Laying the backing cloth: a postcolonial and diasporic fabric

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Chapter Four – Akairianga

There have been two important objectives of this thesis: to begin mapping Anglophone Cook Islands literature; to synthesize some key literary characteristics of the field. In order to achieve the second objective, this thesis has drawn from a wide variety of sources and attempted to make informed judgments about a communal Cook Islands literary aesthetic. The following section makes some conclusions about what I perceive to be salient and telling facets of this aesthetic. I do this by reflecting on the analyses in the previous chapter and observing some literary connections between, as well as outside, this group of four poets. Section 4.2 takes a snapshot of the current conceptual tivaivai of the field and notes where the next stitches are attaching new patterns to the backing-cloth. It will also give some brief consideration to the national literary bodies of others in the Pacific in order to suggest some productive ways forward for Cook Islands literature. This will consider Cook Islands writing within and alongside the wider Pacific literary field. Finally, 4.3 will present the literary tivaivai that has been created by acknowledging those who have contributed to it and considers what the thesis

“My mother sews her love / into each stitch / That joins the tivaevae pattern / to the backbone”: a communal Cook Islands literary aesthetic.

The title to this sub-section is taken from Va’ine Rasmussen’s poem, “In the Tivaevae” 1991:32). It is one of my favourites. These lines particularly have always struck me for the ways in which they allude to the importance of those who have gone before and the experiences those tupuna weave into the fabric of the present, especially in terms of culture. This representation of papa’anga within the quilt has acted as a framework for this thesis. By its fundamental nature, it also acknowledges the central role of papa’anga as a way of seeking and asserting the Cook Islands identity in the work of Cook Islands writers. “My mother sews her love / into each stitch” – indeed. This thesis has attempted, in keeping with the genealogical aesthetic of tupuna (those who have gone before), to “stitch to the back-bone”. Chapter 2 examined the disparate parts of the conceptual tivaivai and found that Cook Islanders have been writing for a long time, prominently in the 1970s and even further back to the missionary writings of Ta’unga and Maretu. The patterns – the writers and the tua ta’ito/the stories – stretch even further back to our eponymous ancestors, to creation. The genealogical exploration of Chapter 2 serves the purpose of establishing the academic conversation and opening it up for analysis, criticism and importantly, encouraging the additions this thesis was unable to investigate further. Importantly, it also represents the significance of such an exercise within the Cook Islands world-view. Without this retracing, the analysis of Chapter 3 would be of little relevance. This tivaivai would simply be a pile of patterns, fabric and thread, lying on the figurative floor – no “fingers” or intentions to draw them together and make them whole, to arrange each pattern and situate them against all others. As I began “stitching to the back-bone” in Chapter 3, the relevance of papa’anga not only manifested in the exercise of analysis but also became layers of investigation and creative expression within the work of all four writers: Tongia’s nuanced engagement with the missionary narrative; Kauraka’s emotive articulations of Manihiki/Manuhiki/Havaiki; the ever-present Sea in Rasmussen’s work and; the relevance of personal papa’anga within yet more layers of communal papa’anga in Mason’s work. All of these examples show the recurring relevance of genealogy. This is not an uncommon “theme” within Pacific literatures generally but each distinct Pacific culture has their own nuanced ways of enacting this cultural practise. In the Cook Islands case, the distinct visual aesthetics and symbolism, the layers of diasporic and postcolonial papa’anga and connection to the affiliated island of each poet and writer are what distinguish the Cook Islands incorporation of papa’anga from others. As the representations of the Pacific within European South Seas literature of the 19th century emphasised the region’s beauty (with all its primitive inhabitants), the arresting aesthetic of the home-islands has its own significance for the Cook Islands writer. The importance of the physical islands is central to the Cook Islands literary aesthetic as relation is drawn and redrawn back to these physical, cultural and spiritual spaces. Chapter 3 shows the significance of specific affiliated home islands, and how they exist within the complexities of Western borderlines created through colonisation. In attempting to reconcile traditional ideas of place and colonial cartography, there is a noticable attempt to negotiate and engage with these different layers within the postcolonial present. This, of course, is a product of diasporic spread and the postcolonial realities which require the Cook Islands person and writer, to consider carefully the importance of cultural practise and island affiliation. Within literature, these considerations are represented through recurring symbols, metaphors and tropes that have been influenced by the encroachment of Western systems and a continued connection to cultural tradition and tupuna – the concrete jungle and Havaiki; the pagan temple and the Church; the papa’a child with a mataiapo title; a sea, reflecting stars. The literary representations within the work of Chapter 3 connect with each other in more ways than one, as they speak to, reflect and uniquely articulate the prominence of diaspora and the politics of postcolonialism with the Cook Islands context. Naturally, these symbols reflect both the natural beauty of the home-islands and parts of the Western world. A prominent part of this literary aesthetic is the presence of New Zealand and its representation of the two major metanarratives of the backing-cloth. Many settings within Campbell’s work have been constructed on the relevance of New Zealand to his personal papa’anga. This is also seen in the work of Tongia, Tavioni, Brown, Ta’i George, Miria George and many others. The New Zealand connection feels like an inevitable allusion. As more Cook Islands writers are discovered, perhaps other diasporic national spaces will also find their place within the literary aesthetic of this field. However, this recurring setting and allusion within the work of Cook Islands importantly engages with the metanarrative papa’anga of diaspora and postcolonialism, and naturally becomes a distinct part of the Cook Islands literary aesthetic. This connection with a more dominant marginal nation also gestures to the way Cook Islands writers articulate their association with other nations in the region. A prominent example has been the French nuclear testing alluded to in the work of Tongia and Kauraka. This recurring concern rests, again, on the layers of papa’anga associated with the British and French colonial project, as well as the much longer papa’anga of relational connection Cook Islanders have had with their extended families in French Polynesia. The nuclear testing issue within these texts are about the moral issues of weapons of mass destruction, but it is also about what these literal and symbolic bombs mean for the Cook Islands identity. It is about physical proximity and familial proximity. This occurs throughout the field, as Cook Islands writers write about their transnational experiences right across the region. Of course, despite diasporic movement and postcolonialism highlighting our contemporary movement, Cook Islanders have always been travellers.


Possible Futures

It is true that Cook Islands literature lacks the same profile as some of the more prolific national literatures of the Pacific. New Zealand Māori literature for example has an established number of poets and novelists who publish regularly with Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace and Keri Hulme now canonical in this sense. Their credibility is emphasised by a significant volume of published material, national and international acknowledgement of their work (Hulme’s Booker Prize 1985, the most compelling example) and an accompanying critical mass (Whaitiri’s Te Pua journals, Te Punga Somerville 2012). Likewise, Samoan literature has benefited from the tireless efforts of Albert Wendt and his Samoan contemporaries (Va’ai 1999; Marsh 2004; and the SPAN Journals) who in teaching and writing, have continued to keep the momentum of publishing and grass-roots creative writing flowing. It is difficult to say what the Cook Islands case lacks. Like these other “success” stories of Pacific national literatures, we have our own share of accomplished writers and scholars. Admittedly, our only writer comparable to the New Zealand Māori writers, on the terms outlined above, is Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and as elaborated earlier, he sits somewhat apart from the other Cook Islands writers on this conceptual tivaivai. The prominence of the postcolonial and diasporic narratives also gesture to other potential reasonings: for example, the Cook Islands have not had the same access to institutional support as Samoa or New Zealand, nor has it had the same access to resources for publishing, mentoring and the like. This is not to take away from the valuable contributions made by the four poets of Chapter 3 or the likes of Marjorie and Ron Crocombe. Indeed, Chapter 2 shows that their efforts, even with their base in Fiji, were pivotal to the very genesis of the Pacific literary tradition as it stands today. The most recent publications have been produced by three female writers in the diasporic space: Miria George, Audrey Brown-Pereira and Courteney Meredith. George is the only Cook Islands writer whose fulltime occupation is writing, directing and producing for her company Tawata Productions in New Zealand, while Brown-Pereira writes and publishes from the United States and Samoa and Meredith, also from New Zealand. Other poets based in the home-islands have also indicated they would look to publish another collection though yet there are no new publications to date (Tavioni, Mason). What does the future of Cook Islands writing look like? During the writing of this thesis I have met regularly with a friend, a Cook Islander, who also majored in English Literature for his undergraduate degree. We speak at length about being “the only ones” – the only Cook Islanders – in the English department. As the year and the project have gone on, we have learnt to not only focus on the lack of “noise” but to consider what the silence has given space to. Indeed, this silence in many ways is perpetuated by our initial attitude. Importantly, it gave way to another more pertinent question: despite not hearing any critical noise here in the diasporic space, does that mean there is still no “noise” being made elsewhere, across the Ocean, in the home-islands? A research visit to Rarotonga in June of 2012 led to many informal conversations with Cook Islands writers. The fire for cultural preservation and celebration within Anglophone literature was still burning and despite the lack of recent published work, critical conversations about writing were still taking place, face to face, within the island community. Writing workshops and creative writing groups were still happening, though perhaps quietly and inconsistently. Without robust resource and the ability, or wish, to write fulltime the Cook Islands has been unable to produce any writer matching the calibre of Albert Wendt, the Maori literary heavyweights, or indeed Alistair Te Ariki Campbell. Interestingly, these influential writers and thinkers have all benefited from the New Zealand tertiary system as well as other creative opportunities offered within the diasporic space, while those producing writing in the home-islands have had to rely on connection to the University of the South Pacific and other regional funding bodies. I hesitate to rely too heavily on economics, institutional association and resource as the shaping forces behind the Cook Islands literary field as some onus must fall on the pool of creativity and passion that exists collectively amongst all Cook Islands writers. However the “noise” and the relative silence that I have argued for throughout this thesis rests on my ability as a diasporic Cook Islander to access the writing and stories of my own people. Without the ability of writers to access those avenues, disparate patterns remain unattached to this literary tivaivai. It is my hope that this thesis and the work of Brown-Pereira, George, Meredith and others might prompt writers to continue producing work and pursuing ways that their material might be published. Moreover, it is my hope that this thesis has highlighted the quality of Cook Islands poetry and the important contributions Cook Islands writing adds to the conversations surrounding Pacific literature. It is important to emphasise that at the end of this thesis, the tivaivai is not finished. As I acknowledged in the introduction, there are some important Cook Islands writers who I was unable to give closer treatment to here, but who are important points of investigation that require their own restoration work on this tivaivai. It is also important that the works of our contemporary writers are also engaged with creatively and critically. It is my hope that this thesis serves as a springboard for further research into the field, hopefully one day at the level of Doctoral studies. It is my hope, and that of all the Cook Islands writers, and all those who have edited, studied and supported Cook Islands literature, that more patterns be sewn into this dynamic, textured and exquisite literary tivaivai.

Chapter One – Cutting Paper Patterns: An Introduction
1.1 Methodology: From Fibre to Fabric
1.2 A note on terminology
Chapter Two – Koikoi: A survey of Cook Islands writing in English
2.1 Stitching in Time
2.2 Laying the backing cloth: a postcolonial and diasporic fabric
2.3 Genealogy and the Quilt
Chapter Three – Tuitui’anga: “Each stitch joins the Tivaevae Pattern to the Back-Bone”
3.1 Four Cook Islands Writers
3.2 Makiuti Tongia
3.3 Kauraka Kauraka
3.4 Va’ine Rasmussen
3.5 Jean Tekura’i’imoana Mason
Chapter Four – Akairianga
4.1 “My mother sews her love / into each stitch / That joins the tivaevae pattern / to the backbone”: a communal Cook Islands literary aesthetic.
4.2 Possible Futures
A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English Literature The University of Auckland, 2013

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