Steve Braunias conducts the live email interview – the revolutionary journalistic practise trailblazed by the Spinoff Review of Books – with author and academic Scott Hamilton to conclude our week-long series on Hamilton’s terrific new book The Stolen Island.
Scott Hamilton is a literary outsider, a maverick, a public intellectual without much of a public but with a sharp, academically trained intellect, someone who no one has really heard of but is one of the best writers and thinkers in New Zealand. For years he has written the superb blog Reading the Maps on subjects and ideas close to his heart – namely, most often, the untold histories of the Pacific and New Zealand – and along the way has scorned dear old Te Radar as pretty much a racist stooge, and slammed a stray headline in the Spinoff Review of Books one day as “jejune”, the next day as “juvenile”. He likes a stoush. But more lastingly and deeply, he likes to tell real stories with narrative flair and scholarly learning, qualities which are thrillingly evident in his new book The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata.
It came out towards the end of last year. There was an excellent feature about it by Sally Blundell in the January 8 issue of the Listener. The Spinoff Review of Books is too chilled to chase after topicality but will go to any length to express its love for a really good piece of literature and so this week we devoted the entire week to Hamilton’s book, with an excerpt on Monday, a rave review by Michael Field on Tuesday, a polemic by Leilani Tamu on Wednesday, and, today, the revolutionary live email interview.
It was conducted last Wednesday night. It began at 8:30pm and Hamilton emailed his final answer at 1:34am. All up it weighs in at 5,202 words and it begins with the only word in Tongan that the Spinoff Review of Books knows.
Malo, Scott! You there?
Malo e lelei Steve!
Aha! Well, Scott, welcome to the Spinoff Review of Books live email interview, which has been out of use for a while but is now back in business and that’s due to your outstanding book The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata, which I read today in one intense sitting and was so powerful that it brought on a vision: I saw it winning a major prize at next year’s Ockham national book awards. It’s a singular book, unlike nothing around, a book about a Pacific tragedy by a palangi who obviously has very close emotional and intellectual ties with Tonga, which is the setting for a kind of detective story about what happened in 1863 when a sailing ship essentially annihilated an entire people, the people of ‘Ata, a small island in the kingdom of Tonga, now uninhabited, a place of ghosts.
So, yes, congratulations; I loved it, it’s a special book; but tell me, who the devil are you? I mean you just sort of seem this brilliant yet determinedly marginal figure. You write one of the best, most searching blogs in the country, Reading the Maps, but few people would have heard of it or read it; you’re a scholar, an author, but you hardly seem to belong to the mainstream of NZ lit, hee-hawing and blathering on stages and being seen with Damien Wilkins and Paula Morris – who are you?
I probably keep changing direction too often. I started as a poet and then went over to prose; I wrote my PhD and academic book (the first and the last) on the British historian, communist, and middling poet EP Thompson, doing research in the libraries of Hull and the other picture postcard towns where left-wing activists tend to leave their papers, and then belatedly realised that I lived in the South Pacific; I taught in Tonga for a year, at the quixotic but marvellous ‘Atenisi – that’s Athens in Tongan – Institute, where every classroom comes with a kava bowl as well as a blackboard, but am now back in Auckland, trying to finish a book about the Great South Road for Len Brown, whilst also shooting off to Vanuatu to research a new project. It would have been better to do one big thing in increments, I guess.
Malo aupito for the kind words about The Stolen Island, by the way. I’ve had a really nice, and increasingly embarrassing, response to the book. It’s a wee tiny thing, barely more than 20,000 words long, but it’s had more media attention than almost everything else I’ve written combined.
Please say more about the ‘Atensi Institute. It just seems such a radical venture for a Pacific island, where books are few and cost as much as a house; and yet here was this remarkable intellectual salon sort of thing, a maverick university, on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa. What was it like? And Futa Helu, who ran the joint – what did he look like, can you draw a picture?
I still get people shaking their heads and insisting that ‘Atenisi can’t possibly be a real place when I try to tell them about the institution that paid me a salary and a kava ration in 2013. If any of the doubters want visual evidence, then they can turn to Paul Janman’s sumptuous and sad 2012 film Tongan Ark, which tells of Futa Helu, how a young man from the remote and sinking island of Foa went off to Sydney University, where he discovered classical studies, opera, Miles Davis, and the bohemian Sydney Push collective, and then returned to his homeland, refused lucrative job offers, and began trying to teach Socrates and Plato around a kava bowl. Eventually numbers at the kava bowl swelled, and the conversation turned from the free thought of the ancients to what freedom might mean in a Tongan context, and Futa ended up, like Thomas Jefferson before him, creating his own university. At its height in the early 80s ‘Atenisi had about 30 teachers and perhaps 1000 students.
Paul Janman captures the school and Futa in physical and mental decline. I arrived after the film’s triumphant showings before packed audiences, and benefitted from fresh optimism and cash about its prospects. The Stolen Island describes me setting off to the remote island of ‘Eua with my ‘Atenisi students, and shows how they very quickly became teachers there. They translated for me, and made sure I didn’t eat anything too poisonous when we were hiking through the island’s highland looking for places where Captain Cook stopped to drink kava.
I’m proud that three of the students I taught are studying abroad on scholarships now. One of them, the linguist Tevita Manu’atu, is already a part-time instructor at Northern Illinois University.
You talk to the dead, don’t you? Out of respect. So, now, please talk of Futa Helu – what did he look like, was he overly fond of the kava, was he a married man, who was this strange Pacific ascetic?
Yes, ‘Atenisi sits close to a large fa’itoka where Futa Helu himself is buried, and my students taught me that when I jogged between the graves – the graves are mostly piles of sand, decorated with items like shells and glo sticks and beer bottles – late for class I had to pant an apology – kataki fakamolemole, or please excuse me, would do, or else the dead, who are as desirous of a quiet life as anyone else, would get grumpy.
And in Tonga you never want the dead to get mad with you. Far better to have living enemies. The dead can sicken or smite you.
As I’d jog along repeating my apology like a mantra and trying not to trip over my tupenu I’d spot widows on their way home from Nuku’alofa’s markets, who had stopped to update their husbands on some new bit of gossip. They’d be giggling and nodding their heads at a grave.
And while I was teaching at ‘Atenisi a neighbour of the school wandered over one day and buttonholed my boss, Dr ‘Opeti Taliai. This chap explained that he’d been working in his garden late at night when he had seen an apparition of Futa Helu, strolling through the school grounds. Futa had the afro he wore proudly as a young man, as well as the Japanese fan that he’d often carried about, partly to fend off flies and partly to show his appreciation of Japanese opera (Futa’s affection for non-Tongan cultures didn’t only extent to Europe – he could, according to those who knew him well, discourse on Japanese music and the modern American novel and a dozen other esoteric subjects with the same authority he brought to the philosophers of ancient Greece).
The ghostly Futa had seemed distressed, and ‘Opeti became distressed too, because if there were more sightings of the ghost then Futa’s family might feel they had to perform a very elaborate ceremony, involving the exhumation and washing and reburying of bones, designed to placate an unhappy ancestor. But I don’t think the sighting of Futa’s ghost that ‘Opeti heard about was an authentic one. I think that if Futa did appear as a ghost he’d be smiling. Like Tongans in general, he enjoyed life immensely. He drank and ate with pleasure, being as interested in the world’s culinary traditions as its philosophical heritage, and enjoyed a joke.
He attended a pokey little church down the road from ‘Atenisi about once a year, and fall asleep early in the sermon. He had a contempt for all forms of dogmatism, which he often expressed in outrageous jokes. When a relative of his who was a schoolteacher told him that she didn’t believe in the theory of evolution because it contradicted the word of the Bible, Futa reportedly replied “How can you say that we don’t come from the apes, when you look so much like one?”
Thank you for this wonderful reply but I note that you still fail to describe what he looked like. I wonder whether that’s a thing in The Stolen Island, too – you’re less interested in people’s appearances than their stories and the wider truths that they may reveal. See, I would never not describe someone in my line of work. I mention this because actually I think we have a lot in common as writers, most explicitly and specifically in our shared obsession with Great South Road; independently of each other, we both started seeing it as a central, actual metaphor for Auckland life, the road most travelled, the road to war (it was built to assist the invasion of the Waikato in the NZ Wars), and we both have walked its length and written about it, at length. Last year I walked Lincoln Rd, over and over, backwards and forwards because it’s only 4km long, and that was for a similar purpose – it’s a street which seems to me to get to the heart of the matter of Auckland existence.
There’s a fascinating bit in your book, where you describe looking at Auckland with different eyes, seeing it as the city built on the profits made from blackbirding, that is the taking of slave labour in the Pacific. So Auckland is a consuming subject and both of us are drawn to it. But of course I do this work as a hack, and you do this as a serious scholar – and yet this is the thing about The Stolen Island, it is not an academic text, it’s a story, you really can write, you have crafted a superb narrative, and it’s also really funny, sometimes.
It’s strange, though, isn’t it – we’ve never met or talked, but we both seem to be working in the same direction, do you think that?
There’s nothing strange about our never meeting. I try to avoid meeting people who’ve praised my writing, because I feel they’d be so disappointed if they met me. When you praised my work several years ago, then, you went on my “avoid” list. In all seriousness: I have made a sort of slow journey towards what we might call the Braunias aesthetic over the last decade or so. When I was in my twenties publishing unreadable poems in unobtainable literary journals I was hung up on postmodernism – if I’d been a tagger my signature would have been The Free Play of the Signifier. Nowadays I can’t think of anything more exciting than trying to describe something real – an island, a painting, a car crash – for someone who didn’t get to see it. For me, journalism is the new avant-garde.
Scholars will look back on this interview and note it as the first appearance of the term “the Braunias aesthetic”. But, reluctantly, getting back to you – there is a shocking absence of “something real” in your book, and that is, of course, ‘Ata. You didn’t go there. It’s the elephant not in the room. It’s an absence. But then who ever does go to ‘Ata? By choice? You tell the story of the 1964 castaways, the six teenagers who stole a boat, got lost at sea, and fetched up on the shores of ‘Ata, where they subsisted for 15 months. “The last authentic castaways the world has ever seen”, I think they’re described.
It’s a ghost island, ‘Ata, isn’t it? Abandoned. A vacant lot. 144 people, half the population, were whisked off the island in 1863 and put in the hold of a ship, never to be heard from again. So you didn’t see it with your own eyes; but what do you think of when you think of ‘Ata?
During my research I discovered that not many of the people whose ancestors lived on ‘Ata would like to return there permanently, for all their pride in their ancestors’ resourcefulness and their sorrow at the way they were ripped away from the island. ‘Ata is a tiny island, and climbing the cliffs that surround it can take days.
There isn’t really an admiration, in Tongan culture, for the person who seeks out remote places, much less lives in one. For decades a minor Danish aristocrat named Taavi lived in Tonga. He designed several buildings for the king, and was in return allowed to wander from island to island. Taavi grew his hair and beard long, and ordinary people would give him food, because they thought he looked like Jesus. But when Taavi settled for many years on the very remote island of Tafahi, and lived away from the island’s only village in a beachside shack that he had designed for himself, Tongans were bewildered. How, they wondered, could a man, and especially a man of such high rank, live alone?
Tongan society is incredibly social, and anyone who seeks solitude is considered odd. It is significant that Tonga had two forms of mental illness, ‘avanga ‘uta and avanga fanga, whose sufferers flee from the crowded world of the village to the bush and the deserted beach respectively. Tongans were always less interested in the idea that someone might return to ‘Ata than they were in the possibility that ‘Atans might be alive and well in some part of the world – Peru, or French Polynesia – far from ‘Ata.
A little later I want to ask you about the possibility of ‘Atan descendants alive and well in the world, but for now I just want to ask you how you can write a book about ‘Ata without setting foot on ‘Ata?
Over a couple of long nights around the kava bowl in the yard of Paul Janman’s fale, Kenneth Tuai and I planned an elaborate journey to ‘Ata. Kenneth is a direct descendant of survivors of the raid on the island, and he and I talked about yachts and winds and supplies. We’d created a very vivid and rather heroic image of ourselves and our journey. Then we met the Spanish adventurer Alvaro Cerezo, and watched his footage of the stay he’d just had on the island. We watched Alvaro sucking rotten water out of the hollows between banyan roots with a straw, then looked across the table and saw the greediness with which he was eating his mince pie, then looked at each other. We weren’t going to ‘Ata.
Fair call. But you did go to the closest thing to ‘Ata – the village of Kolomaile, on the island of ‘Eua, where the people left behind in the 1863 raid had re-settled. Apart from Tongatapu and the beautiful resort island of Fava, the only island I’ve been to in Tonga was Ha’apai, when I was working on a story about the incredible 1963 Minerva Reef shipwreck, when so many Tongan men died on a godforsaken reef when their boat smashed into it, and all would have died but for an incredible voyage on a home-made raft by two or three survivors. So I went to Ha’apai and it was shocking. I mean it was so Third World. It seemed like it was barely tied together.
Before I left on the trip, I packed a whole lot of colouring-on books and colouring pencils for Tongan kids; I went to a church on Ha’apai, and made the offering, and there were kids there and they looked at the books like they were objects from outer space. It was so poor and the people were so lovely.
Was it like that on ‘Eua, at the village of the last people of ‘Ata? Please describe Kolomaile. You went there. Was it poor, dusty, hanging on?
I’m fascinated by your description of the Ha’apai archipelago, and your feeling that you’d arrived there from another, vastly more affluent planet. A Tongan engineer who’d gone there to oversee relief work after a cyclone had the same impressions. He described the Ha’apai group as ‘desert islands’, and found their broken coconut trunks and rising lagoons oppressive.
But appearances are in some ways deceptive. The pro-democracy movement drew many of its leaders from the Ha’apai community, and Tonga’s visual arts scene has found a base there. The Seleka Club is a garishly and often outrageously decorated shack on the lagoon at the edge of Havelu where mostly Ha’apai artists meet to drink kava and paint and draw and sculpt and listen to loud music. The Club was founded by Tevita Latu, a former political prisoner and a hoarse-voiced advocate of democratic reform in Tonga.
I say all this because I think the impression of Ha’apai as a hopeless backwater is wrong, or at least only half-right. The people still living in Ha’apai are like adventurers manning a base camp, while the rest of their party goes off and explores the world, sending back news and – vitally – money.
As for Kolomaile – it’s the southernmost village in Tonga, the last of a line of villages connected by the road that runs down the plateau of ‘Eua Island. The only people who live south of Kolomaile are the inmates of Tonga’s maximum security prison, and one can understand why the ‘Euan plateau might have seemed a good stand-in for Siberia – between the blue forest of the ‘Euan highland and the deeper blue of the open Pacific, there aren’t a lot of doors to swing open.
Tonga is a relatively homogenous nation, especially compared to its Melanesian near-neighbours, but on little ‘Eua, which is barely the size of Waiheke, three distinct groups try to get along. There are the indigenous ‘Euans, who have been on the island for more than two thousand years; the descendants of the survivors of the slave raid on ‘Ata; and the people of Niuafo’ou, Tonga’s northernmost island, who traditionally speak their own, Samoic language, and were less than delighted when the Tongan government relocated them after their island’s volcano erupted in 1947. ‘Eua’s three groups maintain their own villages, sometimes on opposite sides of the same road.
Kolomaile is so close to Petani, a Niuafo’ouan village, and Ha’atu’a, a village of indigenous ‘Euans, that one requires a certain amount of esoteric knowledge to be able to differentiate one set of kava halls, churches, dusty chickens, and brawling dogs from another.
See, there you go again, telling me interesting things, putting it into a wider context, being understanding and nuanced, when all I asked was: what did it look like? It had one store, I think?
It had one store that was stapled to a pool shed made of corrugated iron. In many Tongan villages, and in almost all the suburbs of Nuku’alofa, Chinese now control retail. Since the riot that wrecked Nuku’alofa in 2006, most Chinese shopkeepers, even those with quite small shops, have begun to employ at least one Tongan, not to say hello or answer customer inquiries or stack crates but to signal an alliance with an extended local lineage. But Kolomaile’s very small shop is still owned by locals.
Like the rest of ‘Eua, the village feels remote. On a clear night the lights of Tonga’s international airport can be seen in the west, across the Tongatapu Channel, but there are many ‘Euans who have never been to Tongatapu, let alone flown out of that airport to the rest of the world. I wondered whether those distant flashing lights and the aircraft that rose above them with a soft roar tormented young and ambitious ‘Euans, in the same sort of way that the trains that rushed past the villages of Mississippi tormented Robert Johnson or Son House. We think of globalisation as shrinking the world, but across the Pacific it has in fact made remote islands more remote.
I know it’s late – 11.20pm already, and I’d promised you this’d wrap up at 11.30pm – but I wonder whether you’d mind if I asked you about an ancient grievance: that is, from 2012, when you wrote blogs critical of Radar’s TV series Radar Over the Pacific. They were programmes about Radar going to Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Raro, etc. You scorned them as not just once over light-ent, but also accused them of racism and ethnic stereotyping. There was also a memorably heated exchange between your collaborator Paul Janman and Radar’s director, Peter Bell, in the comments section. You wrote two or three blogs about the programme and you were pretty vitriolic. I liked that.
When I think back to those articles, I wonder whether I wasn’t falling victim to a type of insecurity that often affects people who are trapped in New Zealand but developing a love affair, whether requited or not, with the tropical Pacific. I was insecure, as I should have been, about my knowledge of places like Tonga and Kiribati, and about the extent of my relationships with the peoples of those places. And I was perhaps trying to make myself feel better by finding somebody even less knowledgeable than me and excoriating him at unreasonable length.
Ironically, I think, my ignorance about so many aspects of the Tongan world was probably my second greatest research tool when I lived in the kingdom. Because they felt sorry for me, old men would carefully explain a song or an historical event at the kava bowl. Kids would giggle at the sweating palangi with his of mosquito-bitten face and interrupt their game of beach rugby to escort him to the site of an ancient quarry. (My greatest research tool was my kids: after I’d brought them to church a whole village would be happy to talk to me, in exchange for a cuddle with them.)
I think I would have had a harder time if I had been a Tongan raised in Nu’u Sila. When I was teaching Creative Writing at ‘Atenisi I showed my students a fine poem (they hated it) by Karlo Mila called ‘Nuku’alofa Sestina’, in which she describes wandering around the capital of her supposed homeland and feeling unwanted and misunderstood. I think she was called a coconut – brown on the outside, white inside. I think it is much easier, sometimes, to be an ignorant outsider.
Well, this is the thing, isn’t it – there has been a flotilla of palangi fetching up in Tonga to pronounce upon it in some way or another. In your acknowledgements you refer to a book published in 1938 by a Charles Ramsay with the curious title Tin Can Island: A Story of Tonga and the Swimming Mail Man of the South Seas. I also note in your list of books in the acknowledgements that you do not make any reference to The Happy Isles of Oceania, in which Paul Theroux calls in on Tonga and sees a lot of fat people.
My own wanderings in Ha’apai were brisk, efficient, absurd – I strode around the Third World with a black briefcase. And I wasn’t there as any kind of scholar working many years on his subject; what had happened is that I was on a family holiday one summer, staying at a motel in Ruakaka, and the library in reception had a copy of Minerva Reef, which told the story of the 1963 shipwreck, and I was entranced by it and determined to go to Tonga to write about it. But it was really only one story among many. I was just passing through. Your involvement and participation with Tonga is much more than that – and still, though, you’re subject to accusations of not knowing what the fuck you’re talking about.
And here I resort to quoting a troll! There’s a guy called Anonymous on Reading the Maps who wrote about The Stolen Island, saying, “This book is rubbish. Tongans don’t believe it. …Your book has 4 pages on the so-called slave raid and the rest is about you and how wonderful you are…Pseudo history not worth reading. Marxist nonsense.”
Years ago, another of your trolls, also with the original name of Anonymous, wrote about your Great South Rd project: “… you’re just a white guy who wants to use brown people for your own agenda. This is no different from you driving down great south road gawping at people out your car window like were wildlife and you’re on safari.”
Well, let’s look at that; is there a sense here, do you think, of the palangi exploiting people for his intellectual vanity and his career? Are you a Paul Simon, finding excellent native rhythms for your Gracelands?
It is amazing how many palangi have been inspired by Tonga. I didn’t realise until recently that Lord Byron’s last long poem, The Island, is set largely in an imagined Tonga. Like many of the other Romantics, Byron had read William Mariner’s account of the years he spent as the youthful captive-guest of the Tongan warlord Finau Ulukalala. Edward Tregear, RAK Mason, and James Cowan all stopped by and scribbled. Ans Westra went to Tongatapu in the early ’60s seeking “the primitive”; she was disappointed, but produced a book anyway. I think Olaf Ruhen’s book about the Minerva Reef castaways is a masterpiece. Ramsay’s Tin Can Island isn’t a masterpiece but is full of the wonder of Niuafo’ou in the years before the eruption and evacuation of 1947 – the nickname Tin Can Island came because Niuafo’ouans made a habit of strapping cans full of letters to their hips, swimming out to passing ships, and throwing the island’s mail aboard.
Am I exploiting Tongans for my vanity and career? I mentioned Paul Janman’s Tongan Ark earlier: when that film was being put together and released out I watched how Paul dealt with Futa Helu’s family and the worldwide community of ‘Atenisi graduates. I noticed that he tried to share money he received as a result of the film with the family, and the way he used social media to keep ‘Atenisians up to date with his project. I also noticed the enormous and enthusiastic audience his film got when it premiered! I’ve tried to imitate Paul’s ways. It’s not up for me to judge whether I’ve been successful or not.
The dichotomies between brown and white, European and other, exploiter and exploited, break down just a little in Tonga. The kingdom was never colonised, and it is still illegal for palangi to own land there. Tongans rather than palangi evangelised many parts of the western Pacific – in places like Bougainville and New Guinea they established virtual colonies of their Free Wesleyan Church – and until relatively recently the official hymnbook of the Free Wesleyans had a song that hoped for the conversion and civilisation of Melanesian cannibals (the song was apparently withdrawn from the book after the minister in Sawana, the last Tongan village on Fiji, complained that it was making his work harder). For sensible reasons, Tongans have a long-standing custom of getting outsiders to head up their courts and police forces: when I suggested, at a kava party, that these important figures in the public service could be filled by Maori or Fijians or Papuans, rather than always by white Australians or New Zealanders, my remarks were treated with bewilderment and horror. And perhaps this is part of the reason why Futa Helu was so successful in Tonga: his dream of creating, at ‘Atenisi, a place where European and Polynesian cultures could come together appealed to the Europhilia of many Tongans.
Final question! Even though the night is young. Actually no, the morning is young: it’s 12.44am. You said earlier that Tongans were interested in the possibility “that ‘Atans might be alive and well in some part of the world – Peru, or French Polynesia – far from ‘Ata.” Meaning the modern day descendants of the ‘Atans who were sent to Peru to work as slave labour in 1863. There are glimpses, possible sightings, in your book that suggest these ‘Atans might actually be alive and well – there’s the story of a man on the bank of the Panama Canal who shouts out to someone on a passing ship, “I am Tongan. I am from ‘Ata, from the island of ‘Ata.” And there’s another story of a man somewhere in the middle of the US. A man cones walking down his driveway with dark skin and brown hair like an ‘Atan, and the name on his letterbox is ‘Atan. What do you think of those stories? Have you investigated, or is that too avant garde for you? It would be fantastic to find someone in some foreign field who is a direct descendant of one of the 144 people who were made to disappear.
In my book I talk about Isilei Latu, a man spotted on an Auckland beach in 1894 who identified himself as ‘Atan and claimed to have returned from slavery in South America and had a family in Auckland; I also talk about the island of Rapa ‘Iti, deep in the military zone of French Polynesia, where many descendants of a Tongan returned from slavery may live. I was hoping that the book would reach descendants of Isilei Latu, and also get some response from Rapa ‘Iti. I have had messages from a couple of Rapans saying that they know about their Tongan ancestor, but nothing yet from the Latus. And nobody has been Paita, the small fishing town at the top of Peru where 38 healthy former slaves, including possibly a number of Tongans, were dumped late in 1863. I was hoping that a film maker, with the resources that film makers seem to be able to get, might take this story all the way to these edges of the world.
The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata (Bridget Williams Books, $14.99) by Scott Hamilton is available at Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.