16 Jul 2013

Samoan Tongan poet receives Fulbright writer's residency

5:18 pm on 16 July 2013

An Auckland-based Samoan Tongan poet has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to write creatively about cultural diplomacy for three months in Hawaii.

Leilani Tamu is this year's recipient of the 2013 Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer's Residency.

She told Sara Vui-Talitu her inspiration for the residency will be to write about one of the last heirs to the throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Princess Kaiulani.

LEILANI TAMU: I wanted to learn more about her, partly because of her mixed cultural heritage, but also because of the key role that she played at that important time in Hawaii's history. She directly beseeched the then-President of the United States to ask him to reconsider Hawaii's drive to basically keep its independence and its sovereignty. So she was very much at the forefront of trying to assert Hawaii sovereignty at that crucial time in history. And for her. she died very young and very tragically. Not many people know about Kaiulani outside of Hawaii, so I thought this project would be a great opportunity for me to learn, and then potentially be inspired to write about her life in a creative way that would then provide an opportunity for others to go and learn more themselves.

SARA VUI-TALITU: Do you, yourself, have any Hawaiian ancestry?

LT: No, I don't. My family have Polynesian ancestry - Samoan and Tongan. My husband is also Niuean, so those are our connections. But Hawaii has always featured prominently for me. Obviously, my name is Hawaiian - 'Leilani'. My grandfather spent a lot of time in Hawaii during the 1950s and he really loved it. So when I was a young girl he used to sing the song Sweet Leilani to me all the time. My grandfather has passed away, so going back to Hawaii now in some ways is very special because it brings back all of those memories of him from when I was a child.

SVT: Do you have any advice for other aspiring Pacific writers out there?

LT: My biggest piece of advice is to really just follow your heart and believe in yourself and keep at it. I've had so many rejections throughout my journey, but at the end of the day, as long as I can give it my best shot and look myself in the mirror the next day and know that I did that, then it doesn't matter what the outcome is. You have to stay true to yourself first and foremost and success will come second. That's always been my experience no matter what I've done in my life, and I believe that any Pacific writer who has that true drive and passion is meant to make it and they will. So that's my piece of advice, and of course just to stay true to yourself in your writing. Don't try and be like Palangi writers or other pacific writers. Be yourself, be unique, and give it your all.