Lani Wendt Young, Pacific Laureate, won the University of South Pacific Press Prize for the short story collection Afakasi Woman, first released in 2012.

Adapt or die: Pacific Laureate Lani Wendt Young is not messing around

Lani Wendt Young writes powerful Pasifika women who summon earthquakes and crack whips of pure flame. Today, in a fierce lecture presented by the New Zealand Book Council, she landed hit after hit on the all-white castle of publishing, finishing with this rallying cry for change. 

I read Little House on the Prairie to my youngest child Bella, and she stops me with a frown: “Mum, where’s the Native American people? Isn’t that their land that Laura’s family keeps taking?” We read a Narnia book together and she shakes her head in disapproval: “How come there’s no black people in this book? I know there’s lots of black people in England.” At the close she says, “It’s a good story, but they left a lot out.” She can see what’s missing. Who is not there. Today’s generation is far more discerning than we ever were. They are #woke and because of that, they are unwilling to accept tired tropes and stale stereotypes. What does Bella read by choice then? She loves books. Her earlier favourite is The 26-Storey Treehouse. Because it’s funny and has comic sketches as well as words. But, she adds: “It fails the DuVernay Test because all the people in it are white so that’s not so great.”

Her current read? Veronica Roth’s Carve the Mark series. She won’t read my Telesā books because she says, “I already know everything that’s going to happen. We had to listen to you talk about them when you were writing!” She reads manga and Japanese anime comic strips online. She writes her own using an app she’s downloaded to her iPad. She has another app for writing her own books, which she illustrates with sneak photos she takes of her siblings when they’re not looking. She watches Korean dramas – and has to read all the English subtitles so I count that as reading a visual text. At school with her friends, they are writing an ongoing adventure drama where they are all superheroes in their own story. I listen to her talk excitedly about that day’s instalment and I am in awe of the complex world-building that these eleven-year-olds are engaging in. It’s world-building that includes discussions about racism, gender and even Donald Trump’s latest! I am reminded that while they may not be reading a dusty copy of War and Peace like I did (and wondering what the heck is going on), these young people are not lacking in stories and creative thinking. They may not be reading what we did. Or even how we did. But they are reading. Critically. And writing stories, with fierce creativity.

The digital era does not mean print books are dead. It’s not about one or the other. It’s about both. Researcher Maryanne Wolf has said that we are in a “hinge moment” between print and digital cultures, and that: “We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a ‘bi-literate’ reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums.” I am hopeful that Bella and her friends are a good example of what that bi-literate reading brain might look like in practice.

Parents and teachers have a key part to play in cultivating that new kind of brain in our youth. On my book tours to different countries, I am often hosted by Pasifika communities. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many parents who are passionate about making sure their children are reading good books, especially books where we are the centre. They buy them my ebooks, they drive two hours to bring their children to a book-signing event so they can meet a Samoan author in person and then they buy print copies for the entire family as well. I am grateful for dedicated teachers who read our stories with their students, organise author visits and are constantly seeking new ways to incorporate the digital world into their classroom learning.

Does the digital era spell death for all publishers? No, not all of them. There has never been a greater need for the support and guidance that a progressive and caring publisher can offer authors. But to thrive in this era, publishers must be innovative. There was a time when publishers wouldn’t go near a self-published author. And certainly wouldn’t think of doing limited-rights book deals. Last year I signed a hybrid contract with an amazing New Zealand publishing company – OneTree House – where I retain all my digital/audio/film book rights. They have opened doors I couldn’t on my own and are taking my books to new audiences. It was nerve-wracking for me to sign over any control of my books at all after being in charge of them for so long, but so far, it’s felt like we’re working in a partnership. We have a shared vision for my books and that’s how it should feel when you’re working with a publisher.

Tearing down the castle: The Warehouse has just started stocking some of Lani Wendt Young’s books. (They’ve been at Unity for ages). Images supplied.

I am in awe of publishers like Huia and Little Island Press which do so much to nurture and develop diverse writers in New Zealand. I know there are others like them. The Māori Literature Trust aren’t a publisher, of course, but their work is so vital to the growth of New Zealand literature and we have many more novels and stories because of them.

To others in the New Zealand book world? Publishers, reviewers, literary organisations and award trusts. A few words of advice: Adapt or die. If your staff hiring practices aren’t diverse – then change them. When your staff are a blur of white-bread homogeneity, then most likely your book list, your reviews and your award winners will be too. If you don’t publish any Māori, Pacific Islander, or Asian and Indian writers (or review any), then you’re participating in their deliberate silencing. Ask yourself, why is that? Take concrete steps to fix that. Not only because it’s the right thing to do. (Although it is.) But because your business, your organisation, won’t survive otherwise. As author Ambelin Kwaymullina put it: “There is a limit to how long literature can peddle the fantasy of a non-diverse world to readers who are living in a diverse reality.”

Readers are waking up. If you don’t change, you will become obsolete. It may not happen overnight, but it will happen.

A few words for writers in the digital era, particularly we of the preferably unheard variety. Albert Wendt has said: “We need to write, paint, sculpt, weave, dance, sing and think ourselves into existence. For too long, other people have done it for us … we have to write our own stories.” Very true, but I don’t think just writing our own stories is enough. Because there are still so many castle-keepers who tell us what’s good enough to publish and what isn’t, what’s literature, what’s marketable and what isn’t. Yes, we must write our own stories, but we must also be strong enough and fiercely creative enough to ensure that those stories are not deliberately silenced.

How do we do this? Remember, the internet is your friend. Yes, submit your book to agents if that’s your vision, but don’t sit around moping while you wait for publishers to see how amazing your work is. Start a blog. Join online writers’ groups. Work on your craft. Write fanfiction and build a following. Connect with others writing like you. There’s strength and fire in numbers. Form a collective, cross-promote each other’s work. Publish an anthology together. Take a multi-media approach to your writing and then you can engage with a wider audience. Publish short stories for free download on Amazon, start growing your readership. By the time your novel is published, you will already have a dedicated circle of readers who love what you write and are eager to snap up your book. Be entrepreneurial. Set up a Patreon account. Learn about indie publishing. Recognise that it’s not either/or. If you self-publish a book, it doesn’t mean you’re forever put into a box stamped UNTOUCHABLE. ONLY LOSERS LIVE HERE.

The digital era means more choice. More power and control in our hands to write whatever we want to, breaking any or all of the literary rules, if that’s what our story requires. It means the power to publish and distribute those stories, to have an impact on the conversation. To critique the structures that systematically smother us.

In saying that, my appeal to all of us is to be mindful of the ways that we can gate-keep each other, of how we can internalise white-castle thinking and become complicit in our own silencing. When we say – oh she’s not a real Tongan because she grew up in New Zealand, or his book isn’t Samoan enough, or their poetry is too graphic and rude to be Pasifika – what do we even mean by that? Where are we getting these arbitrary standards from? Who appointed us the cultural identity police?

Or when we buy into the ‘single story’, the categorisation of Māori or Pacific literature as being only one kind of generic genre, and there being only one type of Māori or Pacific writer. When we adopt the sneer of castle-keepers towards indie authors and their ebooks. I’ve been asked by brown academics, “When are you going to write a real novel?” Because YA and romance don’t count as novels? I’ve sat in the front row at conferences and listened to brown experts talk about how sad it is that there’s nobody else writing Pacific literature novels. (Hello, I’m right here and I can give you a list of names of my Samoan indie author friends.)

Just because the white castle-keepers believe only three of us should exist at any one time, that doesn’t mean we should think that also. We need to support and raise each other up. Whether we are writing literary novels or genre fiction. Whether we have gained #goldenticket admission to the castle or we are navigating the vast ocean beyond its walls.

To my father Tuaopepe Dr Felix Wendt, who smashed down walls so I didn’t have to, believed in my writing long before I did and always encouraged the fire of my fiapoto – Lani’s dedication. Image supplied.

To conclude, if the dream is for a New Zealand canon of literature that is intersectional, that’s truly representative of all, then the answer, for many of us, is not found in the castle. It’s out there, in the lush foliage of the unregulated rainforest that teems with life. Or, even further, to the beckoning blue. Just as our ancestors left the safety of familiar shores and voyaged across thousands of miles of the Moana, we too can look beyond the horizon of what we are accustomed to and venture out into the unknown. Digital indie publishing is the fastest, most affordable way to take the stories of our Blue Continent to the world. But, perhaps even more important, it is on our own terms. No walls, no gatekeepers.

Will it be overwhelming at times? Even a bit scary? Probably. Will it be hard work and require that you learn lots of new skills? Definitely. Will you make millions of dollars? No. Will you put food on the table with your writing? Yes. (Maybe not steak and lobster every night, no. But a can of tuna and some rice, yes.) Will you feel, sometimes, like you’re sinking under the load of doing marketing and promotions, as well as writing fabulous new stories at the same time? Like, this is too much, it’s too hard? Yes, there will be those days.

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But after ten years of writing in the wild, I promise you that it can also be glorious. Out there, away from the castle lights?

You can see the stars. Faafetai lava.

The full lecture can be read, and downloaded as an ebook, here

Telesā, by Lani Wendt Young (OneTree House, $27) is available at Unity Books


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