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  • "Towards a New Oceania":On Contemporary Pacific Islander Poetry Networks
  • Craig Santos Perez (bio)

This essay maps the network of contemporary Pacific Islander poetry established by print anthologies and literary journals from the 1970s to the present. I focus on anthologies (and include literary journals as a type of anthology) because they were, and continue to be, instrumental in the formation of a distinctly "Pacific" literary tradition. As Māori scholar and poet Alice Te Punga Somerville has argued, anthologies have "shaped the literary navigation of the [Pacific] region" because they function as figurative canoes, or waka: "Pacific anthologies become waka: taking on things and travelers, dropping them off in new places, accruing value and meaning from the diversity of their cargoes" (2012, 28). Te Punga Somerville further notes that the anthological form represents a gathering of diverse voices into a literary kinship network: "The opportunity to 'gather together' writing from a range of sources to produce a nuanced and multivoiced perspective on a time or place is particularly helpful in a regional anthology of the Pacific, a region [with] immense diversity" (29). I highlight Pacific Islander poetry partly because of my own genealogical connections, and partly because it is a body of work [End Page 240] that has remained mostly invisible within networks of transnational, international, hemispheric, world, and global literary studies.

The Pacific encompasses nearly an entire hemisphere, the largest ocean on the planet, and approximately 30,000 islands which were first settled thousands of years ago by sea-faring peoples who developed complex societies and trans-oceanic relations. European imperial nations arrived in the Pacific in the sixteenth century and colonized much of the region by the nineteenth century, naming the ocean "Pacific," renaming many of the islands and indigenous peoples, and even dividing the islands into three geo-cultural categories: Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia. Centuries of colonialism had a devastating impact on Pacific Islanders, resulting in depopulation, environmental destruction, cultural suppression, political disenfranchisement, land dispossession, economic impoverishment, enslavement, militarization, and world war. Despite these impacts, Pacific Islanders persevered and managed to revitalize their indigenous cultures and initiate struggles for decolonization, self-determination, and sovereignty. While many Pacific island countries became independent (beginning with Western Samoa in 1962), several islands have remained colonial territories to this day (including my homeland of Guam). It was during the first decades of decolonization in the Pacific (the 1960s and the 1970s) in which the first wave of contemporary Pacific Islander poetry and anthologies appeared. These anthologies served as the first articulation of an independent Pacific literary voice, providing support and encouragement for emerging Pacific writers, as well as creating a public forum to address cultural, political, social, environmental, and decolonial issues.

The most important literary figure during this time was Samoan editor and writer Albert Wendt. In 1976, he wrote an introduction, titled "Towards a New Oceania," to the inaugural issue of Mana, the first literary journal of the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, which gained its political independence in 1970. In several Pacific languages, "mana" translates as power, prestige, authority, wisdom, or influence. Wendt describes the beauty and complexity of Pacific cultures; the violence and destruction of imperialism; and the ongoing struggle for cultural revitalization and decolonization. Throughout, he details how Pacific writers and artists are unwriting colonial representations of the Pacific and creating new literary and artistic visions of Pacific cultures and experiences. He quotes writers from New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, and Samoa. These voices [End Page 241] illustrate Wendt's important point about the new Pacific literary network: "Across the political barriers dividing our countries an intense artistic activity is starting to weave firm links between us. This cultural awakening, inspired and fostered and led by our own people, will not stop at the artificial frontiers drawn by the colonial powers" (1976, 58). He also mentions the establishment of other literary institutions and literary journals that are fostering the growth of Pacific literature, including the Creative Arts Centre, the Festival of Pacific Arts, and the literary magazine Kovave in Papua New Guinea (which achieved independence in 1975), as well as the establishment of The...