Renee Liang discusses how poetry and mythology intertwine in many cultures and interviews Tusiata Avia, a Samoan-Palagi poet, about her latest book Bloodclot.
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My last stop in China was Hong Kong. It’s a place I know well because my family are from there and I’ve been back every few years to visit, to kiss my grandma’s cheek and to fill my stomach with great food. This time round, Hong Kong seemed less hectic than it usually is, more mellow and laid back. I’m not sure whether this was really the case or that I was just relieved to be back where I could read signs and understand the talk (at least partially).
Hong Kong, being full of wealthy multilingual capitalists, has a rich arts scene – international acts stop by frequently (Yo- Yo Ma was playing on the day I arrived) and there were large posters everywhere announcing a new opera touring from Colorado, Poet Li Bai,a bilingual collaboration based on the life and writings of the famous Tang Dynasty poet. The shows were in December so I couldn’t attend, but it started me musing on how poetry is intertwined with myth, not just in China, but in many cultures. The distillation of language into the few words that evoke heightened emotion are well suited to telling who we are and where we come from.
In China, centuries of evolution of this art have led to the elevation of its poets, often into mythical figures – many famous stone peaks in scenic areas are said to be either poets or their writing brushes, immortalized at the moment of inspiration.. .or otherwise. My favourite story is the one told about Reed Flute Cave in Guilin. It is said that a poet once visited the cave, and became so frustrated at the inability of his words to capture the beauty of the formations that he turned to stone.
Luckily for us modern-day poets, our frustrations are expressed in other ways. But poetry continues to be the conduit between myth and daily life. An example is an experience I had when I was researching Chinese poems for a piece of writing. As a child, I’d frequently been told at the dinner table that every grain of rice means hard work. It’s a common Cantonese saying which uses guilt to get kids to eat all their rice. I'd assumed this was a very old saying that had always existed, but was curious. Although Cantonese is my first spoken language, I am (pathetically) illiterate, so I had to enlist my parents’ help to find out its origins.
A quick Google indicated that this saying had evolved from an earlier four-line poem by a Chinese Philosopher, Cheng Chan-Pao. I asked my Dad if he could find the original poem in Chinese. Half an hour later I heard my Dad making a long-distance call to his mate in Hong Kong to ask him for advice. His friend, Uncle Hung, is an ex-Waikato University Professor who just happens to be a descendant of Confucius. "My daughter's writing a book...." my dad started off, proudly. Later Dad called me into his study to show me what he'd found so far. He was surrounded by open Chinese dictionaries and literary texts and looked happy as Larry (whoever Larry is).
A few days later, a fax arrived at his surgery. Uncle Hung had enlisted the help of the Professor of Chinese at Hong Kong University who had trawled his way through the compendium of best Chinese literature ever written (there are lots of volumes and thousands of pages, apparently) and come up with the original of the poem I was looking for. Only it wasn't by Cheng Chan-Pao, it was by Li Shen, a famous Tang Dynasty Poet (772-845 AD).
What had started off as curiosity on my part had become an international scavenger hunt. And I was starting to discover something that mustn't happen only in Chinese literature : the transmission and transmutation of a particularly good line, down through the ages. From poem to philosophy to common saying.
My father suggested I try to translate the original poem myself, now. I was quite surprised by this suggestion, since it must rate as the first time he's acknowledged that I am writing poetry. So I got him to read it to me several times in both Cantonese and Mandarin (they are represented by the same characters, but the pronunciation is very different) and explain the meaning and intent of the characters. Then I tried to match the rhyme scheme, meaning and rhythm of the original as closely as I could. Here it is:
Spade, rice plant, sun at midday,
Sweat drips down on green terrain.
Who knows how a bowl becomes full?
Every grain by hard work gained.
Cultural Storytellers – Tusiata Avia
And now from Chinese myths to Pacific myths. A few weeks ago, I interviewed Tusiata Avia, whose latest book of poetry Bloodclot (Victoria University Press, 2009) journeys into automythography, weaving stories from Avia’s own life into the narrative of Nafanua, the Samoan Goddess of War.
Renee: What drives you to write?
Tusiata: I've discovered it's the best way for my deepest self to express itself, I've learnt this only by hindsight ,though. I've always had quite an instinctual approach to writing. It's something I've got to do to be whole.
Renee: What pushed you to start writing about Nafanua, the Samoan Goddess of War?
Tusiata: When I first heard about Nafanua - I read some transcribed stories told in Samoan and translated - I was really taken by her. For a long time she felt like a real presence in my life, it's not a small thing to have a relationship with a Samoan goddess of war! There was nothing else I could write about, she loomed very large in my life.
Renee: Nafanua sometimes speaks in the voice of a child: straight forward, perceptive, both innocent and worldly wise, due to the things she’s seen and endured. You don’t hold back from describing things like physical abuse and rape in Pacific communities. Do you see your work as political?
Tusiata: I guess the cliche, The personal is political, sums it up really. These are issues I don't neccessarily set out to write about or have an agenda for, but they are stories I'm drawn to again and again. They are not just a significant part of Pacific life, they are a significant part of the human experience, these are stories that cross all cultural boundaries. We, as Pacific people, do not have the market cornered on physical and sexual abuse, unfortunately, it is worldwide. It is one of the most destructive forces in a person's life, to be abused when you are young and powerless taints your life forever. As far as I'm concerned, these issues must be exposed to the light of day, no matter who they may make uncomfortable, or who says that they may be 'disrespectful' to write about.
Renee: Nafanua goes to America, just like you did. But your experience ( as the 2005 Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer in Residence) must have been quite different?
Tusiata: Although the Fulbright was a wonderful opportunity for me, it was also personally a dark time. It was very unexpected, I had huge expectations that it would be fabulous, and although it was productive, it was dark. A friend of mine said she found the whole book very dark - I'd never really looked at it like that before, but perhaps she is right.
Renee: How many of your Nafanua poems were written while travelling? Were some written years later?
Tusiata: I've written quite a lot of these poems while travelling - more than half perhaps. Travelling is a great time for me to write, it always productive. These poems were with me for a long time - I produced most of them quite quickly but it took me a long time to be able to let go of them - about 4 years. I felt very protective of this book for a long time, and frankly, very nervous about releasing it. Although I worked on them on and off in the 4 years, I spent most of the time just not wanting to let them go. My relationship with Bloodclot was very different to my relationship to my first book. My first book developed in a nursery, I had a lot of support and feedback and encouragement. Bloodclot was a harder emotional process, I wrote much of it in a dark, isolated period of my life, it felt like the ugly baby. Now that it's out in the world, however, my anxieties have disappeared.
Renee: How have people overseas responded to your work?
Tusiata: I've read these poems in London, Brisbane and Frankfurt, so they haven't had a world wide airing, or anything, but they seem to travel well. I'm always a little surprised when people outside of this part of the world respond well to my poems, hopefully I'll get over that!
Renee: There seem to be echoes of Tusiata in Nafanua….
Tusiata: I'm open about the fact that this book is automythographical, I take the stories of Nafanua and my own (and my inventions) and blend them. I was afraid for some time that this might be a rather taboo thing to do, but decided that I was constrained by taboos, I'd never write anything worth reading.
Renee: I see you’ve included ‘that’ poem, the one about being falsely accused of shoplifting by Unity Books….
Tusiata: I did indeed. I felt that poem needed to be included - it can be read a number of ways, the reader doesn't neccessarily need to know about my nasty experiences with Unity Bookshop, but if they do - then, all the better!
Renee: Do you have a 'greatest hits' poem, the one people always request?
Tusiata: The one I most enjoy reading is 'Nafanua's sister thinks about Nafanua in America' - it always gets a reaction.