Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Linguistics, imperialism, and religious mania: an interview with Lose Miller-Helu

This is the second of my series of interviews with scholars at the ‘Atenisi Institute.

Lose Miller-Helu: I study Tonga’s past, but I am also very concerned with its present. The Tonga of the twenty-first century troubles me.  When I left the country for the first time back in 1968 I had the sense that it was moving forward both economically and intellectually. Tongans were being sent abroad for education and coming back to get jobs in an expanding public service, Nuku’alofa was growing, and in the countryside the copra industry was doing well. Futa Helu and the school he had established at ‘Atenisi were part of that momentum – they were educating Tongans in critical thinking and free discussion, stripping away some of the myths that had attached themselves to the Tongan past, and laying the foundations for a challenge to the hegemony of the monarchy and the nobles. ‘Remittances’ was an unknown word.

Now things are different. An air of lethargy has settled over Tonga. The old dream of economic prosperity, which seemed within reach in the 1960s, is gone, and Tongans seem to have the option of either going abroad in search of better lives or living modestly on money sent home by relatives abroad. The country’s outer islands are becoming more and more remote, as ferry services drop off and young people head to Nuku’alofa, which has become a sort of staging post for emigration abroad. Whole islands may be abandoned to weeds and wild pigs in the near future.

Even the countryside outside Nuku’alofa, on the main island of Tongatapu, is being neglected – drive around the potholed roads and you will see allotment after allotment overgrown with weeds. Nuku’alofa is now home to more than a third of the population of the country, and has become a little nation of its own. You can live here comfortably without ever venturing into the countryside of Tongatapu, let alone visiting the outer islands. Some of the better-off Tongans only ever see Nuku’alofa, with its new cafes and restaurants, and the smooth road running out to the international airport at Fua’amotu.

The only dynamic sector of the Tongan economy is religion. New churches are being built everywhere, while schools decay. Tonga has always been a religious society, but when I returned home a few years ago I was shocked by how pervasive God had become. It seems impossible to stage any public event, or hold even the most modest meeting, without running through some long-winded prayer. Perhaps it is more comforting for Tongans to pray than to think. Church is a place where they can forget the stagnation of the economy, and the fact that far more of their young people live abroad than at home. It’s an escape.

Are you looking at the past of Tonga and Western Polynesia because you want to get insights into how the problems of the present might be solved?

As you know, my PhD is about the influence of ‘Uvea on ancient Tonga. This influence was profound and positive, but it has in some ways been forgotten. That is a great pity.

What made you want to devote years of study to a small and - outside of Western Polynesia - little-known society like ‘Uvea?

‘Uvea came to my attention when I was doing an undergraduate degree in linguistics. I had to study proto-Polynesian, which is a sort of speculative language created by academics interested in the origins of Polynesian words, and I had to examine a tree-like diagram which showed the supposed relationships between the various Polynesian languages. I noticed that Tongan and ‘Uvean had more words in common than any other two Polynesian languages – 86% of the words Tongans use are also used by ‘Uveans.

Despite this apparent affinity, though, the two languages had been consigned to separate subgroups – ‘Uvean was classed as a Samoic Outlier language, while Tongan was lumped together with Niuean as a Tongic tongue. I was curious, and am still curious, about why ‘Uvean and Tongan are separated, when their vocabularies are so similar.

I was aware, even as an undergraduate, that linguistics is a partly political enterprise, in the sense that the work of linguists has been made possible and at times influenced by political events outside the academy. The study of Pacific languages has historically been connected in numerous ways with the colonisation and Christianisation of the region. The earliest vocabulary lists for many Pacific languages were compiled by Western mariners, missionaries, and colonial administrators. These people had to make decisions about matters like orthography, spelling, and punctuation, because the vast majority of Pacific peoples lacked an indigenous system of writing. And the decisions they made were sometimes determined by political interests, or incompetence, or ignorance. In many cases, though, we seem to be stuck with their decisions. 
 Let me give you an example of what I mean. At various times I have seen the separation of Tongan and ‘Uvean justified by the supposed fact that ‘Uveans, unlike Tongans, do not use glottal stops when they speak. But when I examine ‘Uvean speech patterns closely I can see that the glottal stop is a part of their language. ‘Uvean manuscripts do not traditionally feature glottal stops, but that is simply a matter of transcription – it has nothing to do with the way ‘Uveans speak.

Part of the trouble with the separation of the ‘Uvean and the Tongan languages is that it creates a certain attitude amongst those who study the past. We now know, thanks to the achievements of historical linguistics and the use of linguistics by archaeologists and other scholars of ancient history, that the diffusion of languages can be linked to the diffusion of cultures. If two peoples have a very similar language, then it is likely they have, at some point in the past, had very close economic, social, and political relations. The similar vocabularies of Tongan and ‘Uvean point to close contact between the societies in the past. But linguistics has obscured this relationship by consigning the languages to separate groups. As a result, there is a paucity of research into the influence of ‘Uvean culture on Tonga. And I would argue that it’s impossible to understand Tonga’s history and culture without understanding ‘Uvea.

Conversely, there seems to have been relatively little contact between Tonga and Niue in the pre-Cook era. One of my students is doing a major research project on his village of Kala’au, whose people claim to be partly descended from an ancient Niuean immigrant. Despite this connection, Tevita has been unable to find much evidence, either in the academic literature or in local oral tradition, of ongoing contact between Niue and Tonga –

Relatively few Tongans talk of family connections with Niue, whereas many have links with ‘Uvea. And of course Tongan oral history overflows with references to ‘Uvea – there is the famous story, for example, about the great langi stones which sit on the graves of the Tongan kings in the ancient capital of Mu’a being brought hundreds of miles across the ocean from ‘Uvea. On ‘Uvea itself locals point out various stone monuments and attribute them to Tongan invaders. Some of Tonga’s most famous dances, like the me’etupaki, or paddle dance, have been linked to ‘Uvea by scholars like my uncle Futa Helu.

Tonga is famous for having built an empire hundreds of years ago in this part of the Pacific. Many Tongans are proud of their imperial history –

I was watching telly the other night and saw Jimmy Da Great, a Nuku’alofa rapper, performing a song called ‘Island Conqueror’, a song which seemed – I couldn’t make out all the words – to celebrate the ancient empire using the language of gangsta rap. And there’s a popular clothing label in Auckland called Tongan Empire

But imperial power does not equal cultural power. I am convinced that ‘Uvea was a major cultural power in the Pacific, even if it was colonised by its larger Tongan neighbour. Tonga imported more than stones from ‘Uvea – we took dances, songs, ideas –

Is there an analogy with ancient Rome, which borrowed extensively from the culture of Greece even as it conquered much of Europe? The Roman elite may have had the greatest empire the world had ever known, but they made sure their kids had Greek tutors…

Another analogy is America in the twentieth century. Even though they usurped Britain as the world’s superpower, the Americans – the rich and powerful Americans especially - still regarded the British as culturally superior, and aped them…

What made ‘Uvea so special?

I think it was a very advanced society. The ‘Uveans cultivated their lands skilfully, ran their affairs wisely, traded with very distant peoples, like the Hawaiians, and created beautiful dances like the me’etupaki. Even their weapons were advanced.
‘Uvea had a relatively decentralised and meritocratic political system. Although genealogy played an important role in who became a leader, competence was also required. A chief who had the bloodline but not the skills to lead would not last long in power. And a chief who usurped a rival using illegitimate means, like treachery or unjustified violence, would also often face popular opposition. I believe that the influence of ‘Uvea’s relatively egalitarian and meritocratic society helped keep imperial Tonga politically stable in the fifteenth century. But this aspect of our history has been forgotten. Today Tongans - conservative Tongans, anyway - assume that anyone with the proper bloodline is fit to be king. And they think that their views are traditional. They have forgotten the test of competence which once applied. But a society which relies blindly on bloodlines, and which does not respect merit, is a society headed for disaster.

‘Opeti Taliai, Phyliss Herda, and Niel Gunson have warned about the dangers of assuming there is only one narrative of Tongan history. ‘Opeti accuses Queen Salote of constructing a version of Tongan history which justifies the rule of the present Tu’i Kanokupolu dynasty, Herda thinks Tongan culture has probably meant very different things at different times, and that Tongan ‘traditional’ history is actually an artefact of modernity, and in his fascinating essay ‘Understanding Polynesian Traditional History’ Gunson claims to have discovered a radically different version of the Tongan past in unpublished esoteric texts. Do you feel an affinity with these scholars, with their heretical views of the Tongan past?

Well, ‘Opeti is helping me with my PhD, which as you know is a study of the Talanoa ki ‘Uvea, a prose narrative of ‘Uvean history written down by a Catholic priest near the beginning of the twentieth century. I am trying to glean what I can about the ancient connections between ‘Uvea and Tonga from a close examination of the language of the Talanoa ki ‘Uvea. I want to trace the movement of words and phrases and images and stories between the two societies. I have published a dual Tongan-‘Uvean language edition of the Talanoa ki Uvea, and have also made, with the help of New Zealand scholars, an unpublished English-language translation of the text.

As an old-fashioned historical materialist, who thinks that culture and ideas tend to be related, even if in complex ways, to the economic base of a society, I have to wonder how a small society like ‘Uvea could be the site of such cultural efflorescence. How did the ‘Uveans, who presumably produced an economic surplus much smaller than that of their cousins in Tonga, find the time and resources to create new dances and invent new tools?

I think ‘Uvea’s smallness and vulnerability to foreign attackers forced its people to innovate. They didn’t have the luxury of cultural conservatism. If they wanted to survive they had to embrace trade, adopt and improve technology from other societies, and eliminate leaders who were incompetent.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for present-day Tonga, which is as small in terms of the twenty-first century world as ‘Uvea was in relation to the fifteenth century Pacific!

There certainly is a lesson. The view that Tongan tradition is identical with blind respect for bloodlines and authority is dangerous.

We haven’t talked about the modern influence of France on ‘Uvea, and the consequences of this for interpretations of the Tongan past…

Of course the French colonisation of ‘Uvea is part of the reason for the divide which has opened between our societies...

Last year the Kiwi scholar Rhys Richards published a book which documented the ancient artefacts of the Austral Islands. Richards made the point that the Austral Islands were very closely connected with the societies like Rarotonga and Atiu in pre-colonial times, but that they became isolated from the islands to their north and west after falling under French control. And whereas the Cook Islands have now gotten rid of their New Zealand colonisers, the people of the Australs still live under the tricolour.

The French have little interest in encouraging pan-Pacific feelings amongst their colonial subjects by creating cheap transport links to places like the Cooks and Tonga. They want their subjects to speak French, spend Francs or Euros on French goods, and gravitate, when they need work or education, to Papeete or Noumea or Paris. It is very expensive for the average New Zealander, let alone the average Tongan, to visit ‘Uvea, or an Austral Islands society like Rapa Iti.

In that famous essay ‘Our Sea of Islands’ Epeli Hau’ofa talks about how colonial powers limited the mobility of the Pacific peoples they (mis)governed, and celebrates the mobility of islanders in the post-colonial era. But peoples like the ‘Uveans are still being quarantined by the French. And it disgusted me to see New Zealand and Australia recently trying to perpetuate this quarantine, by blocing with France and urging the United Nations not to put French Polynesia on its list of countries due for decolonisation. I was delighted when the UN General Assembly voted against the colonialists.

I have not been able to afford to visit ‘Uvea.

‘Opeti Taliai was telling me that he has never visited either Fiji or Samoa, despite writing a PhD on the ancient links between those societies and Tonga!

I’d love to go to ‘Uvea, of course, but it’s expensive, and there are bureaucratic hurdles – visitors from Tonga have to register with special representatives of the island who have a little office in downtown Nuku’alofa.

The Australian writer Gerald Murnane has lived almost his whole life in a corner of the state of Victoria, but he has taught himself to speak and read Hungarian, and has set part of one of his novels in Hungary. Murnane told an interviewer that he had no desire to visit Hungary, despite his obvious fascination with the country. To do so, he explained, would ruin the version of Hungary he has constructed in his head. Is there a sense in which your inability to travel to ‘Uvea has made the place especially vivid in your imagination?

I’m not sure! I am travelling in time as well as space, of course, when I do my research, so even if I visited present-day ‘Uvea I might see all of what I am reading about…

You lived for some years in New Zealand, where you worked at various universities and ran an art gallery that sold tapa cloth –

The gallery in Lower Hutt was something of a diversion. I opened it in 2000 because I wanted to create an outlet for a few of the many women who make tapa in Tonga. I wanted to get away from the usual way of marketing tapa – to get away from selling it at flea markets or to tourists – and present it as something complex, something artistic. I wanted it to be appreciated properly.
Most of the tapa I was selling were made in the 1960s and ‘70s, and had both aesthetic appeal and a lot of content – they told stories. Traditionally, tapa have been the way women in Tonga tell stories. When I look at a tapa my mother gave me I can see references to her life – an olive leaf, which symbolises the influence of missionaries on Tonga, Norfolk pines, which used to grow along the waterfront in Nuku’alofa, and so on. Unfortunately much of the depth of reference has disappeared from Tonga tapa today. Tapa are made to sell to tourists. Quality is out, quantity is in.

Did you experience racism in New Zealand?

I noticed it in universities. I saw many Pacific students who were lost at New Zealand universities. The institutions that they had entered were huge, and were indifferent to their needs. The methods of teaching and assessment were alien. Staff and their fellow students knew little about the Pacific Islands, and were unaware that the culture that they considered natural and universal – a white Western culture – was, to Pacific Islanders, unnatural and intimidating.

I think that the culture you’re describing can feel pretty unnatural and intimidating to a lot of palangi! Since I got to Tonga I’ve realised how isolating and emotionally chilly life in Auckland can be…

For me New Zealand universities could be a lonely place…

I recently showed The New Oceania, film maker Shirley Horrocks’ portrait of Albert Wendt, to my Creative Writing students at ‘Atenisi. During one of the interviews shown in the film Wendt reveals that when he arrived at the University of Auckland’s English Department in 1990 the only other Pacific Islander on the staff was the secretary…

I’d search in vain for other brown faces in the white crowds.

Efeso Collins, who was President of the Auckland University Students Association in the late ‘90s, said that a lot of young Pacific Islanders enrolled at universities, ran up big student debts by taking loans to pay their obscene tuition fees and living costs, and eventually dropped out without graduating, because of the sort of experiences you mention. They’d end up with a pile of debt and no degree. I found that terribly sad.

When I became chairperson of the Association of Pacific Staff in 1998 I made sure we addressed the alienation of Pacific students. We lobbied the Tertiary Education Minister of the day, and investigated the ways that universities looked after their students. We found that many institutions didn’t even bother to count the number of Pacific Island and Maori students they had enrolled. Without basic data like this, it was impossible for them to examine the academic performance of Maori and Pacific Island students, and to plan ways to improve this performance.
We were able to force some improvements to the way Pacific Island students were treated. Today data is kept on the number and performance of those students, and far more Pacific Islanders are employed by universities. I take some satisfaction from this. And I don’t mean to criticise the whole of the New Zealand university system – there are some wonderful people working there, including people who have helped me in my research into ‘Uvean and Tongan history.

Why did you return to Tonga?

I wanted to work on a documentary film about Futa Helu and the Helu family, and I couldn’t do this in New Zealand. I did a lot of filming, both at ‘Atenisi and in places like Foa, Futa’s home island in the Ha’apai group, where there is an ancient langi stone and legend I wanted to document. My film will be different to Paul Janman’s Tongan Ark – it’ll be in Tongan, for instance.

It is a measure of Futa Helu’s versatility and complexity that two quite different films can be made about his life!

There were other reasons for me to resettle in Tonga. I like the climate here. I like the compactness of Nuku’alofa – I sometimes found the distances of New Zealand oppressive.

I’ve found that living in Tonga, with its one and seventy or so islands that together would not quite fill Lake Taupo, has altered my perception of New Zealand geography. Suddenly my homeland, which is only the size of the United Kingdom, seems almost continental. When I was back in New Zealand I took a drive with my wife from Auckland down to Hamilton. The modest dairy flats of the central Waikato seemed like some Canadian prairie…

I find it incredible that some people are able to drive from Auckland to Wellington. Even the distances within New Zealand cities seem very large to me. The journey from Lower Hutt to central Wellington was wearying.

How did you respond to the hills and mountains of New Zealand, after living for so long on an island as flat as Tongatapu?

I’d actually lived abroad before I came to New Zealand – but I’d lived in Holland, a place almost as flat as Tongatapu! The mountains of New Zealand are something I now miss.

In his great book Uruora: the groves of life, the late Kiwi environmentalist Geoff Park describes living in Fiji, and taking a somewhat reluctant Tongan co-worker on a drive away from the coast of Vanua Levu into that island’s mountainous central district. Park’s friend, who was used to the flat farmland of Tongatapu, was overpowered by the experience. “Today”, he told Park, “we feed the eyes”. When I heard that the members of the ‘Atenisi Institute’s performing arts group had, without quite getting permission, jumped in a van and gone on a wild road trip during their tour of New Zealand last year, I thought of Park’s story about his drive through the wilds of Fiji. A lot of the ‘Atenisians had never left flat little Tongatapu before – for them, the vast distances and impossibly high mountains of New Zealand must have been as intoxicating as hopi. They were feeding the eyes!

They may have just gotten lost looking for a McDonalds…

You run a couple of very popular courses in the Tongan language here at the ‘Atenisi Institute. Many of your students are prominent members of the palangi expatriate community. Is the Tongan language in good shape in its ancient homeland?

Yes and no. Increasingly in Nuku’alofa you can observe locals speaking a sort of hybrid language – they’ll switch from Tongan to English in the middle of a sentence. English is fashionable. Outside of Nuku’alofa, in the villages of Tongatapu and on the outer islands, the sort of hybrid I’m talking about would be much less common.

Few outsiders realise that Tonga has a second language, Niuafo’ouan, which is spoken in the northernmost and southernmost inhabited islands of the country, but which seems to be in decline –

The language of Niuafo’ou is of great interest to me, because the island of Niuafo’ou sits in the extreme north of Tonga, and is far closer to ‘Uvea than to Tongatapu. The language was brought south after World War Two, when Niuafo’ou’s volcano exploded and some of its people were resettled on ‘Eua Island, at the other end of Tonga. But the Niuan people are a small and marginalised minority in Tonga, and their language is often ridiculed down here in the south. Sadly, many of the Niuans who live down here are too ashamed to speak their language.

There has been too little academic work done on Niuafo’ou. The distinguished Japanese scholar Akilisa Tsukamoto wrote a PhD on the language of Niuafo’ou for the Australian National University – but his thesis was written in his native Japanese! I have tried without success to get someone to translate Tsukamoto’s work. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton] 




Friday, May 24, 2013

Arguing about 'Eua

The 'Atenisi expedition to 'Eua  has returned safely to the bright lights of Nuku'alofa, which seem bright indeed after our sojourn in caves and rain forest holloways. Here are a couple of photos  (click to enlarge them) from 'Eua, as well as some notes I'm asking the students to debate.

Questions for discussion

‘Eua and the problems of oral history

During our stay on ‘Eua we talked with Richard Lauaki, one of the oldest men on the island and a custodian of its oral history. Richard gave us his sometimes controversial opinions on subjects like the eruption of Niuafo’ou in 1946 and the subsequent movement of many Niua people to ‘Eua, the place of Niuans and their language in contemporary ‘Euan society, the raid on ‘Ata by Australasian slavers, and the failings of young Tongans. We also visited the grave of AE Yealands, the New Zealander who served as a coastwatcher on ‘Eua in 1942, and learned that the story many ‘Euans tell about Yealands’ death differs greatly from the way the soldier actually died.

You were given a copy of an essay about oral tradition by Sione Latukefu during your stay on ‘Eua. Latukefu talks about how careful attention to verbal accounts of the past helped him in his studies of Tonga, but notes that some other scholars have been led astray when they have tried to use oral history. We laughed about the way that Roger McKern, author of the first attempt at an archaeological survey of Tonga, was misled by mischevious locals into giving obscene names to some of the ancient sacred sites he tried to record.

Did your experiences on ‘Eua make you reflect on the value of oral traditions to the study of the past? Do you think that stories passed verbally down the generations can be relied upon to tell us about the past? If some stories about the past are false, does this make them useless, or can they still provide certain types of insights to a scholar? Does Richard Lauaki have qualities which might make him a more reliable source on ‘Euan history than Roger McKern?

Cook and contact

We have read Vaughan Rapatahana’s angry poem about Cook, which laments his coming to the Pacific, and earlier in the course we made an analogy between the situation of the relatively isolated islands Cook visited in the 1770s and the uncontacted peoples of regions like Brazil and the Andamans in the twentieth century. We had a long argument about whether or not the inhabitants of the Andamans’ North Sentinel Island, one of the world’s last truly isolated groups of humans, ought to be contacted or left alone.

After reading Cook and Anderson’s accounts of their visit to ‘Eua, hearing from scholars of Cook like Anne Salmond, and talking to contemporary ‘Euans about their view of Cook, do you think, like Vaughan Rapatahana, that ‘Euans would have been better off without contact from Cook and the Europeans who followed him? Can an analogy be made between ‘Eua in 1777 and the North Sentinelese today?

‘Eua and the centre

Both Cook and Anderson noticed the connections between ‘Eua and Tongatapu. Despite the occasional difficulty of crossing the Tongatapu Strait, the chiefs of the larger island held land on ‘Eua and despatched relatives there to exercise authority. Tongan oral history confirms the domination of ‘Eua by Tongatapu. The island was an integral part of the Tongan Maritime Empire, and remained subordinate to the old imperial capital of Mu’a even after the decline of the empire.

We have seen how the traditional relative centralisation of Tongan society helped Tupou I to build a modern state and maintain Tongan independence in the second half of the nineteenth century. By contrast Aotearoa had never been politically unified in the pre-contact era, and the efforts of Wiremu Tamihana to unite Maori under one king ultimately failed.

What signs of the ancient Tongan kingdom and empire did you find on the ‘Euan landscape, and in the island’s placenames? 

Noble ‘Euan savages?

Near the beginning of this course we examined early European visions of the Pacific, and noted that these visions had more to do with the anxieties of Europeans than with the realities of the Pacific. We saw how the ideas of Rousseau and the ecstatic reports of some early visitors to Tahiti encouraged a vision of Pacific Islanders as ‘noble savages’, who lived simply but happily in a pleasant landscape and climate. We saw how today’s tourism industry continues to promote this patronising view of Pacific peoples, in its effort to sell air tickets and rooms at resorts. Do you think that William Anderson’s account of the ‘Euans is influenced by the notion of the noble savage, or do you think his enthusiasm for the people he observed has a different quality? Do you think ‘Eua’s small tourism sector promotes the noble savage myth today, or does it use other ways to sell the island?

‘Eua and Oceania

In the first lecture of this course we noted that the Pacific has been given different names by different people from different cultures, and that the various names for the region reflect different intellectual perspectives and different political agendas. We saw how European romantics called parts of the Pacific the ‘South Seas’; how today some Western nations and corporations are using the term ‘Asia-Pacific’, and thereby conflating distant and apparently very different countries like Tonga and China; how the late Epeli Hau’ofa used the term Oceania, because he believed that, except when colonialists intervened, the sea has linked rather than isolated the various islands of this region; and how ‘Okusitino Mahina has suggested giving the waters of Western Polynesia back their ancient name of Moana.

James Cook and William Anderson’s accounts of their visit to ‘Eua have shown us that, in 1777, ‘Eua was a relatively inaccessible island for other Tongans, and had a far smaller population than Tongatapu. Today ‘Eua remains somewhat isolated from Tongatapu due to the expense and discomfort of ferry services. More than a few adult Tongatapuans have visited Australia or New Zealand or America, yet never set foot on ‘Eua.

On the other hand, many Tongans have relatives on ‘Eua, many ‘Euans send their children to high school on Tongatapu, and Tongan newspapers and radio and television programmes are widely consumed on ‘Eua.

We have seen how the population of ‘Eua is today composed of three main groups: the ‘indigenous’ ‘Euans, whose ancestors arrived on the island long ago from Tongatapu and other parts of Tonga; the descendants of the people of ‘Ata, who were evacuated after their homeland in the far south of Tonga was raided by Australasian slavers in 1863; and the Niuan community, which arrived on ‘Eua in 1958, as refugees from a volcanic eruption on their island in the far north of Tonga. Today the descendants of the people of ‘Ata still cheish the memory of their abandoned homeland, and many Niuafo’ouans practice a distinct culture and continue to speak a Samoic language of their own, in addition to Tongan. The ‘Atan settlement of Kolomaile and Niuan villages like Mu’a and Angaha reflect the efforts of both communities to retain a separate identity from ‘indigenous’ ‘Euans.

Does ‘Eua, with its complicated population and mixture of connections to and isolation from Tongatapu, provide evidence for or against Epeli Hau’ofa’s famous notion of Oceania? Does Hau’ofa’s vision of the people of Oceania as interconnected and mobile fit with or contradict the reality of ‘Eua’s modern history?

A different perspective

Sometimes the experience of travel can help us to reflect on the home we have left behind. The final lectures for our paper will deal with some of the opportunities and problems that late twentieth century globalisation has brought to the Pacific. Did your time on ‘Eua make you think in new or sharper ways about the impact of globalisation on Nuku’alofa?

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, May 17, 2013

Making maps

Yesterday, as my students first guffawed and then sighed, I laboured with a fading marker pen over a dirty whiteboard in an effort to draw a map of 'Eua, the diamond-shaped, Manhattan-sized island which is the southernmost inhabited piece of Tonga, and almost the closest inhabited island to New Zealand.

Along with 'Iliasa Helu, I am leading an 'Atenisi expedition to 'Eua this weekend, and my drawing, with its childish lines and smudged names, was the only detailed map of the place most of the students had ever seen. 'Eua is notorious for its limestone sinkholes and caves, out of which huge banyan trees often grow, and into which reckless visitors occasionally vanish. "I think we need a local guide" one of the students said, after frowning at the vague details I had drawn on the board. "And we need a map that makes sense."

If only I had known yesterday that I am part of an exhibition dedicated to mapmaking being held at an art gallery on Auckland's fashionable Karangahape Road. I could have tried to impress my truculent students by telling them that curators Rachel Watson and James Wylie had taken an interest in the psychogeographic film I've been making about the Great South Road with Paul Janman, and had decided to show maps and footage from the half-finished project in the RM gallery.

Unfortunately, I hadn't been able to check my e mail yesterday, and so didn't get Paul's report about the exhibition Wylie and Wilson have called Exanded Map. I'm chuffed, nevertheless, that I've managed to get my name, however briefly, onto the wall of a gallery, despite never being able to the master the art of the stick person portrait at Drury Primary School art class.

My students are no strangers to map-making. A month or so ago I decided to enliven my Creative Writing paper by summouning a taxivan to the 'Atenisi campus and piling them into it. As the driver steered randomly through the mid-morning Nuku'alofa streets, scattering packs of pigs with his horn and cursing at a fat noble in an SUV, I gave an improvised lecture on Iain Sinclair, JG Ballard, and the practice of psychogeography, which I summed up in the maxin 'Get lost'. I got the bewildered taxi driver to leave us beside Nuku'alofa's quarry, a place where strapping young palm trees rise through the smashed windscreens of classic American and British cars. "This is the end of the line" I told my charges. "This is the graveyard of modernity. Forget about those war films you see, where tanks and jeeps and the bodies of marines lie ruined on a tropical beach: these are today's casualties of war." "It's not the end" Tevita Manu'atu, 2012 dux at 'Atenisi, replied, in an indulgent voice. "It's a new beginning". Perhaps he was right: recyclers were busy amidst the ruins, pulling healthy organs - unrusted carburretors, intact radiators  - from the diseased bodies of Valiants and Fords.

After we had found our way through the ruins of modernity to the Nuku'alofa waterfront, where we drank Fanta and hailed another taxi, I asked my Creative Writing students to create 'psychogeographic maps' of our journey, and of Nuku'alofa in general. Forget spurious notions of accuracy and objectivity, I told them, as I handed out the felt pens and crayons. Draw with your subconscious and your pineal glands. Think about Sinclair's epic walk along the M 25, that ring road that isolates London more surely than any wall, think about the semi-secret military installations he spotted through air that made his eyes water, the lungfuls of truck exhaust that almost saw him resort, like a climber in the Himalayas, to bottled oxygen.

Tevita was the first to finish his map. He had drawn, with a firm, unfailingly accurate hand, the allotments, plantations, churches, and roads of his home village on the weathercoast of Tongatapu.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Whitsunday in Halano

Last weekend we moved from Halano, a suburb on the western edge of Nuku'alofa, to Fasi, an area just east of the city's centre. Located inland from Sopu, or Soap, a suburb that got its name because Taufa'ahau, Tonga's first modern king, liked to bathe beside its now-vanished beach, Halano was an uninhabited swamp until Nuku'alofa's population began to grow in the decades after World War Two. Unable to secure plots of dry land, new arrivals from the countryside poured millions of pieces of crushed coral onto the reeds and stagnant water, and created a series of precarious islands, which they covered with small houses and pig and chicken pens, and connected with rough paths that eventually swelled into roads.

Water and earth still compete for hegemony in Halano, and when we arrived last February days of rain had drowned the roads and arked the iron-roved houses and huts. As pigs wallowed delightedly in vast black pools where food scraps floated like rotten lilies, many Halanoans were holing up in the Wesleyan and Catholic churches which rise, fort-like, in the heart of their community.

Even when the rainy season ends, and the sagging motorbikes and windowscreenless utes that go up and down Halano's roads stir up dust rather than dirty water, there are reminders of the suburb's past. Over the past few months my wife has covered Aneirin with litres of foul-smelling insect repellent, laid wire grilles across our downstairs windows, so that they look like pages in a child's maths exercise book, and kept a silk net hanging like a great soft spider from the ceiling of our bedroom. Despite all these efforts, mosquito swarms as thickly dark as coal smoke have periodically invaded our house, tormenting her and also covering our cheerfully oblivious son with bites. Our neighbours, who seem to have acquired immunity to the beasts, have sometimes asked whether Aneirin has chicken pox, because of the red raised spots on his arms, legs, and - if the invaders have been particularly successful - face. It was the mosquito menace as well as a cheaper rent which lured us east to the upstairs section of 'Opeti Taliai's home in an older and reliably dry part of Nuku'alofa.

We will miss Halano. The place seemed more like a village than the suburb of a capital city, and we were quickly absorbed into the intricate and ornate system of ritual exchanges that is the bedrock of Tongan traditional life. Neighbours would introduce themselves with baskets of breadfruit and plates of corned beef wrapped in taro leaves and soaked with coconut juice, and all the children of the suburb soon learned our child's strange Celtic name.

A couple of weeks ago Louisa, who lived across the road from us in Halano, invited us to Whitsunday, an old English festival which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on Christ's disciples in the aftermath of his ascent to heaven. Whitsunday is largely obsolete in Britain, but in Tonga it sees thousands of Free Wesleyan children donning white tupenu and white jackets, tying little ta'ovala to their waists, and heading down to their local church, where they gather near the pulpit and read passages from the Bible. The photos at the top of this post shows Aneirin dressed up in the tupenu, jacket and ta'ovala that Louisa made for him, and wandering, confusedly but fearlessly, towards the pulpit of Halano's Free Wesleyan Church. The first photo shows Aneirin in the grip of another of our neighbours, an 'Atenisi graduate and Anglican Minister with the typically Tongan name of Sekatoa, or Sector. Sekatoa's daughter Miriam got in on the act.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, May 10, 2013

Low-flying UFO spotted in Suva

While I have been hiding out on 'Eua Island, Paul Janman has taken his cheesecutter hat, which increasingly resembles a flying saucer, to Fiji, where the World of Islands film festival has provided the opportunity for a gathering of some of the Pacific's most important and outspoken artists and intellectuals, in defiance of the strictures of Commodore Bainimarama's philistine regime.

I hope soon to interview Paul by phone about his experiences in Suva, but in the meantime keep an eye on that unidentified low-flying object...

Monday, May 06, 2013

Zen and seasickness

Last week I introduced my Creative Writing students to haiku, and to something of Zen Buddhism, the religion which has been closely associated with the writing of haiku. I explained that I’d had a somewhat troubled relationship with both Zen and the haiku artform.
Intrigued by the writing of Richard Von Sturmer, and by his earlier contributions to New Zealand film and music, I enrolled, a few years ago, in a short course in meditation at the Auckland Zen Centre, which Richard and his wife manage. I found myself sitting with my legs uncomfortably folded facing a brick wall, a few inches from the tattooed biceps of a young man who explained that he had decided to learn to meditate because he was “tired of getting so angry all the time”. As soon as we began our first exercise in meditation the angry man fell asleep and began to wheeze and snore loudly. When our instructor tapped the man firmly on the shoulder he jumped off the floor, shrieked, and looked about confusedly. After we resumed the exercise, I found myself taking nervous half-glances at my colleague, and wondering whether it might be better to let him sleep.
Despite the urgings of our teacher and the positive examples of Richard’s books, which describe him navigating various levels of consciousness and unconsciousness in the same languorously graceful way that an albatross cruises a summer sky, I was unable to meditate properly. We had been instructed to throw all random and quotidian thoughts – thoughts about money, or sex, or dinner – away; freed from these dead weights our minds would rise to new heights, in the same way that hot air balloons rise higher into the sky after sandbags or superfluous passengers have been tossed overboard. Alas, I found trivial thoughts a hard pleasure to abandon. I tried to imagine my mind as a room, and my thoughts as furniture. I opened a window and hurled out televisions and sofas, in the manner of the young and stoned Keith Richards. Every time I turned around and searched my room, though, a new object – a scruffy bookcase or blown stereo or luxuriant potplant – had made itself comfortable in one corner or another.
My inability to meditate is perhaps linked with my inability to write haiku. Zen Buddhism holds that the gap between the individual human consciousness and the world is artificial, and the haiku, along with meditation, is considered a way in which the distinction can be defeated. Through its concreteness and brevity, a haiku is supposed to take us out of the prisons of our minds into the ‘real’ world. A haiku about an oak tree should make us an oak tree; a haiku about the sea should immerse us in the sea. Similies and metaphors are, traditionally, barred from haiku, because they draw attention away from the unique objects and scenes that haiku are supposed to focus upon. A reader can’t merge with oak or leap into the sea if she’s busy comparing and contrasting an oak with a power pole, or making the sea into a symbol of flux.
Unfortunately, as I confessed to my students last week, I’m addicted to metaphors and similies. I can’t think about one thing without almost immediately thinking about something else. Perhaps it is this associative mania which gives my conversation, as well as some of my writing, a rambling quality.
I call many of the short poems I produce ‘anti-haiku’, because they seem to consist mostly of metaphors and similies. I wrote this latest set of anti-haiku after taking the ferry back from ‘Eua Island at the beginning of last week. We rode the ferry out to ‘Eua through blue, well-behaved water, but on our journey home the Tongatapu Channel turned a metallic shade of grey, and threw twelve foot swells in our direction. The old, miniscule, wooden ferry would have been battling to stay afloat, but on the handsome new steel vessel we worried about losing our lunches, rather than our lives. I’m heading back to ‘Eua at the end of the month with my students, who will be – I hope – writing haiku and pursuing research assignments involving ancient forts and contemporary land disputes. If anyone feels like joining us on the island of exiles then they’re most welcome.  

Ferry from ‘Eua: thirteen anti-haiku 

bird, sikota, on our prow

instead of a carved atua 


on the receding coast of ‘Eua

caves make the cliffs yawn



did someone push that old bastard Basho



these clouds know Tongan -

their raindrops are shaped

like glottal stops 


on the open deck

where the farmers left their fruit

the wind picks a green banana 


a wave like an upturned metal dinghy

smashes against the prow 


the sea spills drink

after drink

until the deck

is as wet as the boards of Black Pete’s Bar 




I feel like a cheap drunk



the sea rocks our infant son



lifejackets stacked

beneath the stairs

dream of disaster

and heroic deeds:


of dragging strangers

through the surf,

their chests puffed up with pride 


a launch full of snapping tourists

circles ‘Eueiki

as if the island were a surfacing whale 


chipped pillars

of brown and black

between gaps

where the tide runs

like a tongue:

this reef needs a dentist 


on the asphalt acre by Salote’s wharf

rellies hug

car doors applaud 

Footnote/apology: Anyone who read the recent entries on this blog could be forgiven for assuming that I have been spending all of my time in Tonga talking and writing about literature, movies, dreams, and other subjects that hard-bitten sociologists and political economists tend to consider ‘soft’. In fact, I’ve been doing some fair dinkum sociological research over here, and the seminar I gave at ‘Atenisi the other week was full of unpoetic terms like modes of production and proletarianisation.
I’ve blogged at some length about the peculiar and fascinating sociology of Tonga in the past, but now that I’m actually exploring the subject systematically, with the help of the linguists and genealogists at ‘Atenisi, I realise how much I have to learn, and how dangerous hasty generalisations can be.
The distinctive thing about literature, of course, is that it doesn’t rely on systematic studies of reality, but on subjective impressions. As I keep telling my Creative Writing students, we don’t assess the generalisations of a poet or a novelist by looking at a stack of statistics. Epeli Hau’ofa published his classic book of short stories Tales of the Tikongs a few years after penning his treatise Corned Beef and Tapioca: a report on the food distribution systems in Tonga. Both books tell us much about Tonga, but they communicate in very different ways. That’s my excuse, anyway, for putting so much dodgy poetry on this blog…
Footnote (2): In search of a reliable internet connection, I just stepped out of the twenty-eight degree heat of Nuku’alofa into the permanently temperate climate of Escape Café, where expats, diplomats, conmen, agents of the International Monetary Fund, shirtless beachcombers, and other flotsam and jetsam of the Pacific gather to plot over watery flat whites. (There’s a table near the back of the café, within a few yards of a door, which is more or less reserved for a couple of grizzled and permatanned German-Tongans. Unlike other members of their tribe, who are busy running businesses, these gentlemen spend almost all their time idling in cafes and bars around Nuku’alofa. One of them grimly counts and recounts a pile of tattered notes; the other sits with a succession of unlit cigarettes in his mouth. Rumour insists that the pair are bitter and unrepentant exiles from Nazi Germany).

I’m sitting at a low table a few feet from the dapper Japanese ambassador to Tonga, who visited ‘Atenisi a couple of weeks ago in his black shiny SUV to thank us for hosting an exchange student from Okinawa.  The ambassador is a learned man who was fascinated by the works of Japanese literature in our library, but I dare not show him my anti-haiku, for fear of sparking a diplomatic incident…

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]