- Interview with Tulia Thompson by Angelina Sbroma
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Josefa and the Vu is about Josefa, a boy growing up in a large Fijian family in Aotearoa, who is plunged into an adventure that comes directly his own culture and history. Josefa seems to have a lot in common with other child protagonists—he is isolated, he is a subject of prophecy, and his adventure is supernatural. Is that why you chose a children’s book to tell this story?
In terms of his relationship to other children’s literature protagonists, yes, I think he grows into himself and is the subject of a prophecy. He is an “outsider,” but if he is isolated, he is isolated in quite a different way from other protagonists—in that he is surrounded by three older brothers who love him and look after him, loving parents, and extended family. None of his immediate family is evil or even unlikeable. If isolation is a form of trial or hardship that acts as a device that allows things to happen, Josefa experiences more the trial of being constantly surrounded by others; that is, at various points, Josefa does not want to tell his brothers what is happening because he knows they will intervene.
I experienced a strong drive to write for children, particularly because my love of reading stemmed from the joy I had experienced reading as a child, and I felt a sense of wanting to complete the circle. I’d also always felt that I had a strong memory of what it was like to be a child, and a very visual imagination. My initial imaginings were of the scene where Josefa first sees the Vu, and also the dragon diving to catch Ming. I had loved fantasy-adventure when I was a child, especially The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, so yes, it was definitely about the appeal of fantasy and the supernatural. I had been thinking about the eurocentricism of children’s literature and how Pacific communities in New Zealand have lower literacy. I wanted to write a children’s novel that offered a Pacific/Fijian world-view. A relationship to the spirit world was also a big part of how I was raised and what seemed natural and every-day.
I think the other aspect of writing for children that appeals to me is that children ask really big questions about how the world works in a way that adults often don’t. I felt like I could touch on some big social justice themes that are close to my heart—racism, colonialism, class, environmentalism—and children would probably engage with them.
Both Josefa and his best friend, Ming, chafe at cultural expectation: Josefa sucks at sports, and Ming wants to be a stuntwoman rather than an academic achiever. Can you talk about your portrayal of cultural expectation, especially in an immigrant context?
Josefa sucking at sports and Ming wanting to be a stuntwoman instead of an academic achiever is more chafing at the expectations of the dominant Pakeha (white NZer) culture than their own cultural expectations. It’s multilayered: sports—especially rugby—is valued in Fiji, but then, rugby achievement is often all that Pakeha know about Fijians. Likewise for Ming, academic achievement lines up a cultural value with the way that she can be recognized at school. Josefa and Ming form a friendship that is very much about outsiderness. They have curiosity and respect for each other’s cultures not [End Page 69] tainted by an aversion to difference.
The Aunty acts as a vehicle for voicing cultural fears and doubts. There is a terse family conversation where Aunty says “NZ children are different from Fijian children” meaning they are disobedient compared to children in Fiji. It is true that a higher level of obedience (especially in public) would be expected from Fijian children. The obedience issue has been most polarized in the different responses within Pacific communities to the “No Smacking” legislation brought in in New Zealand. Many Fijian people have been influenced by Old Testament Christianity in Fijian churches and...