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  • We Are the Ocean: Selected Works
  • Eric Waddell
We Are the Ocean: Selected Works, by Epeli Hau'ofa. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8248-3173-8, xxi + 188 pages, notes, index. US$22.00.

Epeli Hau'ofa died in Suva, Fiji, on 11 January 2009. He was a friend and wantok (someone who speaks the same language) to so many of us, and he will be sorely missed. His words live on, however, and his place is firmly established in the pantheon of Oceanian scholarship. In depositing We Are the Ocean at the feet of his intellectual and spiritual heirs a few short months before his departure from this world, Epeli could leave no better legacy.

The writings included in this collection span a thirty-year period, from 1975 to 2006. This significant temporal reach is reinforced by two other qualities. One is the fact that Oceania as a whole is revealed as Epeli's home, his roots being grounded in several institutions, islands, and countries: Misima, the University of Papua New Guinea, the University of the South Pacific, Tonga, and, metaphorically at least, the "Big Island" of Hawai'i. These distinctive places figure in his writings as petals floating on the ocean; scattered, fragrant, and steeped in meaning. They collectively constitute at once a journey as much as a geography, a world full of revelations of the past and of the future of [End Page 218] the Island Pacific. Take, for instance, the circumstances that inspired him to write his now famous "Our Sea of Islands" speech (27-40): It was for an Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO) conference, held in Hilo in 1993, and he had not prepared it before arriving on the island.

"The drive from Kona to Hilo was my 'road to Damascus.' I saw such scenes of grandeur as I had not seen before: the eerie blackness of regions covered by recent volcanic eruptions; the remote majesty of Mauna Loa, long and smooth, the world's largest volcano; the awesome craters of Kīlauea threatening to erupt at any moment; and the lava flow on the coast not far away. Under the aegis of Pele, before my very eyes, the Big Island was growing, rising from the depths of a mighty sea" (30).

It is this sense of particular places charged with emotion that marks Epeli's imagination, their presence permeating the entire book and giving a spiritual power to Oceania: "Every so often in the hills of Suva, when moon and red wine play tricks on my aging mind, I scan the horizon beyond Laucala Bay, the Rewa Plain, and the reefs of Nukulau Island, for Vaihi, Havaiki, homeland. It is there, far into the past ahead, leading onto other memories, other realities, other homelands" (77).

Epeli's journey was also an intellectual one, and this is the second distinctive quality characterizing We Are the Ocean. Taken together, the 14 contributions-8 essays, 1 eulogy, 1 interview, 3 works of fiction, and 1 poem-recount a voyage from academic anthropologist to promoter of Pacific arts and culture. It is this journey of (re)discovery of self that transformed him into the elder statesman of a realm that knows no government and has no geographical boundaries. It is at once memory, reality, and dream, or at least fragments of each that must be (re)assembled with great care. Such is the task that Epeli Hau'ofa assumed in the course of his career, by virtue of fate and choice: fate because he was educated in many places and in diverse ways, choice because early in adult life he became dissatisfied with the professional world for which he had been trained. His university studies had made him into an observer and a narrow disciplinary expert, roles that didn't fit with his identity as a Pacific person.

We Are the Ocean recounts a journey Epeli was intent on sharing with fellow citizens of the Great Ocean and with "those who have gone to the lands of diaspora," a journey that has resulted in the building of "a new home for us all," and an experience that will...