Originally published in the Asian American Literary Review (Fall 2013)
Interview conducted by Craig Santos Perez
What was it like for you growing up as a “mixed-race” Pacific islander?
Tanya Chargualaf Taimanglo: Growing up on Guam was wonderful overall, except for the fact that I didn’t always fit in with the Chamorro look (Who does? We’re all so varied). I didn’t have the rich tones of my father’s skin, I didn’t speak the native language, and although I respected and practiced the culture I was raised in–I was always defending my “Chamorro-ness”. Even within my extended family, I felt shunned sometimes because I was half Korean. My mother and father taught me to keep my head up, even though as I child I was made to feel ashamed of being only half Chamorro by my peers. In the end, my mixed heritage makes me feel stronger and connected to others–and I wouldn’t trade my ethnicities for all the fina’dene or kimchee in the world.
Grace Taylor: I spend 80% of my poetry describing, writing, sharing on this very question. In essence, my experience growing up as afa kasi is mostly about feeling my own a sense of belonging and feeling owned to a sense of belonging by my English and Samoan Families and communities and also the community I crew up in South Auckland, NZ.
My experience is also hugely around accessability and the lack there of, rather it was avaliable (eg; language, practice of fa’a Samoa) but I was in a way held back from accessing these of what I though at the time was ‘I wasn’t good enough’ to what I have come to learn was my family ‘fear of me trying and being embarrassed to get it wrong’.
I do remember very clearly growing up fair skinned in a predomintely brown Pacific community and school enviroment ( I am talking literally 1 of 2 palangi looking kids in the class all the time) wishing that I was browner, and at times hating my white skin and blonde hair.
Karlo Mila-Schaaf: I grew up predominantly in a Palangi (or white) environment, surrounded by my Palangi cousins and extended family. We were close and tight-knit and descended (actually) from an afa kasi Samoan family – my Great-Grandmother (alive until I was 14) was born in Samoa with her many sisters, although they were blue eyed and fair skinned. There was not a trace of it to be seen in the faces of my Palangi family, but the ethos of aiga was very strong. I was seamlessly a part of this family which my world revolved around, and I did not ‘see’ colour, my own, for a very long time. I did, however, see my own father’s “brown-ness” in relation to “us” and I’ve seen pictures that I drew of him when I was a child was using a black felt-tip pen. The fact that my father could not read or write, was an ex-gang member, a pool shark, a tradesman, a macho street brawler, alongside his ethnicity and broken English, probably contributed to the way that I constructed him as felt-tip pen black at playcentre (by primary school I would have chosen ‘brown’) and as different from my middle class Palangi family as I could imagine. I wrote stories about him in playcentre that said, “My Daddy eats spider sandwiches” cue black felt-tipped face and a lunchbox filled with black spiders. We went to two playcentres. One I felt very comfortable at, which was multicultural and one which was filled with posh white kids called names like Timothy and Tabitha. I felt very out of place at the posh one with all the blonde children in their bright corderoys and I knew, even before I knew, that there was something about me that was somehow a bit ‘dirty’ a bit not quite ‘right’, a bit ‘not quite white’. The child of a white playcentre Mother and trained kindergarten teacher, I was trained to be charming and polite. It wasn’t always enough.
When I was at primary school, I recall struggling to decide what colour to colour in myself knowing that I was not “pink” and not as brown as the dark brown felt-tip would make me, choosing instead, after some internal working-out-of-the-problem, the colour orange. I recall my teacher, Miss Pearson (pink-coloured) telling me off about it and saying that people were NOT ORANGE. I clamped my mouth closed and never drew anyone orange again, but knowing inside of myself, that she was wrong.
My desire to make things all right for my Dad, and “people LIKE my Father” is probably the unconscious motivator for most of what I’ve accomplished in my life. When I’ve rebelled, broken rules or made serious judgment errors, his inability to be bound by any rules and desire to constantly bend them, break them or at least call them into question, can also probably be traced to my Father.
Growing up I was taught by my white mother how to survive in white environments and deflect – if not avoid – overt racism. This was by understanding exactly what was going on in their heads and constantly countering it. Which was exhausting. Needless to say I was a high achieving brown girl from the wrong side of the tracks that constantly wowed white people with my well spoken good manners and cleverness. However, by age 14 or 15, I met my first decolonising indigenous radical who taught me via a ruthless induction, that I was not in fact a potato – “white on this inside, brown on the outside”, that the world was not as fair and level-playing as I had been led to believe, that he was not in the least impressed by me, and that New Zealand did not belong (morally, culturally or spiritually) to the white people who pretended to be in charge by virtue of their so-called superiority. He called this superiority into question in radical and destablising ways. (It seemed to be such an unspoken given). It was a cataclysmic experience at the time, that undid much of my learning during my childhood.
I was, consequently, an angry and rebellious teenager who defied many of the rules, and had to balance this with my ingrained and well trained desire to please everybody all of the time. Having grown up poor, raised by an illiterate but ambitious migrant father, I was frightened about not doing well at school because I may end up “stuck like my Mother” on the wrong side of town married to a charming rogue who could not provide the opportunities (and swimming pools) that might have been possible “if… he could read” etc etc. He wanted much better for me. I had hated being poor. I was proud and pissed off about this. It was a complicated legacy. I was desperate for a ticket out and poured a lot of energy into winning scholarships (for brown girls) and did exactly that.
I think that as “half caste” (a word that I was told by a childhood friend was “bad” because she was told off by her Mother for using it… ) when I was a child, this was about being half-something else – whatever my Dad was…. (which I was vague about, knowing that it was different). Later on in my life, it meant something very different – something more to do with not being a real Tongan.
I was acutely aware (as a child) that beyond my immediate extended family I didn’t ever “instantly belong” and instead of being ‘neutral’ as ‘white’ I was always racialised as “brown”. At the same time, I did “belong” more than many, because I was popular and pretty and outgoing enough to be widely liked. There were all kinds of privilege at play… I did not feel inferior to anyone. I often felt superior to others. And in fact, truth be told, and it probably pissed other people off. I felt superior somehow, to my privileged rich white friends who had things handed to them on a plate, and seemed to me to be, clueless and not hard-working. It did made me quite tough. I also never assumed that I wouldn’t fit in, despite taking it for granted that I would never completely effortlessly ‘belong’. I would have to work hard to ‘connect’ and show things that we had in common in very subtle ways. This had to somehow appear effortless. After a while, it probably was… Later, I think, I didn’t feel the need to prove myself so much. But this was much later, when I was much more comfortable in my skin.
It probably doesn’t surprise me, retrospectively, that I married a “full” (real) Tongan who spoke the language fluently and fit in easily / seamlessly / effortlessly with other Tongans. One of the positives, I think, about never completely / easily / seamlessly / effortlessly simply ‘belonging’ (except around other “half-castes” in a similar situation) is that you are often ultra-sensitive to your surroundings and context. You really pay attention. This acute ability to pay attention, to notice unspoken cues, body language, tone, and so on, is part of what makes me a writer I think. The other part of what I think might make a writer is that ‘space’ between yourself and other, or yourself and all the action, or your construction of the situation and reality, between reality and multiple preferred truth(s). This is productive and creative space I think, there’s all sorts of room for all sorts of alternatives (stories, poems, so on)…
What have been the joys and struggles of writing about your multiple heritages in your writing?
Grace Taylor: Poetry has been the ONLY tool that I have had that has allowed me to talk, share, explore my experience of being afakasi.
It has been the language that makes the most sense to me among so many languages, and through it I have been able to coin new terms that full express how I feel eg; ‘islandfiy’ & fa’a afakasi”. That is for sure a joy. Another joy would be writing about my experience and then performing/sharing it has given permission not only for myself, but my family, friends, strangers, other afakasi, non afakasi to have dialogue about this ‘loaded’ topic. I would like to think it invites conversation. I know it is only through my writing that I have been able to navigate to and through conversations with my mother and family that I have needed to have but have otherwise been to shy or unknowing to have.
I think the largest struggle I have had would be most evident in the past year, for the first time I was being challenged on the term ‘afakasi’ and my use of it. Sadly, mostly from my own people. Asking me things like, “why use that term? afakasi isn’t a land, you are either Samoan or not, afakasi is not a race”. This of course hurt and made me angry but I totally used that to my creative advantage and it has fuelled not only new poetry but my angles on this topic in both my writing and performance.
I have never been afraid to write about being afakasi, it belongs to me and I to it. It will always be a struggle and a joy, and for me, a afakasi experience.
Tanya Chargualaf Taimanglo: “Mom? How many bloods do we have?” This is a common question from my seven year old son. I have two predominant heritages, Chamorro and Korean. My children, factoring in their father’s DNA have eight ethnicities. It’s a beautiful and dizzying thing all at once. Most times I’m the tough Chamorro chick who speaks her mind, learned from the matrilineal past of Guam. Other times, I strive to be the demure, obedient, silent Korean daughter.
Being half Chamorro and half Korean has been a balancing act. Although I grew up on Guam and lived the Chamorro culture, all I had to do was look into my mom’s porcelain face and be reminded of my Korean half.
In my writing, I write what I know and I know of living and evolving on Guam. My writing does not lend fairness to my Korean side, there is no yin and yang, but maybe in the end, the final story does hold elements of both of my motherlands. I was conscious of this disharmony, so in my last published short story, “Reach”, I asked for my mother’s permission to tell her love story with my father. It’s a love story that beautifully unfolds in South Korea and blossoms on Guam. It was my consciousness and struggle with balance to honor both my mother and father in my writing that helped me create this imprint of my heritage.
I can’t complain; my well is deep with options and mixed experiences that I can pull from.
Karlo Mila-Schaaf: Hmm, all my heritages seem to make their way onto page. I can’t help it, I write about what moves me and all the pieces of the puzzle have stories that need to be told. These are different voices, different parts of my history… one of my fav poems about multiple bloods is written by Glenn Colquhoun, he writes about each warring faction of his ancestors that (in terms of going to war, battles, takeovers, colonisation etc) do not settle easily within his blood. I guess I am also interested in the histories of attraction and cross-pollination. The way that sex, essentially, has created all of this intermingling and how at the end of the day we’re so the same, but so different.
I have written a couple of poems specifically about being hafe kasi and I’m pretty happy with them…. hard won resolutions of really difficult issues. I guess, though, that one of the struggles is that need to categorise that other people have. I recall that when I wrote that I was Tongan and Pakeha on my book blurb, Huia removed the reference to Pakeha… because I guess as a Maori Publisher predominantly, if their authors are Maori, they don’t feel the need to acknowledge Pakeha ancestry alongside that. It’s a weird thing to do, maybe, in that context. But I insisted it be in there, otherwise the Tongan mafia would complain that I am trying to pass myself off as purely Tongan and that would be a kiss of death for me, trying to pretend to be something that I’m not. It’s like Albert Wendt asking me if I felt Samoan enough to be included in a Samoan anthology of writing. I said, I have poems about my Samoan heritage and engaging with Samoa, but we agreed that I identify primarily as Tongan and we did not want the Samoan cultural mafia to come after me… So there are tensions, when you are more than one – and therefore – less than one as well.
Pasifika, tends to me, to be a more open category than Tongan, which is tied to a whole lot of cultural expectations of a certain way of performing identity and the ability to speak Tongan etc. I am proud to be Tongan of course and was uber-proud to be nominated to represent Tonga at the poetry Olympiad event. What was so refreshing at that event, was that so many people were culturally complicated – a bit of this and that, the Nigerian poet who grew up down the road in London, the Hong Kong poet living in San Francisco etc… all this kind of thing. We are a culturally complicated world, less “pure” than we imagine ourselves I think… and we’ve been intermixing – or essentially – having sex across cultural boundaries for much longer than we like to admit. I think this ‘half-caste’ thing is nothing new actually. It’s been going on forever. Even when you read the old mythologies, it’s all about a girl from Tonga and a bloke from Samoa and so on. It speaks to the power of the erotic, as Audre Lorde writes about… it’s what keeps the world pro-creating and continuing on – one of the most powerful forces of the universe :) the good old crush! Will go finish cooking dinner for my own kids now. Phew, lots of work post-pro-creating!!!
Tanya Chargualaf Taimanglo: Purity. We strive for purity, but we can’t ever attain it, can we? I think purity can be boring actually. There are so many reasons to draw lines in the sand, but really, our worlds intermingle all the time. As long as you honor your origins, no matter how many you may have, then you are doing yourself and your ancestors justice.
The theme of mixed heritage is a very important one in Pacific literature because we are all products of or linked to this mixing of cultures–whether it’s from a beautiful place such as two people from different countries falling in love or if it’s from somewhere darker such as colonialism.
The one author whom I’m currently excited about is Lani Wendt Young. Her young adult fiction is making waves and connecting to the Pacific Islander audience because it melds lore from Samoa with a modern love story. Young’s main character, Leila is of mixed heritage and it’s her journey to Samoa that is fascinating and relatable. Young’s Telesa series proves that people of the Pacific have a voice, a very strong one.
Grace Taylor: When I first started writing about my identity I was so green and nieve to what the wider poetry world was, let alone other poets that thought and wrote about similar experiences. So the first poets I ever read that are ‘mixed race’ and I fully connected with were Selina Marsh and you, Karlo. When I read your poetry I felt so encouraged and inspired. Karlo, by your real telling of life long experience growing up afa kasi and in a cheeky way to (a way that only we can hehe) and Selina opened my mind up to the in direct poetic way of writing. I think I have worded that right?
When I started my Masters in Youth Developed and decided I wanted to combine, spoken word poetry, afakasi identity and youth development as my core focus of study I very quickly found out that it was ONLY in the creative Arts, in particular poetry, that truly provided ‘evidence’ of the afakasi experience. No identity theories about hybrid identities etc connected with being a NZ born afakasi, or afakasi born in diasporia.
I think it is so important for this topic to exist in literature – I think more important is that it is given the space to evolve, to truly reflect where our people are at identity wise.
Not to bang on to much with the spoken word poetry advocacy but I really believe that this is the relevant, dynamic and accessible art form that provides this evolution to breathe. But we can get held back by the literature world by not accepting us as a real literary art form and I say this as my experience with publishers, viewing us ‘entertainers’ not ‘writers’.
Tanya Chargualaf Taimanglo: I hope my writing is a mixture of entertainment, information and inspiration. I can only hope that the audience of my work, no matter who they are, will look through my mixed ethnicity and be inspired. I want each individual to take what they need from my work, even if it’s more questions. In many ways, because I’ve been blessed with two distinct heritages, it’s given me inspiration in regards to writing. I’m releasing a self-published romantic comedy novel in a few months, and much of my writing experience and opportunities have been ramping me up for this. I’m taking my writing career, this love for words by the reins and taking a risk. My hope is that there is an audience for my work, whether Pacific Islanders, Asians or not. My hope is that I can inspire others to follow their passion, whether it be in writing, the arts or raising a child proud and aware of their heritage(s). Overall, I wear my ethnicities proudly on my sleeve.
Grace Taylor: My ultimate vision of my poetry on the theme of afakasi is about presenting the real life person/people that are afakasi. That we exist beyond the lingistics and social political loadedness of the term afakasi.
Developing a sense of belonging, navigating between the social greys, igniting dialogues, challenging, connecting myself, those like me, my family, those not like me.
To take up Albert Wendt’s challenge to ‘write ourselves into existence’. Yes, maybe the older I get I develop a sense of belonging but I would like to think that will continue to evolve as I believe ‘afakasi’ will evolve in it’s shape, meaning and definition. Which is identity right?
Karlo Mila-Schaaf: I hope that they will read it and see the essential human-ness that is at the core of it, and that they cannot deny it or marginalise it, or push it away. I hope they really have to reckon with the humanity of it, and how it is so close to their own experiences and sense of humanity in ways that they cannot deny. I hope that they can see themselves reflected so clearly in it that it hurts. And that sense of separability is challenged because of it… It is that process of recognising that you are me and I am you. I could not ask for more.