Here at the ICS we’ve recently been spending a lot of time thinking about monsters of various kinds, after we hosted an event entitled ‘Why do we need monsters?’ We’re also co-publishing with Futurefire.net a new anthology of fiction and non-fiction entitled Making Monsters, for which the call for submissions of short stories and poetry is open until 28th February (details via this link). In connection with this we’ve had the opportunity to talk to five indigenous authors from the South Pacific, all of whom have recently had their work published in an anthology titled Pacific Monsters. This conversation touched on areas relating to comparative literature, mythology and its reception, and cultural sensitivity—all topics which are key to ongoing discussions in Classics.
We began by asking each of the authors to introduce themselves.
Tihema Baker (TB): Kia ora tātou. I’m a Māori writer from Ōtaki, Aotearoa New Zealand, and my iwi are Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga, Te Āti Awa ki Whakarongotai, and Ngāti Toa Rangatira. I am the author of the YA novel Watched, and I have a couple of short stories published out there. I currently work full time as a public servant.
Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada (BK): Aloha mai kākou pākahi a pau. I’m a Hawaiian-language legal and literary translator, scholar, poet, photographer/videographer, and sometimes blogger (hehiale.wordpress.com). I’m pretty new to fiction writing, so just have a few stories floating around out there. I currently have the strange and long job title Content Strategy Lead for the Network of Native Hawaiian Schools, which mostly means I write and help shoot short documentaries and commercials about the importance of Hawaiian ʻāina-, language- and culture-based education and help run our social media.
Iona Winter (IW): Kia ora koutou, Hi everyone, I’m of Māori (Waitaha/Kāi Tahu) descent, from Ōtepoti Dunedin, Aotearoa NZ. My short fiction has been anthologised and published internationally, and this year I begin a PhD in Creative Writing. My research is on Pūrākau Mana Wāhine: Traditional Women’s Knowledge, as passed on orally and between generations. I am very interested in the intersection between written and spoken word.
Raymond (Ray) Gates (RG): I’m an Aboriginal Australian author, descended from the Bundjalung people of northern New South Wales, currently living in Wisconsin, USA. I have a number of published short stories and am concentrating on my first novel this year, as well as some commissioned work and a collaboration with an actress/filmmaker that I’m hoping will work out. My day job is a home care physiotherapist
Michael Lujan Bevacqua (MLB): I am an Assistant Professor in Chamorro Studies at the University of Guam (I am from the Kabesa/Bittot clans of Guam). My academic work deals with researching the colonization of the Chamorro, the indigenous people of Guam and also theorizing various ways that they can decolonize. Creatively I have a company with my brother Jack, called The Guam Bus, where we create comics and childrens books in English and Chamorro, that promote Chamorro culture and history.
In what ways does contemporary fiction (perhaps including film and visual art) make use of traditional myths and stories from the Pacific region?
RG: Speaking from an Australian perspective, I really don’t think it does, at least not in the mainstream. Aboriginal stories and characters are either presented inaccurately, stereotypically, or as some form of primitive mysticism. The exceptions are those being created by (or in close conjunction with) Aboriginal peoples. An example would be the Netflix series Cleverman which essentially tells the story of what Aboriginal peoples have experienced over the last 200+ years using a fictitious people in a dystopian future Australia.
MLB: In terms of Guam, the Marianas and Micronesia contemporary fiction uses very little (in either good or bad ways) from this corner of the Pacific. There is most definitely a Polynesian hegemony when the rest of the world imagines the Pacific, and Micronesia tends to pierce through the haze in only military terms. For example, Guam as a site in World War II, nuclear or otherwise missile testing in the Marshall Islands and now threats from North Korea. So while other parts of the Pacific have to contend with theft of cultural practices and knowledge and gross misrepresentations, in Guam and Micronesia it is primarily erasure. One of the few ways in which these islands have entered into the creative imaginary is H.P. Lovecraft’s use of Nan Madol on the island of Phonpei for his story “The Call of Cthulhu.” In Guam itself however there is a greater drive amongst writers and artists today to try to convert our traditional stories into contemporary media.
TB: I don’t think contemporary literature explicitly draws on traditional Māori myths and stories, at least in what I’m familiar with. I think Māori literature is generally quite grounded; the work of our most well-known Māori writers (for example, Patricia Grace or Witi Ihimaera) tends to explore the real, lived experiences of Māori, and the effects of colonisation we constantly grapple with. That said, what is strong across Māori literature, I think, is spirituality, which is very much present in and partly inherited from our traditional myths and stories.
IW: Unlike Tihema, I do think some of our contemporary literature draws on traditional Māori mythology, with writers such as Keri Hulme, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Alice Tawhai. I agree that Māori literature is often well grounded, and spirituality is a significant thread linking us back to traditional ways of life. Witi Ihimaera (Whale Rider, Sky Dancer, The Matriarch) and Patricia Grace’s children’s books have also drawn on traditional mythology, lending contemporary twists to ancient tales. There are many Māori film-makers, artists and musicians (thinking about art in a more holistic form) who also draw on mythology in their work – Robyn Kahukiwa (visual artist), Lionel Grant (master carver), Merata Mita (filmmaker), Vincent Ward (filmmaker), and Lisa Reihana (visual artist) are a few who come to mind. In my experience, non-Māori writers are often mindful, cautious and seek advice from Māori when writing about our traditions. And yes, as Tihema has mentioned, we do constantly have to manage the effects of colonisation.
BK: I think that if we’re talking about contemporary North American literature/film, Hawaiʻi experiences an erasure of sorts. Not to the degree that Michael talks about in regards to their area, but Hawaiʻi is often the touristic backdrop for people’s fantasies but Hawaiians are not necessarily real actors in the story. Even when there are the weird tiki (which isn’t even our word) curses featuring in the story, the curse usually comes from some relic of a vanished people. In literature actually coming from Hawaiʻi, there is more of an awareness of our actual moʻolelo, but so many stories only connect with Pele, to akua of the volcano Kīlauea, and often still rely on romanticized and touristic understandings of the traditions connected with her. I think that our poetry scene here has been very fertile for a while, so you see deeper connections with our moʻolelo there from amazing Hawaiian poets like Haunani-Kay Trask, Noʻu Revilla, Jamaica Osorio, ʻĪmaikalani Kalāhele. Poets who are not Hawaiian even go past the expected moʻolelo that they tell at tourist lūʻau and reference things like Kapo’s flying vagina.
How do you incorporate supernatural monsters or traditional myths and folk beliefs into your own writing?
BK: One of the important things that informs the way I write about kupua and other beings from our moʻolelo came from an experience I had with translating Ka Moʻolelo o Hiʻiakaikapoliopele. It is one of our traditional moʻolelo that appeared over ten times in our Hawaiian-language newspapers, and the version we translated ran about four hundred pages. It’s a pretty epic tale featuring Pele and her beloved youngest sister Hiʻiaka, who is sent across the islands to find Pele’s lover that she met in a dream. But one of the first critiques I heard of our translation was that we used the word “supernatural” to describe some of the beings in the moʻolelo, because these beings were not above or outside of nature for our people. They were very much “natural.” And so that is the approach I try to take to incorporating kupua and our moʻolelo into my writing. When I write fiction, I try to create worlds where they are a natural part of the fabric of reality, and when I write blogs or academic pieces about issues affecting our ʻāina, our land, I try to show people that our moʻolelo are woven into the fabric of this world as well.
MLB: The main drive behind my creative work is to provide the type of media that didn’t exist when I was young. Growing up, my brothers and I were absorbed into the worlds of European mythology, video game worlds and most definitely the narratives of Marvel, DC, Image and Valiant comics. There were stories of Chamorro cultural and legends and spirituality, but while they were exciting in some ways, they did not appeal to some growing up watching TV, movies and playing video games. They seemed too outdated and old, they lacked an exciting contemporary dimension that would make them feel like they were a part of the world we were growing into. For years, we talked about making comics together, but it was only after I had children that I really felt the need to take seriously the connection between our culture and contemporary media forms. I wanted to make sure that my own children and others would have the ability to identify their own history, culture and stories with popular media that they would no doubt be bombarded with. One of the things that Chamorros struggle with is centuries of colonization that have made them feel alienated and disconnected from their ancestors of the past. When European colonization took place in the 17th century, most of Chamorro religion and many cultural practices at the time were prohibited, leading to them feeling a fundamental estrangement from those that had come before. In recent decades there have been sustained movements in Guam to overcome that barrier, by reviving practices that were once lost and also promoting the use of Chamorro culture and language in new and innovative ways. My work is part of that, taking those ideas from our elders or from history books, and trying to rework them into ways where they can make the heart of a young Chamorro today race or beat. Where they can feel connected and excited about them, just as much as the next episode of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. My brothers and I accomplished this most notably in our comic Makåhna which is the Chamorro word for a wizard or a sorcerer. We took seriously the notions of magic or supernatural power in Chamorro culture and created a world (next issue comes out later this year) where Chamorro power isn’t just relegated to faded text in anthro texts or priest reports, but where they jump off the page with motion and action.
IW: Similar to Brian’s comments, I was raised to understand that the ‘supernatural’ is a normal part of life. When I write, everything is interconnected. There are no splits between mind-body-spirit-environment-ancestors, because nothing occurs in isolation from a Māori perspective. I’m grateful to have been raised without a colonised religious approach to life (my parents were hippies) and my grandfather spoke freely about Te Ao Wairua (the spiritual world). That said (writing-wise), as with ‘myth and folk beliefs’, not everything is spelled out and readers are required to do some exploring too. Like sitting in a wharenui listening to our elders kōrero – sometimes you have no idea what they were talking about until afterwards. It’s holistic but not necessarily linear.
TB: I feel like there’s a distinction to be made in this question between deliberately incorporating our traditional stories – or aspects of them, such as “monsters” – into my writing, and the influence that those stories have generally on my writing. Like Bryan and Iona, our traditional stories have informed the way I was raised, the way I live, and who I am. That influence extends to my writing no matter what the text is about. As an example, my novel features a unique energy called “Cosmic Energy”, which is basically life-force, present in all things. In my mind, my Cosmic Energy is essentially what we Māori refer to as mauri. And while the expression of this Cosmic Energy in my novel is admittedly a pretty Westernised one, I know exactly where the inspiration for it came from. There are probably plenty of other examples like this throughout my writing I’m not even aware of because it’s just part of who I am, and it’s reflected in whatever I put on the page. But at the same time, that general influence on my writing is, I think, quite different to consciously drawing on traditional stories and knowledge to tell a certain story. For example, for Pacific Monsters, I deliberately drew on our mythologies and traditional knowledge about Patupaiarehe to tell a contemporary story about them – which was a type of story I hadn’t really tried my hand at before. As a contrast, I did not do the same for another of my short stories, Kei Wareware Tātou, which is about two Māori Battalion war veterans. Of course, the latter story will have been influenced in some way by the traditional stories that have shaped me and my writing, but it wasn’t directly inspired by them and didn’t strongly incorporate aspects of them. So (to finally answer your question!) for me personally, I don’t explicitly incorporate traditional stories or “monsters” in my writing unless that’s the type of story I want to tell, however, they definitely influence me and my writing in a general sense.
RG: I may have interpreted the question a little differently. In terms of “how” my first thought is “carefully and respectfully”. Appropriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures is an ever growing concern and many communities are watchful for people misrepresenting our culture and beliefs, or including things that should not be included without permission (if then). Just because our culture is rich for storytelling does not mean everything should be offered for public consumption. This has produced a culture of fear in the spec fic market, where editors and publishers are afraid to include content that is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander based in case it offends. What they should be doing – what I encourage them to do – is work not only with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, but with those communities from which stories are drawn, to ensure content is culturally safe and help get it out there. That is potentially a win-win for everybody. Unfortunately, many do not want to take the time and effort to make that happen.
BK: I also wanted to follow up on Ray’s answer a bit too about many not wanting to take the time and effort to responsibly present or re-present traditional stories. In some cases in our culture here in Hawaiʻi, there are traditions that are related with particular families or lineages, so like for a particular hula, a certain family is responsible for stewarding it and passing it along, so you have to approach them if you want to learn it.
But for a lot of our moʻolelo, our traditional stories, they were made a lot more free through the vehicle of the Hawaiian-language newspapers. From 1834 to 1948 or so, we had over a hundred Hawaiian-language newspapers, and it was here that a lot of our people shared our moʻolelo, sometimes for preservation purposes, sometimes for entertainment, and sometimes even for critique. One aspect of the newspapers that appealed to Hawaiians was that it mimicked oral culture in a way; it was interactive and people could have conversations through letters and editorials in a way you could not with books.
But it also lead to the development of a very literary Hawaiian and “authored” moʻolelo. So for example, the moʻolelo of Pele and Hiʻiakaikapoliopele was said to have been published in the newspapers over 13 times, written in very different styles and for very different political and cultural purposes, so now they are known as the Kapihenui version, the Hoʻoulumāhiehie version, the Poepoe version, etc. What that shows to me is that our people were not afraid to re-present our traditional stories because they were solid in their cultural foundations. They were not merely vessels of the oral tradition; they would take chances and experiment.
This is where the rub comes for contemporary literature though. All these examples are in Hawaiian. And our language, though growing at a healthy rate, is still at a place where even those of us who speak Hawaiian have a hard time accessing some of these moʻolelo and understanding the cultural referents within them.
So most of us who work with these moʻolelo do so as part of language revitalization and historical recovery kinds of efforts. Very few of us write fiction (though a growing number do write and perform poetry). So as with the contexts we have been discussing above, sometimes the people who want to re-present our stories come from outside our community, and they often either do not understand the work it takes to truly get a grasp on these moʻolelo or do not want to put in the time to actually learn Hawaiian to access this archive. So they just end up relying on problematic retellings or translations the translation projects I have been a part of are not above reproach in this manner either) or popular retellings from tourist materials.
And to tie this all back into the question of working traditional beliefs and moʻolelo into our writing, I would say that I do it very deliberately, because by having been taught these moʻolelo and having been given the language ability to access them, I have also been given a kuleana, or responsibility, to ensure that they live and gain mana, which besides referring to the power that is inherent in all things also is the word we use for a version of a story. So by re-telling these stories, I am trying to give mana to our more rooted moʻolelo and show those outside our community a more kuleana-centered way of approaching the telling or re-telling of our stories.
Many thanks to each of the authors for taking the time to share their thoughts with us; our conversation has already inspired some fruitful discussion here at the ICS on ways in which the points they raise might relate to our own understanding of, and approaches to, classical mythology and its reception. Pacific Monsters is one of several anthologies in the Books of Monsters series, which is published by Fox Spirit Books and which features art and fiction based on mythologies from around the world. The series is edited by Margrét Helgadóttir, who will be contributing a non-fiction essay to the ICS/Futurefire.net Making Monsters anthology. Making Monsters will be published later this year; the call for fiction and poetry submissions (closing 28th February 2018) is here.