David Riley is a Pasifika storyteller. His ancestral roots tie him to Scotland and Ireland, but his Pasifika ties run deep. A teacher, author and publisher, his books connect young Pasifika people with familiar faces, names and heroes they can relate to.
His own story begins in Māngere, Auckland where he grew up. He eventually attended Auckland University, and now is a teacher at Tangaroa College in Otara, South Auckland. He’s also married to Lauano Sulufaleese Deborah Riley, from Leauva’a, Samamea, Faleatiu, Fasito’otai and Sataoa, Samoa. They have two beautiful children, Santana and Maycee, and live in Manukau, “the capital of Polynesia”.
We’d love to know more about you! We love your work as a teacher, writer and publisher through Reading Warrior. Where did your love of Pacific storytelling through writing begin?
My motivation has always been my students. I was inspired by Alan Duff’s Maori Heroes and his concept and I gave my students a project to research a hero from their own culture. After class, two of my Niuean students approached me and said ‘We don’t know any Niuean heroes, can you just give us a Maori or a Samoan one to do?’
We started looking for written material on Niuean heroes but couldn’t find anything targeted towards young people. Pacific stories are shared through verbal storytelling by grandparents and parents, and in dance performances like the ones we see at Polyfest, and in visual art forms like tatau, but not so much in written ways that young people can relate to. I knew there was a lot of academic material drawing on Pacific stories, culture and history during my time at uni, but couldn’t find anything written specifically for Pacific teenagers.
So that’s where I started – I began my research so I could help my students. The goal was to collect stories of achievement and inspiration featuring people with Niuean ancestry. I shared my idea with a friend of mine, who’s Niuean, and he said ‘You’re thinking too small, what about other Niuean young people, they’ll want to read this too, so you should turn this into a book so more kids can read it’. So that’s how the first book, We Are the Rock, came about. I remember one Niuean student from Mangere College telling me that she got a Merit for her assignment after using my book for her research. I was so happy about that because now there is a written resource young people can access. After the first book, I wrote Samoan Heroes and this year, I’ve just finished writing Tongan Heroes.
Your Pasifika Heroes book series focus on Pacific legends, historical figures and contemporary achievers. What process did you go through to choose which to stories to share? How did you research each story, and how did you choose to present them while still making them your own?
Process: I start each book by meeting with an academic from the particular culture. For the Samoan book I met with Leasiolagi Dr Malama Meleisea of the Centre for Samoan Studies, National University of Samoa. For the Tongan book, I met with Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau, Senior Lecturer in Pacific Studies at Auckland University. I asked them for their thoughts on which historical and legendary figures they think are important, people they think that young people should know about. I had a good idea of the contemporary people I wanted to write about – people from a range of fields, who are the best in the world at what they do e.g. most successful Niuean academic in the world. The legends and historical people chosen are ones that young people could learn values for life from, or be inspired by.
Research: I interview the contemporary figures if I can but some of them I couldn’t interview because they aren’t accessible to someone like me e.g. Dwayne Johnson. In those cases I get info mainly through books written by or about them. For the historical figures I refer to trusted resource books that we used when I studied Social Anthropology and History at uni. It’s then a matter of simplifying the stories and rewriting them in a style that young people might find interesting to read. Legends are tricky because there are often different versions of the same legend, each told in a way that favours the village or group of the teller! The advice I received was find the earliest version and just make it clear where the version came from and that it is not a factual story being an oral tradition.
Presentation: I try to write the stories in modern language that young people use, try to be descriptive so they are interesting, look for humour where possible, and emphasise the moral lessons that might be learned (but not in a preachy way).
Do your love of writing and teaching cross over? Where, how and what do you enjoy most about it?
The strongest way they cross over at the moment is in the children’s theatre shows we’re making. I’m married to a Samoan and always look for ways to strengthen my daughters’ Samoan identity. Being a Drama teacher, one of the things I love to do is take my daughters to childrens’ theatre shows. But the only shows we ever saw were the classic European stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and Jack and the Beanstalk etc. We even saw some Polynesian versions of these stories like one called Sinarella, and another called Polly Hood in Mumu Land (based on Red Riding Hood).
When we were watching those shows I remember thinking I wish there were Pacific stories that children could watch. We couldn’t find any. So I started making them with my Drama students. At first we made short ones but then last year we made a full length childrens theatre show based on a story from Samoan Heroes. I didn’t write the script because I didn’t believe in myself, I thought I couldn’t do it. My wife challenged me not to think that way and this year I wrote the script for a Niuean childrens’ theatre show. We worked with a professional director and we performed it at the Vodafone Events Centre, for primary children. I love this kind of work for lots of reasons!
Children’s theatre is a form of theatre that draws out the talents and uniqueness of my Drama students. It also teaches them skills they can use to create their own childrens’ theatre in the future which could be a way for them to earn money as performers if they choose a performing arts pathway. Schools are hungry for this kind of work.
It’s so important for children to see their own stories on stage, to know the stories from their culture have just as much worth as the classic European stories; it makes them feel proud when they see legendary heroes from their own cultures portrayed on stage by young actors from their backgrounds too.
It helps me develop as a teacher and writer. My Drama students help me create the script through workshopping and devising and the professional director mentors me in that area.
What have been the most challenging aspects of writing and publishing the Pasifika Heroes series? What have been the most rewarding experiences?
Financial: saving up to pay for photos (they’re about $100 each), the illustrations, the design and the printing. I pay for everything myself so I really have to hustle as many photos as I can and sometimes I’m not able to get the photos I really want because they cost too much.
Getting hold of the contemporary people so I can arrange interviews with them. I’m not really well known so it’s pretty hard to get to many of the people I want to write about because they don’t know me or know what I’m trying to do. I guess they have a lot of people hounding them and asking them for things and I’m just another one!
Finding time to write while teaching and bringing up a family.
Once the books are printed the hardest thing is letting people know about the work. I don’t have access to many networks and don’t really know how to market properly.
When young people tell me they read the books and loved them or used them in school assignments.
When teachers/parents tell me they are so happy to at last have reading material that their students can engage with and enjoy. I’ve had a few messages from mums saying their sons came home from school with the books, only for the dad to start reading them, often the first time they have seen their husbands reading! I love that because that’s awesome role modelling for sons to see their dads reading. I deliberately design the books so they don’t look too much like childrens books and I hope the whole family will read them.
What do you hope to achieve through your writing, and through the books you write and publish for and about Pacific people?
I hope the books will improve young people’s literacy and show them that reading can actually be fun and interesting.
I hope the books will be a great resource for teachers to use, especially teachers who work with Polynesian young people; that these teachers will be excited to know there are resources they can use with their students because I know what it’s like to struggle to find such material.
I hope the books will inspire young people by filling them with stories of positive people from their own cultures doing amazing things, world-class level things. By reading these stories young people can see and visualise pathways for themselves.
I hope dads will read the books and come to love reading.
I hope more Pacific young people will begin to write.
What advice do you have for Pacific people who might be thinking of pursing a similar pathway through writing, storytelling and teaching?
Think big and be brave! Try not to say things like, “I don’t know if I can do it because I come from a small island.” Tongan Social Anthropologist, the late Professor Epeli Hau’ofa wrote these inspirational words about thinking small.
“When those who hail from continents see a Polynesian or Micronesian island, they naturally pronounce it small or tiny. Their calculation is based entirely on the extent of the land surfaces that they see. But if we look at the myths, legends and oral traditions and the cosmologies of the peoples of Oceania, they did not conceive of their world in such microscopic proportions. Their universe comprised the surrounding ocean, the underworld with its fire-controlling and earth-shaking denizens, and the heavens above with their hierarchies of powerful gods and named stars and constellations that people could count on to guide their ways across the seas. Their world was anything but tiny. One legendary Oceanic athlete was so powerful that during a competition he threw his javelin with such force that it pierced the horizon and disappeared until that night, when it was seen streaking across the skyline like a meteor. Every now and then it reappears to remind people of the mighty deed. And as far as I’m concerned it is still out there, near Jupiter or somewhere. That was the first ever rocket sent into space.”
I find those words by Professor Hau’ofa to be so inspiring and I need to remind myself of them every day.
How can we best support you and your work? What can we look forward to seeing from you and Reading Warrior?
By letting as many people as you can know about the work! Not that I want attention, but to draw attention to the work because the goal is to get the books into kids’ hands.
We’d like to thank David for sharing his story with us. We love his work and would also love for you to get behind him and his goal of getting his Pasifika books into the hands of as many young Pasifika people as we can. Order his books or find out more via his website Reading Warrior or contact him via Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.