We run out of time in Apia --

Tony Murrow takes a short trip through Literary Week at the
Seventh Pacific Islands Festival of the Arts.


There is always something wrong with an arts festival and it usually has
something to do with time. Your favourite writer is reading at one venue,
but your favourite musician is playing at another, and you cannot be in two
places at once. You will always lose if you attend arts festivals. It
happened to me again at the Seventh Pacific Islands Festival of the Apia,
held in October in Apia, courtesy of the Western Samoan government. There
just wasn't enough time. The Literary Week was literally one week; if only
it had lasted two or three.

But, it isn't just a matter of time, is it? There is scope to consider:
representatives of the more than 25,000 islands as well as continental
Australians and Pacific Islands who have been living in 'the West'
(mainland USA, Australia, Europe and those other places) -- they came to
Apia. The scope of this festival is truly blinding. When you begin to
appreciate the nature of the Pacific -- its size, its variety, its array of
'found nowhere else on this planet' customs, art forms, fauna, flora and,
yes, people -- then you can see that this festival is like no other.

Too much was happening. I tried to catch all the literary events, but only
got halfway there. Albert Wendt opened the Literary Week with enthusiasm
and dignified restraint. The way Professor Wendt put it, Pacific Islands
literature was not only receiving greater international attention, it was
also serving its communities better. More books were being written in
Pacific Islands languages, books which not only strengthened language ties,
but also asserted sovereignty and identity. Wendt also mentioned newer
writers such as Samoan Sia Figiel, effectively pointing to a new wave of
Pacific Islands writer.

After I had heard a few of these new authors read, I began to appreciate
just how understated this last point was. There are some fine new writers
coming to the fore in the Pacific, writers who really would have had
no chance of feeling comfortable with their roles as
Pacific Islands writers without the ground-breaking work of Wendt, Hau'ofa,
Hereniko and others. In some ways I felt the Literary Week was a very just
tribute to Wendt and his contemporaries. It was also, perhaps, a call to
arms for them, for the vitality and prolificacy of some of these young
writers -- and I have to cite Sia Figiel here -- is a strong challenge to
the more established authors. The absence of writers like Konai Thaman and
'Epeli Hau'ofa, placed poets as young as teenagers in the spotlight. Given
that space and opportunity, they sparked into life. College and university
groups presented innovative contemporary drama and music tied to
traditional stories, and it was a glorious spectacle.

Numbers and youthful excitement made the Western Samoan performances a
great success. The Western Samoans also carried out their duty as hosts
exceptionally well and still made space for their visitors. Apirana Taylor
from Aotearoa/New Zealand hit the mark squarely with his mixture of
straight street-cred, oral traditions and a fine dramatic exhibition.
Another Aotearoa-based performer/writer, Samoan Mua Strickson-Pua caused
hysteria when he revealed that he was a faife'au -- a church minister. No
one seemed to believe that a man with a shaven head and outrageous
performance skills could also read scripture on Sunday. There was, by all
accounts, a fine literary fringe festival at Momoe von Reiche's MADD
gallery and the hardworking Fatu Feu'u hosted writers at his excellent
artists' village near Si'umu, but the official nightly events at the new
Women's and Youth's Culture Centre provided strong forums for political,
assertive literature. Hawaiians presented poetry, much of it describing the
conflict between traditional and Western values systems. Australians told
their stories of how life was before European contact, and then how it was

And there were a lot of sad stories. Stories, literate or oral, are
invariably about sad or potentially sad events, but so many of the readings
pursued the theme of the difficulty in living tight up against Western
culture, that the truths of political sovereignty in the region and the
dispossession of its peoples seemed overwhelming. Some, like Strickson-Pua and
Figiel, injected trenchant humour, often it seemed because it enabled the
situation to be survived. Audiences were shocked and had been warned of
being shocked (Professor Wendt again). Even high school performances
offered challenges. Authors worried what those higher up in their
communities might think, but everyone seemed to have the same impression:
it was the truth. From Dan McMullin's quiet mumblings on fa'afafine life in
the States to Sia Figiel's raucously funny but brutal stories of girlhood
in Samoa, truth made the shock sustainable ... and enjoyable.

So we can say that these stories and their readings are redeeming, but what
of their futures on the printed page? Well, that too seems to be a matter
of time and scope. Just before I flew to Apia I heard that the Australian
Cultures Fund was closing its doors for business. Individuals and
institutions, such as the well-respected Institute for Pacific Studies in
Suva, depended heavily on this funding organisation to get words into book
form. Some will say that if there is as much vitality in the new Pacific
Islands writing as is maintained, then it should be able to stand on its
own two feet. Some of it can, of course. But there are unique problems
associated with publishing and distributing books in the Pacific. Remember,
this is the world's largest ocean. Writers from this region still find it
difficult to get their work published. At least the effects of the last
throws of the Australian Cultures Fund and other funding organisations, and
the extreme and worthy efforts of the self-publishers of the Pacific were
there to be witnessed during the Literary Week. More than a dozen books
were launched on the first evening of the festival. Many of these works
were non-fiction -- non-fiction books are generally given greater status in
the Pacific -- but there were also a number of books of poetry, a few
collections of short stories and the odd novel, including a novel entirely
in Samoan.

The Pacific Islands Festival of the Arts tends to emphasize performance
over product manufacture -- a good thing, in my opinion. This festival
certainly showed the scope for writers who are also able to perform before
heterogenous, but learned audiences. My only hope is that their work also
makes it in to print, creating a 'product' that serves the needs and
desires of those Pacific Islanders (and even papalangi like myself) who
can't always be in earshot of the new talent. But, this is a matter for
publishers in the Pacific and on the Pacific Rim to face. I hope they do.

© Tony Murrow 1996