Pasifika Literature, Representation and Critical Thinking: Talanoa with Winne Siulolovao Dunn

‘I belong to Oceania – or, at least, I am rooted in a fertile portion of it – and it nourishes my spirit, helps to define me, and feeds my imagination.’
– Albert Wendt, ‘Towards a New Oceania

A few weeks ago, I came across a moving essay Winne Siulolovao Dunn, a Tongan-Australian writer from Mt Druitt and manager and editor at Sweatshop, wrote for Sydney Review of Books, ‘From Pacific To Pasifika‘. For the first time in a very long time, I’d read literature that I’d truly connected with in terms of how I feel Pasifika people are portrayed in Australia, both knowingly and unknowingly by both Pasifika and non-Pasifika people alike. It led us to having a long talanoa about why Winnie chose to write this essay, the issues with representation of Pasifikas in Australia, the complexities of often feeling ‘not Pasifika enough’ and how literature and critical thinking can play a part in resolving these problems.

Arieta: How did the piece come about? What was the brief? Could we talanoa about the process you went through to decide on what to write about.

Winnie: I wrote this essay a while ago so I have to think back. When I first got started with sweatshop they were very much about empowering people from indigenous and micro backgrounds to tell their own story and so sweatshop set up a meeting with Sydney Review of Books for me to pitch to them an idea about an essay that I wanted to write. I knew that I wanted to write an essay about Pasifika’s and Oceania’s telling their own story because a couple of weeks before that meeting, I went to an event called ‘The Oceanian network’ and it was run by 4 white women and 1 Fijian doctor.

When I went to that event, they had lined up Pasifika speakers to tell us that ‘yes I work at YouTube so you can work at YouTube too and it doesn’t matter if you’re FOB’. These white women got up and were like ‘yes, thank you so much, we love the Pacific and it’s really great that we get to do work in the Pacific’, and one of the President of the Oceanian network is talking about drunks in West Papua and I was like ‘sure, we’re all savages who play with drugs and we don’t do anything else’. The messed up part of it for me was that they had the Fijian doctor filming the whole time and he didn’t talk once about anything.

I just knew that that experience encompassed the importance of people telling their own story so then I was able to write this essay. It was important for me to write this essay because I knew, I’m not going to stuff it up, I know my culture, I know where I come from. I’m going to tell you the right thing; I’m going to show you all of the nuances of being Tongan-Australian and living in Mount Druitt. I’m going to tell you why I think Pasifika’s writing about their culture and about each other is so important for us to have, because if you don’t have it, you’re just lost and we end up loving cultures that impress us, because we want to be like them because they have something you don’t.

The process I went through for the essay was I would write something – like a paragraph or 2 and then I would send it off to my Editor and they would edit and it was just this back and forth of editing, and I was really passionate about this essay. It took 5 months for me to write it because this was my first big essay, its going to be on a big website and I need to get it right so then eventually after a while of the editing process, I was eventually happy with the final draft and then it got put up. It got a ton of likes surprisingly.

Arieta: Obviously they were happy with the pitch and the process, so what was the reaction and who was the reaction from?

Winnie: So the reaction was from a lot of people in the Pacific academic fields, so a lot of students and a lot of teachers and lecturers who are really supportive of the essay and even a lot of white academics that were doing stuff about the Pacific. For some reason they just didn’t get that my article was kind of against them but they still really appreciated it. They were just like ‘yeah well this is really good’, but the most important thing for me was having a lot of Samoan PhD candidates add me on Facebook and addressed how the essay was so amazing. It was really great to realise that I did have a community out there of my own Pacific community that had the same ideas that I had. My parents are always like ‘Winnie why do you hate white people, why do you hate this, why are you so angry, why can’t you just let people do what they want’, and so to have other Pasifika’s who agree with you and we’re here, we’re out doing the work and we know that we need to get rid of this system of oppression against our people, and this is how we’re going to do it. It was really great to have that dialogue and to finally find everybody.

Both: “We’re out here. We are out here doing the work”.

Arieta: I think that’s part of the issue right, the silos so to speak. We’re all plodding along and it’s very hard to find a community that you can constantly go to and rely on when you’re just trying to do your own thing. I think it’s very interesting how you’ve said that, because when I started Talanoa that’s exactly what I went through. I wrote because initially I felt that this is a problem and I want to do something about it, and while I can’t do much, I’m going to do this via Talanoa, and this means a lot to me. The reaction I got was like ‘wow, there are people out there who want to hear it and there are people out there who feel the same way’, so I really resonate with that.

What I wanted to know too, which is something I struggle with, is when I write about Pacific issues sometimes it’s so heavy – emotions wise, that sometimes I just cant do it. I really struggle with what to not write because there is so much I want to say so I wanted to know, did you experience that at all? Did you ever have to choose what to say in this article and what you shouldn’t say, because there are so many issues, or were you clear on the focus of it and what you wanted it to say?

Winnie: I totally agree when I think about all the stuff that’s happening with our people and our Pacific, I cry. It’s really heavy on my heart but then it’s good that I’m a part of sweatshop because I have a community of culturally diverse people from western Sydney who, although not from my cultural background, we can still have a dialogue about certain things. So if anything feels too heavy, I know I can go to the director or to fellow team members and ask ‘how do I put this into words that will make sense’. Because sometimes it’s just good to have somebody from a Lebanese background to try and help me unpack what’s going on so then I can write it down properly. It’s nice to have an outsider, or somebody close enough but not in it, to understand what you’re going through because obviously people from so many different cultures are going through similar oppression and going through similar struggles, so they really understand what you want to write.

My boss Mohammad and I sat down and plotted out what I was going to write about, we had dot points so I just followed those guidelines. First I’m going to talk about the Oceanian network event then I’m going to talk about the specific oppressions of Pasifika’s in Australia which I think is we’re all gang reps and violent and that the only representations of Tongan’s in Australia is ‘Jonah from Tonga’, which is messed up, and that the only time the Pacific is mentioned in Australia but in such a poor light – ‘Australia’s like look at the Pacific, we give them petty change and they’ll take all our crimes’.
Arieta: But also too, the glamorisation of us as well. That we produce athletes, musicians, creative artists and that’s it.

Winnie: Yeah so it was really important for me to unpack the representations in Australia that we currently have and I particularly focused on the negative ones because I feel they’re the most impactful. Although there are the big negative ones like ‘Jonah from Tonga’ and then I was like, here are some writers that I bet none of you have heard of but are doing the work, like Epeli Hau’ofa, Konai Helu Thaman who are really cathartic, really kind of helpful for me as a Tongan Australian.

Arieta: If you meet them, they’re just so like normal. That helps too, sometimes when we read the writing of the people we really look up to then sometimes it can feel like they’re up there, but then you meet them and you’re like ‘we’re the same’, which is really helpful. What I liked about what you wrote was that I felt you represented Tongans in Australia in Western Sydney well but then you brought in our roots. I could relate to both sides.

Winnie: Well I just think it’s important, even if you don’t feel Pasifika enough, which is something I go through a lot; it’s just so good to know where your roots come from and where our story telling comes from. When you start to write, you feel your history go through you. I feel like that’s our strongest point; if we keep our culture but we keep moving forward with literature and the way literature can be produced through digital and through being published, then you really have given your culture new meaning but it’s still the same history going through you all the time.

Arieta: I think that’s been the biggest issue. The last few months I’ve been working as a cultural advisor on a lot of big tech projects and one of the biggest issues is that they’re like ‘how did you guys record it all… and so okay this is the culture as you tell us, how do we know for sure? What are the references out there that are books by Fijians?’

We’ve been passing on history and our knowledge through spoken story telling that there’s such a huge need for what you’re saying and what you’re passionate about. That’s why I really love what you’re doing, because I think sometimes you can get bogged down when you’re constantly in Pacific spaces and not having people from other backgrounds to work with which is why I really like what you’re doing.

I wanted to touch on this one because this is one of my favourite parts of the essay if you could unpack it a bit, how you talked about they had people sitting up in the panel at this event that were like successful but then you were like “I don’t know about that, what about my aunty who works at a factory, what about her’. I wanted to find out what you were thinking was behind that. because I don’t think we talk about that enough, representation on that level. In a way I’d really like my audience to hear it from someone other than me,because I keep banging on about it. People keep suggesting famous people for me to interview and I’m really not interested for representation sake and I really don’t care whether there’s an interesting angle or not. It’s representation. I wanted to get your thoughts on that, is that something you see a lot or is that just something you saw at that event?

Winnie: No it’s something I see a lot of all the time and it’s specifically because that event happened at a university institution that they were very much like let’s get big names, let’s get names that people know and people will come and it’ll be great. They weren’t very considerate of the whole Pacific community and the trouble was because it was a heap of white women running it instead of a team of Pasifika academics and just people to come together and to make an event that was really wholesome about our culture.

­The problem that I had with that event was that it was framed in the sense that like all Pasifika’s are poor and they’re stupid and here’s 4 ones that got out of that and now they’re working at YouTube and you can be there too if you really try. It was just really dreadful for me because I was like ‘no my hero is my Dad who is a security guard and he’s worked night shifts all his life and he gets called a stupid, dumb fob/coconut everyday at work’ but he just keeps going, he just keeps pushing through. My aunty who is queer and has worked at a bank for as long as I have lived is my hero as well because she’s like ‘even though I’m queer and even though I’m light skinned and even though there’s all these things, I’m still Tongan’. I still carry Tongan values with me and I don’t have to be a famous blogger, or a famous YouTube star to be better than my culture because no matter what you’re still always part of your culture.

Its only people putting stereotypes on us that make us feel bad about ourselves, and makes us feel insecure about ourselves but you got to concentrate on your everyday heroes in your life that’s probably your parents, that’s probably your siblings and is your family because their the ones that are doing the hard work all the time getting racist comments everyday and prejudice because their Pasifika but they just keep going for their family and for themselves. Being famous should not be your end goal or financially wealthy because you’re going to lose your culture and your passion.

That’s the thing right, if we don’t engage in critical thinking, that’s how you become a better person and that’s how you carry your culture when you start to think critically about stuff. My Dad said to me the other day ‘Winnie, you call yourself Tongan but if you don’t humble yourself you’re not Tongan’, whatever I do, whatever I say it’s part of Tonga and you can’t take that away from me. It’s like the definition of humility right, shutting your mouth is because we come from a real culture of silence and silence is not empowerment and silence is not what our whole culture is based on. Our whole culture is based on telling stories and loving one another and having discussions with each other that may be uncomfortable but we still have them anyway because we love each other and we have to have those discussions. I think critical thinking is the most important tool that we need to have in order to really carry our culture and people aren’t going to listen to you if you’re as famous as ‘The Rock’, you’re just going to become a sell out like him.

Arieta: It was a really good essay and I think that people don’t talk about the stuff that you talk about and I just wish that we would be more represented here in Australia but then the people back home are also represented as well and then we can communicate to each other. That’s bridging the gap between all those different groups, which has been really overwhelming for me.

Winnie: I just think at times we need to let Oceania’s talk who actually live in our island homes to be the ones talking and sometimes it needs to be us that need to be like ‘no, yeah I live in Australia and of course I have so much privilege but we’re still so prejudiced against and so looked down.

Arieta: When I went back, I talked about that a lot. I spoke at the University of South Pacific to the journalism students and I talked about that. They were shocked! There was no messing around in my workshop. What actually inspired me to take Talanoa to the next step, there’s this guy – his name is Tevita Daunibau. When I first started Talanoa, he was in a Bikie Gang, a Fijian guy and he was on the news. He had wanted to get out but being a Bikie gang there’s only 2 ways out – you either pay out or get killed out. So he shot the gang leader or vice president and then walked to a church and shot himself.

When I looked into this story, and did my own research, I discovered that what happened was he actually was in Afghanistan for 10 years, he came back with severe post-traumatic stress, no one would help him, no support, no counselling, no nothing. Even after he joined the Bikie gang, he went back to base with Bikies saying ‘I need help’ and they basically chased him off. He just came to a point in his life where he realised his values didn’t align with their values, it was just somewhere he felt like he belonged at a certain point in time. In these kinds of gangs there are only two ways out – you pay out or you are killed. He didn’t have the money to do it and he just confronted the vice president and said ‘I need to get out, either you let me out or I’ll kill you’. No one talked about his years of service, the post-traumatic stress, the fact he wasn’t supported, the fact that he was chased, and yet the vice president was victimised. I don’t agree with the fact that he was murdered, but I do think that the whole story needed to be told.

Winnie: I think it really comes down to those kinds of stories to race. Those news stories that really degrade us, that’s the most violent thing.

Arieta: I spoke about that while I was in Fiji and they needed time to process it because here they were thinking that when you come to Australia that you’re living the life and you’ve taken a step forward and I say ‘well you can say financially but most Pacific islanders that come over at least first generation have to work at least 2-3 jobs to make ends meet and unless they’re coming over for work opportunity which we’re already privileged back home to have that international transfer but most people are working their asses off, and then no one is taking care of their kids and then their kids end up – if they don’t fall into sport or academia, they end up being vulnerable to gangs.

Winnie: In 2010, Tongan born men were the highest rates for incarceration in Australia, and why is that not public knowledge? Why isn’t anybody talking about it? Our people hare hurting everywhere. The world is really set up for our people to believe that moving out of home or moving into Australia or America or New Zealand is better.

Arieta: What’s next for you in terms of writing?

Winnie: You can buy the The Big Black Thing for $25.00 but what’s next for me is that Chapter 2 of The Big Black Thing is coming out, I’m going to write an essay for a poetry company so I think I really want to focus on literature in Western Sydney, specifically Mount Druitt and my journey through literature in Mount Druitt and what that means for me. I really think the only way we can better ourselves if through critical thinking and that’s the only way we’re going to move past all these stereotypes and these oppressions that we face because if we don’t write it, someone else is going to write it and their going to get it wrong.

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Winnie Dunn is a Tongan-Australian writer from Mt Druitt. She is a manager and editor at Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Winnie’s work has been published in The Vocal, Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow and The Big Black Thing. She has performed readings for Sydney Festival, Sydney Writers’ Festival, Wollongong Writers’ Festival and Stella Girls Write Up.

talanoa

Arieta Tora Rika is a Tongan-Fijian Freelance Writer, Digital Communications Specialist, and Talanoa’s Founder and Creative Director. Born in Darlinghurst in the late 80s, she spent most of her childhood in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia, and all of her teen years in Tonga. She now lives in Western Sydney with her husband Josese.