Murray Edmond in Tonga: some photographic evidence
I've spent this evening wedged between a small heater and a computer in a suburb of Kirikiriroa, where the temperature is stuck in single figures. I've been uploading some of the photographs Skyler and I took in Tonga, and hoping that the tropical skies and evergreen trees on my screen will somehow bring a little Tongan heat into the room.
If you're annoyed that I haven't shared a little tropical warmth with you, by placing a cocktail-orange sunset or a langurous palm at the top of this post, I suggest you direct your complaints at Brett Cross. When I told Brett, a month or so ago, that the veteran New Zealand poet, playwright, dramaturge, and academic Murray Edmond was preparing to visit Tonga and to do some teaching at the 'Atenisi Institute, the director of Titus Books demanded I provide him with photographic proof of the event.
Brett's scepticism is in some ways understandable. My powers of persuasion are negligible, and the task of persuading a cultural activist as busy and important as Murray Edmond to pay his own way to a relatively isolated island and give a lecture and a theatre workshop there pro bono would normally be well beyond me.
But it wasn't my wit and cooking skills which drew Murray to Tonga and to the 'Atenisi Institute. During his decades as the Head of the Drama Department at the University of Auckland, Murray has worked with many actors, playwrights, and texts from the tropical Pacific. Only this year he helped his Tongan-New Zealand PhD student Michelle Johansson stage Mele Kanikau - a Pageant, a controversial, seldom-produced work by the legendary American Samoan John Kneubuhl, at Auckland's Fale Pasifika. Students like Johansson and texts like Mele Kanikau had made Murray want to take a firsthand look at tropical Polynesia.
Skyler, Aneirin and I picked Murray up from Fua'amotu airport and began to drive him to Nuku'alofa, along a road lined with churches, hibiscus hedges, and Chinese-run stores selling bootleg DVDs. When we reached the village of Vaini, though, we found our way blocked by a procession moving slowly up the middle of the road. A dozen women clad in torn and dirty mats that began near their ankles and almost hooded their heads from the sun loitered near the back of the crowd.
As she sat with her foot on the brake, Skyler explained to Murray that the women were taking part in a funeral procession, and that they were wearing a type of ta'ovala, or ceremonial mat, that symbolised, through its size and bulk, that they were mourning a family member who had held a higher rank than them. Skyler added that Tongans usually wore their shabbiest ta'ovala to funerals, in order to symbolise their sense of loss. The palangi habit of dressing up for the dead baffled them. While Skyler spoke a brass band marched slowly past us into the procession and struck up a tune.
It was hot in the car, and we could only move forward at the pace of the grieving crowd. A dirt road appeared on our left, and I suggested to Murray that we turn onto it, and take one of the several alternative routes into Nuku'alofa. Another traveller might have been eager to get to Nuku'alofa, get out of the car, and get into a cool shower. Murray, though, waved away such ideas. He had produced a battered red notebook from his bag, and had begun to scribble in it. "Everything here is fascinating" he said. "I'm in no hurry to drive on."
Murray was determined, from the very beginning of his visit to Tonga, to experience and learn as much as he could. Over the next six days he managed to give a public lecture which brought together his memories of growing up in the conservative city of Hamilton with a tour of colonial and postcolonial New Zealand poetry, to run a theatre workshop which somehow managed, in the space of a couple of hours, to turn fifty timid Tongan adolescents into scribbling playwrights and beaming actors, to talk individually with many of 'Atenisi's students about their studies and their ambitions for the future, to meet with two local theatrical troupes, the Baha'i-inspired On the Spot outfit and Fili Tonu, which is employed by the Ministry of Health to promote awareness of subjects like safe sex, to attend a raucous Fili Tonu performance held in a burnt-out lot left over from Nuku'alofa's 2006 riot, to visit and learn about many of the important historical sites on Tongatapu, like the stone monuments built by the ancient Tongan Empire in the east of the island and the giant 'tsunami rock' in the western village of Kala'au, to read and explicate one of his poems on Tongan public television, and to sit for hours around a series of kava bowls talking about subjects as different as the Book of Genesis, the theories of Eric Von Daniken, and the New Zealand political scene in the 1970s.
Murray's energy and curiosity were inspiring. When I look now at the photographs (click to expand them) taken during his visit, I feel the warmth of his personality, as well as the warmth of the tropics.