- Introduction:Oceania in Theory
"Oceania is vast, Oceania is expanding, Oceania is hospitable and generous, Oceania is humanity rising from the depth of brine and regions of fire deeper still"—Epeli Hau'ofa, "Our Sea of Islands" (2008)
In 1976, in the first issue of Mana Review: A South Pacific Journal of Language and Literature, Albert Wendt wrote of a new Oceania. Oceania, a region European maps and fictions first referred to as the South Seas, then the South Pacific, sometimes the Pacific Basin, and now most commonly the Pacific Islands, is the geographic region including Hawai'i in the north, Aotearoa/New Zealand in the south, Rapa Nui/Easter Island in the east and Palau—or Australia, sometimes included in geographies of Oceania—in the west. For Wendt, the movement towards a new Oceania was a journey to seeing the region afresh, through the lens of local literary and artistic interventions into the decolonising island states.1 Wendt's attempt to propagate and promote an Oceanian artistic renaissance called for an engagement with the region that would far exceed that of the boardrooms of politicians and development experts. The new Oceania required a different form of engagement, one born from the creative talents of artists and writers in the Pacific, as "[s]o vast, so fabulously varied a scatter of islands, nations, cultures, mythologies and myths, so dazzling a creature [as] Oceania deserves more than an attempt at mundane fact; only the imagination in free flight can hope—if not to contain her—to grasp some of her shape, plumage and pain" (1976, 49). Oceania would be a region in which a new, independent modernity was interwoven with the traditional, as Wendt called not for a static return to a precolonial history, but for a modern Oceania whose mana (power, authority) springs from dynamic engagement with custom and heritage: "Our quest should be not for a revival of our past cultures but for the creation of new cultures which are free from the taint of colonialism and based firmly on our pasts. The quest should be for a new Oceania" (53). [End Page 9]
Nearly two decades later, writing as post-independence enthusiasm had waned, and the globalized, neo-colonial present seemed almost as entrenched in Western oversight and interference as before, Epeli Hau'ofa returned to "Oceania's" potential for re-imagining the Pacific Islands. In "Our Sea of Islands" (1993), Hau'ofa argues that for too long the Pacific has been subject to a Western narrative of belittlement, vulnerability, and isolation, one that saw Pacific Island states as "too small, too poorly endowed with resources, and too isolated from the centres of economic growth" to ever prosper (2008, 29). Such an attitude, Hau'ofa writes, ignores the ways in which the people of Oceania have long enacted with the vastness that is the Pacific Ocean, and so he turned away from a vocabulary denoting "small areas of land sitting atop submerged reefs or seamounts" (32), and embraced "Oceania," a grand archipelago whose inhabitants live by and with and on the sea. Rather than the "islands in a far sea" that Pacific Island nations become when viewed from Western, continental perspectives, Hau'ofa's essay calls for an understanding of Oceania as a vast, networked "sea of islands" (31). For him "Oceania" expresses the fact that the ocean for many Pacific peoples is an integral, shifting, dynamic aspect of identity and home. The ocean is not an empty space separating landed territories, but a place ripe with "cultural seascapes rich in symbolic meaning, crowded with navigational markers, symbols of tenure, fishing and surfing sites, and reminders of gods and spirits in the form of maritime familiars and the sites of their exploits" (D'Arcy 2006, 168-169). Oceania is a name to be associated with pride, range, expansiveness, connectivity, identity, and diversity. It is a name that is inclusive of those born in the Pacific—a fact of particular importance in Fiji, where ethnic tensions between the indigenous population and the descendants of Indian indentured workers have resulted in coups and political unrest—as well as the Pacific's expansive diaspora. For Hau'ofa—born...