Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Tahitian Writer

It is difficult to get anything written in the Francophone Pacific writers in our part of the world.  With that in mind I want to share the delight I have in reading all the works written by a Tahitians writer.

Celestine Hitiura Vaite, the Tahitian writer makes clear where her inspirations comes from: the oral cultures, the stories, and the ordinary everyday experiences of Tahitians, especially those close to her in her home, Faa’a: “I grew up in Faa’a exactly where the book is situated, that’s why my mum said, “I can’t believe you put our fibro shacks in your books!” I grew up behind a petrol station next to the international airport and not far from the Chinese cemetery. I’m of the family Mai. It’s a big family. My ancestor was Chief of Faa’a-one of the people who signed the French Protectorate…When people say, “oh you must miss the majestic---the mountains, the rivers…it’s not that I miss---it’s that little stretch of place in Tahiti—it’s Faa’a that I miss…the children, the roosters, the church with the clock that chimes the hours…I miss that—that’s where I’m from.”

Vaite has published three novels: Breadfruit (2003), Frangipani (2004), and Tiare  (2006) all set in the place of her memory, replete with the history of her people, relatives, ancestors, and the modern day history of Tahiti constructed from an agreement between the chiefs and the colonial France government, for Tahiti to remain a French Protectorate, within the greater French Polynesia.

Vaite writes about her people without presenting them as subjects of French colonization—her textual representation is from the position of someone with genetic connection to a French father. Such split identities are often problematic positions of many Tahitians in the early periods of French colonization of Tahiti up to the present moments in the lives of people in French Polynesia.

Against this background it is hard to consider Vaite’s novels without making reference to the French colonization of Tahiti and the consequences of such a history resulting in abject poverty, crime, and violence in French Polynesia. Even though Vaite insists her works are not about resistance to French colonialism, the lives of Tahitians she represents in her books are viewed against a broader colonized history of Tahiti.

It is difficult not to talk about the Tahitians in Vaite’s novels without reading the political, social, or historical factors in the novel. The construction of the social, familial, and lived experiences is already political in Vaite’s novels. Even writing and publishing her books outside of Tahiti and translated in many languages is already set within a socially and politically determined space. Publishing a text, poetry, novels or plays that begin with nostalgia and develop into a text about the people that a writer knew or is connected to has always presupposed the promotion of a certain kind of identity, a construction of a world that a writer introduces to the reader. Naturally, this begins a creative and critical process of a writer making sense of oneself to others.

In Vaite’s words: “it gives you another vision of the world”. In Frangipani, Vaite reconstructs her memory of Tahiti through the character of Materena, who through strong personal convictions, personality, and drive, takes a job as a “professional cleaner” to support her own family and even take care of her husband, Pito. Simultaneously, she had to deal with her daughter, Leilani’s, coming of age issues and her eventual diversion from values that Materena deems are timeless Tahitian traditions. In the novel, Vaite reconstructs the history of her childhood and family. Vaite’s concern is with the memory of the world she left behind in Tahiti, while living with her Australian husband in Sydney.

 In her interview with Anne Collete, the editor of Kunapipi, Vaite maintains that her work is about the real life experiences of people close to her and in no way is the work about the conditions created by French colonialism or about the indifferences to French influence in Tahiti. This is a position that is different to the position taken by other Maohi writers.

Frantz Fanon describes such a split condition as “the oppressed consciousness of the colonised subject. He argued that imperialism initiated a process of ‘internalization’ in which those subjected to it experienced economic, political and social inferiority not merely in ‘external’ terms, but in a manner that affected their sense of their own destiny” (Edgar and Sedgwick 2002: 70). French Polynesian literature, should be viewed “as the metaphoric va’a that crosses imperial boundaries to reconnect Oceanic peoples” and this also links the Ma’ohi experience with the rest of the Pacific.

The splitting of identities in Tahiti has been problematic since its early history with French colonization. Collaboration and resistance to French colonialism characterizes the Ma’ohi experience. “It is therefore critical to differentiate between that which the Maohi did with the French and that which they did to or against them”, writes Robert Nicole, who also added that the task to locate “responses to oppression have historically been highly variable and unevenly distributed” (Nicole 1998: 267).

One view is that the Ma’ohi desired a coexistence with foreigners and to live in a harmonious multicultural relationship. Others argued against such coexistence simply because not all Ma’ohi had agreed for such coexistence.

 “There is no doubt that many Ma’ohi have internalised the self-gratifying view that tourism has created and that they have therefore participated in their self-alienation. Many also believe that opportunist Ma’ohi chiefs and elites have always been quick to realize shifts in the balance of power and to adopt strategies accordingly. Local elites have been happy to align themselves with the French government because this has made it possible for them to extend their social, economic, and political power.” (Nicole 1998: 267-268).

French Polynesia has one of Pacific’s highest per capita incomes as a result of heavy funding from the Metropolitan Paris. This may explain the lack of support there for pro-Independence struggles.

The Pacific needs more women writers.

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