Tongan born Author and Poet, Mepa Taufa-Vuni, is a mother of four children and she is married to Siaosi Vuni from Kolomotu’a. Mepa’s father is from Vainī, Tongatapu and her mother is from Ha’ateiho. She has two sisters (Malama, Seini) and four brothers (Maikolo, Taitusi, Mosese Tava, Kanitiola). A graduate from the University of the South Pacific and the University of Auckland, she works as a maths specialist at Fairburn Primary School at Otahuhu, Auckland, New Zealand. I have had the pleasure in getting to know Mepa and I have also had the honour in reading poetry alongside with her at a recent public event.
Mepa’s short stories and a few of her poems were published by the University of Hawai’i in an Anthology of TransPacific Writing entitled Making Waves. You can order your copy here: The University of Hawai’i – Making Waves. She has also had her work published by the University of the South Pacific alongside other Pacific writers. In addition, she has a short story published by the Learning Media here in New Zealand entitled The Wing of Maui’s Moa. More recently, Mepa was the organiser for the Matala Poetry Night which was part of the Matala festival – a celebration of Tongan arts and culture hosted at the Mangere Arts Centre, Auckland, New Zealand. It is with great pleasure that I share with you my interview with the beautiful Author and Poet, Mepa Taufa-Vuni. Enjoy! (Please note: MP = Maryanne Pale and MTV = Mepa Taufa-Vuni).
MP: Thank you Mepa for taking time out for this interview. I truly appreciate it. Now, with the recent success of the 2nd Matala festival – a celebration of Tongan arts and culture, tell me what has been the highlight for you in working alongside other Tongan artists?
MTV: Thank you for this interview Maryanne, I am excited about it. To answer your question, I think for me, I loved seeing the different talents coming together like Filipe Tohi with his Visual Arts, Sesilia Pusiaki with her contemporary dance show and others with their unique skills. I was exposed to different ideas and skills of talented Tongan people within our Auckland community. It was a great experience!
MP: I thoroughly enjoyed the Matala festival this year. Included in the Matala event was the Poetry Night in which you had successfully organised. It was lovely to have Tongan Royalty present as well as Dr Karlo Mila as the featured poet. How did you find such a wonderful line up of Tongan poets for the Matala Poetry night?
MTV: Yes, it was good to have ‘Eiki Lupepau’u Tuita and ‘Eiki Moheofo Tuita for the night and they thoroughly enjoyed listening to live words. Dr Karlo Mila is awesome and she is a very humble and a gifted Poet. Well, through thousands of emails, phone calls and more emails I was able to locate poets who were willing to partake in the poetry night. We are very lucky because we have the technology and I can sit in my living room and make online connections with people from around the world. Sesilia Pusiaki also helped in finding contributors for our Poetry Night. She had suggested Rizvan Tu’itahi, Seini Taumoepeau and yourself which was awesome.
MP: The entire evening was heart-warming and I applaud you for the time that you had taken to ensure that everything would run smoothly on the night. And it did! What were the highlights from the Matala poetry night for you?
MTV: Thank you Maryanne. I am grateful for the support that I have received from people around me which helped. One of the highlights for me is having my children, friends, cousins and my husband Siaosi Vuni to listen to my crazy ideas through my poetry. I also loved sharing the stage with Dr Karlo Mila, Rizvan Tu’itahi, Vaivai Kailahi, DanaRae Tatafu, ‘Elina Tukunga, Luti Richards, yourself, Manase Lua and having ‘Alisi Tatafu as the MC was brilliant.
MP: It almost felt like it was a family gathering for me because it was truly heart-warming and very humourous. The feedback from people who had attended the Matala poetry night were very positive, what do you think could be improved for the next Matala Poetry night?
MTV: Yes, I can understand why it felt like a family gathering, it was very mafana. Well, as far as improvements for the next Matala poetry night, I think having more chairs for the audience would be great because we had an overflow of people that evening. Some of our audience members as you know had to stand at the back of the gallery and others chose to sit on the floor. I am humbled by that but better preparation for the attendance of guests would can be improved. Also, to find sponsorship for the next Matala Poetry night would be helpful.
Here is a slideshow of photos from the Matala Poetry Night. Photos were taken by Melino Maka:
MP: Yes, I think at least 100 people were there for the Matala Poetry Night which was wonderful to see. Well done once again on the success of that special evening. You are a published Author of short stories and also a published Poet. Please describe your first experiences in discovering that writing was something that you are passionate about.
MTV: Thank you for your kind words and your support. Well, when I studied in the University of the South Pacific for my first degree, I met ‘Epeli Hau’ofa and I found his novels very interesting. So, I decided to do creative writing and loved it since then. I used to read my poetry at the bar and he and other lecturers would be shouting since I was a poor student. He used to come and talk to us about his novel ‘Kisses of the Netherlands’ and he had a wicked sense of humour. In my creative writing courses – I used to go to his Oceania fale and I used to write there. It provided me with opportunities to talk with him about the visual artists that created work in ‘Epeli’s fale. I loved reading ‘Epeli Hau’ofa stories because I can relate to them easily and his honesty is hilarious.
MP: That is awesome! You are lucky you were able to learn from ‘Epeli Hau’ofa. He was a great man. So you were educated in the Pacific and you are currently a teacher here in New Zealand. Please identify the major differences that you see in our schools here in NZ in comparison to the schools back in the Pacific.
MTV: Well, the education system here in New Zealand is very advanced and I always learn something new. Our Principal, Frances Nelson, encourages teachers in our school to do further studies and to learn new things from time to time.
Currently, I work as a maths specialist for Fairburn Primary School. I love teaching maths to Year 3-6 students and I always tell my students especially my Tongan students that they are lucky here in New Zealand. Unlike Tonga, the classrooms here in New Zealand are warm, clean and there is no leaking from the roof, they have activBoard while in Tonga is still blackboard, they have counters in different colours and back in my time I used to take hundred candlelight nuts or sticks as my counters. In other words, the schools here in New Zealand have a lot more resources.
MP: That is very interesting indeed. Thank you for sharing that. You had mentioned ‘Epeli Hau’ofa as one of your inspirations. Were there family members that you were you greatly inspired by and/or encouraged by to start writing and to continue to write?
MTV: Yes, my father is a very good story teller and my late grandmother (‘Ana Finau Taufa) was hilarious with her tales. My mother grew up with 8 sisters and they were very creative in their unique ways – when I was in primary school, they used to read me the myths and legends of Tonga in Tongan language of course. I used to love listening to the tales of Hikule’o and Pulotu, Taufatahi and the sharks at ‘Eueiki, Kava from Faa’imata and all myths and legends that I mostly used in my writing. As a child, I used to be thankful to Maui for slowing down the sun and fishing out Tonga.
Also, my aunt Sepi Taufe’ulungaki used to read Tongan stories to me when I was young and my aunt Meleane Taufe’ulungaki used to write Tongan stories for primary schools, and I used to read those black and white stories when I was a kid. Those stories have stayed with me even up until today and some of which is reflected in my poetry work.
Oh and my grandmother (my dad’s mother) told me stories about everyone in my village and I learnt people’s characters from her. ‘Ana Finau Taufa was very loving and I was very close to her – I believed I got my sense of humour from her. My father, Siopau Taufa can tell stories really well. I believed that my grandmother and my dad were great story-tellers and I need to capture their stories on a piece of paper for others to enjoy. I am grateful to all my family members for their support and encouragement.
MP: I love that! Your writings stem from a strong foundation of family support which is wonderful to see. In your work, what are the themes that you enjoy writing about?
MTV: Well, reflecting on the MATALA POETRY NIGHT, my theme was SIO KEHE. It means different perspectives, different point of views and looking at thing differently. So my themes for my short stories and poetry are based on Tongan myths and stories that I grew up with. Also, I love to write about people’s lifestyles and how a person behaves in different settings. I add humour into my work as I want people to enjoy it. I love writing about things that everyone else can relate to especially Pacific Islanders. My being honest in my work can be very hard but I continue to stay real to who I am as a writer because it reflects my personality.
MP: I hear you. I love that you’re able to stay true to your personal voice and stand by everything that you write. Your poetry reflects your sound knowledge in traditional Tongan protocols, values and beliefs not to mention Tongan myths and stories passed on from one generation to the next, do you feel that there is an importance in sharing your Tongan knowledge, values and beliefs?
MTV: Yes of course, I believe that sharing my stories with Tongan values and beliefs are very important for my children (first generation here in NZ). They are continuing to learn what beliefs, characteristics, values and stories a Tongan person has. However, sometimes I talk to my children about the importance of having fun and at the same time to be well educated.
MP: Absolutely! Thank you for sharing that. Other than the language, what do you think are the major differences between Tongan poetry and poetry of other cultures?
MTV: I think Tongan Poetry paints the lifestyles of Tongans – no one tells a better story about Tonga than the real Tongans. I used to study William Wordsworth, William Shakespeare and other famous Poets but somehow I favoured late Queen Salote’s poetry and songs. When I was in Tonga High School (1989 -1994), we used to study poetry written by the late Queen Salote by hard and then we had to recite them. I still can remember some of them. Her work is unique and her usage of metaphors, similes and poetic devices is beautiful like:
‘Si’i hengihengi e kuo ‘alu,
Kapakau ai si’ete manatu
It looks at nature, creatures from a different perspectives but very smart and romantic.
MP: Beautiful! I love Queen Salote’s poems and songs. You have a young family, how has motherhood influenced your writing?
MTV: Well, I wrote my first children’s story ‘The Wing of Maui’s Moa’ for one of my sons. We migrated here in 2007 and my son Taaniela couldn’t read, speak nor write any English and I was a very frustrated mother. I wrote Tongan stories for him and translated them to English and got published in 2009 by the Learning media. Here is a poem that I had written in dedication to my four beautiful children: Fangu, Taani, Sē and Tea.
My Dear Children
They sat in front of the big flat screen surfing the available channels
Complaining, whining how boring most programmes were
Little they knew of their fortunate situations
“Buy us dvds, xbox and ipad for entertainment please,” they pleaded.
“My dear children,” said I “Come closer, open your ears and carefully listen”
Back in my days when videos and televisions were very rare
We entertain ourselves with little things we did find
“Like dvds and x-box dear mother”, they chorused.
“Those things were still a mystery back then in the island”, I said
But we did have lots of fun when I was like you
“Playing with coconuts mother dearest”
They sarcastically smiled at each other and cackled
“My dear children,” said I, “We did play with coconuts as our rugby balls”
Empty tuna and corned beef cans were our toys
We did recycle those tins and made good use of them
We piled them up making our own patterns with those cans
We had to remember each pattern, each layer to win the game
For missing one would be a disaster and would be a shame
Then we called the game ‘pani’ and we learnt to count very fast
Backwards and forwards, we sequenced our numbers correctly
I learnt skip counting in 2’s, 5’s then 10’s to arrive at 100 quickly
“So you guys were poor mother dearest”, laughed my kiwi children
“Define Poor,” said I to my laughing children
Listen to me my children, said I with my Tongan accent
To be poor is a very strong word my dearest ignorant descendants
I may be poor for not having McDonalds, KFC or Chinese takeaways
Or not having NIKE, ADIDAS, PUMA slashed into my possessions
There were heaps of mangoes; green, red, orange, yellow, big and small
Guavas were juicy; hanging from thousands of trees at our backyard
White sands softly blanketed our beautiful beaches
Green cool coconuts quenched our thirsts in hot summer days
Is this poverty to you?
Think carefully of the word ‘poor’
For it defines and narrows heaps of others’ perspectives
My dearest kiwi children you do miss heaps in my so old days
I wasn’t stuck inside the house with a flat screen for entertainment
My eyes used to feast on colours of flowers in our forest
I wasn’t stuck with an xbox with my fingers pushing buttons
My fingers ran white soft sands, dripping the ocean between them
I wasn’t stuck with an ipod with heavy noise in my ears
I sang with the elders and danced through the rhythm of the night
I wasn’t stuck with an iphone, surfing the net all time, ruining my sight
I roamed our streets with all my school friends
“I may be poor in your eyes, my little Kiwi children”, said I
“But I did have fantabulous FUN in my days” laughed I
MP: Aww thank you for sharing your poem. That piece is moving and it resonates with me. How do you manage your time as a Mother, maths specialist and writing?
MTV: Thanks for asking. Well, as a mother, I am juggling my full time job as a maths specialist for Fairburn Primary School, my four children and my writing. Fairburn Primary School is treating me well and I feel comfortable working there, my colleagues are very supportive and they are understanding of me being a mother and an emerging writer. My husband is also very helpful.
MP: That is fantastic that you have support from people in all areas of your life. Thanks for sharing that. What does creative writing mean to you?
MTV: Well, I see writing as a hobby – it helps me to relax, think of something else and escaped somewhere in my wild imagination. I don’t have a special place to write, except the kitchen table while my children eat and run around like mad hares.
MP: Lol! You are a busy woman so it’s great that you are able to find moments to write. What is your current creative writing project at the moment?
MTV: I need to finish my collection of Poetry for my theme of ‘Sio Kehe’ and to start on my first novel.
MP: Oh I can’t wait until your collection of poetry is completed! I love your work, it’s humourous and shares the realities of the Tongan lifestyle of some. I am intrigued by the novel that you’re about to embark on. So what is your novel going to be about?
MTV: Oh hehe! The novel is just a dream to complete – I have started writing it but haven’t had the time to complete it. It is about a life of a Tongan woman who refused to abide by all the rules (because she is so honest with her feeling except for being true to her heart) that are applied to good and proper Tongan girls.
I am planning to also start my Master in Professional Studies – Understanding Difficulties in Numbers so maybe it will take me 15 years or 2 years to complete the novel – we will never know … LOL!
MP: Hehe! Well, that is something to definitely look forward to! Keep going. I can’t wait to read both your collection of poetry and also your first novel. What has been the best piece of advice that someone has given you which has helped you along in your creative writing journey?
MTV: Well, Sepi Taufe’ulungaki, my mother’s sister once told me that she loved reading my writings. Sepi is well educated and urging me to write, coming from her is huge.
MP: That is a blessing indeed. So on a typical “free day”, what do you enjoy doing?
MTV: I love reading and cooking with a good bottle of wine. I love going to the flea markets and sometimes I buy my reading books from there because it is only $2 or less.
MP: That sounds wonderful. We should get together and write sometime. Can you please share your thoughts on being a writer.
MTV: Yes, we should get together and write. That would be awesome. I’d like to say that being a writer is tough especially when waking up to emails, phone calls from cousins, families, friends accusing me that I wrote about them or their wives, their husbands and their children. I have relatives who are not talking to me nowadays because they said they see themselves in my Poetry or my short stories which is very sad. On the positive side, being able to bottle up an event on a piece of paper is really cool. It is good to share with others. To the aspiring writer, I would say, be honest with yourself and write from the heart and do not worry what others think of you.
MP: That is truly a reality for writers. Thank you for your honesty and for sharing your thoughts and experiences. In closing would you like to share one more poem?
MTV: Thank you Maryanne for having me on your blog, I am honoured. In closing, I would like to share this poem which I dedicate to my weavers – ‘Ilaise Tongilava Kupu, Tupou Pasikala, ‘Alaimaluloa Tamihere – memory of the little English room at the old Tonga High School.
Weave me a fine mat
As my hands move alongside the flax
Feeling the brownness of your skin
Muscles tense as heartbeats race
The firmness, the softness of the lou’akau
The rising of your chest and your hunger for a touch
Slice the flax, feel it with my fingers for the width; for the length
I can taste the lust in your eyes ripping into the lou’akau
It takes time to make one good fine mat
Flat on your back, I lay the flax softly on the floor
Starting is the hardest part like a virgin on her first night
Exciting, awaiting a new horizon, hidden from sight
First touch weaves your veins into mine and mine into yours
Flax goes over one another – binding, holding securely safely
Arms, legs entwining locking in the rhythm of the weaving
Flax goes over and under – twisting, turning, making pretty pattern
Flax twitches, moans softly against the approaching dawn
Languidly dews kiss the hardness of the lou’akau
Softening it from fresh wetness of the new morning
Crispy air caresses the new beginnings of the lalanga
The fatu of the lalanga is done
The fatu of the fine mat is done
It takes time to make a one good fine mat …
MP: That is a great poem! Thank you once again for the time that you have taken to share your thoughts and experiences. I truly appreciate it! Malo ‘aupito and ‘ofa lahi atu xox