“I love coming to a marae because everything is orderly.” That was Albert Wendt yesterday at Te Herenga Waka, the marae at Victoria University and the site of a conference I’ve been attending, “Reading and Writing in the Pacific.” A first for me: attending an academic meeting in stocking feet, wearing a blue lei, and listening to papers while lounging on cushions. All those details change the conversation, as does the magnificent space of the wharenui, a talking house covered by carved and woven genealogies in red, black, bone-white, gold. I am not well-read yet in Pacific literature, but the current of feeling at this event has very strong, carrying me along with it. Orderly spaces—not only sacred ones but some homes and schools and poems too—have some mysterious power to straighten out the hooks and tangles inside people. These emotional or spiritual chiropractics, or whatever’s happening, are a little painful, especially as dammed-up confusions begin to break loose. The conference presenters keep choking up and I’m right there with them.
On order, from my disordered notes:
Thursday morning, Session 1: Teresia Teaiwa discusses problems with gathering and disseminating oral histories. Intimacy becomes reportage, even gossip, amongst us about them. The result for her own work: she has been writing not about Fijian women soldiers or for them but to them, in the second person. She read a segment written under pressure—her interviewee had terminal cancer and wanted to read Teresia’s take on the material before she died. Audience members blow their noses for a good five minutes afterwards.
I am leaning against an ancestor from Kapiti; I don’t catch his name. His wife’s head, tilted like the moon, has my back.
Genealogies: I know a lot about my mother’s family and almost nothing about my father’s. William the engineer, behind him William the lawyer, and the next layer blurred. William the lawyer’s mother was French-Canadian, and when her ship captain husband died, she and her children moved over the border to Syracuse, New York and married a math professor. Was my grandfather named after his professor-father? Or was he Guillaume, adopted, name changed? I asked my father the captain’s name and he said “something like Le Pongenet.” That isn’t a French name, as far as I can find. L’éponge is “sponge.” Éponger means “to wipe up or absorb a loss.”
Friday morning, Session 3: Tina Makereti describes a belated revelation that she had written her own motherlessness into her novel. But wait: she realizes this makes thematic sense, too—she is writing about the Moriori, an effaced mother culture. Conclusion: “It could still be autobiographical. But I wonder: are we bequeathed our personal circumstances so that we can tell the stories that need to be told?”
Tina talks about being led by the story, surrendering control. Order arises, but it may not be the order you would have chosen, imposed. When a character’s voice started waking her up at four in the morning, she resisted listening for a while. I am so thankful to hear another writer say that. In domestic life, professional life, you fight to keep up that appearance of order: it’s hard to let the chaos flow.
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