One Question Quiz
Collage of Māori and Pacific women set over exuberant illustration of yellow sunburst.
Some of the writers involved with Tatou Publishing and its first book, Vā (Photos: Supplied; Design: Archi Banal)

BooksJanuary 16, 2022

Tatou Publishing is here to rock the va’a

Collage of Māori and Pacific women set over exuberant illustration of yellow sunburst.
Some of the writers involved with Tatou Publishing and its first book, Vā (Photos: Supplied; Design: Archi Banal)

Sisilia Eteuati introduces a new press that will support indigenous women of the moana. 

Adapt or die. That’s what Lani Wendt Young told the entire New Zealand publishing world in her 2019 Read NZ Te Pou Muramura Pānui.

It takes a particular mix of fiapoto and bravery to speak those words in a room full of the establishment that has long looked down on you and those like you.

I know a lot of kick-ass, amazing, strong women. Basically, that is the only type of friend I want or need in my life. I believe all our relationships should make us better people. None of this, “you should just accept people as who they are”. I want people in my life who make me a better, stronger version of myself.

Lani is all that and a bag of chips. Taro chips – because they’re the best kind.

Photograph of a Samoan woman, hibiscus behind her ear, one hand over most of her face. Beautiful tatou on her hand.
Lani Wendt Young (Photo: Supplied)

A lot of people assume that Lani and I know each other because we are both Sāmoan, and both grew up in Sāmoa. Of course I had seen her – infinitely cool, infinitely beautiful and infinitely smart – from afar. But she was older than me, in her early 20s when I was a teenager. So we only met via blogging many years later. I was based in Australia and travelling a lot for work, and lonely. And she was here in Aotearoa. Away from home and in the diaspora, we looked into the digital vā, we wrote into it, we told stories as is the way of our people. In that space and across oceans Lani and I met and bonded. We have never lived in the same country since we met online, but we have an engaged and active friendship where we are in touch most days.

We are in touch because we share the same passions and values, we are in touch because of the frustrations we often share as Samoan women experiencing too-white worlds – and perhaps most of all, we are in touch because we are both super fiapoto. In fact, fiapoto is our superpower. We have so many views about the ways things could be better.

It is from that fiapoto that Tatou Publishing was born. It’s also what drove us to co-edit and publish our first book, Vā: Stories by Women of the Moana, in less than two months. 

We put out a call for stories from Moana (a term I am using for both Māori and Pasifika) women on 12 November 2021. We had an apparently unheard-of timeframe: we wanted stories in two weeks. But here is the thing: we put out the call in a group of Moana wāhine writers – a group that had been long established but recently revived. A tsunami is often caused by an earth shift and the revitalising of this group was the earth shift for Vā – it’s as if with all these wāhine together, the energy and the stories just could not be contained.

So we didn’t just get a trickle of stories, we got a powerful wave, from women who had long awaited a chance like this, who trusted us with their strong and beautiful stories. Stories that came from across the moana with no colonial boundaries. We got stories from Cook Islander, Chamorro, Erub Islander (Torres Strait), Fijian, Hawaiian, Māori, Ni-Vanuatu, Papua New Guinean, Rotuman, Sāmoan and Tongan writers, who lived both on their own fanua and in far-flung places across the world. Stories from established award-winning authors and poets, and from first-timers. This spoke to the depth of relationships long nurtured. It spoke to the trust and aroha between all of us tamaita’i, tusitala and wāhine writers. 

Thirty-eight women wrote more than 50 original works; more than 98,000 words. We published the ebook on 23 December. The initial presales placed it #1 worldwide on Amazon in Pacific and Oceanic Literature. 

According to traditional publishers, none of these stories – nor the audience – should exist.

We launch the physical book in Tāmaki Makaurau next month.

Stunning book cover, featuring a painting all in blues and blacks, of a Pacific woman seated, arms wrapped round her knees, hair spreading like seaweed. She looks confident and strong.
The cover art is a portrait by Lalovai Peseta of his wife, fellow artist Nikki Mariner-Peseta (Image: Supplied)

Every good origin story can’t only have a hero, it also needs a villain. Indian author Arundhati Roy said in her 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture: “There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” 

I remember when I did my master’s of creative writing – two out of 12 of us in the course were Moana writers. The “nice” palagi on the course openly told us we were “lucky” that we had an “in”. 

There is nothing quite like the cognitive dissonance of palagi people who think that brown people are having a “moment” because they’ve noticed a few of them are being published now.  Meanwhile, statistics about books published in Aotearoa show that more than 90% are by Pākehā writers. Those are 2015 numbers. I wish I could give you more recent statistics – I can’t, because they are not collected or updated routinely. Let’s pause for a minute to consider why that might be. What do we say about how much it matters, when we can’t be bothered to count.

When Lani talks about this in her lecture she recounts her own experience of being an author. In 2011 she submitted her novel Telesā to 30 publishers. They all turned it down. Not enough of a market, apparently. Lani then briefly mentions that she self-published. What she does not say (because of modesty and the classic “we must never ever talk about money and numbers”) is that Telesā’s first New Zealand print run of 3000 books sold out in only a few months. To put that in perspective, most print runs in New Zealand are for about 300 books. On Amazon, Telesā hit #1 in Top Rated Romance and in World Literature, ahead of thousands of other books. Ten years later, Telesā is still wildly popular in both print and ebooks – a reminder that books by Moana writers do have a market, they do sell and people worldwide do want to read them. 

This isn’t an article about the downtrodden – because we aren’t. Our people are voyagers and navigators. Everyone knows there are far more Sāmoans in the diaspora than in our islands. And we have superpowers. You will find Sāmoans everywhere in the world who are immensely successful, in all different walks of life. This is highly visible in sports and the arts but also in business and politics and government. We are generally fantastic at navigating other people’s waters and ways.

And still. Sometimes we forget about our own. Sometimes we are too busy checking the compass (because that is the way of the western world) to remember to look up at the stars that have long guided us. To remember the old ways. 

Tatou Publishing is not about one book. It’s about a different way of doing things that empowers writers and indigenous storytellers. We do not say a new way – this is the way of our Moana cultures, this is the way of our ancestors, and their knowledge is in our bones and blood. This is about us. All of us. It is about the strength of the collective and about helping each other.

This is a call – vala’au. And we have been so grateful for the tali – the answering.

Tatou Publishing is committed to working with writers and fully sharing with them each and every step of the process, including all incomings and outgoings. We are committed to normalising us and our languages so we don’t italicise or include glossaries. We are happy for people to learn our words the way we learnt theirs – through context. We are committed to a cooperative approach, where we all bring our industry experience to the table to share and draw on our communal networks to help promote each other’s work. We are committed to ensuring writers don’t have to wait forever to hear back; we give meaningful and useful feedback with a yes or no in a short time period (in the case of Vā it was within a week). 

Our vision is one of not just doing it for ourselves but empowering others – and that stands, regardless of whether they are working with us or they wish to self-publish, or even if they’re working with western “traditional” publishers. It is our hope that after their Vā anthology experience, all the contributors will have the skills they need to publish and promote their own books, if that is one of their goals. 

We want our Moana stories out there in the world in all their diversity. We stand fully with indigenous writers and storytellers getting their stories out in the world in any and every way. The world needs them.

Nine photos of happy wāhine brandishing phones/kindles, showing their copy of Vā: Stories of Women of the Moana
Some of the writers of Vā with their e-books (Image: Twitter)

Lani and I are fortunate in many ways, and we acknowledge our own privilege. We were both brought up in Sāmoa among our own people and culture and values, so this was not a huge pivot for us. We are both privileged too because, having sources of income independent from writing, we do not rely on the literary establishment in Aotearoa. We are able to undertake this project out of alofa alone. We can afford to call it as we see it, we don’t worry about being snubbed, we are able to rock the va’a. 

The stories, we think, speak for themselves.

Witi Ihimaera, in his inspiring 2015 Book Council Lecture, discusses writing Aotearoa New Zealand into existence. We all love Witi – his novels have been a touchstone for us all. But there is no point in writing ourselves into the world, in telling the stories, without making them widely available for people to read.

And this is also a wero. Adapt or die, Lani said three years ago. While some publishers are doing amazing work – for example Victoria University Press (now Te Herenga Waka University Press) with their recent offerings like Sista, Stanup Strong! – it’s not just the books that need decolonisation. It’s the very processes themselves. And for every publishing house that won’t? It’s OK. We will. We will start up our own publishing houses – like Huia Publishers, who last year celebrated 30 years of indigenous publishing. Huia have changed the landscape in terms of normalising publishing in te reo and made significant inroads into normalising publishing in languages like Sāmoan.  

There are others. Publishing houses like Anahera Press, Ala Press, and Mila Books. Like Tatou Publishing.

We do not need crumbs of compassion from others tables, we can serve up an entire feast. All day. Every day. 

On Christmas Eve, I drove from the south side, where I live, across the bridge in peak it’s-past-5pm-are-you-stupid traffic. The sun was bright and the sky a startling blue which meant it was as hot and humid as back in the islands. I’d frantically texted the amazing printer and asked him to stay open especially for me. He had asked the day before if I wanted the book proof couriered. Definitely not. We were chasing an early February launch so I needed to put in the order before Christmas and, to do that, I needed to see the proof. 

There was nothing quite like holding those 98,000 words of story, a manifestation of our collective spirit and our collective power in my hands. It’s been a long time since I have been in Sāmoa; we are in the middle of a pandemic. But holding those stories in my hand, it felt like coming home.

O le tausaga fou. It is a new year. Let’s look with the eyes of our ancestors and use their deep truths, and imagine something better.

Vā: Stories by Women of the Moana is available as an ebook for about $8. The physical book launches on 11 February. 


Keep going!