Albert Wendt

Be Worthy

2013 PIPA Graduates. Photo – Letti Wickman.

A Keynote Address given at the 2013 Graduation ceremony for the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts, Auckland.

I’m delighted to be here with you young and restless graduates, and with your families and friends, as we celebrate your achievements. I stand in awe of you. Not just because you’re done and you’re graduating but because of the industry that you’re committing to. Performing Arts – nobody gets into that because they want to earn a lot of money. And it’s not an industry known for the guaranteed stability of a regular 9-5 job.

So, yes I am in awe of you. You’ve finished. You’re on top of the world. Excited, nervous, and possibly a little drunk on this moment that you’ve been working so hard for, for so long. That’s exactly how I felt three years ago when I finished writing my first novel, Telesa. Looking back over the journey since then, I’d like to share a few things with you that you may find helpful as you set out into the big bad world.

1.Don’t be afraid of rejection. Let failure be your fuel. It took me a year to write Telesa in between work and five children but that book was the culmination of a life-long dream. Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to write stories that hopefully, people from all around the world would read. Telesa was rejected by more than 30 different publishers and book agents. They said, “there’s no market for a fiery Pacific romance.” (Not even for one with a boy as dalashious as Daniel.) I was tempted to chuck that manuscript in a drawer and forget all about it but this was my lifelong dream. You don’t give up on those. You don’t trash what you’re passionate about, the thing that sets your soul on fire. I turned to digital publishing on Amazon which is the world’s largest book distributor. My husband and I took out a mortgage on our home so we could print several  thousand books to supply the NZ and Pacific market. I’m so grateful I have a partner who believes in my dream enough to bet our house on it. That was pretty scary. But that’s what you do when you have a dream – when gatekeepers say no, you work hard and you give your all to carve your own gate way.

The support for these books has been phenomenal and so very humbling. I’ve done book events throughout NZ, Australia, Samoa, American Samoa, Hawaii and several in the USA. Telesa is a required course text at universities that study Pacific Literature and recommended reading in many high schools.  To date, the book that publishers told me would not have an audience – has been avidly read and embraced by thousands of people of all ages worldwide. And not just by Samoans and Pacific islanders. I get emails from palagi readers in America and Europe, asking me for the recipes to the yummy Samoan food, asking where can they learn more about our unique cultural heritage, asking for recommendations of places to stay, telling me “I had never heard of Samoa before, but now I can’t wait to go there.” My journey has shown me that rejection and failure are merely an opportunity to start again, in a new and wiser direction.

2.Be adaptable and innovative.  Be willing to adapt your dream, learn new things and work hard to make it happen. Especially in the face of failure. I’m grateful my novel was rejected so many times. Without that challenge, I would never have turned to digital publishing and now have the independence that comes from being the boss of my own book career. My dream was always to be an author but to realize that, I had to adjust my vision and be willing to go way outside my comfort zone. Before Telesa, I’d never read an e-book and I didn’t own a smartphone. The only thing I used the internet for was email and my blog. My children will tell you I’m technologically clueless – I can’t work the Xbox and I don’t know how to turn on the DVD player. I spent months reading books about digital publishing, hundreds of blogs and online articles about it, teaching myself how to format an e-book and do all the other stuff involved with self-publishing. I was blessed to make wonderful friends in the indie writer community who generously shared their experience with me. My clever sister showed me how to use social media. I had to become a cover designer, a businesswoman, learn about marketing and all kinds of stuff. Being a writer and publisher is hard work, but I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be a full-time writer and have a job that I love.

Each of you has made the bold choice to pursue that which gives you joy. That which allows you to do what you love – and get paid for it. Be prepared to go out of your comfort zone, take risks and work hard to make your dream happen.

3.Be strong enough to be vulnerable.  You will produce your most powerful work when you speak from your deepest hurts, sorrows, joys and passions. It is then that you will have the greatest impact on others. Whether it’s to make them laugh, bring them joy, uplift and inspire or to advocate for change. But to do that, to access what’s within, you must first be strong enough to be vulnerable. Because sometimes the stories you tell will be the stories that your family, and your community will want left untold. It is my hope you will be strong enough to stand by your work in the face of criticism and say, “This is how I think and feel – and I am not ashamed.”

4.Be worthy. I speak at many high schools and at one, a young girl came up to me after, “Thank you for coming to our school. Now I know that Samoans can write books, not just white people.”

I attended a book convention in Kansas City and a young Samoan man invited me to lunch with his extended family. He said, “I read anything and everything about our country. Your book gave us so much pride in our culture and in our people. I was so proud to be Samoan when I read it. You’re taking our stories to the world.”

A Tongan mother brought her two children to a book signing, aged 6 and 8. She said, “I want my girls to meet you so they will know a Pacific Islander woman can work hard and make her dreams come true.”

In California, a young woman studying fashion design based her entire final portfolio on the Telesa Series because, “These books inspired me to design for the goddess within. To honor my Pasifika heritage.”

A teacher in Nauru sent me her poetry – handwritten because she doesn’t have a computer. She wrote, “Your story motivated me to start writing again, the stories of women in Nauru.”

A soldier in Afghanistan sent a photo of himself with a copy of Telesa. “I get homesick and your book really helps.”

 A woman in NZ, wrote “I have made decisions in my life that halted my dreams of becoming a film-maker. But inspirational Samoan people like yourself give me the motivation to pursue my dream and make the sacrifices that are needed to fulfill the ultimate goal of becoming a Samoan film-maker.”

My dream was to be a storyteller and write stories people all over the world would enjoy. I never anticipated how my dream could help fuel the fire for other people’s creative dreams.

So what do I mean by “Be worthy”?

The incomparable Albert Wendt said of Pasifika, “We need to write, paint, sculpt, weave, dance, act, sing and think ourselves into existence. For too long, other people have done it for us – we have to tell our own stories.”

Each of you has a responsibility. You’ve been given the tools, skills, and resources needed to be a teller of stories – through film, music, dance, theatre and production. You cannot take that lightly. You must be worthy and live up to that responsibility. Every time a young brown teenager turns on the TV and sees a brown face that’s not in the news for being a criminal or a social welfare fraud – that young person is empowered. We are more than world famous rugby and football players. Every time we see and hear ourselves portrayed in diverse and meaningful ways in the media and in the arts – we are all empowered. When you go out there, you’re not just an individual flying solo, you take with you the stories of your family, the collective stories of your community. Because the cold white fact is that there aren’t enough of us telling our stories and owning them. There’s not enough of us in positions of decision making when it comes to the media and the arts. You have the responsibility to do that and be that. For one day, some young person can come up to you and thank you, “Now I know Niueans can work on television…now I know Tokelauans can be producers…Tongans can be broadcasters…Fijians can be actors…Samoans can be directors and playwrights… not just white people.”  And thanks to the power of digital and social media, the reach and influence of your story can go far beyond just us here, far beyond little New Zealand.  Think bigger. Dream global.

That feeling you have tonight of excitement, hope and celebration  – you hold on to that. That belief in the fiery potential of your creative soul – it’s precious. It will power you forward on your journey of unlimited possibilities and challenges. But be ready to back it up with hard work, a willingness to adapt and be versatile in an ever-changing industry.  Be fiery, be fierce and fabulous.

But above all – be worthy of the trust you’ve been given as our storytellers.

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When Daughters Drive you Nuts

Sometimes, daughters can drive you nuts.

Big Daughter is a writer and a poet. She is a disgustingly intelligent child. I can even concede she is far more intelligent then I will ever be. (Not that I’m biased or anything. What do I know, I’m just her mother.) I am very proud of Big Daughter and grateful I can be her slave mother.

But sometimes, I just want to smack her up’side the head.

The Samoa Observer newspaper was doing a series of feature articles for the week of Mother’s Day where people wrote about their mums and what they thought of motherhood in general. They ran an article from Big Daughter. It was an insightful, clearly expressed, and very ‘mature’ piece of writing. (Not that I’m biased or anything.) If I were still in my English teacher days, I would have given it an A. I read her article in the Samoa Observer and I was very proud of her and grateful I can be her slave mother.

Then a few days later on, I just wanted to smack her up’side the head.

My Uncle – otherwise known as Professor Albert Wendt – was specially awarded and recognized at the recent Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. There was an evening of readings, music, and tributes to celebrate him. I took two of my daughters with me to the event. So they could have a culturally aesthetic and artistically uplifting experience. Broaden their intellectual horizons. Get their brain synapses zapped in a way that maybe Hannah Montana just isn’t zapping them?

We went. We listened. We clapped. Ten minutes in and Little Daughter was half-lying down in her seat. “What’s the matter with you? Sit up.” I hissed at her.

“I’m bored,” whined Little Daughter. I considered giving her the pinch of death. You know the one where you smile lovingly at your child for all to see – all while pinching their arm and muttering threats of dismemberment if they don’t bloody well behave? But then Uncle Albert came out on stage and she perked up immediately. Thankfully he was scintillating and funny enough that even an eleven year old didn’t need to lie down on the floor and take a nap.

Then it was time for the music. There was a glorious opera number which transported us all to heavenly places.

Except for Little Daughter. Who had her fingers stuck in her ears and her head down in her lap. I poked her. “What’s the matter with you? Sit up.” I hissed at her. Again.

“The song is so loud it hurts my ears,” she whined. “She’s not singing English. How am I supposed to like her song when I don’t know what she’s saying?”

By then, the ruse was up. There was no way ANYONE in the audience could possibly mistake us for artistically literate individuals or connoisseurs of the fine arts. Please forgive us, we are savages who never go to the opera.  I glared at my child and didn’t bother hissing. “Stop being rude. Sit up straight, be attentive and smile. Or you’re going to get it.” She didn’t need a translator, she knew what “it” meant.

The child behaved herself for the rest of the program. Then it was time to wait in line to  congratulate Uncle Albert and “mingle”. In a manner which denoted our good breeding and exceptional manners. Except someone forgot to tell Big Daughter that patience and something called a SMILE are essential ingredients for aforementioned breeding and manners. I chatted to people I knew from the TELESA publishing journey, took photos – and Big Daughter looked surly and mean. “Why do you have to talk to so many people?” she complained.

Little Daughter said hopefully, “Can we go home now? If we drive fast, we can still watch XFactor on tv.”  Koekiki oe e…

Then some lovely ladies exclaimed, “Is this your daughter Sade Young? We read her article in the Samoa Observer. Wow, such a great piece…blah blah.” They were enthusiastic and generous with their praise. I was happy for Big Daughter. Now she can see it’s not just me who thinks she writes good stuff! What nice people giving her positive feedback!  I beamed.

Big Daughter said “thank you.” With a surly, disinterested teenager expression. One that said, ‘I’m sooo bored listening to your chatter and I have far better things to do with my time. Like watch XFactor. Or taking a Hannah Montana general knowledge quiz.

I wanted to smack her up’side the head.

And so it continued throughout the night. Later, when I asked Big Daughter why she looked like a bored brat when she was being given compliments, she was shocked. “No I didn’t! I was shy.”

Little Daughter’s justification for (almost) passing out during the program was, “I think I’m too young to go with you to book stuff. It’s way past my bedtime. Next time, you can leave me at home.” So I can watch XFactor.

I went home and told the Hot Man I wanted to smack his daughters up’side the head. He said, ‘Don’t be silly. You can’t do that.’

There’s no hope for us. I’m apologizing in advance. If you ever meet my daughters in public and they seem surly / bored / disinterested. It’s because they are shy. Out past their bedtime. And I can’t smack them up’side the head.