NAFANUA PURCELL KERSEL
‘Sā Nafanua: Reconstituting Nafanua as Female Empowerment in Samoan Diasporic Literature’ by Caryn Lesuma
In this article, Lesuma examines poetry that draws on Nafanua. Poems by Tusiata Avia, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard and Dan Taulapapa McMullin are looked at in terms of how they might portray Nafanua or indeed reconstitute her story. Lesuma is clear that the focus is on diasporic poets who have published works and might therefore have the widest readership. She also focuses on Nafanua poetry that shows Nafanua or the effect of her story/role in light of female empowerment: ‘… narratives of the Samoan warrior goddess Nafanua, portraying her as a symbol of healing, instruction, and empowerment’ (p. 261).
Her focus is specifically on poetry ‘because these works function as a written extension of the chants, songs and poems about Nafanua that have been passed down orally for generations’. Furthermore, the idea of female empowerment requires that the Nafanua poems are seen within the lens of ‘mana tama‘ita‘i’ (Marsh) and ‘Indigenous Literary Nationalism’ (ho‘omanawanui) and Lesuma asserts that:
… these texts represent a Samoan literary nationalism that articulates the issues that Samoan women face and empowers them to look to Nafanua as mother, role model sister and kindred spirit.
I find most interesting the work of Dan Taulapapa McMullin, (whom I had the privilege of getting feedback from on some of my early poetry – he asked me in his notes ‘where is the NAFANUA in you, in your poetry?!’). McMullin’s invoking of Nafanua in ‘Fa‘afafine Notes: On Tagaloa, Jesus, and Nafanua’ is one that strikes me as very skilled and that accesses a wholly Samoan logic of etiquette. Rather than characterising Nafanua or placing her in a contemporary setting and contextualising her presence there, he simply places her name and an aspect of her story alongside, as one of his 32 notes on fa‘afafine and his identity as fa‘afafine in Samoa and the diaspora. Nafanua, a feminist, fa‘afafine icon. I can get down with that.
I notice that the criteria Lesuma sets for the Nafanua poems and their purpose towards female empowerment necessitates the exclusion of Albert Wendt’s treatment of Nafanua in The Adventures of Vela, which is certainly widely read but is a novel of verses, or an epic poem where, pointedly, Nafanua is not portrayed in the light of healing or instruction, or (arguably) empowerment but as vindictive, cruel and sexually driven. I personally find her deviant characterisation in The Adventures of Vela a powerful one. Also, it is a truly epic work which, as well as a polarised depiction of Nafanua, contains passages such as this:
We can’t rewalk the exact footprints
we make in the stories of our lives
but we’ll hear again our footprints
like the lullabies our parents sang us
the moment our stories end.
Perhaps out of our footprints
our children will nurse wiser lullabies.
I can reconcile Lesuma’s turning away from Wendt’s portrayal however, because she is upfront about her scope and criteria (if not about the exclusion). Also because there has already been much written and debated around Wendt’s portrayal of Nafanua. For me, the power in Wendt’s work also lays in the sense of ownership of Nafanua’s story that one must have to feel in order to portray her in a multifaceted way – including a sexually empowered way. However, because she is such a revered figurehead for Samoans, playing with her respectability and mana can be a costly way to shift culture.
I resonate with the connection that Lesuma draws between poetry and forms of oral tradition and would take this wider to include poetry that doesn’t draw exclusively on Nafanua. Poetry, understood as a written extension of song and chant, as a way in which we might connect over vast spaces about our daily lives and identities. In Samoa, to say that one is Samoan in gagana Samoa, you would say ‘o a‘u o le Samoa’, which literally translates to ‘I am Samoa’. Literature and other artistic forms are also ways of us saying ‘I am Samoa’, or ‘we are Samoa’ – no matter where we are. It’s true that the times when I feel most ‘Samoa’ are often on the page. It’s there that I feel a strong potential of connection to all those who are Samoa.
Lesuma quotes Selina Tusitala Marsh, stating that:
[when] writers draw upon the cultural weight embodied by a mythic figure and reimagine it within a contemporary environment; they both revitalise the myth and culturally invigorate it in the present day … writers activate the space of cultural memory, creating contemporary parallels with archaic initiatory elements, demonstrating that culture is dynamic and open … they individually enact a collective remembering.(p. 263)
In terms of my own work, I would like to feel empowered to write about my personal connection with Nafanua, through gafa (genealogy) and of course, through carrying her story in my name. I know for sure that the presence of Nafanua in Samoan literature has helped me to feel empowered in my connection to her. I know for sure that multiplicities of representations of Nafanua add to my own relationship with her. I don’t know that my poems will evolve to be as clarified and direct as Avia’s automythography (Avia, Beautrais) in Bloodclot, which I adore (and for which, like Wendt, she also received criticism by others of Nafanua’s gafa), but perhaps it might in time. Maybe it will be something completely different and my dearest hope is that whatever the story ends up being, it is as impactful as Bloodclot was for me when I encountered it as a young adult.
In this article, Lesuma’s main point seems to be to show how poetry, and Nafanua’s presence in diasporic poetry, is an act of healing and decolonisation. I agree with this, and would add that for me, writing poetry itself, with or without Nafanua is an act of resistance to colonisation, or the colonial dream.
I have been known to tell my children to ‘just give it a go and see what happens’. I considered this advice when I was deciding to apply for this MA. But, my adult brain morphed that sentence into ‘what do I know for sure?’ I knew that:
- poetry would happen
- I would allow myself the time and space to activate an intrinsic storytelling urge that I feel is part of my identity and inheritance as Samoan
- the poems that really need to be written would come, urgently
- Nafanua would be present in process if not on page (aside from my name)
- my poetry could add to a tradition of Samoan diasporic literature, and access our oral traditions of song and story
- they would be decolonising as a matter of course.
I rightly predicted that I would take the opportunity to get out of my system all the things in the soup of my experience and creativity that urgently needed the tangibility of the page, through the mutability of poetry. That my poetry would be part of decolonisation was never up for discussion. The fact that I write poetry, the fact that I am doing this MA is counter to the colonial dream. No matter the subject matter, themes or forms my poetry takes, it is an act of decolonisation just to write them. It is an act of resistance to enjoy it.
The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood and the Mind-Baby Problem by Julie Phillips
I wrote a list of things I had to do. I found sixty-three. Then I wrote another list of things I wanted to do and I found two – the first was mother my children, the second was write books.
– Toni Morrison
This is the book I needed to read this year. I’m so glad it is in my life! Julie Phillips is a biographer who, notably, is working on Ursula K Le Guin’s biography. In this book she brings her skill of observation and research to discuss motherhood and creativity. She does this by profiling the mothering stories of several artists and authors including Doris Lessing, Alice Neel, Ursula K Le Guin, Susan Sontag, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich and Angela Carter through a series of biographical vignettes.
What I enjoy about this book is obvious – the reflection of mothering and writing and the stories of how these artists managed beyond the practicalities, expectations and pressures of their roles. Of course I enjoyed the validation of my own complexes around being a mother and trying to be a writer. What really kept me reading on though was my admiration, sometimes sorrow and outrage for the artists/writers, as well as the building momentum of the full socio-cultural picture.
One of the most important messages for me in this book is that the splitting of oneself and unequal load and labour is an external, systemic, societal and cultural issue. As I read, I strengthened my position – that creativity is not necessarily thwarted by being a mother, but that the messaging that a woman’s value and skill lies in her level of sacrifice to mothering above ALL else, is ingrained and insidious. The books vs babies dilemma is therefore not a personal, private dilemma but one that happens to greatly affect mother writers and artists personally, psychologically and practically.
The thread of reproductive rights was treated so poignantly; not gently, not harshly, but with empathy. Each of the mothers portrayed here experienced barriers to accessing what we now see as basic care and contraception. Many had unplanned pregnancies and some had to have illegal abortions, some without anaesthetic. What I liked about the way that this issue was treated is that it wasn’t didactic, it was factual, and as a reader I could clearly discern what those choices/lack of choices meant and how they would have unnecessarily complicated and put at risk the lives of these brilliant artists. This shows me that as a writer, Phillips trusts her audience and writes from a place that doesn’t assume authority or superiority. I felt so moved by the poignancy of reading this book at this time when these choices are being stripped away in parts of the USA. I see both the fortune of living with access to contraception, and the tenuousness of rights to body autonomy, as long as our bodies are policed and politicised.
My wish as a mother is not dissimilar to my wish as a writer. Why would they be different and, in any case, how could I possibly split myself in that sense? I absolutely feel the unequal power and division of labour in parenting, even though my partner is supportive and confident in parenting, he cannot always see what he has not had to experience himself in terms of societal expectations and the work/home, parent/professional, self/‘aiga smoosh – especially as he is a pālagi man.
I also know that creation/procreation both require an in-between place, not always, but as a phase. I feel clear about the distance I need to reach to be able to think, let alone interrogate my thoughts and to be able to write, but these happen in a spiral, one that can speed or slow down time as we know it. It is time and space but all that is still within the singular me – mother me, writer me, daughter me, all, still me. The idea that the writer/mother, two of my many roles and realities, should not be interlinked or serve to support each other is simplistic and obviously, as portrayed in this book, dangerous.
As a daughter of a brilliant woman, I watched my mother (when she was the age I am now) receive her post-grad qualification as one of the first Pasifika, almost certainly the first Pasifika woman graduate in her field. I, a staunch and stroppy 20-year-old, bawled my eyes out! I was so proud, and I felt the years of support and chores and cups of coffee and cheering her on and demanding her attention all bursting in my body at once, as pride. That day gave me a jolt of perspective: of who my mother is in her work, as the writer of her thesis, the co-author of a book and much more. I saw, and continue to see today, that she is who she is to me and who she is to the world; that she is all these things at once. Here, Phillips shares a similar moment for Beth Lorde, Audre Lorde’s daughter:
She began to realise why her mother had never packed her lunches, like other moms did … she had bigger fish to fry. Talent does what it can; genius what it must.
A few years ago, I had the jaw-dropping pleasure of meeting Serie Barford, Tusiata Avia and Selina Tusitala Marsh all in one go, at a poetry event. I was there with two other mother/writer friends. Between us, we were raising 8 kids between the ages of 10 months and 12 years. All of the poets were very encouraging about us writing. ‘Just keep writing,’ they said. Serie Barford shared that ‘Patricia Grace says, all you need is a corner of the kitchen table.’ I thought yes, sure, I could do that, but I’m no Patricia Grace! I was completely sidelining the lesson to keep myself bound in my doldrum with the logic that Patricia Grace’s genius somehow made writing more accessible for her – despite the fact that she had the same, if not more, complexity as I, in her mothering. These wonderful poets were saying, ‘I see you, I know this place. It’s hard but you must keep writing.’ I soon realised my blind spot, and the next day after breakfast I cleared a corner of the table, put a movie on for the kids, and wrote my first poem in a decade.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nafanua Purcell Kersel has been grafted from the villages of Faleālupo-tai, Mosula, Malaelā, Satufia and Tuaefu in Samoa. Raised in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, she is now based in Te Matau-a-Māui where she raises three children, many animals and her voice. She recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Te Pūtahi Tuhi Auaha o Te Ao, IIML, and was the recipient of the 2022 Biggs Family Prize in Poetry with her collection, Black Sugarcane.