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  • Samoan Literature and the Wheel of Time:Cartographies of the Vā1
  • Caroline Sinavaiana Gabbard (bio)

Ia seu le manu ae silasila i le galu. ~ Catch the bird, but watch the wave.

—Samoan proverb2

Given the interest of this special issue in theorizing modernity in Oceania, let us imagine the goal, for a moment, as a seabird we wish to catch. To succeed at this difficult task, we would do well to keep in mind local hunting tips, such as the one above, some local folk wisdom. The proverb refers literally to a type of hunting for seabirds from lava outcroppings in the ocean, where high waves can at any moment sweep inattentive hunters off their feet. So, as we pursue the goal of theorizing Oceanic modernities, let us pay close attention to the sly vagaries and myriad currents lurking in these vast and unpredictable waters.

What follows is an exploration. In the classic spirit of the form, it will essai3 to consider a question for which I have no answers at the outset. What I do have is a sense of discursive terrain, one marked by many streams—poetry and philosophy, culture and history, critical studies, and physics, among others. The compass lending direction and focus to the journey will be the work of three Samoan authors working in several discrete genres, traditional and modern: Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta`isi Tupuola Tufuga Efi, preeminent authority on Samoan culture and history; and two contemporary Samoan poets, Tusiata Avia and Penina Ava Taesali. I intend the term "literature" as expansive enough to encompass a range of literary production including poetry, oratory4 and essay. Given the problematic role literary categories have played in the imposition of hegemonies on various Others, I deploy a re/definition of the term as a necessary appropriation for this [End Page 33] conversation.5 Given its multi-dimensional valences, poetry seems to me a necessary complement to scholarly perspectives for engaging the task at hand. Moreover, as innovative artists, Avia and Taesali offer singular glimpses into the lived experience of women at the nexus of gender, culture, and power, past and present. Tui Atua's extraordinary contributions as a scholar, writer, philosopher, and statesman of the highest stature, add interdisciplinary perspectives rarely available in any literature. Taken in concert, the work of these writers points to a kind of metaphysical cartography of the Pacific necessary for articulating a viable field of Oceanic modernities.

Ia su`i tonu le mata o le niu. ~ To go about an undertaking in the proper way.

Heuristics of the Vā6

When traveling to unknown lands, it is helpful to know something of the worldview of their peoples, especially regarding space and time. In Oceania an essential framework for theorizing modernities is one expressed in the Samoan concept of vā, or simply put, the space between things and/or entities. The vā is essentially kinetic, a transactional field of space open to negotiation between things and/or entities framed within its permeable boundaries. As a central tenet of Samoan epistemology, its importance is crucial to an understanding of Samoan worldview. The concept of vā resonates with the dynamics of space-time continuum, in which both space and time always already operate inseparably and simultaneously. In other words, the vā's singular spatial valence is indivisibly bound, imbued, and informed by temporal elements and dynamics of mutability.

In his invaluable study, "Heuristics of the Vā," I'uoga fa Tuagalu focuses on two particular types of vā that form primary frameworks for my exploration of Tui Atua, Taesali and Avia's writing: vā feloaloa`i (social space) and vā tapua`i (spiritual space) as developed in the ancient Samoan village context (2008, 108).7 The classic Samoan expression which illustrates the synergistic nature of the vā is "'Ia teu le vā": to "cherish/nurse/care for the vā, the relationships" (Wendt, qtd. in Tuagalu 2008, 109). Key implications of the phrase for a sociocentric worldview point to a "a sense of self whose ultimate value resides in its relationship with the other selves around it. The closest Samoan equivalent to the concept 'know thyself' is found in the phrase, 'teu...


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