Pacific Waves Conference, Sussex University, 6-7 November 2015

Pacific Waves Conference, Sussex University, 6-7 November 2015

Moira Taylor

This highly successful conference, convened by NZSN member Rehab Hosny Abdelghany and Emma Scanlan, both PhD candidates in the School of English at the University of Sussex, brought together a truly international gathering of 26 delegates from Australia, New Zealand, the USA, UK, Spain, Sweden and Germany, along with other interested attendees and supporters.  The conference was sponsored by the School of English, University of Sussex.

Oceania, though surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean in the world, is still the least studied and represented region in post-colonial studies in the UK. The eminent Samoan New Zealand novelist and thinker, Albert Wendt, has defined the term ‘New Oceania’ to reimagine the colonialist/orientalist definition of the islands of Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia and it is this reimagining from new literature and scholarship from and about the region that preoccupied the eight panels of discussion over two rainy days in Sussex.


Professor Janet Wilson, University of Northampton, the first keynote speaker, set the scene with a discussion of ‘Currents of Migration: Writing and Representation in the Pacific Diaspora’, reminding us of the new diaspora formed by islanders travelling from the region to New Zealand, Japan, Australia and the USA, and the new literature often generated by their return to a place of origin. These migrations to metropolitan centres result in a transfer of resources and have had political and economic consequences for the islands. She considered three diaspora novels – Albert Wendt’s Sons For the Return Home (1973), Sia Figiel’s Where We Once Belonged (1966) and John Pule’s The Shark That Ate the Sun (1992).

Ana Cristina Gomes da Rocha, from the University of Vigo, Spain, in the first panel ‘The Novel in Polynesia and French Polynesia’, described the convergence of cultures in Kiana Davenport’s Shark Dialogues and reminded us of the continuing representation of the Pacific as the ‘exotic’, reflecting either the savage or the sensual in popular culture and advertising. She described tourism as a new form of imperialism perpetuated by an ongoing colonial relationship comprising a servant class of industrial workers, high rise cities and multinational investment where ‘tourism fetishises the ability to pay’ and was not concerned with the welfare of the local population.

Maria Kotzur from the Technical University of Chemnitz, Germany, explored the Tahitian trilogy of novels by Celestine Hitiura Vaite. She is the daughter of a French father and a Tahitian mother and is now based in Australia. Her novels are often fuelled by homesickness and reveal Tahiti’s problematic colonial ties to France. In her paper comprising parts of her forthcoming book Mythic Realism in Maori Fiction as well as work in progress from her ongoing doctoral thesis, Rehab Hosny Abdelghany demonstrated how myths shape lives in Maori and Yoruba cultures and drive the action in their novels and plays, emerging as what she terms ‘mythic realism’, a genre in which daily lived reality and the reality of myth combine where myth is experienced as a living philosophy.

The second panel, ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Many Selves’, returned to the early twentieth century and New Zealand-born Katherine Mansfield, the country’s most famous writer.  Joanna Woods, independent researcher and author of several books including Katerina, reminded the audience that Russia had a Pacific coast stretching from the Bering Strait to the crumbling port of Vladivostock and wondered whether Russia could be considered part of Oceania. She showed Mansfield’s stories had an afterlife in the Soviet Union after her death in 1923 with some of them lending themselves to Marxist interpretation and a critique of capitalism, while others were placed on the curriculum for tertiary students of the Moscow State University in the 1950s.  Katherine Mansfield’s creative desire to speak to ‘the secret self we all have’ was then explored by Justine Shaw, PhD candidate and Associate Tutor in the School of English, University of Sussex, who discussed Mansfield’s idea of the split self, the self people project in public versus their inner one, in relation to her growing up in a ‘split’  society that repressed awareness of the other self. Shaw examined these concepts through reading ‘How Pearl Button was Kidnapped’ and ‘Prelude’.

Emeritus Professor Rod Edmond, University of Kent, the conference’s second keynote speaker, explored the trials and tribulations of his missionary ancestor, an Aberdeenshire Presbytarian missionary on the island of Vanuatu in the late nineteenth century. An advocate of Robert Louis Stevenson’s appraisal of missionaries as the ‘best and most useful whites in the Pacific’, Professor Edmond read from his great grandfather’s journal, revealing how he thought himself to be perceived by a local chief – as soft and easily managed, someone who would improve the chief’s status through access to European goods. The third panel, ‘European Migration to New Zealand’, opened with a presentation by myself, Moira Taylor, an independent researcher and NZSN member, which offered a snapshot of the Hall brothers of Hull and the economic, social and personal background to their emigration to New Zealand in 1852. I described their early education in Europe, the maritime careers of two brothers prior to emigration and the collective research concerning South America and New Zealand undertaken by all three before the decision to emigrate was made.

Katie Wright-Higgins, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, University of Sussex, brought us forward to the twenty-first century, reporting on interviews mainly conducted with contemporary British migrants to Auckland’s North Shore and the city’s western coastal suburbs, now living in one of the largest Polynesian cities in the world. These revealed three themes: grievance (‘why are other immigrants given money for nothing?’; (‘how long do the English have to apologise for everything their forebears did in the world?’), the undesirability of multiculturalism and indigeneity (‘no one here is indigenous any more’).

Duncan Robertson, PhD candidate, University of York,  began the fourth panel on ‘Medical Encounters’ with a description of encounters between Australians and Europeans, from James Cook at Endeavour River (his death on Tahiti) to smallpox at Port Jackson.  Emily Timms, University of Leeds, explored  the ‘talking cure’ in contemporary Maori and Hawaiian literature and discussed how storytelling and sharing stories of cultural oppression could heighten cultural awareness to counter ill health in indigenous populations.

A final treat for first-day attendees was the screening of the 2014 New Zealand-made film, The Dark Horse, directed by James Napier Robertson and starring Cliff Curtis as the hero ‘Genesis’ and James Rolleston, his gang leader brother who offers him a home after institutional care for mental illness. Genesis, seeking to find a positive future, against great odds, coaches and transports a group of dispossessed Maori children to a national chess tournament in Auckland. This hope-filled, well-made film is the inspiring counterpart to the violent Once Were Warriors without glossing over the potential for violence and hopelessness in the lives of New Zealand’s least fortunate. Fine acting and cinematography plus the fact that the action is based on a true-life story made this film riveting viewing.


Dr Michelle Keown, from the University of Edinburgh, opened the second conference day with an electrifying paper whose disturbing subject was ‘Waves of Destruction: Nuclear Imperialism and Anti-nuclear Protest in the Indigenous Literatures of the Pacific’. She revealed, from a reading of declassified government sources released in the 1990s, that the Marshall Islanders were suffering ongoing health problems as a result of radioactivity in their food products from the 15-megaton Bravo Shot nuclear test by the US in the Bikini Atoll in 1954. The Bravo Shot was apparently 1000 times more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima which ended World War Two. It is referenced in Hone Tuwhare’s poem ‘No Ordinary Sun’ (1958), reminding us that the islanders at first thought the bomb was a second sunset, recalled as ‘the day of two suns’. They were not evacuated before the test. Rob Nixon’s coinage of the term ‘slow violence’ has been used to describe the long-term effects of the test on a beautiful area of the Pacific potentially contaminated in perpetuity.  Likewise, the French, in defiance of a test ban treaty in the Pacific, conducted nuclear tests on the Mururoa Fangataufa Islands, first in the form of atmospheric testing, then under the atoll, leaving cracks in the coral reef and polluting fishing grounds. The resulting South Pacific Forum of 1985 whose attendants did not subscribe to US hegemony of the Pacific, and the NZ government ban in 1987 on US nuclear-powered ships entering its harbours, resulted in New Zealand’s exclusion from the ANZUS defence pact.  Literature arising from this period included the artwork of Ralph Hotere, ‘Black Rainbow, Muroroa’ (1986) Albert Wendt’s novel, Black Rainbow,  and Dewe Gorode’s poem ‘Wave Song’  (2004), translated by Peter Brown from the original French.

In the fifth panel, ‘Negotiating Modern Pacific Identities’, Anita Purcell Sjölund, Junior Lecturer at Dalarna University College, Sweden and PhD candidate at Goldsmith’s, University of London, presented the paper ‘My name is Samoan’ which examined New Zealand Samoan writer Victor Rodger’s play ‘My Name is Gary Cooper’ and other plays by the same writer, who uses a technique of strategic exoticism and the subverting of stereotypes to make his plays edgy, complex and fascinating.

Use of digital media in novel writing was described by Steven Gin from the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, in the work of Lani Wendt Young in her Telesa series of novels. She links readers via a twitter hashtag to a larger community of readers, some of whom also follow her blog, ‘Sleepless in Samoa’ and who provide paratexts to the main novel, resulting in hundreds of friends and followers of the novelist and significant media outreach. The audience feeds back into the story.

Karin Louise Hermes, MA holder, also from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, in her  ‘Facing Future – Reclaiming Past’ talked about academic storytelling and inspired activism to protect the island of Mauna Kea against the TMT construction project, an 18-storey high telescope over five acres of land, against a railway project and the ongoing building of condominiums, resulting in the increased land costs and the migration of locals.

In the sixth panel, ‘Oceania in the Western artistic imagination’, Will Atkin, PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute, presented the Surrealist philosophy of magic in the writings of André Breton, an avid collector of Oceanic artefacts, and in Paul Gaugin’s Tahiti paintings. Daniel Baker, artist and PhD candidate at the University of Arts, London, explored the imaginative projections of Europe about the Pacific in early modern England. This was though early maps, the concept of the mirror perceived as a space of reflections in which things are possible and through utopian projects such as Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s planned settlement of New Zealand where potential settlers conceived the Pacific Ocean as a space into which they could project a more perfect version of their existing society with less poverty and less crime.

A highlight of the day was the poetry reading by New Zealand poet, Alice Miller, currently living in an artists’ community in Vienna, which was warmly received.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a former Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow and Visiting Writer at Massey University in NZ, she read from her recent collection, The Limits, which included the poem, ‘Saving’ in which ‘some of the moments we cling to most/are the futures we never let happen’.

Panel seven, ‘Aotearoa and Australian Dialogues’,  opened with Tredegar Rangiatea Hall’s paper, ‘Restoring the Flow: Challenging the existing management frameworks to integrate Matauranga Maori in the management of water in the Taupo region of New Zealand’s North Island’, part of his previous masters research at the University of Waikato.  His address opened in Maori as he outlined the genealogy of water, introducing the deity of clouds and the god of rain and other related deities, his lake, his tribe and marae, and lastly his identity, rooted in his genealogy and upbringing on the shores of Lake Taupo.

Interrogating the ‘postcolonial’ in Australia, Thamir R.S. Az-Zubaidy, PhD candidate, University of Leicester, true to his paper’s title began by examining language, place and cultural identity in Nick Parson’s play, Dead Heart (1996).  Flair Donglai Shi, University of Oxford, held that the notion of colonialism was still alive in academia, particularly in Oxford where Pacific literature did not have much of a presence. He explored the concept of the palimpsest in his paper, ‘Postcolonial Australia writes/comes back to the UK: the endings of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs’.

In the final panel, ‘Articulating Threat: Indigenous Experience of Natural Disaster’ we were revisiting the theme of destruction again with Sara Penrhyn Jones, Research Fellow at Bath Spa University and Visiting Lecturer, University of Utah. Her documentary film, Troubled Waters, represents the Kiribati people from a narrow island archipelago scattered across the Pacific in an area the width of the USA.  Rising sea level, some climate change scientists predict, threatens the population of 100,000 since by 2050 the islands are expected to be submerged. Land has been purchased on Fiji for growing their food.  One interviewee in the film said, ‘We are not poor, we are living a subsistence life, day by day, with our coconut trees and our fishing. Would we want to fish on other shores? Probably we wouldn’t survive.’ Anna Wilts, MA holder, University of Leeds, presented a paper entitled ‘(Re)envisioning the “nuclear” Pacific from Within: Establishing an Anti-colonial Indigenous Locale in Robert Barclay’s Meļaļ and Chantal T. Spitz’s L’île des rêves écrasés’. It investigates the manner Oceanic Francophone and Anglophone literatures thematising nuclearization have been concerned with the reconceptualization of the ‘Pacific Proving Grounds’ as indigenous spaces of anti-colonial articulation.

Hannah Fair, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, University College London, with a background of climate justice campaigning in the USA, recalled the biblical Story of the Flood and Noah’s ark in her paper ‘We are Outside of the Ark: Climate Change, Pacific Islands and the Allegorical Impacts of Noah’. God’s promise to Noah after the waters recede in the biblical story that ‘never again will the waters rise’ has influenced the way half the inhabitants of this island archipelago, particularly the elderly, view any attempts to raise awareness about sea level rise as ‘not your task’. The President of the island of Kirebas has announced that he would ‘negotiate with God’ and reminds well-wishers of God’s promise to Noah.   Scientific calculations are pitted against religious faith and history (‘we have faced flood and famine in the past’). Meanwhile cosmopolitanism offers hospitality to those possibly endangered.

Conference attendees were treated to a final highlight of the conference: a truly exceptional performance of Maori song and dance including the Haka, by the London-based Ngāti Rānana, London Maori Club. The event, organised in collaboration with Sussex’s Students’ Union, was held at Falmer House and followed by a reception where delegates, guests and Ngāti Rānana members enjoyed a lively and warm gathering that delegates were reluctant to leave.

Selected literature, poems,  texts and films, referenced at Pacific Waves conference

Albert Wendt, novel Sons For the Return Home (1973), University of Hawai’i Press

Albert Wendt, novel Black Rainbow (1995), University of Hawai’i Press

Sia Figiel, Where We Once Belonged (1966), Pasifika Press

John Puhiatau Pule, John Paul, The Shark That Ate the Sun (1992), Penguin Books Australia

Kiana Davenport, Shark Dialogues (1995), Plume Books

Celestine Hitiura Vaite trilogy: Frangipani (2006 new edn, Arrow); Tiare (2007 new edn Arrow); Breadfruit: A novel (2006), Back Bay Books

Witi Ihimaera, The Whale Rider (2005), Heinemann

Georgia Ka’apuni McMillen, School for Hawaiian Girls (2002), AuthorHouse

Katherine Mansfield, stories: ‘The Woman at the Store’,  ‘The Garden Party’, ‘How Pearl Button was Kidnapped’, in Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield, edited with introduction by Angela Smith (2008), Oxford University Press

Rod Edmond, Migrations: Journeys in Time and Space (2013), Bridget Williams Books

Lani Wendt Young, Telesa Series: Telesa: The Covenant Keeper (2012), When Water Burns (2012), The Bone Bearer (2013), CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Her blog: Sleepless in Samoa

Alice Miller, poetry collection, The Limits (2014), Shearsman Books

Peter Carey, novel Jack Maggs (1998), Faber & Faber

Charles Dickens, novel Great Expectations

Robert Barclay, novel Melal: A novel of the Pacific (2002), University of Hawai’i  Press

Hone Tuwhare, poem ‘No Ordinary Sun’ (1958)

Dewe Gorode, poem ‘Wave Song’, originally in French, ‘Clapotis’ (2004), ? in Sharing as Custom Provides: Poems of Dewe Gorode (2005), Pandanus Books


Michelle Keown, Pacific Islands Writing: The Post Colonial Literatures of Aoteoroa/New Zealand and Oceania (2005), Oxford University Press

Liz Deloughrey, Heliotropes: Solar Ecologies and Pacific Radiations in Postcolonial Ecologies (2011),


Dead Heart (1996), dir. Nick Parsons

Whale Rider (2003), dir. Niki Caro

The Dark Horse (2014), dir. James Napier Robertson