Afakasi Speaks, by Grace Teuila Evelyn Taylor.
Ala Press. $12.95.
In the Pacific, genealogy is vital, not only in terms of family but also land and mentors. Born and raised in South Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Grace Teuila Evelyn Taylor is the daughter of a Samoan mother and an English father. She identifies as an Afakasi poet, a Samoan term that describes indigenous people of mixed ancestry in Samoa. Although Afakasi has been used in dismissive, if not derogatory, ways, Pacific women poets like Selina Tusitala Marsh, Taylor, and Lee Kava are reclaiming the term to engage issues of mixed ancestry and belonging in more nuanced and empowering ways. Taylor codirects Niu Navigations and cofounded the South Auckland Poets Collective and the Rising Voices Youth Poetry Movement. Mentorship is central to Taylor’s career, and it is noteworthy that her graduate research for Te Ara Poutama at Auckland University of Technology discusses the relation between spoken word poetry and Pacific youth. Most recently, in collaboration with Ala Press, Taylor published a debut collection that speaks boldly and honestly about being an Afakasi woman in Oceania. In the span of nineteen poems, Afakasi Speaks navigates questions of gender, movement, and belonging. Indeed the collection is a map of multiple and overlapping “polytricks” of Afakasi.
The book begins in the spirit of gratitude. Grace dedicates her first poem “Afastina” to her performance poet predecessors Marsh and Tusiata Avia. Like Marsh and Avia, Grace uses poetry to explore themes of overcoming shame and “missed belongings” as an Afakasi woman. Both her first and second poem, “Polytricks of Afakasi,” directly engage the cultural roles to which mixed-race Pacific women are often assigned. Unsurprisingly, however, a major thrust of Afakasi Speaks is a rejection of a fixed and knowable “I.” The title “Polytricks of Afakasi,” for example, emphasizes the multiplicity of identity — “poly is many.” Indeed throughout “Polytricks,” the Afakasi woman is identified in a variety of cultural spaces in which the politics of identity are enacted: a tattoo shop, language class, the kitchen, the stage, and government. Significantly, these spaces put the Afakasi body on display in different ways, suggesting a shape-shifting and arguably trickster quality of Afakasi identity.
Yet the ability to move between cultural roles is not romanticized or taken for granted. The social, economic, and political implications of movement through space are not ignored. In the poem “Afakasi Has No Name,” more than ten portraits of diasporic Afakasi are shared, each identified by a specific place (East Auckland, Brisbane, South Auckland, etc.) and a unique attitude toward his or her genealogy:
Diaspora’s child is Afakasi wishing you wouldjust throw them in the deep endsink or swimtrust them when they say they are willing.
Just as identity is seen as multiple and overlapping, the experience of movement in Afakasi Speaks, whether on an individual, familial, or transnational scale, is complex. Taylor does not shy away from these complexities because, as she explains, “I am Afakasi speaking. / This is my responsibility.” Poetry is a cultural responsibility. As I imagine the empowering effects this statement has on the young Pacific poets in Taylor’s workshops, these lines echo a powerful assertion of native voices and imaginations.
To elaborate on Afakasi identity and movement, Taylor also employs the Samoan concept of vā. The word denotes in-between space and is rooted in Pacific understandings of kinship and community building. Leading Samoan figures such as Albert Wendt, Marsh, and Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard have examined vā in critical and creative projects, consistently emphasizing its interactive quality. Calling to mind Epeli Hau‘ofa’s reminder of “our sea of islands,” vā is a means of connection and sustenance; it does not represent empty space nor does it signify opposition. Vā is relational. The word is similarly used in Tonga, Rotuma, and Tahiti. In Hawai‘i and Aotearoa, it is known as wā.
The questions thus emerge: Between which spaces does Taylor’s Afakasi identity move? How are non-Afakasi readers positioned to the Afakasi of the book? Race, while relevant, is not a satisfactory answer. Again, Afakasi Speaks complicates binaries to acknowledge multiplicity. In the poem “I Am the Va,” binaries proliferate: brown-white, rain-dirt, life-death, mother-father, knowing-being unknown. Yet two significant interventions are made. First, the speaker of the poem rejects the assumption that Afakasi identity is a passive inheritance — “as if skin soldiers // invaded white into us // and we just let them.” The illusion of choice is contexualized by histories of violence, colonialism, and patriarchy. Notably, however, the poem also explains: “mud reveals.” In subsequent allusions to the Samoan creation story, the speaker locates the process of mixing in Samoan land (“when the rain and dirt swim”) as well as Samoan history (“U and Polu”). Consequently, Afakasi genealogy is perceived as knowledgeable and connected rather than contaminated or watered down.
The refusal of Afakasi to be victims of history informs the second intervention of “I Am the Va.” The speaker claims her own in-between space, which is defined by knowledge rather than race. Taylor writes:
I am the spacebetween ignorance and acceptance.So cut me upscatter me among yourselvesand use meto fill the gaps.
The command to “cut me up // ... // and use me // to fill the gaps” expands the claim for space from the physical to the social, historical, and political. Although white space divides the page into two columns of text, ostensibly duplicating a binary, the distance between each line functions as self-reflexive space. In these vā, readers are encouraged to reflect on the separation between bloodlines, between responsibilites, between ways of knowing. The gaps are generative and Taylor’s Afakasi voice is a creative resource.
Although Taylor is well known for her spoken word performances, she proves to be a commanding presence on the page. “Facebook Said,” for instance, is a word cloud poem. In 2012, Taylor posted the following question as her Facebook status: “What does Afakasi mean to you?” Taylor uploaded the status comments to a word cloud generator to produce a poem. The visual representation includes phrases such as “Living the two,” “Knowing the two,” “Divided you stand,” “The third space,” and “Learning twice.” While the poems in Afakasi Speaks are certainly adaptable for the stage, they hold innovative ground in print.
The collection also features artwork by Jahra Rager, Richard Symons, Aleyna Martinez, and Reina Sutton. The incorporation of these pieces reveals a supportive network between Pacific poets and artists while creating provocative juxtapositions to Taylor’s words. For instance, the black-and-white photograph of Jahra Rager taken by Richard Symons, entitled Afastina, is placed between the poems “Afastina” and “Polytricks of Afakasi,” which address issues of gender, body, and display. These are dynamic explorations of Afakasi identity.
Ultimately, Afakasi Speaks participates in the decolonizing practice of reframing. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith explains:
The framing of an issue is about making decisions about its parameters, about what is in the foreground, what is in the background, and what shadings or complexities exist within the frame.
In this brave debut, Taylor chooses to foreground underrepresented discussions of Afakasi people. In her attention to ongoing formations of Afakasi identity in Oceania, Taylor addresses vital intersections between gender, kinship, and belonging. Her poems also initiate new considerations of the metaphorical value of vā in Pacific poetry.
— No‘u Revilla
Star Waka, by Robert Sullivan.
Auckland University Press. $27.99.
Robert Sullivan is a poet of Māori (Ngāpuhi) and Irish ancestry. A former librarian, Sullivan has published seven collections of poetry, coedited two anthologies with Albert Wendt and Reina Whaitiri, wrote a book retelling Māori mythology, and wrote a graphic novel about the Māori and Polynesian god and culture hero, Māui. In considering Sullivan’s collection Star Waka, published in 1999, it is important to remember that this collection, which deals with the concept of waka (sea-going vessels) and Māori voyaging traditions, was published after a two-and-a-half decade revival of traditional voyaging throughout the Pacific by various groups and voyaging practitioners. This places this text at a critical junction in which to articulate what the continuation of this revival may mean and what it may look like. This is even more poignant given that this collection was published before the start of the new millennium.
In the opening note to the collection, Sullivan writes that he “wrote Star Waka with some threads to it: that each poem must have a star, a waka, or the ocean.” These threads are evident in the way Sullivan shifts narration in his poems. One poem may be written in third person, while others take on the voice of different atua (gods), heroes, other historical voices, or even Sullivan himself. By giving voice to a range of characters, Sullivan tells a fuller story than had he focused on one narrator, himself, or kept the poems in the first person. It was important to me to examine how he voices the deities that show up in this collection, particularly Tangaroa, the atua of the oceans.
Tangaroa is mentioned throughout the collection, but as a character he doesn’t begin to develop until “Waka 61 Fragment.” The poem describes the motion of a paddle in the ocean, and how its forward movement in the water “slaps Tangaraoa’s back /(who sometimes slaps back).” This is the first time we see Tangaroa’s personality. In his second appearance, Tangaroa appears more fully while at a pub when “a guy with a waka attitude walks in.” Tangaroa looks him up and down and notices his moko, or tattoo. He sees that they are related through Tangaroa’s bother, the main atua Tāne, and then pays for the drink. This Tangaroa comes off as slightly irritated and grumpy, but he still engages the guy with a “waka attitude.” Finally we see Tangaroa in a full soliloquy toward the end of the collection. Here, in “Waka 95,” Tangaroa calls himself “Lord of this domain,” in this case the domain of waka, the domain of ocean. His voice is defiant, like the ocean, challenging the reader as if they were a member of the crew (and they might be, as one gets the feeling that the collection itself is a waka meant to be traversed). Tangaroa’s voice moves from vague to more defined throughout the collection. He becomes one of only a handful of voices showing this range of emotion.
My problem with this collection is the lack of female voices and points of view. Certainly women made the waka journey from the Māori ancestral homelands to Aotearoa, though they are not represented here. Perhaps it is an oversight, but it is one that left me wondering about the completeness of Star Waka in fully engaging the stories of waka, Māori, and Aotearoa. I hope Sullivan will remedy this by writing new waka poems where women’s voices come through.
While many poets could have focused on past traditions, Sullivan moves the reader through space and time, much like a navigator moving the crew toward a destination. By envisoning waka into the future Sullivan frames the continuation not only of voyaging, but of Māori themselves. Such is the case in “46,” when he writes:
it is feasible that we will enterspacecolonise planets call our spacecraft wakaperhaps name them after the first fleeterect marae transport carvers renew storieswith celestial import.
— D. Keali‘i MacKenzie
Fast Talking PI, by Selina Tusitala Marsh.
Auckland University Press. $27.99.
Albert Wendt remarks on the back cover of Selina Tusitala Marsh’s first book of poetry, Fast Talking PI, that a new generation of poets has emerged in Oceania, and Marsh is one of the best among them. Fast Talking PI does a lot of things, embracing many forms and many topics, which makes the work feel a little scattered, but perhaps that’s the point. There are moments of mythic intensity when Marsh shows why she is among the best in the Pacific.
Marsh writes as a Pacific woman — a mana wahine — a mother as well as a daughter who is aware of her generational place as an inheritor of a Pacific poetic genealogy. In 2004 Marsh became the first Pacific Islander to graduate from the University of Auckland with a PhD in English. Her thesis was a study of five female Pacific poets, Jully Makini, Grace Mera Molisa, Haunani-Kay Trask, Konai Helu Thaman, and Momoe Malietoa Von Reiche. Born in 1971, when many of these women were already in their prime, Marsh seems conscious of these and other women of color as her intellectual and artistic forebears. In “Circle of Stones” she takes her place among these women, saying:
for once let the children ask their fathers for foodlet the students argue points of view with someone else. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .in this space of ancient vigil, we watch our children growin this space of initiation, our hands grant us entry.
The subsequent references to female Pacific writers who are either “reaping” or “sowing” demonstrate Marsh’s conception of the poetic and political continuity that is the (female) Pacific poet’s ongoing project.
Marsh shows through her poetry that she also knows the importance of embracing multiplicity, as well as the complexities of Oceanic identities today. Of an Afakasi heritage (she claims “Samoan, Tuvalu, English and French descent” in her bio), Marsh performs the multiplicity inherent in a “PI” identity in the titular poem of the collection. In a move reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes,” Marsh claims to encompass this multiplicity within herself.
Marsh also embraces a multiplicity of forms in this collection, exploring everything from spoken word to lyric to found poems to lists (what Hawaiian writers might call helu — an indigenous form in its own right). But in my opinion, Marsh is at her best in the moments when she writes in a spiritually heightened, mythological tone, as in the poem “Afakasi,” which might be read as the less playful, more mystical sister poem to “Fast Talkin’ PI.” Here is Marsh writing about the spaces in all of us, and what they might contain:
Half moons agopeople were hollowed-out tablets of stonespaces were given themaccording to spaces they left. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .in other spaces hovered pouliulite kore, a nothingness, a yawning galaxyinto these spaces the young would dip their forefingersrubbing the blackness on their lipsa moko mapping where they had beenand where they were to go.
But Marsh’s collection is also largely about sass. The second of the book’s three sections is called “Talkback” and seems to be dedicated to the postcolonial (and/or decolonial) project of writing back to empire. Whereas the first section, titled “Tusitala,” exhibits a softer, more starry-eyed poetics based on the political stance that emerges from everyday life as a mother, daughter, and Pacific Islander poet, “Talkback” is edgier, angrier, and more dangerous. Marsh explains to her readers why “Guys like Gauguin” piss her off and takes Captain Cook to task for allowing his crew to spread venereal infections among Pacific Islanders. In “Contact 101” Marsh meditates on the colonial gaze in its many forms, and in “What’s Sarong With This?” she moves her discussion of the exploitation of Pacific Islander women into the tourist-industry-commodified present.
Throughout the collection Marsh makes efforts to speak the language of popular youth culture, and though at times the results come off a little momish, the effort shows how Marsh is working as a bridge, inhabiting the vā between generations, in order to nurture and sustain the “ill semantics” of Pacific poets that are growing up now. This nurturing project runs parallel to Marsh’s work as a parent and teacher, which she documents in poems like “Things on Thursdays,” “Cardboard Crowns,” and “Song for Terry.” In a sarcastic tone, she writes:
I turn the volume downas the in-law comes to checkthat the pot is still roundthe stove still squarethe bubbles from the sapasuithe correct spherical dimensions for grandchildrenly consumption.— From Song for Terry
Marsh looks both forward and back, at her children but also at the people who claim her as a child still. It’s this positioning between past and future that makes Marsh’s work feel different, vital, and regenerative:
I call forth the smaller handunfurling in the biggerwhanau spiraling likean unfathomable prime.— From A Samoan Star-Chant for Matariki
Marsh’s work might easily be characterized as ethnic literature, or “world literature,” by non-Pacific Islander audiences. Indeed, her work draws attention with its assertion of a cultural voice. But Marsh doesn’t seem interested in writing for the audience of the metropole, instead working to feed the audience within Oceania that is hungry for such contemporary content in an era when many peoples are still colonized, and there is still far to go in drawing attention to and honoring Pacific literature in all its many forms. The best moments in her poetry do this work by standing in connection with other great poetries of the Pacific. She writes:
I call forth the music of bone flutesthe chant, the song, the karakiaguiding the traveller’s feetand heavenward eyes.
— Kelsey Amos
from “unincorporated territory [guma’],” by Craig Santos Perez.
Omnidawn Publishing. $17.95.
Over the course of centuries, colonialism, militarism, capitalism, and methods of Western academia have tried to make maps of the Pacific that erase and belittle Pacific Islander connections to land and ocean. But Pacific peoples move, create, change, and love in ways that work outside and against systems bent on mapping minds and bodies along lines of Western ways of knowing and being.
Craig Santos Perez dedicates his third installment of the unincorporated territory series to creating an indigenous and diasporic mapping of home, land, ocean, and people. In his newest book, from “unincorporated territory [guma’],” Perez draws on his background as a Chamorro raised both on Guåhan and in the Chamorro diaspora to work out lines of connection across time, place, and memory. He draws from personal memories, family narratives, archival records, and Chamorro legends to viscerally engage his readers with urgent issues of militarization and displacement. Perez also creates multiple layers of mapping that connect beyond the immediate moment to bring in stories that portray Chamorros looking to reinforce and recreate homes of self, people, land, and ocean.
[guma’] encapsulates a particular urgency due to the historical, political, and cultural contexts within which the book is published. Perez’s island home of Guåhan is the longest continuously occupied place in the Pacific, having been first invaded by the Spanish in the 1500s. The processes of colonialism radically restructured islander relationships to movement through militarization, missionization, and the sociopolitical restructuring of people’s relationship to land. Perez’s work is so important because he re-articulates past, present, and future Chamorro movement by poetically situating maps, signs, repetition, variation, and pattern throughout [guma’]. It is the articulation of home that is foregrounded in the mappings of each poem. This is mirrored in Perez’s words toward the end of one of the poems titled “ginen (sub)aerial roots,” where the italicized voice states “map aerial and sub-aerial roots ... from multiple points of migration and return ... because every poem is a navigational chant.”
Perez’s work is all the more poignant because it speaks on emotional, psychological, and physical levels against the US government’s military buildup on Guåhan. (Dis)connections of memory, war, militarization, death, and continued occupation are a central part of [guma’]. Indeed, the multiple ideas of home are foregrounded in Perez’s use of archival records of past and present military service and lists of indigenous Mariana Islanders killed in US military operations. Perez’s poetry and activism thus flow together within immediate political contexts that threaten to further erase Chamorro ways of remembering and connecting through their own homeland.
What is so unique about [guma’] is that it is also a space of holding memory. Perez uses the spaces of his poems — indeed the spaces between them as well — to work through Chamorro signs and symbols that speak to specific perspectives on indigenousness, sovereignty, and diaspora. In the context of everyday resistance to US encroachment on sacred Chamorro lands, native peoples giving their lives in military operations, and the threat of rising sea levels, Perez’s work makes spaces that do not discriminate between memories, but take all aspects of memory, despair, humor, sexuality, disconnection, loss, grief, fear, and vulnerability into the pages of his work.
[guma’] is mapped along the lines of seven series of poems that keep their basic titles (with some variations) over the course of four sections. The order of these poems works in a radiating and repetitive pattern, like a net being cast in all directions by a fisherman — or in this case, a navigator. It is not necessarily the pattern of repetition that is most important, though this does point to the significance of sacred numbers and patterns in indigenous cultures. The patterns suggest the changing landmarks of memory as the poems move in nonlinear narratives through time and space.
Working across the major themes of navigating home, memory, translation, decolonization, and activism, Perez moves between different voices through italicized, non-italicized, bracketed, and non-bracketed words to create commentary on vacillations between what is protective in the idea of home, and what is in fact a cage. While the main image of the book is the latte, which are the limestone pillars that “formed the foundations of homes, schools, canoe shelters, food sheds, and communal spaces,” it is the articulation of home within and beyond these foundations that creates the multidimensional layers of the book. The latte pillars are like the brackets that Perez uses around the inclusive pronouns “we” and “our,” connoting a safety within Chamorro community and indigenous self.
When Perez writes in his last poem that “guaha means/to exist,” Perez is using the base of his language to work through all other layers of expressing existence and identity in the idea of home — Guåhan. Perez’s poetry, which is the basis of his cultural, political, and historical commentary, is extremely important to all Pacific Islanders as we work to decolonize Oceania.
— Lee Kava
Searching for Nei Nim’anoa, by Teresia Kieuea Teaiwa.
Searching for Nei Nim’anoa is the first collection of poetry by Teresia Kieuea Teaiwa, the well-acclaimed Pacific poet, teacher, activist, and scholar of militarism and feminism. Published in 1995 by Mana Publications in Suva, Fiji, this collection includes poems spanning over a decade and provides a poetics for navigating mixed identity, woman-ness, education, and genealogy. It is the kind of collection to soak in alone at night; to copy in letters to dear friends and sisters; to read to mothers and grandmothers. The book speaks unapologetically to the fears and pain of a young Pacific Islander woman finding her way.
Searching for Nei Nim’anoa asks how one can navigate identity and genealogy while in a constant state of movement and growth. In the preface, Teaiwa tells us that this collection “chronicles my search for emotional and intellectual roots” as a woman of mixed heritages — Banaban, Gilbertese, and African American. In an empowering move that guides the collection, she then explains that she has “adopted” Nei Nim’anoa, a powerful female navigator in Gilbertese mythology, as an ancestor. Throughout the collection’s four sections, “Within the Blood,” “Among Friends and Lovers,” “Along the Lines,” and “In Broken Gilbertese,” Teaiwa allows us to witness the intimate struggles and successes of this kind of complex nonlinear navigation through roots and routes.
Teaiwa’s poetry explores the contradictions of a mixed identity, touching on pain and cultural loss while building a voice strong and resourceful enough to cross those kinds of stormy seas. In a poem titled “Mixed Blood,” she challenges an audience who doesn’t understand or accept her identity in a witty and confrontational way:
They ask meHOWIresolvemy identity.As if it were aproblem.
In “Refrain,” Teaiwa shares verses in “broken Gilbertese” that she has composed in response to not being spoken to by Banaban and Gilbertese people, “because they think I can’t understand the language.” She repeats the line “E kabin taetaen I-Kiribati” (which she translates in the glossary as “She’s incompetent in Gilbertese”) as a lament echoing across the distance between herself and her communities. She is named as an outsider, “Neiere reirei i Amerika” (the one who studied in the US). This poem records the internal refrains of holding both difference and distance. Though not many of these poems overtly critique state politics and histories, they help us name the political and the colonial in personal experience, and speak to audiences awakened to these issues in their own lives.
Searching for Nei Nim’anoa complicates themes of racial, cultural, and indigenous identity with issues of gender and revises feminism for a Pacific context. In a powerful poem titled “For Salome, because your name means ‘Peace,’” two voices alternate between an incantatory, mythological story that repeats the image and question: “Have you ever seen and heard / a woman stand on the beach / and wail, wail at the sea and sky?” and an enraged voice fighting with the story of a woman as land, as island, rooted, alone, wailing at the “pounding, lashing and whipping” of the sea. This poem refuses to romanticize ideas of Oceania and Pacific Islander identity and culture, demanding that we see the battered and broken women along the way. This poem also demands we notice the specificity of women’s pain within larger narratives of historical change, and could be read provocatively with Teaiwa’s later work on gender and militarization in the Pacific — as the poem puts it, “the peace of pain and the pain of peace.”
But brokenness doesn’t foreclose the possibility of movement or navigation. The techniques she employs — vignettes of prose poetry, lines and words visually broken and reshaped across the page, shifts in voice and character — help the reader practice with Teaiwa the skills of navigating across pieces and shards. The lyric “I” that runs through most of the collection marks a strong guiding consciousness actively searching for connection. Teaiwa returns repeatedly to ancestral figures and creatively rewrites her origins for guidance in the present. In a poem titled “Foremothers,” she recounts a dream of three female ancestors from America, Africa, and the Pacific — Nei Kieuea, Bertha, and Zenobia — singing together and playing a rhythmic “stick game” that ends in a fire that they all step into after kissing each other goodbye. “When I awoke I anointed myself with the ashes,” Teaiwa tells us. These three ancestors of hers never met in their lifetimes, but Teaiwa shows us that they can meet through her, in other realms that can still affect this one.
The title poem, “Searching for Nei Nim’anoa,” takes brokenness as a starting point for finding and being found. The poem ends with a faith in reciprocity — that Teaiwa is not speaking into a dead past, or a void, but to ancestors that continue to live and who have the power to act and be heard:
If I don’t find herTaoShe’ll find me.
One of the main poetic techniques of this collection is the use of repetition, and here we see the recursive move of circling back, of breaking straight timelines, as essential to Teaiwa’s empowering poetics of navigation: returning to sources and origins, listening to the resonance of roots and routes, following and breaking from rituals and traditions.
— Aiko Yamashiro
Kelsey Amos is a graduate student at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
Lee Kava is a Hafekasi poet and musician of Tongan descent currently pursuing her PhD in creative writing at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
D. Keali‘i MacKenzie is a graduate student at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Center for Pacific Islands Studies.
No‘u Revilla is the author of Say Throne (Tinfish Press, 2011). She is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
Aiko Yamashiro is a student and co-instigator of decolonial poetry projects at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.