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  • "We Were Still Papuans":A 2006 Interview with Epeli Hau'ofa
  • Nicholas Thomas (bio)

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Asefeka of the Unmalosa (Part I), by Andy Leleisi'uao. 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 76 cm x 92 cm

An imaginary world depicting the franticness and importance of life through alofa.

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In April-May 2006 Epeli Hau'ofa was in London with the Red Wave Collective, a group of painters from the Oceania Centre at the University of the South Pacific, who were exhibiting at the October Gallery. Epeli had asked me to speak at the opening, and he and I had a number of conversations, not least around Oceania, a major exhibition I was working on at that time, which was in many ways inspired by his writings. We anticipated that a statement of his, or a conversation with him, might introduce a catalog. This interview was recorded as a first step; it ranges over Epeli's childhood, career, travels, and arguments. Changing institutional priorities led to the exhibition's being cancelled soon afterward, but my sense was that our discussion remained interesting in many ways and was worth publishing. It contextualizes Hau'ofa's enormously influential 1993 essay, "Our Sea of Islands," and his related arguments. Certain points here repeat statements made in those publications, but an important link emerges between a singular, migratory upbringing and early adult life, and a radical, genuinely regional imagination. There is little hard information here that will be new to anyone who knew Epeli, or to a reader of Geoffrey White's excellent introduction to We Are the Ocean: Selected Works (Hau'ofa 2008).1 But this is a personal and informal statement that I hope gives those who never knew Epeli some insight into his playfulness, creativity, and sources of inspiration and argument.

The title of this interview flags a biographic point that I would like to single out. If one historic process has transformed the Pacific over the last two hundred years it has been conversion to Christianity, which needless to say has meant different things in different places. Readers of this journal will be well aware that this was as much a project of Islanders as of white missionaries, and that male and female Islander "teachers" frequently led [End Page 120] or crucially supported the effort of evangelization in communities distant from their own. The commitments of Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, and other Polynesian missionaries in various parts of Melanesia resulted not only in religious change, but also in a certain cosmopolitanism, a mixing of Oceanic lives and experiences. Epeli was far from alone in being shaped by this, but it also underpinned his understanding and empowered the arguments of his later work. "As Epeli always said, 'the ocean connects us all rather than separates us'," John Pule recently remarked (in Thomas 2010, 32). Hau'ofa's upbringing and his experience as an adult in Melanesian milieus also gave him quite distinctive perspectives on the long-standing anthropological propensity to juxtapose Melanesia and Polynesia, and on actual and even profound cultural and historic differences that the distinction refracted and distorted.

Epeli passed away in January 2009. This interview is published in the hope that it will stimulate his successors and serve as a memorial to his imagination, candor, and wit.


Could you tell me a little about your childhood? I understand you were born in Misima?


My parents were Tongan missionaries. They went to Papua New Guinea [PNG] in 1937 or 1938 and were caught up in the war there. I was born in 1939. What is interesting about my upbringing is that up until I was seven or eight I did not know that I was a Tongan. Our parents never talked about Tonga and never spoke Tongan to each other. I grew up as a Papuan. In 1947, suddenly, my parents talked about going back to Tonga. To me, the place had no meaning whatsoever. All the people I knew were Papuans and I was just one of them. We lived on a typical mission station run by white missionaries. Island missionaries from Sāmoa and Tonga made the link between them...


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