This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 242
Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu women’s anthology, edited by Mikaela Nyman and Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen (Victoria University Press, 2021), 192pp, $30
If ever one has viewed Vanuatu as an idyllic paradise where life is easy, Sista, Stanap Strong! will soon dispel the myth. This anthology of writing by Vanuatu women—the first of its kind—shines a light on women’s lives in the archipelago. In poems, non-fiction pieces, stories and song, themes emerge of violence towards women, a misogynistic and patriarchal society, colonialism, the importance of education, and concern for the kind of world children will one day inherit.
One of the most powerful subjects is that of blackbirding—the kidnapping of ni-Vanuatu for the purpose of slavery. From around 1847, thousands of boys and young men were tricked or coerced onto boats and taken to Australia. The opening story, ‘The Bitterness of Sugar Cane’ by Losana Natuman, brings this grim history to life via the story of a boy who has been kidnapped with his uncle. The boy is too young to join the kava ceremony yet is set to work cutting sugar cane. His uncle comforts him with songs in Bislama. Meanwhile, back on Tanna Island, the effect of this kidnapping remains with the mother as she faces the horizon, the sea crashing around her ankles.
Frances C. Koya Vaka-uta’s poem ‘Leiniaru, the Girl from Pele Island Who Picks the Fruit of the Niaru Tree’ considers the tragic story in a death certificate:
The death certificate speaks of blackbirding. A stolen childhood.
Whispers the fears of a child slave. They did not tell us she was so young.
Another writer who draws on history is Nicole Colmar, part ni-Vanuatu and part-Kiwi. In ‘The Octagonal House’, a 13-year-old girl is sent away as a bride to a white planter. With echoes of a child as commodity—taken from both her island and her family—this story is threaded with a sense of loss: ‘Four years later, Eva is still standing on the pearl-coloured shores of the island.’
Coercion and violence are seen not only in historical terms but also in the contemporary treatment of women and form a central part of the anthology. Telstar Jimmy writes of surviving a gang rape and considers the abuse that she hopes her daughters will avoid.
In ‘Mared’, Savianna Licht contrasts a bride who looks ‘like an angel with her long trailing veil and snow-white wedding gown, with matching white Cinderella shoes’ and a beaten aunt ‘limping, while serving guests at one of the tables’. It’s easy to see the bride’s future written in the aunt’s broken figure. Roselyn Qwenako Tor’s poem ‘Is It Real Love?’ similarly shifts from a place of innocent happiness to the bonds of marriage:
The wedding ring became a noose
The wine indeed her blood
Danced to slaps and beatings
The music her mournful wailing
But staying is not always the only option. Shina Manmelin offers an antidote to the problem of a stifling relationship—‘I was a slave living with this man’—in the title ‘Being Single is Cool’. Manmelin writes of how another woman saved her and the love she holds for her children. And in ‘Beatrice’s Visit’, Carol C. Aru tells the story of a woman who has left her husband and asks her friend Tina for money to get back on her feet. Things are tight in the household—Tina earns only a low teacher’s salary and is reliant on her husband’s goodwill. ‘Even though he ensured his family had a good life, he never gave her extra money for her personal shopping. Tina knew Leo would say he had none and that would be it.’ She may want to help her friend, but Tina’s decisions are constrained within the cultural expectations of her marriage.
Although most contributions are in English, work in both Bislama and English is also included. The poems by Irene Abbock also explore the theme of difficult relationships:
Yu no kat lav
Yu no wan man
Yu no kat valiu
You don’t have any love
You are not a worthy man
You have no values
(‘Mi Taet Finis’/‘I’ve Had Enough’)
Sharyn Wober’s bilingual poems reiterate the strength that women must find. She exhorts her sisters, ‘Know that you have a voice/ Know that you have a dream’:
Tingbaot se yu gat wan vois
Tingbaot se yu gat wan drim
(‘Wan Strong Woman’/‘A Strong Woman’)
If male violence is on the one hand ever-present, there is also, crucially, an expression of women’s empowerment. Abbock’s contributor’s note affirms a response that is woven throughout this collection: ‘If writing a poem holds space for sexual violence activism then I am honoured to be part of it.’ This theme of empowerment, and the authors’ hopes that their daughters may experience something similar, finds voice in many of the works. It’s an aspiration that a number of the writers, such as Pauline Chang Ryland, echo and return to:
Little girls frolicking innocently
Basking in the sunshine
What will your future be?
(‘Glimpses: Women from Tanna’)
Ryland’s poem ‘WIFE—Woman in Ferocious Environments’ describes the personal strength to be found within, despite the difficulties that lie in relationships:
But I will not give up
I will be the voice of reason
I will continue to love
The non-fiction pieces open a window into the lives of women and politics in Vanuatu. Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen and Nellie Nipini Olul write about becoming ni-Vanuatu after independence was achieved in 1980. The country was divided along multiple lines and into many factions. ‘I did not know what independence was about. Many people didn’t. To us it was just an idea. Maybe a dream.’ Caroline Nalo sketches a fascinating account of walking through the bush to reach isolated villages in an attempt to collect the first census in 1967 and the obstacles they encountered, such as being threatened by a ‘sorcerer’, and a village that had a reputation for poisoning unwelcome guests.
Meanwhile, Mary Jack Kaviamu writes of the political acceptance of women, the Tanna Women’s Forum and how she came to contest the 2016 election—pitted against the notion that ‘women don’t belong in parliament’. Being centre stage during the campaign was challenging for Kaviamu as she was perceived to be defying ‘kastom’ or traditional culture. In some communities she was not allowed to campaign, and women who wanted to vote for her were intimidated with violence: ‘men threatened to divorce or physically torture their wives if results showed a significant number of women’s votes from that particular polling station’.
Yet Kaviamu ends on an optimistic note: ‘We will continue to empower women until they can think and speak for themselves.’ Indeed, much of the book, while depicting hardship, also points to more optimistic outcomes. Mildred Sope—one of the first Indigenous writers to be published before Independence—recounts how she managed to go to school: ‘The eldest in my clan, my father’s father, said, “You have to kill a pig before you go.”’ Sope was ten at the time. With this induction or challenge she was also given a special name—Molibui, meaning ‘they can call you mother’.
Anna Naupa, in ‘I Always Wanted to Become a Writer’, talks about being introduced to Pacific literature at the University of Hawai`i. She yearns for writing that explores ‘the inherent tensions in life that a young, mixed race, middle-class Melanesian woman in a modern country founded on traditional values must face’. Naupa herself has produced Vanuatu’s first non-fiction book for children about inspirational ni-Vanuatu.
The varied and personal voices in this anthology offer a wealth of women’s experiences exploring and expressing what it means to be ni-Vanuatu and of Vanuatu descent. As the editors point out in the Introduction, ‘Beyond Vanuatu’s borders readers may struggle to find any fiction or poetry by ni-Vanuatu writers.’ This collection is an important step in addressing that gap.
TINA SHAW is a novelist and editor based outside Taupō. Her latest work is Ephemera (Cloud Ink Press, 2020).