The Pacific has lost one of its great scholars, activists, champion of the arts and leading lights with the passing of Dr Teresia Teaiwa. Teresia’s impact in the Pacific was as expansive as the ocean which carried her across the region from Hawaii, Kiribati, Fiji and Aoteroa. In her poetry and scholarship she would turn to the Pacific Ocean as a metaphor of a universality that connects Pacific and oppressed peoples. Writing of the diasporic condition which brought her to the makariri (cold) of Wellington she wrote of ‘toes born in the tropics … it’s hard to believe this is the same ocean’. In the words of her doctoral mentor Angela Davis, Teresia saw ‘the ocean as a medium of connection as opposed to separation’.
Her friends spare no superlative in recalling Teresia’s impact on their lives. The word that her colleagues from the University of the South Pacific return to is ‘transformational’. Robert Nicole called her ‘utterly inspiring’ and the benchmark for Pacific Studies. The ‘anti-thesis of the arm-chair intellectual’, her work was critically connected to Pacific communities and sought to break the neocolonial trappings of academia while modelling utmost rigor. She embodied the concept of Talanoa as pedagogy requiring her students to share their work with their communities in order to keep critical knowledge accessible and reciprocal. In her own practice as a cultural studies scholar and poet she championed storytelling and art as the intellectual inheritance of Pacific people. Her successful efforts in popularising the writings Epeli Hau’ofa was concomitant with the intellectual project of reimaging Oceania as one people, those ‘who sweat and cry salt water … [and] know that the ocean really is in our blood’. Davis describes the relationship of the two forms in her work as lending her rigorous scholarship a poetic quality while ‘her poetry always produce[d] new knowledge’.
Teresia was a scholar of the post and neocolonial condition and understood her role as an academic as being a commitment to universal principles of emancipation and forging solidarities between oppressed peoples. Her work on gender, anti-imperialism and against ‘corporate and state collusions around extractive industries’ was truly Oceanic in scope, spanning Kanaky, Hawaii, Aoteroa, Fiji, Guam, West Papua and French Polynesia to name a few. Teresia’s visage was a common sight on the steps of Parliament in Wellington in solidarity with West Papua and she was very active in union struggles for a Living Wage and resisting the neoliberal university. She was a forceful critic of Fiji’s coup-plotters in 2000, chiding the ethno-nationalists as utterly illegitimate: ‘the problem with Fijian nationalism is that there is no Fijian nation’, she wrote. Teresia shattered the myth of a unified i-Taukei nation, and spoke of an elite that ‘sacrificed the economic and cultural wellbeing of a people for the advancement of a few’.
Her own background positioned her at the intersection of Pacific intersections allowing her to brilliantly speak to the particular and the universal in cultural and identity struggles. Born in Hawaii to an African-American mother and a father from Kiribati, Teresia was raised in Fiji, and understood the impact of militarism both as forms of violence but also as a geographic force shaping worlds. Some of her most powerful writing was concerned with the relationship between imperialism, martial cultures and gender exploitation. The Pacific was violently disrupted by the nuclear age with the testing of weapons on Bikini atoll but as she noted in Militarism, Tourism and the Native, this act of violence and expropriation was also gendered. ‘Bikini’, a name which should invoke a harrowing story expropriation and nuclear terror, is now synonymous with a Western leisure culture and tourism which has instrumentalised Pacific societies.
Her commitment to anti-imperialism was both strong and considered. Her study of female Fijian military enlistees sought to understand the complexity of these institutions and how women navigated them in order to access expanded citizenship rights. The bind of this militarised feminism of inclusion was a strengthened Fijian ethno-nationalism and the continued South-North transfer of Fijians as peacekeepers and mercenaries for broader military interests. These contradictory victories were cuttingly surmised in her poem ‘Peacekeeping’:
This is the house Peacekeeping built…this is the four-wheel drive…these are the dentures for my dad….these are the photographs from our Gold Coast holiday…these are the salty peanut flavored snacks…this is the life
While her critique was incisive there is no shortage of joy in her work and legacy. Teresia’s friends all speak of an immense warmth and connection to all the people around her regardless of station. Nicole spoke of an uncanny ability to engage people around her ‘and let the encounter grow almost seamlessly into something bigger and deeper than you first thought was possible’. This connectedness was an innate politics of the everyday beautifully captured in her poem ‘Porirua Market with Susanna and Jessie’. It is fitting that Gilles Deleuze serves as her reference point for a politics of affective encounters. Teaiwa asks ‘let’s try a rhizome theory of the revolution?’. The sounds and tastes of the market, the ‘shouldertoshoulderbustlingbrown’ of people is rich in diasporic dreams and echoes. It’s simultaneously a space of dislocation and reunion that evokes:
past struggles worth each bead of brine each bloody ear
because here you can meet Bernard Narokobi
who wrote his country’s constitution
and is as humble now as he was when he wrote it
This is what Davis describes as the ‘poetic vision [which] shaped her sense of what was possible in the world’. The masses of the diaspora at Porirua market are simultaneously deracinated and connected, able to reimagine themselves and the world.
Across the Pacific this week the Ocean has been a medium of connection for an outpouring of love and sadness from Teresia’s friends. Her legacy can easily be measured in her institutional impact on the field of Pacific Studies and what USP’s Claire Slatter described as ‘more than a lifetime’s work in her short life’. However it is this richness of colliding worlds, searing critique and emancipatory joy in her work that best capture her enduring contribution. The reflections of radical icon Angela Davis are a soaring testament to this impact:
I realize how much more I learned from her than she from me. These invaluable lessons, especially about the Pacific, the need for new modes of feminism, the scholarly and activist import of anti-militarism, are as – or even more – relevant today.
Image courtesy of Victoria University.