When I was a girl my grandmother taught me my body in Samoan. I could verse my arms, my legs, my mouth, my muli – with an ease I look back to, like a picture on the mantlepiece of an old life, an old skin shed. We had songs, moments with Jesus and a staunch conundrum – that I later confronted with greater duress (joining the Maori Club at primary) “not to speak that bullshit Maoli in the house.”
When she passed away, two months shy of my 7th birthday, she took my childhood with her. I remember watching her coffin being lowered into the earth, quite sure I didn’t want to be a girl anymore, but pick up where she left off spreading joy. That was my grandma, Rita Sina Meredith, the first sun that I was certain – the one in the sky had been fashioned from.
In my teenage years I encountered many cultural attacks, was I brown enough? was I Samoan enough? to stand alongside my peers, let alone lead them. Determined to live beyond my body, my means and quite possibly my smarts – I looked forward to a new world one day, where my own children wouldn’t have to count from tasi, wouldn’t have to bare their knees and slap themselves for strangers, wouldn’t have to look around a room full of like featured people wondering – if their skin, their values, their contemporary belonging with an evolved structure of Pasifika – would be enough of a license for inclusion within a culture that is essentially, a birthright.
I never set out to be a Samoan poet, a female artist, a Pasifika performer, a cog within a machine that I felt I had left behind, or it had left me behind, the day I buried my grandmother. My first writings were published without my middle name ‘Sina’, my themes were universal, I imagined my characters to be brown, but that didn’t mean they had brown names or only ate chop suey in my prose. I wanted to be authenticated as a writer, on the grounds of the quality of my work, and the passion and courage with which I gathered together the corners of my life, like a great sea of siapo, and wrung the dye with my bare hands onto page after page, night after night.
Today I have been claimed as a Pacific artist, brought in from the cold if you will, from the Samoan government itself that acknowledges my work to produce new cultural contributions, contemporary offerings to the foot of a nomad God, who smiles on me intermittently. Perhaps it is the doubt of change, or the loss of control that change waits for no one, or time itself that has healed at least in my life – a new footing, a place I have claimed for myself in the hope of carving into the rock enough to make a passage for others like me. Or more assuredly the path is across the spine of the rock.
So, why don’t I speak the language? Not learning Samoan, or rehashing the foundations of the language I knew as a girl, has been an active choice. Like the Rushing Dolls in my play, or the Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick in my book, or the more recent Blue-Crowned Lorikeet circling the draft pages of my first novel – I have found solace, inspiration and strength – from making a stand, a new place of belonging, an infrastructure of literature and art that reaches out with aggression and respect to affirm my people based on the joy and will to create change within a historical moment that calls for new Urbanesian role models.
Many of our young people don’t speak the languages of their elders. Beyond the statistical nightmare of how a myriad of governments unify to turn that tide, while facing damning numbers of youth suicide, unemployment, lack of education, further education, senior management positions, a seat at the table of policies being written by strangers – destined to design significant consequences that only the years can deliver – alongside that chimera, we are losing precious time to develop and instill Pasifika values for contemporary communities.
Channeled correctly – young generations have the most sacred resource of all, what our mothers are only finding, what our grandmothers used to dream of, what our great grandmother’s died for – time. We have the power of time – to learn who we are, to invest in ourselves, to diversify our skill sets, to be good to one another, to use our energies and values to contribute towards the kind of global Pasifika culture that not only recognises a multitude of exchanges, but legitimises those efforts as a way to create a healthy, diverse, arena of belonging that is accepting of each and every young Pasifika person, regardless of whether or not they speak the language.
I’m no linguist, but I do live in a world of rapid change, and the ideas of pioneering freedom, have blossomed into individual salutes to collective gains, irrespective of rituals and traditions that are sadly self regulated within communities – policing who is enough, enough of the land, enough of what was – but not enough of what could be.
I’m not saying I don’t wish more than anything, that I could live in the words of my mother tongue, that I don’t dream every night about the day I see my grandma again – and how much I want to be able to greet her in the language of her bloodline. I’m not saying that it hasn’t been difficult, to reckon my identity within a dangerous va that so many others have fought and lost – but when I am still, and the air moves through my body, I breathe the world into the gift of my ancestors. I am only one vessel of many over time, that has been pushed out into the same seas of wonder.
The responsibility that I feel to make the most of my life, for the lives of others, is great. Sometimes it’s too great. I have days where it is overwhelming, and I imagine turning back, turning aside, leaving the path and starting again. I do make myself very vulnerable, to critics, to audiences, to a brand new worldwide readership, that is both faceless and holy to me. Both wonderful and scary. It’s when I look at my younger brothers, and I feel my chest heave, for how many younger brothers, to sisters just like me, are no longer with us having not felt – good enough, accepted enough, brave and brown enough. Our forgotten sons and daughters – that are not championed for, protected, defended, listened to and cherished – on account of their own unique wills and talents, for young lives lost to a cultural template that has silenced, many of our greatest leaders, gone too soon. Then I am alive with them all, and I push myself into the world to find their young spirits partying in London, swimming in the blue clouds of Oxford, marveling at street art in Berlin, dancing in the bright lights of Hong Kong: they are the guides that walk with me, they are the stars that I track with my heart.
I don’t speak the language to provide comfort and strength to my brothers and sisters in the same vaka. I don’t speak the language, to perform activate and achieve excellence in their name, for their sake. I don’t speak the language, because I am committed to the freedom my grandmother moved to New Zealand for. I don’t speak the language, because I can’t. What I do speak for has become my life’s work. I speak for a culture of promise that I believe in, that is open, honest and alive.
One thought on “Why I don’t speak the language”