Vārua Tupu: New Writings from French Polynesia, Frank Stewart, Kareva Mateata-Allain, and Alexander Dale Mawyer, eds., 2006
- French Polynesia, #4
- Paperback, £5.68 from alibris.com
- Read August 2015
- Rating: 3/5
- Recommended for: casual coffee-table browsing
I stumbled across this volume in my search for works by Henri Hiro and Louise Peltzer (the maddening thing is that although I can remember that I was looking for works by each of them, and having trouble finding them, I can’t for the life of me figure out how I first heard their names. Searching French Polynesian literature doesn’t yield relevant results. Obviously when I made this list I knew something that I don’t know now…but I can’t help wishing I had taken better notes). I struggled with French Polynesia to find much of anything that I could get my hands on. I was happy to read books in French, but the issue wasn’t translation, it was that very few works by French Polynesians seem to have made it out of the territory. Vārua Tupu was put together, in part, to try to remedy this situation by creating a larger audience for French Polynesian works. So I thought it would be a good addition to my list, answering my search for Peltzer and Hiro and throwing in a few authors I might not otherwise have found.
It served these purposes well. But it did not feel like a cohesive collection, and it was difficult to get beneath the surface of anything. Photo essays were devoid of context, paintings did not speak to the stories next to them. A random photo of a Tahitian girl from the turn of the century was next to an excerpt from Celestine Hitiura Vaite’s novels (my first thought was that it was a vintage-y photo of Vaite in her youth, even though it looked nothing like the author photo on Frangipani, but otherwise I couldn’t figure out what it was doing there). The snippets of novels were so short they ended just as you got into them (I don’t really agree with publishing snippets of novels anyway, but perhaps the idea was that people would be intrigued enough by the snippets to create a popular demand for translations of the full works). The range of styles is exceedingly broad: interviews, essays, poetry, novel excerpts, all tied together only by being written by French Polynesians. It’s a coffee table book, really, meant to be paged through at leisure, the drawings admired, perhaps an essay or a poem read here and there on a lazy Sunday while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil. I would have been happier to have just tracked down works by Peltzer or Henri Hiro or maybe Titaua Peu’s Mutismes and read one of them instead. Vārua Tupu felt scattered and disjointed.
That’s not to say that I got nothing out of it. There were two interesting essays about Bobby Holcombe, a self-taught artist and local legend whose paintings comprise most of the book’s illustrations. I loved Louise Peltzer’s A Strange Ship, which covers the same events as Les Immémoriaux from a legitimately Tahitian perspective. Taaria Walker’s A Little Scholarship Recipient from Auti, about a girl from Rurutu and the sacrifices her family makes to send her to school in Tahiti, and Kareva Mateata-Allain’s The Arrival, about a Tahitian family’s tragic move to America, were both heartbreaking depictions of French Polynesians struggling to adapt to the changes wrought by the 20th century. In fact, there is a very heavy focus on loss in many of the stories in this book, of a better and traditional way of life that has been ripped away, and people struggling to catch up. This recurrent theme echoes the message of L’Île des rêves écrasés and Les Immémoriaux: that the effects of colonization have been entirely negative for ethnic Polynesians. Their stories, their language, and their way of life have been taken from them, their religion wiped out, their happiness destroyed by Catholicism, and their beautiful homeland mutilated by atomic tests. Even in Célestine Vaite’s upbeat stories there is conflict between the old and the new: Materena being arrested for taking her children to the beach (which she ought to have a right to) to collect mussels (which is part of her cultural heritage); her fear and ignorance in the French court; her terror of electricity, when the judge tells her that there could be submerged wires and her children could be electrocuted. It’s all very cute and it ends well because that’s the kind of writer Vaite is, but there’s an undercurrent of unease that seems, if I am to draw conclusions from the four books I read, to be present in the day-to-day life of most Polynesians.
Despite its faults, Vārua Tupu contains some snippets of intriguing and beautiful writing and really interesting literature. I hope that the editorial mission is successful, and leads to a wider audience for these talented voices, because what they have to say is both interesting and important, and it deserves to be heard.