When I first read the e-mail from Te Herenga Waka University Press about participating in the 60th Brisbane Writers’ Festival, my interest was immediately piqued.
Here was a golden opportunity to get Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology[i] to a more Australian and broader audience.
E-mails began flying between BWF’s CEO, Sarah Runcie, and I. Initially I was invited to participate in an online session.
Then with the conceptualization of the Black Salt, I was invited to participate face-to-face in a panel discussion. I immediately connected with Fijian poet and founder of The Poetry Shop, Peter Sipeli, and Amanda Donigi, Founder and Editor of Papua New Guinean magazine, Stella, as well as founder of the publishing house Pacific Pencil.
The connections began from there. Like the wide and vast Pacific Ocean, the connections between other indigenous peoples came washing over me, wave by wave.
Torres Strait Islanders
South Sea Islanders
Melanesian – PNG, Fiji, Vanuatu amongst others
These were connections that I had not envisioned when preparing to participate in the BWF – my first experience of a writer’s festival.
Participation in the Black Salt Session
To discuss the status quo and in particular, funding opportunities for writers, editors, and publishers in Vanuatu, it is important to start with the fact that there is a love of literature and language in Vanuatu. Writers are incredibly busy career people and it’s a challenge to mobilize everyone due to full schedules.
There is a lack of infrastructure and ecological support systems. There are no book clubs, formal or informal, and the public library is outdated, with user-pay fees to access private children’s libraries. There are no opportunities for casual writing classes. All these make it challenging.
There is a lack of publishing industry in Vanuatu and very little in Melanesia. There is a lack of sustainable funding opportunities for writers, editors, and publishers. There are no government grants. Regional organizations often get grants for very specific areas.
Accessibility of national and regional literary publications for the national and international reader is linked to availability. There is a myth that there is a dearth of literature. It is important to correct this. There is, in fact, a dearth of published literature.
In her PhD thesis, Dr. Mikaela Nyman, stated that the dearth of published literature does not reflect the number of individuals who write or harbor literary ambitions[ii]. Gendered norms, policies, and customary traditions that use the male position as the default contributed to limiting the public space for ni-Vanuatu women’s voices to be heard and given due recognition. Colonial language policies, particularly in education, contributed to a reluctance to consider Bislama as an appropriate literary vehicle. Literary efforts are hampered by the absence of supportive institutions, publishing outlets, editorial support, and, until recently, a nonexistent writing community.
Self-publishing is an option but can be isolating and only if one has the funds. In the Pacific, self-published poetry pamphlets fall victim to shoestring budgets, printed on low-quality paper that doesn’t do the work full justice. They eventually succumb to tropical conditions. Self-published collections are seldom discoverable outside of Vanuatu, unless a curious reader knows what they are looking for.
Despite these obstacles there is a growing critical mass of emerging ni-Vanuatu writers, many of them women, who wish to communicate with local and regional audiences.
A journal of Melanesian literature is a way to develop Melanesian literature. So how can writers and their allies live creatively in the present while also ensuring indigenous writing is distributed more widely? Anthologies may hold the answer. And in this case a journal of Melanesian literature.
Distinguished Pacific scholar writer Albert Wendt and Māori scholar writer Alice Te Punga Somerville both highlighted the importance of anthologies for Pacific Island nations. Not only as a means for writers to be published but as a repository of texts that become sites of contestation and articulations of a region—writing that would otherwise have gone unpublished—thereby turning ad hoc writing, over time, into a body of national literature and Pacific literature[iii]. A significant number of Oceania’s writers have only ever been published in anthologies. This does not make their contributions any less than those published in single-author publications. Anthologies and their editors likewise nurture connections between writers, making writers visible to one another, and in doing so they support a fledgling writing community.
In addition, Dr. Nyman explores structural barriers for writers saying that across the Pacific region, many structural barriers exist for writers in general and for indigenous writers who do not identify as male. Dr. Nyman proposes that a supportive local writing community and a virtual network of writers are indispensable. A direct correlation exists between the lack of supportive institutions to nurture local talent and the perceived silence of ni-Vanuatu, and Melanesian, writers, especially women writers. Readers and writers play a vital role in making writers visible to each other and encourage writers to make their voices heard in public.
Literature is said to be a mirror as well as a window. We read and write with the hope of learning more about ourselves and our own society. In a way this allow others a window into our culture and society. For this reason, literature is a tool to deepen an understanding of a connected Melanesian within existing regional narratives. As Melanesians we must tell our stories through our lens and on our terms.
Note: This is a shortened version of a longer piece available at Solwora Storian.
[i] Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology published by the Te Herenga Waka University Press (2021) is edited by Mikaela Nyman and Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen.
[ii] Mikaela Nyman, Expressions of Creativity and Rhetorical Alliance: ni-Vanuatu Women’s Voices, Victoria University of Wellington, 2020.