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Telling the story of indigenous survival

Posted on 25/01/2018
By Tracy Assing

In October, I received an email from the Commonwealth Foundation. It contained an invitation to participate in the International Civil Society Week (ICSW) to be held in December in Fiji.

The theme: Our Planet, Our Struggle, Our Future. My heart raced as I blinked at the phone. I only had to confirm my attendance. I told no one at first. I was sure that if I spoke it, it would be somehow taken away.

In early November, another email followed. Subject: Trip to Samoa? The Ring of Fire was calling me. My story titled Unaccounted for, in the So Many Islands anthology seen only by editors and printers, was going to come to life half-way around the world. Inside me a huge moon was beginning to wax.

For as long as I have known my voice I have thrown it to the Pacific. The area of our planet which is home to the most diverse range of indigenous cultures. I remembered reading about these islands and the Ring of Fire during my geography classes in Secondary school. The ring is dotted with 75% of all active volcanoes on Earth. It stretches from the southern tip of South America, along the coast of North America, across the Bearing Strait, down to Japan, into New Zealand and Antarctica. These islands were smack in the middle.

In July, at the Pacific Island Development Forum Leader’s Summit in the Solomon Islands, Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said the government had accelerated plans to relocate some 40 coastal villages to higher ground. The land is suffering from ‘progress’ with unsustainable and rising natural resource extraction and chemicals and pesticides contaminating rivers but communities are working together to slow the dark and rising tides. I longed to join their resistance and wanted them to join mine. Our Planet, Our Struggle, Our Future our cause, the same.

‘It was my first chance to see what life is like on these islands, stories told by their storytellers’

‘That awkward moment when you get on the plane at 9:30pm on the 27 and get off at 6am on the 29.’ I tweeted as I struggled to stay awake during the six-hour lay-over at Nadi airport before meeting with Commonwealth Writers. We would travel on to Apia, Samoa together for the launch of So Many Islands, hosted by the Little Island Press. It was exciting to think of my work being included in this collection of poetry and stories from around the world.

On the drive from the Faleolo Airport to Hotel Vaea I considered the many similarities between my homeland and the landscape. The fale stood out and when I enquired I was immediately inspired. These simple, open huts were symbols of community and tradition. An open space where all were welcomed to be humbled and heard. The very presence of these structures seemed to underline the importance of community to me. I felt welcomed, embraced and supported by Tony Murrow and Evotia Tamua of Little Island Press, and Dionne Fanoti from the National University of Samoa. Then, I met Mere Taito, a Rotuman islander with a burning passion for storytelling and Katherine Reki from Papua New Guinea, a filmmaker and mother on a mission to create a better world for her children. Mere has written a fiery poem for the So Many Islands anthology and Katherine’s film My Mother’s Blood explores the killing of a woman, who is suspected of witchcraft, in the Highlands.

Above: Tracy reads Unaccounted For at the National University of Samoa, Apia, Samoa
Above: So Many Islands anthology, a collection of literature hailing from 17 island states in the Commonwealth, had its first regional launch at a ceremony in Apia, Samoa
Above: Tracy speaks to civil society representatives at the University of South Pacific, Suva, Fiji

In Unaccounted For I tell the story of my island and my ancestors. It is one story, the land and us. Intertwined before we became labour and the land became capital. It was an emotional experience, reading my story aloud for the first time, from its published pages to the small, attentive audience gathered in the hotel fale that Friday evening. My voice cracked just at the point where I welcomed my ancestors into the room and I was encouraged to go on by my new friends, who understood my tears and understood the struggles of my journey. I had travelled almost two days to get there. As I said my grandparents’ names, I felt their presence in the room. They were there to share that moment with me.

‘My truth is my identity, my right to declare that I belong, my right to practise and preserve my culture and celebrate my heritage’

The next day, we all attended a special screenings of six films from Tonga and Papua New Guinea produced by Commonwealth Writers. It was my first chance to see what life is like on these islands, stories told by their storytellers. We talked about that during the panel discussion that followed. How people who live on those islands and ours have been framed by those telling the story as documentary, as fantasy, and how important it is for us to tell our own stories. We have all been given the opportunity through the screenings of these films and sharing our stories in the So Many Islands anthology. So many islands separated and connected by water, even the water in our tears.

On December 3, we arrived in Fiji for the International Civil Society Week. The team expanded. We were joined by Marita Davis, an I-Kiribati writer and Glenill Burua, a 19 year-old filmmaker from Matupit, Papua New Guinea. I joined Myn Garcia, Deputy Director General of the Commonwealth Foundation for a panel discussion at the University of the South Pacific on December 6 as part of the Commonwealth Writers Conversations series. From my story, Myn read the lines: ‘What did it all mean anyway? We had grown tired of the labels people had chosen to both recognise and erase us. Each label seemed to have the same purpose.’

Waxing still, we talked about recognition and cultural loss. In Trinidad, while descendants of the island’s first peoples received a one-off holiday in recognition of their presence last year, we have never been able to declare ourselves ‘indigenous’ on any census form.

My truth is my identity, my right to declare that I belong, my right to practise and preserve my culture and celebrate my heritage. With the publication of this anthology I have an opportunity to speak it out, clear across the planet. My message is clear and resonates. The indigenous story is one of survival. Our Planet. Our Struggle. Our Future.

Tracy Assing is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago.