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. 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 education and 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 cant wait to read your stories!

An edited version of an address given at the American Samoa Community College, May 2015. 

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