Vā is, I gather, an encompassing concept in Samoan. It is a space, but not an empty one. It refers to a relational space, where people gather and negotiate who they are to each other. It is bound to time — all time, past, present, future. These writings by women of the Moana — the ocean, specifically the Pacific — take place in this relational space. The relationships are between sisters, mothers and children, daughters and parents, descendants and ancestors, men and women, land and people, between islands, people and culture.
Over more than 50 short stories (some very short) and poems we encounter writings from Aotearoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa, Hawai’i, Guam and many places in between. They are dazzlingly varied, but commonalities emerge: dealing with older parents (hilariously in the Covid story Koviti Aikae, or “covid, eat shit”), the tussles of tradition and globalisation, a preponderance of abusive uncles, women leaving their home to find work and make a new life. “Running away,” says the narrator of the final story by editor Sisilia Eteuati, “Has always been the traditional way to show unhappiness and dissent,” reclaiming and re-empowering an action that is often portrayed as avoidance or weakness.
The collection begins with a girl getting her period, “the moon’s sick”, in a very short story by Ni-Vanuatu writer Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen. “Things will never go back to the way they were,” Olul-Hossen writes. Eight of her writings are included here. They are nearly all minimalist, two-to-three page scenes that give us a glimpse of lives and the currents that have brought people to where they are now, reminding me of Yumna Kassab‘s similar technique in her writing.
Throughout this collection characters search for belonging. Sometimes they are challenged by violence and violations, like Lucy in Family Pride, or Napina in Napina Reclaims. But for every violent man or racist white person there’s a generous grandmother, or a teacher like the one in Whaea Fire, who brings something out in the protagonist she’s been keeping hidden. Characters find belonging in gardens, in the land, through tending soil and plants and each other.
The writings span genres from the comedic to the romantic, from realist to fantasy. In The Bumble Fumble: A Superbowl Sunday Misadventure a woman goes on a date in Honolulu, but he’s not who she expects; Gina in No Speak English is called to school to deal with her troublesome nephew with amusing results. I perhaps most enjoyed the meditative Turukawa by Tulia Thompson, about a Fijian woman living in Aotearoa undergoing IVF and feeling kinship with the goddess of the title. Or Lehua Parker’s delicious Nana’ue, about a woman who falls in love with an ocean god with unfortunate results for the local community. Of the poems I enjoyed the freedom of reclaiming language and skin in Modesty Tasi, Lua, Tolu by Nafanua PK:
Lua. That No One is Watching
is never true
because the fish
the molluscs the seaweed the sami
carry your nakedness in their shimmer and guts,
shell and sucking cups
through green brown blue-black waters
There is magic aplenty in these stories, but of course the real magic is the one that is passed between people, whether it is culture or kindness, made literal in The Sei And The Blade, in which a young girl attends her grandpa’s funeral, or the futuristic, intergalactic Aiga Fausiga. Although as Eteuati writes in On Colonising Kupu: “People equate kindness/with aroha//but kindness is not our concept … [it’s some] some voluntary//white saviour bullshit”. I’ve seen aroha is translated as “love” but here it is something much more potent, something that comes with mutual obligation. This idea of “relational” ways of being, it’s a concept I’ve seen First Nations Australians use to describe the difference between white and Black ways of doing. If our white. settler relationships aren’t relational, what are they? One-directional, individualistic, paternalistic, extractive are some of the words that come to mind. It’s easy to see how such relationships are entangled in a whole host of harms to people and planet. These stories are generous in their invitation to sit with, learn and have a laugh, even while they unsettle and trouble.
Gay rating: 2/5 for stories featuring queer characters and themes.