An Ode to Our Teenage Selves

Sāmoan woman writers and friends Lana Lopesi (Satapuala, Siumu) and Faith Wilson (Vaimoso, Siumu) chat about their new projects and the opportunities and challenges facing Pasifika writers today.

Posted on
21.11.21

LL: Shall we start with our looming projects? Firstly, I am so excited about Saufoʻi Press! Congratulations on the funding. Where did this all come from, what was the thinking behind it, and why the name Saufoʻi? 

FW: Thank you! I’m so excited too, and also bloody nervous. Becoming a publisher is an idea I’ve held for a few years now. It all seemed like a lot of work, a lot of money, and I was never in a position to really commit to such a big project. I also didn’t really know what I wanted to publish; all I knew was that opportunities for Pacific writers to get published in Aotearoa are slim and that books are so damn important.

It wasn’t until I moved back to Aotearoa last year that I gave it some proper thought. I wanted to create a space and a platform for more Pacific poets to get books published. To make the project more manageable, I decided to stick to what I know best – Pacific poetry. There are some amazing books from previous generations of Pacific writers, but very few from my generation and our younger writers. Saufoʻi Press is about giving people opportunities to publish and hopefully breaking down a few barriers for writers. The more Pacific books there are, the more access we have to Pacific stories and knowledges, which I’m hoping will have a trickle-down effect on our future generations. 

It’s really important to me that everything is done with empathy, generosity and celebration. Pacific writing comes from many different backgrounds and histories, and each needs to be treated with care, but also like, damn son, we have so much talent! And the name – Saufoʻi is one of my middle names, and it’s the name of my maternal great-grandmother. I chose it because my nana is the greatest storyteller out of everyone I know, and I wanted to honour that line of strong Sāmoan women. 

Saufoʻi is the name of my maternal great-grandmother. I chose it because my nana is the greatest storyteller I know, and I wanted to honour that line of strong Sāmoan women

LL: Huge yes to everything you just said! Love that ode to your maternal line as well. I saw you also got funding toward publishing your first book. Are you able to share anything about that? 

FW: Yes! Part of the reason I wanted to start Saufoʻi Press was that I was always interested in self-publishing. Having never had a poetry book published, I kept waiting for it to happen, and it was quite a mystifying process to me. The one time I tried to approach a publisher, it was with a half-written manuscript that was rejected, rightly so. But I also had no idea of what a publisher expects when you approach them. 

I was a bit deterred from publishing with more-mainstream publishers because of what I saw as a churning out of the ‘next big thing’ poet. The way that particular phenomenon impacted Brown women made me feel very protective of myself and my work. So with Saufoʻi Press I thought, why not publish my own work too. Practically speaking, there’s a bit less risk with using my own work as a guinea pig, and I’m an Aries so it only feels right to kind of forge ahead and take risks independently!

The book itself will be a personal narrative exploring entering the vā, travelling through different generations and time. It reflects quite a different side of me. Without making it sound boring, I feel like it’s an evolution from my previous years of salty writing. Don’t get me wrong, I think being salty is necessary, but holding that anger and resentment hurts the soul a bit. It needs to go somewhere. So the book is a lot about healing, prayer, peace and my relationships, especially with the strong women in my life like my mum and nana. It’s also going to be informed by a lot of writing that came before me, especially writing about the vā.

Tell me about your book, Bloody Woman. What is it about, and why did you want to write it?

Bloody Woman feels like it comes from an evolution for me, like a place of being at peace with myself and writing a book for me, and not others. We’re growing up, girl!

LL: Firstly, your collection sounds amazing, and I can’t wait to read it. I actually have an essay in Bloody Woman about vā – some nice synergy there! In the simplest sense, Bloody Woman is a collection of essays that look at the experiences of being a Sāmoan woman in diaspora. At a bigger and more personal level, though, it’s the book I had living inside of me for years, the thoughts and feelings that lingered but I had never resolved. It’s the book that I am incredibly proud of but also terrified about. Not to be morbid, but it’s the book that, if I died tomorrow, I would have no regrets about (lol). I know that sounds big, but thinking in those extreme terms has helped me alleviate my feelings of fear and imposter syndrome and the caution that makes me write tepid work. I really feel what you’re saying, because Bloody Woman feels like it comes from an evolution for me, as well, like coming from a place of being at peace with myself and writing a book for me, and not others. We’re growing up, girl!   

FW: Yes to growth! I love this for us. I’m keen to hear more about some of the specific ideas you explore in the book.

LL: It ranges quite wide. Essentially, I’m trying to figure out my lived experience, specifically in relation to ethnicity, gender, class and race, as experienced in diaspora. Each of the essays takes on a different element of that. In one, I reclaim the idea of being tautalaitiiti (literally to speak above one's age, but colloquially both cheeky and promiscuous). In another, I make an argument for teine sā being my feminist icons; I also write about Pacific digital feminisms from the perspective of Marxist feminism and immaterial labour, and in another, I write about earrings. But the common thread is my experience of Sāmoan womanhood. I’m really just trying to understand how all of these socially constructed modes of power (gendered, racial, class) intersect and interact within my body and experience. I enjoy working in and through the mess.

What do you imagine when you think about the Pacific books you wish you could read right now? I’m hungry for some sci-fi

FW: I honestly can’t contain my excitement to read this. I feel like it’s gonna be a whole ‘I feel so damn seen’ moment. What were some sources of inspiration for the book?

LL: I just started to see things differently. I couldn’t stop noticing the colour red everywhere and was starting to ask myself what that meant in relation to mana in a Sāmoan context, and womanhood and wombs. That led me to think about aitu and blood clots. I had this evidence board in my mind where I was thinking about hymen-breaking ceremonies alongside Tagaloa’s transference of mana through the womb of a mortal woman, alongside the red swirls on our cheeks when we dance. And it was this obsession that was eating me up for years, but I was so unsure of myself, I had no answers, only questions. I kind of sat on it, and then when my papa died, I just realised how short our time is and worked up the courage to write. 

In terms of literary sources of inspiration, Sāmoan women poets were so important to me when writing Bloody Woman. Poets like Tusiata Avia, Ria Masae and Momoe Malietoa Von Reiche, especially, dealt with themes around womanhood through this cultural context in a way I was really drawn to. But similarly, the work of essayists and women of colour like Jia Tolentino, Tressie McMillian Cottom and Cathy Park Hong, from the US, provided a lot of inspiration and examples of how to deal with difficult themes in the essay form. 

I have a question for you. What do you imagine when you think about the Pacific books you wish you could read right now? I’m hungry for some sci-fi. 

Some mean Pacific sci-fi or speculative fiction would be so banger, and I would love to see that genre approach the climate crisis that our Pacific islands are facing

FW: Oosh, yes. I have dreamed about reading Pacific sci-fi for a long time. I think I have this memory of talking to Coco Solid one day, and she’s one of the most sci-fi people I know, and maybe she was talking about doing a sci-fi comic, and I thought that sounded so sick. Some mean Pacific sci-fi or speculative fiction would be so banger, and I think I would love to see that genre approach the climate crisis that our Pacific islands are facing. Imagine the narratives that could come from that. 

So, yeah, I guess I also want to read more fiction and poetry that looks at climate change in the Pacific. I mean, I would also be into some chick lit from an Island woman’s perspective. Ngl, I’m not always reading intense and heavy narratives, and would be so down on some Brown women’s dating novels. Maybe something like Crazy Rich Asians but Savage Average Sāmoans or something lol. 

But back to the idea of speculative writing, I’m interested in the speculative nature of Bloody Woman. Can you talk a bit about that?

LL: I see Bloody Woman as creative non-fiction that, in places, is necessarily speculative because of the things I don’t know and can never know. There’s also an assumption of truth or universality that comes with writing non-fiction that I struggle with. It’s just one opinion, in the same way that a poet offers just one perspective, but the non-fiction form (and its readers) can be so unforgiving. You know, I didn’t grow up in the church, so my lived experience of faʻa Sāmoa was never really intertwined with that. However, almost everything we know about Sāmoa today is filtered through that lens, which as we know is colonial and patriarchal af. That marriage is not something I’m trying to come for; it just gets in my way of knowing what was before. How do we even know what the role of women was? For me the answer was speculation – taking things I knew from various places and stitching them together. We have to be prepared to ask the questions, and I think questions are always easier to ask in diaspora, because of our distance from the centre.  

What challenges do you reckon Sāmoan women writers in Aotearoa deal with, or have you faced?  

There’s an assumption of truth or universality that comes with writing non-fiction that I struggle with

FW: There are lots. I mean, I’m really blessed to have gone through formal education in writing. Although my Master of Creative Writing left me with lots of baggage that I suppose I’m only just getting over, it opened so many doors and introduced me to people and industry knowledge that I wouldn’t have had without that experience. So I think there’s an educational obstacle. 

Moreover, I think there’s a standard that says to be an accomplished writer you have to have written a book. Books are kind of like keys that unlock certain privileges for writers. They get you invitations to speak at writers’ festivals. They get you funding. They enable you to apply for writers’ residencies, and so on. The publishing industry is overwhelmingly middle- and upper-class Pākehā. There are a few good publishers like Huia who specifically publish Māori as well as Pacific authors, but there aren’t many. 

Then there is the issue of having no time, cos writing is a slog. A beautiful one, but a slog.

I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this, too. As a published author, what was your experience of getting published for the first time? Is there anything from your experience that you think would be useful for writers who want to publish books?

Being a published writer has meant higher stakes. The more I do, the scarier everything feels, the more insecure I get. It’s ironic I suppose

LL: I would say shake off the feelings of imposter syndrome and just do it. I had written for years and had never thought about books as a logical endpoint. When someone asked me once I laughed and then thought, hang on, I'm a writer, why wouldn’t I want to write a book at some stage. My first book, False Divides, resulted from a chance meeting with Tom Rennie from BWB, who casually said to let them know if I was interested in writing for their text series. So I did, and went through their proposal process, and that was it I suppose. 

I don’t have any formal training; I had no idea how to conceptualise or structure a book. I just learnt on the job. The hardest part for me, though, is the financial reality. I wrote False Divides in two weeks and had this really strict writing process. It was not ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but it was the longest amount of time I could take off work. I think being able to have space – intellectually and financially – is the biggest barrier to writing. With Bloody Woman I had everything swimming around in my mind for literally years, but it wasn’t until I was in residency earlier this year that I could really start. Again, it was just a two-week residency and I wasn’t able to get that far, but it was enough to really jump start the project – there’s also the haunt of Michael King in that writer’s centre that kicks your butt. 

There are absolutely reputational benefits that you point out, that extend to funding and opportunities. But, personally, being a published writer has meant higher stakes. The more I do, the scarier everything feels, the more insecure I get. It’s ironic I suppose. You’ve written for a long time, too, across different forms. What has your experience of being a writer been like? Are there any key concerns you circle back to? 

I think a big part of me not having published a book is ... self-sabotage and all that. I’ve been through huge periods, years even, of hating everything I write

FW: I think I can be my own worst enemy, and this relates to many areas of my life. I’m hyper-critical of myself and what I write, so I think a big part of me not having published a book is that nothing I’ve written has ever felt up to scratch. Self-sabotage and all that. I’ve been through huge periods, years even, of hating everything I write. And I think a lot of that comes down to the competitive nature of arts in New Zealand, particularly the way we put writers on pedestals. And that always really puts me off. I did want to publish a book, but also, I wanted to do it on my own terms as much as possible. I think, coming back to Saufoʻi Press, it’s a way for me to do that and open up channels so that the process is more welcoming and open than it was for me. 

As a published author, you’re adding to the female Sāmoan literary canon. What do you see your role as in this history?

LL: Oh! Good (BIG) question. Through my editorial work, I hope that I am making space for others who will far exceed whatever I’ve been able to do. Within my own writing, I see myself as a bit of a shit-stirrer. I have that Aquarius god-complex, Leo rising, combined with INFJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging) personality type, so there are definitely stick-it-to-the-man driving forces. Since having children, though, it has been a lot about the world I want to leave for them. I’ve really struggled with homogenising and self-essentialising narratives, and I don’t want that to be the literary legacy that they inherit. I want them to come of age in a time when their whole complexity is taken as normal, when we can be complicated and messy, smart and fucked up, all at the same time. Writing through my own messes, I would hope, leaves a sense of freedom for other writers. 

Can I turn that question back to you? How do you see yourself adding to that same canon? 

We look at our bodies as having these deep histories of mana, rather than ridicule

FW: Oh no, that question was for you lol! I so love your answers. I want to live in that world! I mean, if I could add to what you’re saying, I think I see you definitely as someone who is doing the atua’s work through building those connections, laying down the bricks, drawing on and building on knowledge that no one has done before. Through your writing, editorial work and academic work, I see you as a wayfinder, a fetu shining above the dark sea at night for us Pacific creatives. For me? I have never thought about adding to that canon… but I guess I hope that through my poetry I can articulate the constantly shifting experiences of being a Sāmoan/Pālagi woman who grew up in Aotearoa. I often say I write for teenage Faith. She would have loved to read about this, would have loved to see herself reflected, and to feel comforted that her experience was not singular. I think she would have felt safer, more confident in finding her own path, and I know that there are heaps of other young Faiths out there, so I’m writing for them.

What are some of the ancestral ideas of womanhood you explore?

LL: I love the thought of a young Faith coming across this work and feeling seen. I write for a younger self but I guess I see that through my daughter, and think about what I hope will live in the world when she comes of age. She is a mini-me in some ways. I actually finish Bloody Woman with a letter to my future adult kids, like a little treasure left for them or their kids if they ever find it. 

For me, the ancestral ideas of womanhood I was drawn to were centred around wombs, mana and blood clots. Mana was transferred to mortals from Tagaloa through the womb of a mortal woman, which starts to make some things click when you think about hymen-breaking ceremonies. They weren’t about virginity, necessarily, but about celebrating the value of the first bleed. Women used to run in when the taupou danced and swooshed that blood on their cheeks. Prepubescent girls used to lead men out to war because the potency of their wombs was thought to ward off evil spirits. Aitu are spirits who are born of blood clots when the concentration of mana is too high. When we look at our bodies as having these deep histories of mana, rather than ridicule, it changes how we see the world. I find it empowering to remember. 

I have so much respect for authors like Lani Wendt Young, who have just taken matters into their own hands and self-published their work

FW: Do you think it’s important that we have more Pacific authors of books?

LL: I think that’s an easy yes. I am so hungry for more stories by Pacific authors – novels, essay collections, poetry collections, science fiction. As a reader, first and foremost, I am hungry for more work. But there are so many barriers to both writing books and having them published. The time and space required to write, from the early conceptualisations to the pre-printing proofing is a lot, and to be in a position to focus in – whether that be taking leave or finding childcare – is not always possible. That’s why residencies are so important, but again not everyone can go on residency for two weeks to three months. And that’s just the writing; there is a whole other suite of issues when it comes to the publishing of Pacific authors. 

I’ve been really lucky to have a great relationship with Bridget Williams Books, who have always trusted me and made me feel very safe. I’ve also been fortunate to be supported with Creative New Zealand grants and residencies. Because of the economic publishing model, I would only be able to continue writing books with more support from CNZ and future residencies. I have so much respect for authors like Lani Wendt Young, who have just taken matters into their own hands and self-published their work. We would be so much worse off without that work in the world.

You must think it’s important too, right? What do you think about why there are so few Pacific books being published? 

There are some sick new indie publishing houses that are switching things up and publishing exciting titles (Dead Bird Books and We Are Babies to name two)

FW: For sure! I think I gave a vague answer to this earlier, but I agree with your ideas about the financial and practical barriers. I also think publishers hold a lot of damn power. And they’re only going to publish what they see. If our main poetry publishers, specifically, are Pākehā middle and upper class, how are they reaching into our Pacific communities, how are they being exposed to Pacific writing? I am seeing a great commitment to cultural and ethnic diversity in many other ways – I’m not trying to hate on the mainstream publishers. I’m just pointing out the very obvious dearth of books by Pacific authors. There are some sick new indie publishing houses that, while I haven’t seen any Pacific authors from them yet, are switching things up and are publishing exciting titles (Dead Bird Books and We Are Babies to name two). So I think this ‘taking into our own hands’ vibe that I’m seeing is gonna shake our publishing industry up a bit. That’s the revolutionary in me speaking. 

I guess that leads me to a question I have for you. In the blurb for Bloody Woman you write about opening space up for others to tell their stories. Can you explain a bit more about what you mean by this statement: “I hope that in the simple act of articulating something, I will both open space and leave room for others to tell their stories in their way.”

LL: I suppose that comment comes from the specific pressures of writing into huge gaps. It’s scary to write non-fiction because it often doesn’t feel like there’s room to hide. I am always so conscious of making it clear that I am only writing from my individual perspective, but non-fiction is often perceived as being more substantive than intended. I hope writing specifically into my own lived experience will encourage others to do the same because there is so much space, and our stories (in all of their diversity) deserve to be told. 

Shall we end looking toward the future? What are your future plans for Saufoʻi Press? What can we look forward to? 

I’m unbelievably excited about these writers, and I can’t wait to reveal their names

FW: There is a lot to do with Saufoʻi Press. You can look forward to some poetry books being published and released hopefully next year. Being new to this, I’m erring on the optimistic side of how long everything will take, but I really have no idea. I’m in touch with three writers other than myself whose poetry I’m hoping to publish. I’m unbelievably excited about these writers, and I can’t wait to reveal their names (loves me some mystery). So I guess I’m starting off with contacting writers directly. 

Then after a few successful (I hope) books, I’d really love to have an open-submission scenario, actively working and connecting with other Pacific communities and writing circles. I’m just really excited to give back, work with our Pacific writers, build beautiful connections, and create new genealogies of poetry. To learn and be humbled by the process, and understand the power I hold and use it for our benefit.

How about you? Do you have plans for after the release of Bloody Woman

LL: Such a tease, but I’m here for it! I have a few things going on at the moment. I've been working with some friends to co-edit a book about race in Aotearoa, which will be out next year with Bridget Williams Books. I’ve also been working with Ioana Gordon-Smith to create and edit a journal, Marinade: Aotearoa Journal of Moana Art. Our first issue is pretty close, and we’re just working through the design at the moment. There are some other things, too, but I suppose at this stage of the year I am just trying to get to a point where I can have a nice summer holiday with my family lol.

Feature image: Sherry Zhang

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