‘I belong to Oceania – or, at least, I am rooted in a fertile portion of it – and it nourishes my spirit, helps to define me, and feeds my imagination.’
– Albert Wendt, ‘Towards a New Oceania’
Last year I attended a conference at Western Sydney University that focused on teaching and empowering students from Pasifika backgrounds to break racist stereotypes in the workplace. I saw Samoan and Fijian employees from the ABC, SBS and even one Tongan who ran a recording studio in California and swore his neighbour was George Lucas. Each of these community leaders made a similar point when they gave their presentations: ‘You can get a good job – even if you are fob.’ The first problem I had with this message was that it assumed my aunties working at Arnott’s Biscuit Factory along the M4 were part of the ‘underachieving class’ of ‘Pacific Islanders.’ The second problem, which created the first, was that the conference had been organised by four White women. At the end of the event I watched one of the organisers curse the Samoan catering staff because they provided only puaka (pig) and lu sipi (beef wrapped in taro leaves) – and no vegan options.
In making this complaint, this woman reinforced the idea that a White-left middle class diet is the ‘healthier’ and ‘better’ food for general consumption. The irony is, even though it was her job to promote Pacific culture, survival and visibility, she still assumed we were all too fat and stupid to be healthy; and she made sure it was her job to tell us so. When well-meaning White people step in to facilitate a discussion about my community empowerment is never the result, no matter how much they want it to be.
Having attended numerous events like this for the last few years, which are always built on the idea of empowering migrant and Indigenous communities, I have come to understand that White people believe that they are the centre of any and all discussions. As Ghassan Hage says, this belief in White supremacy is a fantasy – but it is one that governs Australian cultural politics. When people in Australia who are outside of my community try to represent the Pacific, what we get is the Pacific Solution and Chris Lilley’s Jonah from Tonga. These constructions of my tribe do nothing to reduce incarceration rates of Tongan men in Australia, (which in 2010 was the highest of any ethnic group in the country). They also do nothing to address the fact that most of the general Australian population earns twice as much as Pasifikas even though we work the same hours.
When confronted with such limiting representations of my community, I always ask: where are the intelligent and hardworking men I grew up around? Where are the feminist matriarchal women who raised me? Where is my light-skinned plus-sized queer aunty who works at a bank and can speak two languages? Where am I? In order to achieve genuine empowerment, Oceanian and Pasifika people must be in control of the events, dialogues and policies that define our fate – and we need to be the primary and lead creators of our own narratives. We need the space to create and tell our own stories in our own way.
In this essay, I want to argue that self-representation in culturally and linguistically diverse communities creates healing and empowerment for everyone. It also means that some people have to occupy a lot more space – and others have to stop taking up so much space. I want to argue against the deluded idea that only the dominant White culture can create healing dialogues. (And by healing, I mean healing the wounds of colonialism). It is not my intention to ostracise White readers, rather my purpose is to include people of colour in a discussion that is entirely about us.
African-American writer, feminist and civil rights activist bell hooks argues for the healing power of self-representation in her 1989 book, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. By engaging in a type of speaking that is both resistant and self-transformative, ostracised groups can move from ‘being object to being subject’ – an act hooks calls ‘coming to voice.’ Two Tongan authors and scholars, Epeli Hau‘ofa and Karlo Mila, provide strong examples of the kind of self-representative prose we need. Their work shows how limited depictions of Pacific communities can be challenged.
Australia’s lack of forward movement in terms of understanding race is shown, in part, when people refer to me as a fob. This term is shorthand for ‘fresh off the boat.’ My people were once seen as innovative navigators of the Pacific Ocean; in more recent years, we have been grouped as illegal immigrants or ‘overstayers’ with the rest of the ‘third-world looking’ migrant population. Those of us seen as ‘legitimate’ are often referred to as ‘Pacific Islanders’ – a name used by politicians, schoolteachers and the general public. However, the term ‘Pacific Islander’ does not accurately represent those of us raised in countries like Australia or with an established Indigenous-Pacific identity like Māoris. The more complex terms that refer to people of South Pacific heritage are: ‘Oceanian’ and ‘Pasifika.’
Epeli Hau‘ofa defines Oceanian as Indigenous people of the South Pacific who have ‘lived in our region and [are] committed to Oceania[.]’ Togi Lemanu advocates for the use of the term ‘Pasifika’ because it helps to recognise those of us with Oceanian heritage but who were not born in our homeland. These terms help to describe my tribe as part of an Indigenous-Pacific. The fertile dynamic between Oceanian and Pasifika allows us to reimagine, redefine and nourish our spirit as a diverse community.
Growing up poor in the southern parts of Western Sydney, however, I did not see such complex reflections of my tribe in mainstream Australian media, art and politics. It was something I had to learn. The early 2000s were a rough time to be a fob, as during this period, the Pacific Solution was established and Islander gangs in Western Sydney were on the rise.
I was in Year 1 back in 2001 and everyone in Plumpton Primary School knew I was Islander because I had mahana hair, rode around with my eight siblings in a blue Tarago and filled my sandwiches with tinned spaghetti. I displayed all the characteristics of the ‘poor fob’ stereotype. A girl named Jessica who had Goldilocks pigtails would follow me around at lunchtime chanting, ‘Go back on your boat freshie!’ Jessica did not care when I told her I was born here and lived down the road.
It took me a long time to realise that Jessica was only reinforcing what she had heard at home from her parents and on the TV. This was when John Howard’s Pacific Solution was making headlines as the answer to the arrival of boats filled with asylum seekers. A time where my dad, who looks like The Rock, said, ‘See, this is why we should be happy with pālangis. They came to us.’
The Pacific Solution is about governing national space through neocolonialism. Kwame Nkrumah defines neocolonialism as an economic system that keeps ‘third-world standards depressed in the interest of developed countries[,]’ by using their ‘self-imposed authority’ and ‘first-world’ status to govern poorer nations. The arrangements Australia now has in Nauru and Manus Island are an outcome of diplomatic processes that involve many South Pacific islands, where leaders are asked to consider the trade-offs between increased aid and housing off-shore detention centres. It is clear enough how Australia specifically ‘buys off’ Pacific islands to gatekeep its own land. As Michael Grewcock has observed, Australia engaged in ‘formal consultations’ with Kiribati, Fiji and Palau because those nations were already dependent on Australia’s foreign aid. Tonga and ‘French Polynesia’ received informal soundings because they were not as reliant on Australia for economic stability. AusAid figures show that when Nauru became the site for an offshore detention centre in 2002, it received an additional $6.8 million – on top of the $3.5 million in Australian aid it was already slated to receive in 2002-2003.
This kind of destructive neocolonial management of asylum seekers and Oceanian people is rooted in Australia’s ‘White fantasy’ about national space. As Ghassan Hage puts it, White racists and White multiculturalists believe that they are ‘in one way or another, masters of national space and that it [is] up to them to decide who stay[s] in and who ought to be kept out of that space.’ White Australia would rather gatekeep land than attempt to engage in a serious ‘deeper commitment to a more far-reaching multiculturalism.’
Not one asylum seeker or Oceanian won anything in the Pacific Solution. This was apparent when reports surfaced of prisoners being abused inside detention and of Nauruan workers being paid $4 an hour to work as guards. Only the fantasy of White centrality and nationalism reaps the rewards of spatial management. If we are to transcend this fantasy together, we must accept the reality that Indigenous, migrant and refugee people are part of our national landscape, with their own conversations to have with each other. Dialogues of healing cannot be mediated by the dominant White culture. We must allow for more self-affirmed and empathic spaces to understand our losses and gains, to comprehend our own perspectives and to share stories that portray the reality of our shared land.
However, self-representation isn’t always empowering. Our storytellers must maintain a critical consciousness. Once Were Warriors (1994) was one of the first mainstream films ever to depict my people: alcohol abuse, gambling addiction, abject poverty, extreme male on male violence, extreme male on female violence, sexual assault and pedophilia all crammed into one brown movie. My family and my personal life are nothing like what you see in Once Were Warriors, but news outlets like The Sydney Morning Herald, New Zealand Herald and The Daily Telegraph have periodically been obsessed with violence in Pasifika communities, and especially with Western Sydney’s fob gangs: The Bloods, Tongan Mafia, Tongan Boys United, Samoan Assassin Squad, Gee40, Crazy Little Coconuts and Full-Bodied Islanders.
In 2008, Acting Assistant Commissioner of Mt Druitt Police Station organised a Dog Unit to intercept what, he told the Daily Telegraph, was a ‘ridiculous’ brawl.’ The next day at the Seven Hills All-You-Can-Eat Buffet my cousin Tevita showed me a large bite mark on his left shoulder. He whispered: ‘Don’t worry cuz, I took on the dogs for us.’ Eventually I learnt that whilst there are gangs and violence in my community, we often overlook the performative aspects that emerge from marginalised groups. Rarely do we ask why ethnicised lower-class young men need to form gangsta identities to feel empowered.
Even though I was not in the Mounty Bashup like my cousin, I too had fought the dogs. I was in Year 8 when Australian audiences were introduced to Chris Lilley’s mockumentary Summer Heights High, and to Jonah Takalua. Jonah was one of three characters played by Lilley in Summer Heights High. Lilley, a white male, put on a stereotypical Pasifika accent, wore a curly Afro wig and browned his skin in order to play Jonah. Lilley’s Jonah was a sensation to every fifteen-year-old in Western Sydney, including fobs. One young Pasifika I know put it this way: ‘That show is some funny shit.’ This so-called ‘funny shit’ included Jonah speaking in a heavy fob accent, sexually harassing White female teachers and young Pasifika women, beating up his friends, cursing non-stop and picking fights with male teachers.
One of the biggest fans of Jonah Takalua went to my high school. Matthew was an Eminem lookalike who, after watching Summer Heights High, came to school one morning wearing a tupenu whilst strumming on a ukulele. By lunchtime Matthew was shoving younger boys against brick walls for canteen money and calling them ranga homos. When Matthew found out I was one of the few ‘real fobs’ at Richard Johnson Anglican School, he called me his fobalicious princess and told me that I would pump out his eight ‘half-caste’ babies.
To overturn the limiting narratives presented by the Pacific Solution, Once Were Warriors, Summer Heights High and so on, we must all move towards a new understanding of Oceania that is facilitated by Oceanian and Pasifika people. We must uphold Oceanian and Pasifika academics, scientists, theorists and authors who carry our cultural voices with critical consciousness. If you listen, self-representation in our Western Sydney communities sounds like this: Talofa! Bula! Mālō ē lelei! Aloha! Sole! Cuz! Uce! Uso! Toko! Skuxx Deluxx!
‘The Glorious Pacific Way,’ part of Epeli Hau‘ofa’s short story collection Tales of the Tikongs (1983), uses traditional Tongan oral storytelling techniques (punake) and self-reflective satire in giving voice to its Oceanian characters. Hau‘ofa addresses the dangers of foreign aid and the ways in which we have become ignorant of the destruction of our ancestral past. The satirical aspect of Hau‘ofa’s work is important to recognise, because it shows that Oceanians can use humour to make fun of ourselves whilst carrying a critically conscious message (unlike Chris Lilley). Like many writers of colour, Hau‘ofa uses culture and humour to critique the White capitalist, imperialist and neocolonial establishment.
Taking on the role of the punake, meaning a respected Tongan who orally passes down our narratives and history, the narrator tells us the story of Ole. Ole Pasifikiwei (a homonym for Old Pacific Way) is a man who takes great pride in writing down the history of Tiko – a pseudonym for Tonga. Ole must write in old exercise books because he cannot afford a typewriter. When foreign investors take interest in Ole’s work, they offer him a grant to ‘preserve the Pacific way.’ Instead of just providing a typewriter and letting Ole record the lived experiences of our villages, the investors suggest that the only way to obtain funding is to set up a ‘Committee of the Collection of Oral Traditions’ with other foreigners. Eventually, with the help of overseas academics and multiple sponsors, Ole spends $14 million worth of grant money – but makes no progress in preserving Pacific culture. Ole’s own aunty had to sell his exercise books (the only form of self-representation in this story) for toilet paper. In this way, Ole becomes a ‘first-rate, expert beggar’ in the eyes of our people – who are still wiping our bums with our own history under the watchful gaze of development agencies.
Pasifikas are also creating alternative narratives about our tribe by maintaining and expanding the traditions of Oceanian culture. Karlo Mila is an academic and poet of Tongan and Samoan descent who now lives in Auckland. Her collection Dream Fish Floating plaits her diasporic experiences in Aotearoa. I say plaits, the act of weaving, because plaiting is an integral part of Oceanian culture, especially for women.
As Tongan teacher and professor Konai Helu Thaman has observed, the act of weaving a kakala (necklace of sweet smelling flowers) is a physical act of creation as well as a literary technique. Thaman describes three main processes in weaving a kakala: toli is the act of ‘gathering,’ tui is the act of ‘manufacturing’ and luva is the act of ‘giving away’ the whole kakala ‘as a token of respect and love.’ In Mila’s poem ‘For Aunty Olive (98th Birthday),’ Aunty Olive is the ‘living flower’ who is woven into an oral recitation of ancestry, or:
that links us
all the way
Mila’s poetry braids each member of her family, a frangipani, into her cultural and familial history. In incorporating Oceanian family structures through kakala, the poem highlights the importance of our culture and history when Oceanian and Pasifika people take up the written form. It also brings attention to how literature can be transformed when we embrace our culture.
Not everyone will appreciate Epeli Hau‘ofa’s short stories or Karlo Mila’s poetry (nor will they appreciate the danger of Chris Lilley in brownface or Jake the Muss from Once Were Warriors as representatives of all Pasifika people). For me, texts like these mean everything, because they comment on my whole life. Epeli Hau‘ofa and Karlo Mila give readers inside and outside our communities an opportunity to understand us – beyond general assumptions about ‘fobs’ – by using our culture as a tool of creation and healing in literature.
When I was a kid, I called the lu sipi, topai and ‘ota ika my nana used to make dog food. In rejecting my culture, in dismissing my own nana, I believed that I was somehow better than my own blood and skin. I assumed I could be part of the dominant White culture – despite being called a ‘freshie fob’ at school every day. This kind of deluded desire to participate in ‘White fantasy’ is chemical warfare against young people of colour. It was not until I attended university that I started to learn the importance of using my own voice to represent the silence around my culture. It was only by reading essays, prose and poetry created by Oceanian and Pasifika academics and artists, as well as reading cultural theory centred on the existence of Black and Brown people around the world, that I realised healing and critical consciousness is the purpose of self-representation. It was then that I began to love being Tongan. When marginalised people are given the space to write our own stories, empowerment is always the result.
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– We Are The Ocean. University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008.
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