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  • Epeli's Quest:Essays in Honor of Epeli Hau'ofa
  • Terence Wesley-Smith (bio)

The news of Epeli Hau'ofa's passing on the morning of 11 January 2009 spread rapidly. It first came to me in the form of a somber weekend phone call from Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, followed shortly by an e-mail from Vijay Naidu, Epeli's longtime colleague at the University of the South Pacific. Tributes soon flooded in from across the great Ocean he loved so much. They spoke of a person who touched many lives, a man open and inclusive in his embrace. They testified to the profound influence of Epeli's ideas, and, perhaps above all, to the inspiration he provided for Oceanians everywhere, including scholars, creative writers, artists, students, and activists. As Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi put it, Epeli Hau'ofa was "this finest Pacific Islander of our times."

It will long be a matter of regret that Epeli was too ill to travel to Honolulu in April 2008 to attend a book launch in his honor. We were eager to host again this towering figure in Pacific studies, to honor the newly published volume of his selected works, We Are the Ocean, and to celebrate his long-standing connections with this part of Oceania. It was, after all, the volcanic grandeur of the island of Hawai'i that inspired Epeli's seminal essay "Our Sea of Islands," versions of which he delivered at the Hilo and Mānoa campuses of the University of Hawai'i in the spring of 1993. I sat in the back and off to the side when Epeli delivered the talk to a hushed audience at Mānoa. It was a profound moment for all of us in that crowded room in Burns Hall, and a turning point in the scholarship of the region.

The idea of a collection of short essays to honor Epeli Hau'ofa was enthusiastically embraced by the editorial board of The Contemporary Pacific (TCP). All of us on the journal team have been influenced by his work, and many had interacted with him over the years. Three of Epeli's [End Page 101] essays ("Our Sea of Islands," "The Ocean in Us," and "Thy Kingdom Come") had been published in The Contemporary Pacific, and many of this journal's articles and dialogue pieces discussed his work at length. At the time of his death, a richly illustratedTCParticle by Katherine Higgins about the Red Wave artists at the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture, founded by Epeli in 1997, was in press. (Late in 2008, the center was renamed the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies.) We wanted to honor the life and work of a fine colleague, as well as document his personal and professional legacy. But in this tribute we did not want to duplicate the material in the Higgins article, or in Geoffrey White's masterful overview in the foreword to We Are the Ocean. (That collection of Epeli's writings is reviewed in this issue, as is Higgins's book about the Red Wave collective, which was also published in 2008.) So we solicited contributions from a range of individuals who knew Epeli well and asked each to reflect on his influence in their personal, scholarly, and creative lives.

The essays that follow are very personal, revealing, and sometimes irreverent. They reflect Epeli's legendary humility as well as his human frailty, his extraordinary capacity to communicate with peoples of diverse backgrounds, and his remarkable ability to encourage and inspire. They demonstrate the widespread influence of his written work and the transformational quality of his ideas. They give us faith that Epeli's legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of prominent artists and intellectuals across Oceania and will, in turn, continue to empower generations to come. As Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi concludes, it is now up to us to continue Epeli's lifelong quest for a liberated, just, and nurturing Oceania.

One warm evening in late January 2009, a large crowd gathered at Hale Halawai, beside Mānoa Stream, to farewell Epeli. Generous quantities of food, drink, and kava were consumed, chants delivered, music played, speeches...