Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dreaming of Epeli Hau'ofa

I'm getting over a flu-like malady which I blame on the air conditioning system in our house. Confused by the sudden transitions between our lounge room, which has the aggressively cool air found on the balcony of an alpine sanatorium, and the street outside, which is hot and humid even when its potholes are brimming with kava-coloured stormwater, my body has been treating me to a strange mixture of flushes and chills.

I wandered down to the 'Atenisi Institute yesterday to apologise to the Dean for my recent lack of productivity. "I was sleeping all weekend", I told 'Opeti Taliai, "trying to get rid of this flu". 'Opeti was bemused by my confession. "I was sleeping most of the weekend too", he said, "but there's nothing wrong with me".

In New Zealand and in most other Western countries sleep is a state citizens are taught to resent and resist. We work overtime at the office, without expecting to sleep in the next morning; we stay late at a bar or party, yet rise early for a coffee date or a shopping trip. We limit the reach of sleep with alarm clocks, and regard the hours we lose to it as a wasted resource, like an overgrown section or unused air points. Kiwi families scatter into separate rooms before they go to bed, as though they are ashamed of what they are about to do. Many palangi associate unconsciousness with a particular pillow and lampshade, and are afraid of nodding off in public, for fear or being thought lazy, or drunk, or both.

In Tonga, though, sleep is considered a purposeful and honourable activity, rather than a state of frivolous non-being. Tongan families typically sleep together, on floor-mats or on mattresses pulled together.  Tongans are also happy to loaf in the open air. Anyone who walks through the suburbs of Nuku'alofa on a warm day will notice people of all ages dozing on the verandahs and front porches of their homes, so that the wind which blows up from the city's harbour can cool their foreheads. Some of the daytime dozers are men who have stayed up late at the kava circles which convene almost every night all over Nuku'alofa. Like other narcotics kava can, when taken in sufficient quantities, induce a craving for sleep. Even suited and respectable Tongans can be found napping in the public gardens beside the Royal Palace, or on benches in the central business district. Tongans are so fond of public napping that every time I step into one of Nuku'alofa's banks I expect to see citizens taking a quick kip on the floor as they queue for service.

Tongan Sundays are dedicated to sleep as well as worship. The law forbids shopping, drinking, gardening, games, and travel on the Sabbath, so that there is little to do except attend church in the morning, eat a large and soporific meal of taro and corned beef for lunch, and sleep the rest of the day.

Despite or because of the efforts of Sigmund Freud and his successors, dreaming has become, for many Westerners, a disreputable activity. Dreams are considered either embarrassingly trivial or embarrassingly revealing, and anyone who relates the details of a dream at a dinner party or office lunch is likely to prompt groans or sniggers, rather than the earnest interpretation Freud championed. A politician who admitted taking guidance from her dreams would be voted out of office; a sociologist who footnoted a dream rather than a more ordinary text would be sacked for shoddy research practices.

In Tonga, though, dreams are the subject of continual serious discussion. Dreams are the places where the voices of distant ancestors and the recently deceased can whisper and scream, and where flickering trailers for the future run. In dreams and in waking trances, like the trances which the shamans of ancient Tonga induced by ingesting green kava and fungi, contact may be made with Pulotu, the land across the seas where the spirits of the departed dwell.

I discovered the seriousness with which Tongans regard the unconscious part of the mind a few weeks ago, when I ran a 'mental exercise' I learned from Jack Ross in my Creative Writing class at 'Atenisi. I asked my students to close their eyes, relax their postures and minds, and imagine themselves wandering beyond the ramshackle outer suburbs of Nuku'alofa into that region of dense plantations, relict rain forest, and isolated villages known on Tongatapu as 'uta, or the bush. I sent the students on a path across an unweeded field, through a grove of old banyans, and up a hill (by putting this detail into their waking dream I broke the rules of literal geography: Tongatapu's only hill sits close to the centre of Nuku'alofa. Despite the fact that it only rises sixty metres above sea level, this ancient fort is often called Mount Zion).

Eventually I asked the dreamers to imagine a clearing with a building in its centre, look through a window in the building, and open their eyes and write about what they had seen. I had worried that the whole exercise might seem contrived and ridiculous, but the class entered into it with an intensity I hadn't observed in New Zealand. Eyes opened slowly and unwillingly, and whole pages were hurriedly covered with writing.

During another Creative Writing class I read students one of the most famous passages from Epeli Hau'ofa's satirical novel Kisses in the Nederends. Hau'ofa's protagonist wakes one morning with a bad pain in his anus, and consults, over the weeks and months which follow, a series of faith healers, gurus, physicians, and psychiatrists in search of a cure for his problem. In the passage I read aloud, the long-suffering hero is told about a dream which supposedly points to the nature of his pain. According to this dream, the human body is filled with tuktuks, tiny greedy creatures divided into two antagonistic tribes, whose occasional wars cause discomfort to their hosts. The upper tuktuks, or uppertuks for short, live in the brain, and both despise and colonise the lowertuks, who dwell in the body's bowels and erogenous zones:

It was the brain tribes who invented the ranking system, claiming that since they were the only ones who could see, smell and hear things outside their body-world because of their commanding proximity to its major apertures, and since that they lived in the loftiest territories, far above the muck in the abdomen and the filth in the anal region, they were the best and cleanest tuktuks of all. Uppertuks said that the worst, nastiest, dirtiest, smelliest, vilest and generally the most beastly tuktuks were those who occupied the largely swampy territories of the arse. The most degenerate, horny, porno-brained, disgustingly obscene, perverted and generally most licentiously abandoned and loathsome were tuktuks who lived in the genital region...

Kisses in the Nederends is a determinedly symbolic work, and it is not too hard to interpret the conflict between the tuktuks of the north and south in historical and political terms.

When I told her that my reading from Nederends had gotten only a muted response from the students, my wife explained that Hau'ofa wasn't really as funny as I thought, and suggested that the students probably saw me, in spite of my bald head and pedagogical pretensions, as a sniggering, dirty-minded schoolboy. That night Epeli Hau'ofa appeared in one of my dreams. When I woke up I wrote a poem to record what I imagined he had to say. Now I can't remember the dream except through the poem.

I Dreamed I Saw Epeli Hau'ofa Last Night

Don't tell me that literature isn't popular,
when every arsehole composes
on toilet paper. Keep a diary,
that's my advice. A diary is a tunnel
forwards through time, a slowly exploding star
whose light will wash over windshields
in six decades' time, when it is too late
to escape. I write what I like

about what I hate: potholed roads,
ministers in limousines, the cork-lined minds
of diplomats, the lead-lined minds
of economists, Rabuka playing golf
in his best khaki and boots.
Satire is slow unreliable revenge.

Nothing changes in Oceania.
The Americans land their fleet of mosquitoes
on one scummed pond after another.
In Tonga the nobles still point with their fists
at whatever they want. It becomes theirs. 
On nights when the surf is loud
beyond my mosquito net, here on the eastern shore of Pulotu,
I dream of the Ashika, its deck passengers thrashing
in a slick of moonlight, its hull swelling and splitting
like a rotten paw paw.
This is still the time for revenge.

Hau'ofa died in 2009, but my dream suggests that he has kept abreast of news from his beloved Oceania. He referred contemptuously to the way that America, under the supposedly progressive presidency of Barack Obama, has reopened many old military bases in the Pacific, as it prepares for a possible confrontation with its new rival China.

In Tonga China is now widely considered the world's number one superpower, and it is Chinese money which is underwriting the latest folly of the local ruling class. After being promised a twenty-five million pa'anga loan from China, the Tongan government recently announced that it was creating a new national domestic airline called Real Tonga.

The fledgling company decided to promote itself by staging a curious show on the streets of Nuku'alofa. Like hundreds of other bemused residents of the city, I watched from the front of my house as a group of young women dressed in red danced to loud pop music on a trailer pulled slowly past by a golf cart. Lumps of what looked like paper mache stuck to the doors of the cart; after a few moments I realised that they were supposed to be wings. Another, more rounded lump had been attached to the front of the golfcart; apparently it represented the front of an airplane. Like a casual litterbug, the pilot of the plane tossed leaflets promoting Real Tonga out of his open-air cockpit.

The strange contraption that laboured through Nuku'alofa's backstreets a few weeks ago is so far the only airplane that Real Tonga has launched. After hearing rumours of the advent of a state-controlled rival, the Kiwi-owned Air Chathams quit operations in Tonga, complaining that the country could only support a single domestic air service. When the Chinese-made planes it had talked of importing failed to show up, Real Tonga was forced to lease the vehicles of Air Chathams and hire the old airline's pilots.

This latest business venture from the elite that controls the Tongan state has brought back memories of the Princess Ashika disaster of 2009. After noticing that a businessman linked to Tonga's pro-democracy movement had established a successful inter-island ferry service, Tonga's ruling class bought a rusty old boat and put it to work. The Ashika wound up on the bottom of the ocean, along with most of its passengers. Although the ferry was replaced by a new and robust ship donated by Japan, many Tongans remain nervous about travelling by sea. Now the shambles that is Real Tonga is making them worry about taking to the air.

I hope Epeli visits me again, and brings happier news.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...


6:39 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

That's interesting. I hate sleeping. I have kind of terror of it. I would ideally be very alert at all times as I always want to use my mind in some way.

I also hate dreams. Most of my dreams are like nightmares. I've only read 'Civilisation and its Discontents' by Freud (as Ashbery wrote a poem of that title (referring to the book).

But sometimes dreams have inspired poems.

On dreams I once went to doctor and complained of nightmares and she had me have blood tests. This revealed low levels of B12 which is essential for, well one's health declines fairly steadily without this being absorbed well. I found red meat, and or spirulina, tablets of the B Group were great and I picked up after taking them.

If one has pleasant or interesting dreams - sometimes I do. That would be good, but I don't like being out of control.

I don't think the health of most (or at least too many) pacific Islanders is very good. They eat badly - one example is corned beef - it is really bad for health - many are very very overweight - and they lag in their knowledge of medical and health issues.

Being stupefied on kava or booze or sleeping all day is not inspiring.

On the other hand I know there are those who are better educated etc who are not stereotypical. And my next door neighbours (sons etc) are not overweight as many I see in GI and say Otahuhu are). I say this as it is a serious health issue for many people, but particularly for Pacific Islanders.

This is not a trivial issue as even the relatively "right wing" Maori statesman Sir Apirana Ngata, at least looked to the health of Maori.

But it is true that in NZ with many there is an almost insane drive to be somewhere, do something (but where, why and what?): I am a slow and careful driver, and I notice that everyone is hugely impatient and intolerant on the roads here (pakeha or whoever). In Fiji and I imagine in Tonga there is (kava and booze aside) a more "zen" approach to life which is I think in many ways philosophically good, hence your students ability to enter into a "creative day dream"...

In that laid back sense I am in agreement, as while I don't sleep well [and although I have started painting and renovating my house to my own surprise and consternation (what is happening to me?)!!] I think there is room for this "laid back" way.

Reminds me of the artist Tao Well's "Unemplyement Centre" promoting the virtues of being unemployed if that suited, and Geoff Dyer's essay / reminiscence on his life (many years paid to read and write and so on...) on the dole - but it was a productive one - with lots of reading (albeit also a lot of pot smoking and sex etc). But not productive in that he made great career or anything, and I think any money made was by luck and some work. But mostly gained "en passant": his search for the ideal donnut and coffee is perhaps most Tongistical...

So...hmm...a part of me is in denial but the other part wants to be sleeping (or not sleeping but being productively laid back) and having conversations etc etc (But not dreams, dreams mostly are terrible for me).

10:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do Tongan wage workers take a nap while on the job in the office or wherever, and not just on park benches? I read somewhere Samoans had a tradition of that, and also a 3 hour break during the heat of the day - a sort of siesta as in many latin countries. Is there a siesta in Tonga?

12:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does you man E P Thompson make of Tonga-style sleep patterns in his "Time Work Discipline"?

9:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Corned beef, mutton flaps, turkey tails... all left over cuts from Aust/NZ/USA, sold in island economies. Samoa tried to ban turkey tails but was told off by IMF.

12:10 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Corned beef as it is actually poor food if used as a main component of one's diet (but I think there would be enough fish in Tonga).

But not good if too much is eaten. It is very fatty. My father designed machinery and buildings for Hellabies Meat Co in Auckland and also a Company called Peach Products. When the labels were changed Pacific Islanders wouldn't buy the corned beef.
The pressure came from them (cheap, tasty etc).

Some in a varied diet is o.k. (is good in fact) but if it is a big part of one's diet (it is also very salty - in cans to preserve it) it is problematic. Meat companies would soon change to better quality meat but it would cost more (but it may not good quality meat may be cheaper in the long run).

So it is a matter of educating people about diet and exercise habits and getting Governments and private companies to work together on health etc.

This applies throughout the world.

I and my son were very overweight (technically obese) and we both lost a lot of weight so I understand the importance of weight control and food health. No good lying around having siestas and eating a lot and talking philosophy or politics if you have a stroke or can hardly move due to obesity (a major causative factor in just about all diseases - e.g. cancers, heart disease - not caused by virus or bacteria.)

8:33 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Somebody posted a reference to EP Thompson's classic essay 'Time, Work-discipline and industrial capitalism' here before apparently deleting it. That text, which is online at http://tems.umn.edu/pdf/EPThompson-PastPresent.pdf, tells us a lot about the contradiction between what is known, even in parts of Auckland, as 'Tonga time' and the 9 to 5 routine that the relatively few multinational companies active in Tonga are trying, perhaps not very successfully, to impose on their employees. VD's question about a siesta reminded me of a trip I made to the post office on 'Eua Island in the middle of the day. I had to wake the staff member on duty up to buy a stamp - she didn't look entirely happy to be roused from her slumbers, and the postcard I wanted her to send never arrived in New Zealand!

New Zealand's selling of subgrade foods to the Pacific, and its use of the WTO to reverse Samoa's ban on those meats, is one of the many neo-colonial aspects of our foreign policy in the Pacific. I'm still reeling from discovering a week or so ago that our government tried to prevent the elected leader of French Polynesia getting the UN to recognise that his nation has the right to decolonisation. Happily, the UN General Assembly ignored France, Australia and New Zealand whe it voted.

Thanks Richard for your comments on these posts from Tonga. You have some readers over there!

11:20 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Thanks Scott. I am interested int the attitude to work. Work is great. But I recall when I worked in the freezing works (where I got on well with many Samoan. Tonagan and other nationalities often students working in the holidays or just working class guys) one worker used to say:

"Do you work to live or live to work." It is a balance. The heat in Samoa, Fiji and Tonga etc (in Spain the siesta was midday but shops kept open late and many Spanish eat then at restaurants. Perhaps in many cities it "comes alive" at night..) and humidity as well as attitude and cultural aspects would mean perhaps that the Geoff Dyer function might take effect.

If the big companies can bring other benefits and Governments can with Unions make sure good wages are paid and so on then it is good. People become motivated to work. But work is not a God. I've been mostly unemplyed or on some kind of benefit since 1987. I feel absolutely no guilt. NO one owes anyone anything...But, prior to that I had worked in many many jobs. That was when I wanted to...later as a "poet" artist I decided that the Govt. needed to pay me to read and write etc Now I am retired (65) before the bastards (Labour or Nat could shaft me and I had to wait to die to get some chips...learning, and enjoying life, not necessarily making money [although that CAN be good motivation or reason].

There are no "right" ways. There should be no puritanical guilt by anyone.

I think also that by and large the influence of Futa Helu is still very important - Wordsworth etc aside!

12:29 am  
Anonymous Josephine said...

I really like your blog! However, as a Tongan, I can say that over consumption of and oversleeping from kava Tonga does bring problems to family life etc. When the wife is frustrated that all the father does is sleep sleep sleep from kava, not even going to the plantation. The midday napping may in some cases have something to do with health/weight issues.

3:35 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home