Earlier this week, I had the honour of being nominated to share my story with Isabella Naiduki, writer and blogger from Fijian In The UK, for her Fijian Women of the World Series. Isabella describes it as “a series celebrating Fijian Women Of The World #FJWOW and how they are pushing boundaries; going above and beyond cultural barriers; societal barriers and also personal circumstances”. You can read Isabella’s write up from our conversation here – however I thought that the raw transcript of our conversation should live somewhere, given there was so much richness, and things I’d never spoken of both personally and publicly before. The reading time is quite long, but if you’re up for an insightful Talanoa between two Fijian women – about childhood, family, career, storytelling and motivation, then this story is for you.
Fijian In The UK – Fijian Women Of The World
Isabella: Thank you again for agreeing to participate in my #FJWOW series. Could you tell me about your childhood, and also your life as a young adult?
Arieta: My childhood was interesting, especially as the youngest for the first 12 years of my life. I recently read, “If you really want to know what’s going on in the family, ask the youngest child. They’re sponges. They absorb it all.” – Terry Real. That really resonated with me because it was my experience – I grew up watching and observing my parents and older siblings – their choices, relationships, careers, studies, religion – everything. I learnt so much from them and I know I’m much more well rounded than I would’ve been otherwise.
My parents were sales and marketing professionals who specialised in tourism and hospitality, and I got to travel with them and live in different Pacific nations where they worked. My Dad worked in the very early years of Air Pacific (now Fiji Airways) and was the first indigenous Fijian on the leadership team at the Fiji Visitors Bureau. My Mother has had a long career in the Pacific as a Sales and Marketing Manager – I vaguely remember her Air Pacific days with Dad, but also on her own – leading the launch of Tatts Lotto in Fiji, establishing overseas offices in New Zealand and Australia for the Royal Tongan Airlines, and leading Community Liaison for Pacific Forum Line.
Those years really gave me a broader understanding of life and of the world at a young age, and can I say – a whole lot of fun. I hung out with adults a lot and learnt the power of relationship marketing. I knew that the key to making a real and meaningful impact is through listening first, and genuinely building strong relationships with the right people.
The downside of this lifestyle as a child was the lack of consistency. I learnt to fly under the radar at home and run a muck at school. There was nothing I feared more than disappointing my parents, so I did my best to behave and keep them happy at home. But in all honesty, my true nature is quite playful and cheeky. This came out at school – I loved to laugh and enjoyed annoying my teachers haha! While I thought I was quite witty, I don’t think my teachers appreciated my sense of humor. I know got away with it for so long because my grades were good, but eventually my cheeky ways caught up with me. Much to my despair – Mum found out – and sent me on the next plane to her brother, my Uncle (Dr Malakai ‘Ake) and his family – in Tonga.
At that time, Mum and Dad were separated, Mum was considering relocating to America, my baby brother Samuel had made his arrival into the world, and my older siblings were getting married, having kids, moving out, studying or working, so it was a hectic time for us as a family. As a single mother, I think Tonga was a safe space for her, and yet somewhere that she felt would wake me up, and more importantly instill the values in me that she wanted me to have. I think she knew that if she didn’t do something drastic at that time, my behavior at school (and eventually in society) would’ve only gotten worse, and so this was a good call for her at the time. She also knew sending me to my Father in Fiji may not have helped with my attitude as it was an environment I was so familiar and comfortable with, and could also master my way through continuing to fly under the radar and live an alternative life outside of home haha!
Well, her decision paid off. I’m a better person for those years – and while it wasn’t always easy – spending five of my most formative years in Tonga definitely shaped me as a young woman and as an overall human being.
Isabella: Tell me about your storytelling project and business venture? Why did you choose this particular path? Compare it to those of similar age back home in Fiji, do you feel that it could serve as a tool for empowering young girls or even women who need the encouragement to do things outside of their comfort zone? If so, how do you feel we could get that communicated across to them?
Arieta: In 2015, I created Talanoa, a website where Pacific people can share their stories. From the about page on the talanoa website:
Talanoa began with a dream of creating a digital marketing agency for the Pacific, incorporating my love of writing and storytelling to help raise brand awareness. After sharing the stories of a few Pacific people I knew, I realised that Talanoa was empowering people by giving them a safe space to candidly share their experiences and truths without judgment or censorship. I decided to shift my full focus on writing and sharing Pacific stories, and I haven’t looked back since.
To answer your question directly about women, I do believe (and have seen) Talanoa empower Fijian women to further pursue their goals and dreams. Often, the empowerment comes through the inspiration of reading a story that really resonated with them, other times the empowerment comes through telling their own story, in the own words, on their own terms. I think the reason behind both is because storytelling is an empowering experience in itself, and for many reasons Fijian girls and women often struggle with getting up and telling their story to an audience. I believe telling their stories online with someone they trust removes that layer of direct contact with the audience, which lessens how confronting it can feel to tell your story. While I advocate for all types of storytelling, I’ve chosen writing and digital, as it’s the easiest way for most people, especially women, to tell their stories. At the same time, digital has the benefit of reaching a very broad audience in a very short time.
Isabella: Did you have any aspirations that you have since fulfilled, or have changed in the course of time due to circumstances of your own choosing or beyond your control? Do you feel there is enough support for women from our cultural background in realising our dreams to its full potential? Please elaborate on your why you feel the way you do about this particular issue.
Arieta: Yes, I’ve fulfilled my aspiration of creating a safe space for Pacific people to tell their stories – however I feel that the journey ahead will only expand, and that I will never get sick of doing this kind of work. I absolutely love it and would love to reach the point where I don’t have to work full or part-time to support myself financially while running Talanoa.
The support question is a bit tricky – on one had I’d like to say we do have support in the tools we have available to us, but on the other we don’t – because those tools are only useful when we actually have accessibility to them. For example – almost any Fijian woman can go to school and university these days, but do they have the financial freedom to do so? Do they have the structural and emotional support within their family to study for however many years, while maintaining other responsibilities?
I think culturally we can be more supported through the attitudes of gender roles – while much remains the same, a lot has also changed over the years of the traditional roles of men and women. But for many, the thinking and views towards the expectations of men and women have not caught up! These attitudes often cause shame and disable us Fijian women from moving ahead in life.
Isabella: What drives you to do the work that you do? What is your inspiration to succeed? What are some of the barriers that you have faced and overcome?
My love of storytelling, writing and editing – as well as my love of Pacific people and culture. I love that through storytelling; we can address negative and incorrect perceptions and stereotypes that exist around Pacific Islanders.
In terms of barriers – the main one is financially. I have come so close to leaving a full time 9-5 job to work on Talanoa full time, but… responsibility calls – I have bills to pay, family to support and the lack of a consistent income freaks me out.
Because I’ve had to work full time while managing Talanoa, it’s also meant that I’m challenged with managing my time well! I don’t know how I fit it all, along with time with my husband, family and friends – and often things do get missed – but somehow I make it work.
Other than that, it has been challenging being a Fijian Tongan woman working in corporate Australia. In most work places, people are so unaware of their bias views towards Pacific people – and really anyone of colour. The comments I hear almost every day mean I’m constantly having to either turn the other cheek, risk getting in a heated debate or walking off the job completely. Thankfully it’s not always that extreme, but it’s still an issue that widely exists and I know for sure I’m not the only person who experiences this.
Isabella: What is your advice for girls or women considering a similar path in life? Consider someone who may not have the resources readily available, how would you advise them to start off?
Arieta: It’s funny you ask this because I have been asked this by young Pacific women over the last few years – mostly as writers or storytellers who have a dream of communicating their story with their community. The online resources are there – all you need is access to an internet connection to share stories online – however it takes time to build the right audience and create content that resonates with them, but yet means something to you (authentic).
The main barrier I always find – what stops them in their tracks – and also has stopped me before too – is shame. What will people think? What will people say? What if I fail? What if I look stupid?
I’m pretty honest with them with my answers – I mean it’s most likely one or all of those things will happen. It’s a part of life and part of trying something new. The key to moving through those difficult challenges – and shame – is courage. Courage to put yourself out there, courage to put in the hours of unpaid and unseen work, courage to get back up after you fail, courage to challenge the status quo. You need it in bucket loads to achieve what you have your heart set on.
Isabella: Who are the people/person you look up to the most and motivates to be a better version of yourself each day?
Arieta: My family! I look up to my parents and my siblings, and absolutely adore them – even when we want to kill each other haha! I have to also say that my in laws also motivate me to be a better person, especially my Mother in law. Not only does she give me loving advice, but practical hands on life wisdom that makes me a better woman and person.
Above all of these – I have to say the biggest motivator of being a better person each day is my husband. We’ve known each other since childhood – he basically told me I’d marry him one day as a child. Years later we found each other (i.e. I finally agreed to go on a date, haha!) and after 8 years of dating we were married. Marriage has been the sweetest and yet the most difficult experience of my life and the relationship I now have with my husband is a testament to that. Coming home after a long day to a bear hug, a readily made meal or cup of tea, a cheeky smile when I feel like chocolate, a hand when I feel like I’m drowning in work, and a prayer when I’m feeling under the weather. It’s the simple things that make all the difference. He motivates me, supports me and pushes me forward in everything that I do and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.