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Reviewed by:
  • Varua Tupu: New Writing from French Polynesia
  • Robert Sullivan
Varua Tupu: New Writing from French Polynesia, edited by Frank StewartKareva Mateatea-AllainAlexander Dale Mawyer. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8248-3019-9; xxi + 196 pages, photos, art, references, and glossary. US $29.95.

I had the pleasure of attending, at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, one of several celebrations and launches of Varua Tupu, which is a special French Polynesian issue of Mānoa: A Pacific Journal. A large number of Hawai‘i-based writers and intellectuals were also present for the celebration so that a spirit of Polynesian reconnection and excitement filled the air. Indeed one of the major sponsors for the event was the Pacific Writers’ Connection. The greatest joy was getting to meet some of the writers and editors, such as Rai a Mai, Flora Devatine, Alexander Dale Mawyer, and Kareva Mateatea-Allain.

After the welcome by the Hawaiian delegation, we were shown a slide show detailing the life of Hawaiian artist Bobby Holcomb who had lived in Huahine, Tahiti, until his untimely death. His sumptuous artwork adorns the journal cover, which depicts a side close-up of an intricately tattooed man blowing on a shell to coax out a little crab. Like the carapace, the tattoo adorns the man in a divinely protective and identifying series of patterns, and the outstretched feelers and eyes of the crab in its shell reach out toward the breath that fills its shell cradled and cauled in the man’s palm. This counterbalancing between natural, human, and divine elements is a feature of other work by Holcomb, such as the detail from “Ruahatu, God of the Ocean,” where the god carries a stone marae or sacred temple to Huahine. The two moving and entertaining accounts of Holcomb’s work and life reveal his close association with Salvador Dali. Other Holcomb images reveal a mixture of mythological and realist elements that have the daring flavor of surrealism.

The photographic essay by Michel Chansin of Fa‘a‘a, the largest town in Tahiti, provides the rich political and economic reality of the region. Photographs from the 2004 presidential elections, which Oscar Temaru won, show his rapturous supporters, while candid shots of the material economic conditions also manage to convey the vitality of the people and the president’s work that lies ahead.

For the uninitiated, there is a useful introduction to the history and literature of French Polynesia by the editors. This anthology is a small part of a parallel universe of francophone [End Page 508] Polynesian culture, although it excludes New Caledonian Kanak writing. This anthology has been an astonishing discovery for this writer, in particular the work of poet, film-maker, dramatist, musician, and indigenous advocate Henri Hiro whose ideas about cultural restoration were ahead of their time. Hiro possessed the simple courage to wear the pareu or sarong everywhere he went, despite the mirth it caused, and soon others joined him. He encouraged a return to open forms of architecture inspired by traditional houses, and composed his poetry in reo Mā‘ohi (Tahitian language) and French, as a means of reconnecting with ancestral strength and identity. The interview he conducted with Rai a Mai just days before his death is a moving tribute to his empowering decolonizing vision.

Since Hiro’s death in 1990, women writers have been to the fore, notably expatriate novelist Célestine Hitiura Vaite; poets Rai a Mai (Michou Chaze), Louise Peltzer, and Flora Devatine; and novelists Chantal Spitz and Titaua Peu. Vaite’s excerpts from her novels Frangipani (2004) and Breadfruit (2000) reveal the wit of her English prose—she is based in Australia—and the strong female leads and class consciousness that characterize her work. In this extract, the matriarch of the family, Matarena, is having a discussion about her daughter Leilani, who is also present, with a French encyclopedia sales rep:

“‘Oh, oui, she loves to write!’

Matarena exclaims. ‘She’s always writing, that one. She writes, she reads, she’s very intelligent. All my children are intelligent, and to think that I’m just a professional cleaner.’

“‘Oh, you’re a cleaner!’

“‘A professional cleaner...