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October 2, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Can I say that…?

The flower-garnering, glowing men and maids of Polynesia (are) half child and half god…

— J. W. Collier (1853-1932), New Zealand-Australian Wesleyan Missionary to Samoa


I was in a taxi on my way to Willis Street a few months ago, when I first realised that I didn’t know what the word “representation” actually meant… or who it was actually “for”. The driver asked me where I was from. I told her I was Samoan, and she then asked me (with a laugh), “are you related to Sol3 Mio?” I thought, really? You’re going to take that (quite necessary) island tradition of asking about families and lineage for the purposes of identification and community, and turn it into a joke?! I mean, who the heck wouldn’t want to be related to their favorite opera singers but… only SAMOANS can ask me that! But of course, my Samoan manners kicked in, and I didn’t say any of that to her (way to fight for your rights, Jas!). She then asked me if I’d been to any of their concerts, and, very specifically, when they will be home. I answered, “They came home last year,” remembering their performance in Samoa over the Christmas period. I remembered them coming home, to Apia. But she asked again. “Are you sure they were home?” I was damn sure. I saw them there. I realised that she and I were referring to two completely different homes.

As a New Zealander, she said, she was proud of Sol3 Mio, and thought they were a fine representation of her and her country on a global platform. Meanwhile I, as a (very) proud Samoan, had always claimed them as a representation of me. I’d never given any thought to the fact that they might be seen by some as people who represent New Zealand. I knew they’d grown up in Auckland, but they always said they were Samoan at their shows, on social media, and basically everywhere they seemed to go. I felt that they were mine. Their art was mine. All the positive feedback they got was breaking stereotypes of me.

That same day, I asked myself: can they, as ethnically Polynesian, non-Māori entertainers, represent New Zealand? And since when was “white New Zealand” proud of us, and wanting us to “come home” to “their” space? We often ask if white people can represent us, but can we represent them? Do white people react better to us “representing them” than we do to them representing us?

That’s what the debate about representation is about, for me. Did I ever find the answers to those questions? Nah. There are no two-plus-two-equals-four answers, just more questions that keep adding on. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, though. I believe that, in asking questions, even “silly” ones, we can do something better than finding immediate answers: we can develop better questions.


Australian comedian Chris Lilley’s Jonah from Tonga was taken off Māori Television after airing just one episode in July. I watched several interviews with Tongans, Samoans, Tokelauans, and other Polynesians who were on different sides of the spectrum about it. Some were saying “he’s really funny! I don’t mind it at all.” Others, quite a few others, called Lilley a “stupid fucking racist Australian in brownface” (hello, comments section!). Is Jonah from Tonga racist, though? I know, that’s a dangerous (hate mail-inspiring) question to ask right now, especially if you’re Polynesian. But I need to ask it, to myself, more than anyone else. I ask it because I feel that a lot of the time when we ask “is Jonah from Tonga racist,” we are really asking, “does a white Australian middle class male with a major media platform, in a society full of ethnic and racial tensions, have the right to represent underprivileged Polynesian non-citizens (and recent immigrants) against whom the ‘system’ is prejudiced and of which its opinions are hardly ever high?” That’s what I mean by better questions.

For me, personally, the way Polynesian males are represented is a much bigger problem than the fact that they are being represented in this particular genre. This question was easier for me to answer than the one about Sol3 Mio. Mainstream (white) society can — and does — have Polynesian characters in its films, books, and whatnot (hey, Shortland Street). The problem with Lilley’s representation is that we have a white guy, who’s never been stared at suspiciously in a store or at an airport, wearing a fake tan and mimicking a certain accent that Polynesians are “supposed” to have. A lot of his fans have said that he’s “not trying to be Polynesian or represent Polynesia.” That may well be true. But the thing is, whether or not he means to represent us, his “Polynesian hair” wig and darkened skin do provide a representation of us. Jonah is a “Polynesian” character. He has to be based on something. Chris Lilley makes himself a type of representative of us, even if he doesn’t necessarily want to be.

Polynesian society is community-based. We are defined by who our parents and grandparents are. The sense of “my” is very strong, and is definitely why I was so quick to use it on Sol3 Mio. Many Polynesians who don’t appreciate Lilley’s satire watch Jonah from Tonga thinking, “My father is not like that! My brothers are not like that! My uncles are not like that! My grandfathers and their fathers were not like that! I AM NOT LIKE THAT!” Polynesian legends and chants represent Polynesian masculinity as regal, intelligent, courageous, industrious, and visionary. However Lilley meant the interpretation of his sketches — social commentary, comedy, or who the fuck knows — it has been primarily negative among Polynesians because many cannot, and will not, accord Chris Lilley the right to represent them.

The Polynesians portrayed in Jonah from Tonga don’t like to read or write. That’s a far from  accurate representation of our people, though. The late Dr Teresia Teaiwa’s groundbreaking scholarship is testament to that. Albert Wendt’s novels are testament to that. Sia Figiel’s Where We Once Belonged is a painful but necessary testament to that. Konai Helu Thaman’s poems are testament to that. Epeli Hau’ofa’s writing is testament to that. Lani Wendt-Young’s Telesa trilogy is testament to that. Tusiata Avia’s performance poetry is testament to that. Ruperake Pataia’s collections are testament to that. New Zealand Poet Laureate Tusitala Selina Marsh’s work — which went as far as Buckingham Palace — is testament to that. Never seen some of these names on a mainstream bookshelf? That is testament to the lack of support for our representation of ourselves.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is everywhere (as he is). His short story Beach at Falesā, which has weird native characters speaking an inaccurately re-created form of “Samoan broken English” is everywhere. Rupert Brooke’s diary and letter accounts of pretty brown Samoan bodies with no traces of “black” are everywhere. Margaret Mead’s exposé about Samoan women’s sex lives is everywhere. Derek Freeman’s “defence” of the poor misunderstood natives is everywhere, too. To be Polynesian means having very little direct and correct literary representation. You can’t read about Polynesians unless you purposely decide that you will go looking for information. And if/when you do, you’ll find mostly whitewashed, white-centric accounts from decades ago. Being represented primarily by white writers is like meeting someone and who wants to know a bit about you, but in order to do that, they ask the person behind you. Then they ask the people around you. Then they start calling out “does anyone know who this person is?” while you’re right in front of them. They don’t ask you. If someone in the crowd tells them your name — but it’s not your name — you just have to smile and get over it (because your actual name is too hard to pronounce anyway).

My main problem with the lack of our own representations is the way non-Polynesian representations of Polynesians have infiltrated Polynesian education systems and even mainstream modules that teach about Polynesians. Growing up in Samoa, the “good” books, in terms of quality of content, were always texts by white authors. Katherine Mansfield, Alan Paton, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rupert Brooke. You name the white, well-to-do, dead author. I read their work. I was always told that these would teach me “good, civilised values.” And where were Albert Wendt, Sia Figiel, and Lani Wendt-Young? They didn’t appear until my final years of high school, but not without reluctance from some of my teachers. To quote someone who saw me reading When Water Burns by Lani Wendt Young: “That book has too much sexuality and teaches kids that it’s okay to be like that. That’s trash!” Basically: your representations of your own self are trash; unimportant.

My surname was taken from my great, great-grandparents’ idol, who said the unflattering epigraph for this piece and was published in the Sydney Morning Herald. He, like his good friend Stevenson and many other non-Polynesians who lived in Polynesia, felt they had the right to write about us, and that what they wrote about us was all the representation we would ever need. Early European settlers and explorers assumed that we had no “records” or documentation of our histories and concerns. They often discounted our style of recording. We had chants. We had songs. We had myths. We had legends. Even a great deal of our tattoos were in fact chronologies and genealogies, passed down from our ancestors. By speaking for us, the writers of what we have been taught to call “our history” wrote over us, and our voices continue to be overwritten in favour of theirs.

Does merely living somewhere entitle you to represent that place? Does taking the illiterate children of natives under your wing, letting them bare your name and establishing them well in their society mean that you’ve “paid enough” to be a representative of them?

Can I, knowing this family history, still “represent” Polynesians the way I (try to) do?

Ka’ilo, se.  

The questions come, change, and disappear. Representation itself is one of the most complex notions in the world. I don’t have many sure answers, especially not for my own questions. But as I sit here waiting for my laptop to die before I finish typing this, I think I have an (though not the) answer. Non-Polynesians can talk about me. I know I talk about them. They can write about me and paint about me. But I don’t want them to claim that the images and sounds on the screen and paper are all there is to the complex, intelligent human beings depicted (I know I must stop doing the same to them). That, to me, is the greatest form of misrepresentation, and a major misappropriation of what it means to be a human being.


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