On the 29th of September 1988, a young Pasifika couple welcomed their screaming bundle of joy into the world. A round, bald and healthy baby girl. As he did with his two children before her, her father beamed with pride as he gifted her with her name. Her mother, weighing in on the conversation, added a name of her own too. Just as they did to create her, they lovingly weaved her name together. One that would tell of her family’s history, as well as their partnership in love: Arieta Tegeilolo Talanoa Tora.
Today, and over the last two years, people have often questioned my knowledge on the word talanoa. What does it actually mean? Why did you name it (your website) that? What gives you the right to talk about talanoa?
While they’re valid questions – it’s the assumption that I am claiming to be the expert on talanoa that I am always correcting. I am not the expert on the act or meaning of talanoa. As you’ve just read, it’s my name. And while yes, the act of talanoa is an integral part of Pacific storytelling, I have never confused the meaning of talanoa with storytelling. In this case, the name Talanoa preceded the platform for Pacific storytelling that it’s blossomed into.
When I signed up to WordPress and began creating this website, my vision was to create a digital marketing agency for the Pacific. It didn’t take long to think of a name – Talanoa seemed like a natural choice. Given people mostly knew me as Arieta or Tegeilolo, it was a way of bringing my name to life, while deeply connecting my identity with my business in the digital space.
As I’ve mentioned in other articles, it wasn’t long before I realised that people cared about people, and certainly not my business. The “success stories” section of Talanoa flooded with traffic and my email inbox regularly lit up with feedback for each story, as well as countless experiences from the readers themselves. My business started to pivot – heading right down the drain as I embraced Pacific storytelling and my newly realised passion for pursuing it.
Aside from being my name, if you’re a Pacific Islander, you might know that talanoa has it’s own history, depth and meaning. In many Pacific languages, talanoa means to tell a story, or have a conversation. Seu’ula Johansson Fua describes it perfectly:
“Talanoa is a generic term referring to a conversation, chat, sharing of ideas and talking with someone. It is a term that is shared by Tongans, Samoans, and Fijians. Talanoa can be formal, as between chiefs and his or her people, and it can be informal, as between friends in a kava circle. Talanoa is also used for different purposes; to teach a skill, to share ideas, to preach, to resolve problems, to build and maintain relationships, and to gather information.” – The Kakala Research Framework, Seu‘ula Johansson Fua.
While culture differs from island to island, and often village to village across all of the Pacific, talanoa is something that is generally the same throughout. I don’t pretend to know what that means or what that looks like. What I do know is how talanoa is used in Fiji, and in Tonga, because that is what I’ve learnt throughout all my years in both Pacific nations. While ethnically being Fijian and Tongan has given me access to this learning, it does not legitimise me to claim ownership over it, or even claim to be an expert. I know what I know and I don’t pretend otherwise.
What I do know is this: talanoa is one player in the overall process of telling a story. You can’t tell a story very well without it. And while it’s an important piece of the puzzle, it’s not everything. Talanoa itself belongs to all of us, and yet to none of us. It’s dynamic, it changes, it moves and it adapts – and yet – it’s always been the same. For as long as it’s existed and for as long as it ever will – the meaning of talanoa can never be completely owned and redefined by anyone or anything. And please, before firing shots at me for trying to “brand, own or redefine what it means to talanoa”; ask me the question – because it’s not what I stand for and it’s not what I’m trying to do. I am Talanoa, and this platform is named in honour of that. I’m still learning, and forever will be. I lean into the connection and correlation talanoa has with storytelling. I embrace the conversations it creates by the interest it raises. I answer the call when meaningful talanoa is required at the table.
That’s what’s in a name, when it comes to this space.
Photography: The model in the featured image is my yaca, Aariel Talanoa.