Loose Canons: Tamara Tulitua
Loose Canons is a series in which we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.
Tamara Tulitua is a Wellington-based writer of Samoan descent, who traces her lineage through the villages of Lefaga, (Safa’ato’a, Gagāifo, and Matāutu) on her mother’s side, and on her father’s side through Sapapāli’i, Vailima, and Tanugamanono. Her work has appeared in literary journals and other online publications including Turbine | Kapohau and the Dominion Post. In 2021 she completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Te Pūtahi Tuhi Auaha o Te Ao | International Institute of Modern Letters. Tamara is working on a collection of prose and poetry, which explores the myriad identities and dialects Sāmoans embody and express. She is the current Emerging Pasifika Writer in Residence at the IIML.
i. It’s a Big Indigenous World, Baby, We’re All Just Living In It
In a time of shrinking smokers’ real estate, and post-9/11 fear, I passed through security at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. I was deep in UN territory and entered large lounge areas with a horizontal Tower of Babel of suits, beneath a permanent cloud of cigarette smoke. The carcinogenic haze captured my fantasy of diplomatic freedoms. This was heaven – travel, languages, interesting conversations. I started to question my neglectful attitude toward my vague goal to be a diplomat, then recovered.
By some grace of the divine, my dry law-school studies had been disrupted by this trip to the UN, made possible by the inimitable Māori academic Claire Charters. Until this point, second-year law had had moments of sparks, but not enough to dim the sense that it was all quite irrelevant to me. I had no genuine stakes in a game that demands all your mental and physical energy. Charters was like a solenoid that brought my brain alive. Her lectures revealed an intriguing world of global Indigenous resistance. Law school had the best teaching on Te Tiriti issues, but this intersection with international law was new to me. She created an initiative to send a student to the next session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the UN Headquarters in New York. Somehow, I was selected.
I arrived at the first day of the conference, pinching myself. I kept checking my lanyard, which said I was a delegate for the UNPFII. Not a tourist, not a cleaner – a freaking delegate. As much as my scepticism of Western politics was rising, I was then, and still am, a complete geek for the world of international politics.
My ‘āiga gave me deep roots in my Sāmoan identity, my parents gave me an innate curiosity about life. At university I searched for an alternative to the prevailing capitalist paradigm – one of the few things my Sāmoan world shared with the Pālagi world, the same means to different ends. I was trying to reconcile my international outlook, cultural roots and the troubling gaps I felt in chasing gains.
I walked into the grand, high-ceilinged conference room. Before me was a wide whale’s grill of rows of connected tables and seats, above which lay a lip of high, tinted windows hiding translators and press people.
This was not the usual UN meeting scene I knew from books and online, though. The whale’s grill was divided down the centre. On my left was the familiar UN setting: Tower of Babel delegates assembled as expected, black plaques with white-lettered names of countries, some with flags. They were a homogenous blur of black, brown and beige corporate wear. Hair uniformly tamed, parted, French rolled. Important Diplomats of The World.
To my right were the representatives of the First Nations. I knew they would be there – I was one of them. But I was not prepared for their beauty: they were resplendent with colour, patterns, layers of textures, hats and other head regalia. There were staffs propped against the tables, blankets and ponchos, and cloaks across the seats. Unrestrained, unapologetic. They represented the Indigenous nations along traditional boundaries and held equal sway with their diplomat counterparts. First Nations Elders and Youth of the Indigenous Peoples across All Continents.
I was not prepared for their beauty
University studies and family roots were harmonised as I found my place amongst our global Indigenous family. I sat at the feet of elders, from the Pygmy peoples to the Cree nation to Sámi tribes. We networked, laughed, and shared stories of joy and deep ongoing loss. We followed the conference regulars to the best spots across the city for jerk goat and chicken, whiskey, champagne. First Nations held workshops to share skills, present progress on grassroots projects. We attended workshops and seminars to consider issues in depth, debate, revise and reassess. The elders were honoured, and the young were encouraged to continue the work. I understood art-making as sacred, law-making as a vehicle for change, and story-sharing as essential documentation of our existence for millennia.
From then on, I was confident I could do what felt natural – shift my entire outlook to spin on the axis of my Indigeneity.
Le Vā is my creative mandate: fluidity over convention, fragmentation as the norm, and time non-linear. I am indebted to the whakapapa of Moana Oceania and Aotearoa writers and creators who fly ahead of me, and who enable fledgling writers like myself to take flight. The architects of our canon, bridge builders to the skies. I love literature – including the Western canon. I love the fact it’s not the only one out there. The world is richer than that. I love that we get both in this wide wild world of ours.
ii. Mirror Making
In my parents’ house, the sitting room is for family chilling and hosting formal guests. The dining room was always ahead of its time, a work-from-home office. My dad reads the paper religiously front to back every morning. My mum does her crossword or crunches accounts for this or that community committee. They receive a regular stream of visitors with strong sweet tea and crackers or biscuits, and warm conversation. My parents keep three books as permanent office fixtures: O le Tusi Paia (the Sāmoan Bible), O le Mavaega i le Tai (a book on Sāmoan oratory language) and Tama‘ita‘i Samoa: Their Stories. All three are read regularly, studied and consulted.
My parents have had Tama‘ita‘i Samoa since I received it from a family matriarch at the end of high school. It is a nonfiction book profiling tama‘ita‘i Sāmoa (Sāmoan women) who migrated to Aotearoa New Zealand between the 1950s and 1970s. I had to quietly retrieve it recently so I could get it mended, as its binding has unravelled.
Over the decades that she has read the book, I have imagined my mum using the stories as a mirror with moveable parts. As a child, I had a dressing table with a large mirror and hinged mirror wings. I would sit and look into the mirror and play with the multiple perspectives it would feed back to me. My single image was static if the wings were flush with the centre panel. I would tilt the wings inwards, and my image would multiply.
When Moana was released, my sisters and I took Mum and my daughter to see it. Mum wept during the opening scenes. There had been a few movies that showed us ourselves over the years, but there was something about Moana that captured Mum’s heart. I teased her, asking if it reminded her of Return to Paradise, filmed in our family villages of Lefaga. She simply smiled and said, “All these years, I haven’t seen our home in a movie like that.” Like that: Disney level, global hit, celebrate-our-beautiful-peoples-and-culture. Like that: one hell of a mirror, a reflecting telescope to the Pasifika.
Like that: one hell of a mirror, a reflecting telescope to the Pasifika.
A book. A movie. Images and words and stories and movement and sounds that transport my mother home. They transport her away home to Sāmoa but also ground her in Aotearoa, her chosen home. They are saying to her, “Yes, I am here.” Perhaps she looks to the book to hear that again and again, “Yes, I am here”, swivel mirrored wings just so – sees the many, “Yes, we are all here too.”
Before ancestry.com and the like, we had The Godfather to confirm the Sicilian branch of our gafa/genealogy. My father let me watch The Godfather when I was barely 11. No, he did not believe in censorship – he did, however, believe in quality movies. By the time he scored a boxset of The Godfather trilogy in the 1990s, we had watched parts I and II several times.
As a child, I recognised the culture of Italians on screen. The men who provided for and protected their families, favoured daughters, challenged sons; women who were devoted to their children, queens of their domestic domains, favoured sons, challenged daughters; large family gatherings around food; and of course, the clan drama. Finally, another world where family drama outdid our own! But our worlds were on par when it came to the cultural holy trinity (family, church, country) and honour codes (an eye for an eye). I recognised the notion of a cultural bubble as protection against a hostile world. Within the bubble, our language, our food, our music and our ways were paramount. I recognised the way the mafia and their women looked completely normal within their world, yet suddenly different outside it – but they did not care.
School life (read Pālagi life) was an outsider culture, while our main life (read church and ‘āiga life) was an intricate lively network, connected to the greater network that ran its cables undersea to the homelands. In our downtime, there were many films and documentaries my family watched – the VCR was vital tech in our house.
Our VHS library was as much about escapism and entertainment as it was about empowerment and education. Solidarity education came by way of films such as Biko, Escape from Sobibor, The Color Purple and Utu. Along with The Godfather, we kids loved Blood In, Blood Out, memorised lines from The Last Dragon, mimicked moves from Beat Street. They were stories of our kind: underdog, working-class hustlers on the wrong side of the colour lines. Network TV pretended we didn’t exist except as societal losers, but these movies showed the full spectrum of us from failures to winners – who all looked fly regardless.
They were stories of our kind: underdog, working-class hustlers on the wrong side of the colour lines
The videos of my youth still teach me today. The power of a story that is well represented and well told. The power of a story showing characters of such depth and complexity – they had to be real, because, damn, they’re just like us! The power of a greater story where, even as they suffer great loss, the characters can win even if only sometimes, and if not this generation, then the next.
iv. “Who told you that you were naked?”
This phrase is a story, a poem.
It is from the Bible, God’s interrogation of Adam when He discovers their betrayal.
This is the master story that I consider when I write. It is the master story I think of when I second guess what I write. Who is doing the asking? The telling? Who defines you? Who holds so much sway over your body (read land, read being, read identity) that they tell you to cover yourself? More importantly, why do you listen?
Who holds so much sway over your body (read land, read being, read identity) that they tell you to cover yourself?
Growing up in our Sāmoan bubble, sexuality as a form of self-knowledge was something put far out of reach. The dichotomy of bad girl (ka‘a) vs good girl (agelu/mamalu) was as strong then as it still is now. Our cultural and church contexts affirm agape and philia love – however, eros was firmly reduced to marriage, missionary position and fear mongering. Surely, this wasn’t the whole story?
Who told us we were naked? Who told us our bodies were shameful? Who told us our bodies were unbeautiful, unworthy, distasteful, too big, too bold, too brown, too light?
Black American feminist thinkers and writers offered me answers – including Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Toni Morison, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, and most recently I look to Octavia Butler, June Jordan and Lorraine Hansberry. A pivotal work for me is Audre Lorde’s essay ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’ from her collection Sister Outsider. I owe her so much. She gave me a language to think with, licence to consider my own values, my work and motivations. She and her peers show me that you can write your many selves into existence.
There are larger things at play going on when we come up against barriers to our bodies. Reading and writing are a privilege. When do marginalised groups get the luxury to consider our existential selves? Do we get to have both our collective lushness and individual enlightenment? Do we get to allow the two to inform each other? I am not the first to ask this, and I hope I am not the last.
I write to help clear a way for us to explore our power, our limitations, our curiosities. I hope to help us find our way home to our gorgeous selves.
v. Rhythm Kitchen
Learning my craft is something that gives me that elusive, deep I-Can’t-Believe-This-Is-Work vibe. It took me a long time to understand I am an artist – that this writing habit I have had since intermediate school was a thing. A pivotal experience was going to a live poetry slam at the Nuyorican Poets Café on the Lower East Side, on a visit to New York.
The backstreet was aglow in the streetlights, with a chill level of street noise. The line at the door was long, but everyone was relaxed. I slotted in with them and wondered what I was in for. Some guys told me that they had heard one of the big names was coming through. He was headlining at a Broadway slam show set to premiere soon – on Broadway! Saul Williams’ film Slam had come out and the first season of Def Poetry Jam had aired in the States. Spoken word and poetry slams were entering our global literary consciousness.
Spoken word and poetry slams were entering our global literary consciousness.
The café was packed within 15 minutes. It reminded me of the Welly landmark Bar Bodega – the one on Ghuznee Street, not Willis Street – a bar at the entrance, long and narrow with wooden floors, an open audience space with a small, low stage at the far-end wall. I grabbed a seat a few rows from the stage.
At 10.07pm a disembodied voice came through the PA: “Who’s ready for the NU-YO-RI-CAN PO-ETS TONIGHT!?” The crowd lost it. For such a small venue, the place was heaving. I looked behind me and the seats were full, the bar consumed by a mob of standing spectators. I felt like I was in the ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ video. Way too much swag and style to take in.
The body connected to the voice arrived on the stage and it was all on. He announced the open-mic line-up and ran through the rules. Wasting no time, he introduced the first poet: “Ok – she’s dope, she’s new, she’s from Brooklyn and it’s her – FIRST TIME!” Without missing a beat the crowd shouted in chorus, “VIRGIN!”, and a wave of loud, loving clicks carried her to the stage. The virgins were interspersed with the OGs and someone they called The Don. Then Mr Broadway ended the night, by freestyling about pork for three minutes. Pork had never tasted so good. My neighbour leaned over to me and said,
“You think it’s written, but it ain’t – the brother is just this good for real.”
Over the years I’ve kept journals of poems and soaked in videos of spoken word. The culture, the movement, the canon – all of it is inspirational. I reach for Aja Monet, Sonia Sanchez, Dominique Christina and their literary kin as my multi-vitamins.
Poetic language and form for me are almost inescapable, like an accent I can't shake, nor want to. As I am learning how to write a short story, the poetic flows in and I let them mingle. I let the stories take the forms they need to take, free myself from worrying about labels. As in life, so too on the page. That night at the Nuyorican I understood what it meant to follow a rhythm, enter a flow, and take an audience with you. I learnt that creativity can also happen in an open-concept restaurant in full view of the punters. I realised perfectionism had no place there, vulnerability had to be in control. It would be years before I popped my performance cherry. Now I am here, these lessons are knives in my roll I keep sharpening. I mess around in the kitchen, hips swaying, head nodding, fingers tapping.