Teresia Teaiwa Memorial Service
The Hub, Victoria University of Wellington, May 2017
Teresia Teaiwa was one of my favourite teachers. I did her paper PASI 101, The Pacific Heritage, back in 2001, the year she helped set up the Pacific Studies department at Victoria University. I was finishing my BA in English Literature and History when I enrolled in Teresia’s paper. After three years of studying at Vic, her classes were striking to me for two reasons:
- I wasn’t the only brown person in the room, and,
- Our stories, our Pacific stories and perspectives and ideologies, were the default, not the other.
Early last year, after sixteen years, I decided I would go back to university. I emailed Teresia and asked her about the course requirements for a Master’s in Pacific Studies. She was happy to hear from one of her former students and delighted to know I was keen to carry on to do a postgrad degree. After all these years, I wasn’t expecting much of a response; I was just relieved that she even remembered me. But of course she remembered me because she remembered all her students, by name.
She told me I needed an Honour’s degree, which I don’t have, which meant I had to commit to two years of full-time study to get my Master’s. I’ve lived the life of the poor, struggling student (and writer) and wasn’t keen on going through that again, not for two years in a row, not at my age. I’d gotten used to paying my bills on time and eating food not hacked from tin cans, putting petrol in my car so I can go places, owning a car, and drinking barista-made coffees in cafes with brunch menus.
So I applied for a place in the MA in Creative Writing instead. (An excellent choice also, I have to say, and a one-year degree only.)
In November last year, when I got accepted into this course, I emailed Teresia and told her what I’d decided in the end. As I’d come to expect, she was excited for me, and I promised her I’d catch up with her during the course of the year. I was thrilled to be catching up with her during the course of the year, actually. I looked forward to sharing some of my new writing with her if she would let me. Her opinion still mattered.
I found out she had cancer at the Conchus Summit—an event that brought together Pacific women in the performing arts community—at Circa in February, just before the start of the MA. Her fight with cancer was a short one. Teresia died on 21 March 2017.
One evening in May, in the Hub at the university, I celebrated her life, along with her former colleagues and students, friends and family. Her memorial service, like her classes, was striking to me for two reasons:
- I wasn’t the only person in the room who felt they had a special connection with her, and,
- Our stories, our stories of a phenomenal woman and teacher—an academic, a poet, an author, an activist—were one and the same.
Teresia’s legacy is great. The world is better off now for the highly-informed and educated, confident, and proud graduates (Pasifika and non-Pasifika) whom she’d taught and nurtured over the years. We carry with us those Pacific stories and histories we learnt in her classroom. They inform our decisions. They inspire our storytelling. And in doing so, we carry on Teresia’s good work.
Teresia’s love, respect, and passion for her students and her work was as immense as the Pacific Ocean, and for me she will be forever inspiring. I’ve included Teresia and her memorial service in this reading journal because if I can be just one fraction of a writer as she was human, then I reckon I’m doing okay.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maria Samuela writes stories that have a strong Pasifika flavour. Beats of the Pa’u is a short novel she wrote for her MA at the IIML in 2017. In 2018, Maria will be the University Bookshop and Robert Lord Writers’ Cottage Trust Summer Writer in Residence.