This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 244
Sweat and Salt Water: Selected works by Teresia Kieuea Teaiwa edited and compiled by Katerina Teaiwa, April K. Henderson and Terence Wesley-Smith (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2021), 221pp, $40
How does one begin to describe the enormity of Teresia Teaiwa? How does one begin to describe the history of this great thinker, writer, teacher, activist and poet? How does one pay a worthy tribute to the woman who made us laugh and cry and feel and fight, in a place where too many Pasifika minds go to die? How does one begin?
The piece I return to most often in this collection is ‘Charting Pacific (Studies) Waters: Evidence of teaching and learning’, which was published posthumously. The opening paragraph alone fills me with a sense of her:
How does one begin to describe the enormity of the Pacific Ocean? The most prominent geographic feature on this planet, it occupies one-third of the Earth’s surface area … How does one begin to honour and respect the layered, oceanic histories of peoples whose descendants today are some of the world’s most misunderstood and misrepresented groups? Where does one begin?
The book has three sections: Pacific Studies, Militarism and Gender, and Native Reflections. The essays are arranged so that related topics are grouped together. As a result, we constantly jump across her timeline, time-travelling to the different moments of her academic journey.
Teresia was dedicated to the rigour of academic study while rejecting its status symbol. In conversation with her, I once lamented that academic journals are inaccessible, irrelevant, and not where ‘real people’ are; that’s not what ‘real people’ read. She smiled, that patient and knowing smile that’s met so many young, earnest, and perhaps single-minded baby academics. ‘If we stop publishing in academic spaces’, she told me, ‘that’s less brown voices there. How is that better?’ As she writes in ‘Charting Pacific (Studies) Waters’, ‘Had it not been for finding the solitary article published on Pacific Islands studies by that time (Wesley-Smith 1995), I would have been lost and floundering in this vast ocean of knowledge.’ Writing and publishing is a way of writing ourselves into existence, putting ourselves on the record.
Teresia lived her academic philosophies. She gave her time, work and attention to community and activist groups, unions, churches and everywhere that ‘real people’ were, all the while researching, supervising master’s and PhD students, teaching, and making time for a leisurely chat about my feelings of inadequacy in a class where I could not get above a B+.
Teresia constantly interrogated what we as people, academics, writers and thinkers value as knowledge. She saw the importance, the urgency, of looking at how knowledge is framed:
The university is undoubtedly part of our colonial heritage in the Pacific. But the paradox of colonialism is that it offers us tools for our liberation even as it attempts to dominate us. Education is the perfect example of this colonial paradox. I value my ‘colonial’ or ‘Western’ education, even as I attempt to use it to help myself and others discover more about our precolonial heritage and fashion futures for ourselves that are liberating.
In my ongoing journey to learn what decolonisation looks like, I’ve discovered that it’s not about trying to ‘go back’ to a precolonial society. It is not productive or helpful to try and deny the realities and opportunities we currently have to achieve true liberation. What can we learn from our precolonial societies? What structures did we live under before capitalism became so ubiquitous? What does it mean to genuinely value human life beyond how much money people can earn or generate? What tools do we have to understand and challenge how governments and corporations dictate our world? Teresia’s writing always brings up these questions and addresses them with the integrity that was paramount to her way of being in the world.
I look at Teresia’s writing and reflections on the role of a teacher and remember what it was like to sit in a classroom with her; a place she saw ‘not as a static space but as a vehicle on a journey. This reconceptualisation creates the opportunity for interactive learning to generate energy for the journey’. Teresia did not romanticise the pursuit of knowledge but saw it as a pragmatic step towards reframing her reality and, in turn, empowering people to move towards liberation. She acknowledged that ‘today’s students do not always want to share responsibility for their learning, but even though it can be burdensome, it will be more productive for them in the long run’.
In Sweat and Salt Water, Teresia reflected on her time at Te Herenga Waka University. She wrote that students who identify as Pacific Islander come to Pacific studies assuming they are there to draw on their own understanding of the Pacific, while those who don’t identify as Pacific Islander assume they are blank slates for knowledge to imprint onto. She explained, however, that ‘both sets of students should be prepared to swap places at some point in the course, when they will confront new knowledge, not just about the Pacific but about themselves’.
As someone new to the teaching profession (specifically secondary education), I am constantly exploring my teaching philosophy and what it means to be the adult in the room expected to deliver curriculum and facilitate genuine learning. At university, I often got the sense that academics were people who had studied their field deeply, while the teaching part of the job seemed to be obligatory. Teresia, on the other hand, took teaching very seriously. She wrote that it’s not possible to become an expert in the Pacific, but it is possible to constantly work in a way that builds more expertise by keeping one’s mind open. Teaching remained an integral part of this for her.
There is an anecdote in the book that reminds me of the stories Teresia would tell over a glass of wine or in a hushed tone in the Wan Solwara section of the library:
Back in Hawai’i, I had the good fortune to be one of a wonderful cohort of East-West Centre grantees from the Pacific Islands. As Islanders tend to do, we spent a fair amount of time enjoying each other’s company over beer and potluck dinners. The loud music and singing at our regular parties were not appreciated by some grantees who I guess liked to study or sleep at night and we tried our best under the circumstances to accommodate them when they complained. What I will never get over is hearing that two white women who often took advantage of our hospitality had made some comments about how the Pacific Islanders could not be serious scholars since we spend all our time partying. In their opinion we did not deserve the grants we had. My friends and I discussed the reputation we were earning and decided we did not have to prove ourselves to these two. The parties continued. And our forked-tongue critics continued to partake heartily of our food and drink.
In this piece, Teresia went on to describe how they did, in fact, take their studies seriously and how they were sometimes criticised for it. When the Pacific Islanders at the East-West Centre organised weekly seminars and began to explore the politics and possibilities of scholarship that involved the Pacific specifically, they were met with responses from white men that they shouldn’t take studies too seriously; that they should write any dissertation about a topic they didn’t care about, get their PhD, then go on to do ‘real work’. Teresia lamented, ‘How could these men tell us that we were taking the academy too seriously, when we knew that it was the academy that was not taking us seriously enough? When we organised parties we were accused of not being serious students, when we organised seminars we were accused of being too serious.’
Teresia wrote with honesty and vulnerability, constantly aware of her position as an academic studying, writing and teaching about the Pacific. She did not claim to take an objective view of any subject matter but acknowledged that as a person, she inevitably brought her subjectivity. She suggested that being honest about who we are and what we believe, and being willing to put that on the table to interrogate, makes our academic reflections more grounded and transparent.
Teresia’s writings are a cornucopia of wisdom, anecdotes and reflections, with the occasional regret and a delicious sprinkle of humour. Each essay becomes fuller and deeper with every re-read. I find myself wishing I could interrogate her about the parts I revisit over and over again. The difficulty of writing this, apart from needing to blink through tears every now and then, is that I could spend hours and thousands of words on each essay in this collection. I have to live the rest of my life without any new words from her, and so I have the rest of my life to pour through the magnitude of literature she leaves behind.
As her students, Teresia encouraged and even pushed us to question her own judgements and statements. She didn’t want us to accept everything she said as gospel—she wanted us to decide for ourselves what we believed in. She hated being put on a pedestal or for us to fangirl over her. But you’re not here to stop me now, Teresia—this is my one act of defiance. I will continue to fangirl over you. I understand you were a complex human with flaws and insecurities and failings. But you were also the best teacher I’ve ever had. You impacted so many of us in deep and personal ways.
You were one of the most popular academics in your field, yet you made each of us feel like we had a unique connection with you. You remembered all our names, and all of us, around the world, will never forget yours—this fine collection will make sure of it.
LAURA TOAILOA is a high school teacher and writer with work published in Pantograph Punch and e-Tangata. They also have a short story published in the anthology Vā: Stories by women of the moana (National University of Samoa, 2021)
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