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Co-founders of Flying Fetu, Grace Iwashita-Taylor and Lana Lopesi. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Co-founders of Flying Fetu, Grace Iwashita-Taylor and Lana Lopesi. (Image: Tina Tiller)

ĀteaNovember 3, 2022

When writers festivals make you feel like a token Pasifika, you create something new

Co-founders of Flying Fetu, Grace Iwashita-Taylor and Lana Lopesi. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Co-founders of Flying Fetu, Grace Iwashita-Taylor and Lana Lopesi. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Nathaniel Lees, Tusiata Avia, Victor Rodger and more are coming together for an event that budding Moana writers shouldn’t miss. 

Lana Lopesi remembers it as the time of her life. The non-fiction author and journalist was speaking at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival with Coco Solid (Jessica Hansell) in what she describes as one of her best sessions she’s ever had. The two wāhine toa held an hour-long conversation about their recent books, until the floor opened up for questions, one of which left the pair temporarily speechless.

“A man asked us what our thoughts were on Foucault. And we both looked at each other, not sure of what to say,” Lopesi says. “My face was stunned because neither of us brought up the French philosopher and so Jess responded to that before we moved on. It was so weird.”

That encounter is typical of the kind of thing writers of the Moana face when invited to such spaces. Lopesi talks about having to act a certain way at writers festival events, awkwardly trying to share her wisdom for the one or two Pasifika audience members in the hopes of inspiring them, knowing that it won’t be of much interest to the wider audience and thus having to keep it short or vague.

Those feelings meant that when Lopesi received a message from poet and spoken-word performer Grace Iwashita-Taylor, she was very ready to receive it. Iwashita-Taylor was asking Lopesi to collaborate with her in establishing a festival to celebrate Moana writers and writing. And this weekend the inaugural Flying Fetu festival will take place.

Award-winning Samoan poet Grace Iwashita-Taylor. (Photo: RNZ Pacific)

Established this year, Flying Fetu is an organisation committed to building abundant futures for artists of upu (word), whether that’s through poetry or theatre. Their mission is to create spaces for budding Moana writers to unapologetically display their craft.

The festival, which begins tomorrow (Friday), is for anyone who’s interested, but in particular it’s a chance for writers from the Moana to get together without having to act “that certain way” of mainstream festivals. “All the shared stories that happen in the green room or after a show when you debrief with your friends, we want those discussions centre-stage during the Flying Fetu festival,” Lopesi says.

The opening night kicks off with a writers’ lab showcase where attendees get to listen to brand new works in development by 12 Moana writers including Jahra Wasasala, Nora Aati, Fetūolemoana Tamapeau, David Feauai-Afaese and Amber Esau. On Saturday, the schedule is filled with on-stage interviews, guest writers talking on certain topics and panel discussions. Each session will be recorded and available to listen to online beyond the festival and there will be giveaways throughout the event.

Amber Esau
Amber Esau is a poet, essayist and slam champion. (Photo: Supplied)

Iwashita-Taylor and Lopesi have spoken at and attended writers festivals both locally and abroad, and they brought that experience into shaping the Flying Fetu festival. “Most of the time, the audience are old, white people with maybe three Pasifika sisters in the corner of the room and I’ll get a question from a white person asking how we can help or fix the problems you’re going through as a brown writer and I’m like, answering that question is out of my paygrade,” Lopesi says. “We want our Moana writers to feel comfortable when sitting in these sessions and feel comfortable to ask questions, be curious and share their experiences with people who have walked that road.”

But that kind of discomfort is only part of the reason why the Flying Fetu festival is needed in Aotearoa. A lot of the time Pacific writers aren’t included at writers festivals at all. And, Lopesi adds, not all Pacific writers write books, which creates another barrier.

“There are a lot of brown writers, but the criteria for a writers festival is that you have to have published a book in the past year and so automatically our numbers shrink,” she says. “And often when we are included, it’s for these Pacific sessions and I struggle with that because you feel tokenised and there are all these conversations that you would really like to have, that you don’t get to have when it’s just Pacific writers in the room.”

Another reason for establishing the organisation and the festival is acknowledging the lonely path of the writer, where it’s often just yourself and your laptop. Lopesi explains that coming out of writing her book Bloody Woman, she realised that all the conversations she had during the writing process were actually bringing together missing pieces in the book. “If I didn’t have those conversations, the book wouldn’t have been made,” she says. “I know that everything I do is 100 times better when I’m able to talk through those ideas and build communities of writers and like-minded people, so I hope for the Flying Fetu festival to be that for our young and old writers from the Moana,” she says.

Faith Wilson from Saufo’i Press (Photo: Supplied)

Flying Fetu means shooting star, and Iwashita-Taylor and Lopesi wanted to create a collective that encompasses big dreams and blue-sky thinking. “Reaching for the stars is the aspiration we want for all Moana writers and to have it be our core, centre principle rather than using the word ‘writer’ in our name as it limits who we include,” says Lopesi. 

Saufo’i Press, which is an independent press that publishes Moana Pacific poetry in Aotearoa, is co-presenting one of the talanoa (talk) sessions called Fanua Feels – Moana Motions. The founder Faith Wilson says this opportunity is a chance for Moana writers to be in one space, to have something that’s ours. “It feels like finally we get to experience a writers festival that recognises the full breadth and scope of our artistry and who we are. We don’t need to shrink ourselves or fit moulds of what it is to be a writer or storyteller,” she says.

Award-winning playwright Victor Rodger who has over 20 years of literary experience will be chairing a session at the Flying Fetu festival called The Naughty Corner. He also plans to attend most of the other sessions as a spectator. “I’m excited for this space where we can all gather together on our own terms, which has been a long time coming,” he says.

Flying Fetu festival opens Friday 4 November, 6:30pm – 8pm, at the Basement Theatre, Tāmaki Makaurau, with sessions all day Saturday 5 November.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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