I-Kiribati poet, artist, and educator Teweiariki Teaero was the Center for Pacific Islands Studies Visiting Artist for 2006 during the latter part of April. While he was at the center, in between trips to Brigham Young University–Hawai‘i Campus and University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and various presentations on campus, he sat down to talk at length about his education, his interests, and his work. The following are some excerpts from that conversation.
KH: In one of your presentations, you mentioned your mother’s storytelling as an important influence in your appreciation for creative writing. Do you recall when youfirst began to record your creative expressions?
TT: The earliest [poem] that I published was called “Blue Gold.” It was my salute to the ocean. . . . I remember the title because my teacher said, “you can’t have ‘Blue Gold’ – blue is blue, gold is gold,” but I wanted to give the idea that the ocean was precious. I also liked the combination of the blue and the gold; our school uniform at that time was blue and gold—blue sulu and a gold top—so there were a lot of connections. But it was about the sea . . . saying the ocean was there when the world was created. It was about the third or the fourth item that our God created, and that puts it in its place in the scheme of things. He lifted the heavens first, he made sure the people were liberated from their stiffness, then the sun and the moon, and then the ocean, so that was important—and all of the things that we get out of it—the ocean as the highway. I used a Kiribati word, okai. Okai is the traditional house where you keep all the coconuts, like a storehouse—the ocean was the okai for our foods and our medicinal things, medicine from seaweeds and things. The
second to the last stanza was a warning against abusing [the ocean] and fourth was the possibilities that existed within it. That theme has appeared in a number of my subsequent poems. . . . We are talking about the period when I was about form three, form four. Then I stopped doing it because we got bogged down with other things, and we had to study other people.
The very first art I produced were figures on the beach at home. We used to draw with our fingers or with twigs on the beach. And the other kind of figures that we did was with wet sand—kind of sculpted, if I can use that word. We created figures that way, relief figures—very temporary, because the sea then would come in and wipe those away. . . . Those were the first images.
KH: You have spoken of inspirational writers such as Konai Helu Thaman and Albert Wendt. I know that you studied the standard Western tradition of art in Australia, but at some point you recognized that this didn’t really speak to your crafts. I was wondering if you might expand on where you find your inspiration?
TT: In my lecture, I mentioned Konai Thaman and Albert Wendt because those were the first two, but subsequently I came across other writers, many of them—Epeli Hau’ofa, Subramani, Vilsoni [Hereniko], a number of other writers— and then, of course, my own contemporaries continue to provide inspiration. In Australia I was happy, but then I realized that increasingly there was something missing. I had these hopes, when I came across Pacific writers’ and Pacific artists’ work that my training would continue in that tradition, but then I realized that it was all about Western [art]. Well, of course, we had to learn the basic skills of art. That is necessary; I accepted that. We studied the works of Western masters and American masters, and we moved right down through the ages—that was part of art history. So over the four years I was doing my training we did that, and we covered major European, American, and Australian artists. But there was nothing of the kind that I had built up my hopes for, you see? But then I realized I did not have a choice, I had to continue studying that in order to get my degree. . . . I went back to Kiribati feeling very happy because I had my degree, but then I went to this village mwaneaba meeting house, and I found myself totally useless there, you know? I could not understand anything. They thought I was a big man, I had a degree. But then I realized I was not. Maybe I was big in a different kind of field all together, but in that particular place I was totally useless. And that was the dawning of the thing for me. The kind of dream that I had built up when I came across Pacific writers’ and artists’ work, that did not materialize in Australia. I came back home, and that was made manifest, that there was definitely that big something lacking. There was nobody else that could do it except me. I had to make things happen. So there and then I decided I must learn more about my culture, and as a teacher, I must also teach it. And it was in studying this culture that patterns emerged. So you learned about language, you learned about the symbolism that you use in the oratory. With the symbols, of course, being an arts-trained person, I started translating those into visual images. . . . And the more I started researching into other aspects of culture, particularly oratory at that point and also legends, so that I could teach at secondary school, the more I realized it was actually a “minefield.” I am talking here not about mines that explode, but mines that contain treasures. It was a minefield of wealth and imagery. So that started appearing in my work, and I started accumulating those images—the richness of those, I started fully realizing—and I made that part of my teaching. Then I [started] attempting to incorporate those kinds of Kiribati images into the curriculum—and then went into other specific art areas like tattooing [and] mat-weaving patterns. So I was revisiting my mother’s craft once again. So it was kind of connected but with very big gaps, you see, that I had to jump back and forth. That was the difficulty. So it was from there, to my mother, that the stories were cut short because I was taken into secondary schools. . . . But that is how it dawned upon me—because I started working at secondary schools. Then I had to leave—I was recruited to university. I applied for a post there, and I got it. And that again gave me opportunities to make more explorations. . . . So it was a journey that I, myself, had to make. I could not wait for institutions, and I could not wait for other people to make it happen. I had to do it. You see the burning issue for me was that if I did not do it, I felt nobody else would do it. If I didn’t do it then, then it will be another gap of a few years—and it may not happen again, nothing might click. So I had to do it, and I created the opportunity, and I started working in that area.
KH: From what I have heard and read, USP seems to really go into the cultures of its students.
TT: It took us more that thirty years to realize that! We initially were focused on things that would land people in jobs. So you could have walked into USP and could have thought that it was a university just transplanted straight from somewhere else. Professor Epeli Hau‘ofa himself called it “a beautiful cemetery.” It was dead in terms of creativity. . . . But then it became very actively involved in putting forward— and this is important—in putting forward the first generation of Pacific writers, including Vilsoni Hereniko and all the others. It started there, but then again there was a kind of a trough there, and nothing happened for awhile. Then
they started to resurrect the whole thing again. So the university took awhile to do it, and then when they did it, they were the first ones in the region, and rightly so,
because they were a prestigious institution in the region, poised to make a change. . . . It was kind of a off-on thing, and now, I think, for the first time in its history, they are making concerted efforts to be very active in the Pacific arts and culture program on a number of fronts—writing, visual arts, dancing, music, carving, pottery, and so on. They are still at a very, very early stage, but it is a beginning. In art, for example, we are now teaching undergraduate courses, and we will have the first postgraduate course next semester—and we are hoping we will have some more. So, yeah, the journey has begun. We still have a long way to go, but, you know, we’re moving.
KH: I have a great appreciation for your joining, as you said, your three languages—Kiribatese, English, and art—to create that fourth language. Has this combination of literacies always been a factor in your creative compositions?
TT: No, it hasn’t always been a feature of my work. One, because the original training in writing I had was, “Write in English! Write in English!” So the tendency, at first, was to write in English – even “Blue Gold” was in English, and a few that came after that. Then I started realizing that there are just some things that you cannot write in English. The poem [“Katoka Bau/Garlanding”] that I normally use for opening my books and for starting public presentations, in my first publication, you might notice, I put it in Kiribati and then translated it into English. But when I looked at it in English, although it captures the essence of it, it really was a lackluster version in comparison with [the Kiribati version], because I was using images that were meaningful in that language like “go to the eastern side.” I think some people asked in the last presentation, “What is the significance of
the east?” You say that in Kiribati, to the Kiribati people, and automatically they know. You do it in English, “the eastern side,” and it is just a point of the compass. It doesn’t have the connotations that were meant to go with it. And even some
of the key words in that poem, . . . we can find the English translation but we have to write a sentence that is as long as halfway around the globe in order to get the same kind of meaning. So what’s the point? So I just say, all right, just use
this word. So I realized there are things that in order to capture the
very, very spirit of it, you have to do it in this language. So it started appearing in my work, but of course what happened was, people were reluctant to see the . . . at that stage there were only about 70,000 in Kiribati, and everybody said, “Oh,
nobody will read it—we’ve only got 70,000. But if you write it in English a lot more people will read it.” But I still felt that I did not want to put those Kiribati poems in limbo. So I found, eventually, a way out of it, and put them together with
the English poems in one volume. So in effect I was giving the Kiribati poems wings to fly, by allowing them to ride piggyback on English poems. So that is when I started—this was about 1993–1994. . . . Then, of course, other ideas we could not do in either Kiribati or English—so I selected the visual mode of communication. That is how that came into it. I’ve always had the ability to draw and paint, . . . but toward the end of my teaching in secondary schools I started using Kiribati [language] and the very Kiribati images that I have been using to this day. And that coincided with my research into oratory and legends and all that. So that was the late 1980s. Then the idea of . . . oh, I can’t remember what one reviewer called it—I think they called it “visual poetry” or “solid poetry” —but traditionally poetry has always been something that must be read and be heard. You either read it and just concentrate on the words or you allow somebody else to read it—give it some kind of mood, some kind of physical presence—and then you listen to it. But mine, and primarily because of the influence of my artistic side, adopted this particular form that I showed to you – one following the shape of a pencil [see right], one following the shape of a rocket, and another a syringe. . . . Then I put my own father-in-law’s handwriting in there, in faded print. . . . So that kind of poetry where I combined those elements. . . for some of these poems, it’s critically important that they be seen. . . . The important thing is that the message must come across, and if this kind of arrangement helps the message to come across, then I follow it. And I try to keep my work simple so that if the message is communicated in a few words, fine. I try to avoid adding any more complexities. It is only when it is warranted that [I] do that.
KH: Your paintings are in the VIP lounge at the Tarawa airport for all the travelers to see— that’s very significant.
TT: I want my messages, whatever they are—for enjoyment, for pointing out a particular issue or concern, for entertainment—I want them to reach an audience. I have several audiences. Sometimes I speak to little ones, sometimes I talk to my own peers, and sometimes to a general audience. Sometimes I talk to politicians. My first reaction when the Secretary of Foreign Affairs got back to me about this . . . I knew they wanted to show off Kiribati talents, and I thought this was good, finally to be recognized by your people. But my first reaction was, yeah, that is good that they are interested. My second one was, hmmm, it’s only going to be the “big fish” looking at my work, and I’d rather have everybody else looking at my work—not have it secluded for that very elite kind of clientele. But then I said, hang on, I am sure I have something to say to these people. Then I embraced the idea. Let me fill that room with messages that I think these people should hear. . . don’t let me be disappointed and not wanting to have my work there. Let my work be there, let my work be everywhere, as long as the right message is being given to the right people at the right level. . . . So now I am in the process of [figuring out] what do I tell these people? Maybe I will translate some of these poems that I have written for politicians into a visual equivalence, so it will be addressing that particular clientele.
KH: In Kiribati, the oratory is through the male line. How would you feel if your daughters wanted to follow in your footsteps and write?
TT: As a parent I believe in giving my children exposure to different opportunities. . . . The older girl wants to write poetry, so that is fine; I encourage her. My intention is that they will grow up, and if they are interested in oratory traditions, I will teach them . . . so that they know. Now, I will also explain to them that when they sit in my village, because they are ladies, they are not expected to speak. I am aware of the feminist movement . . . but they have their places to do that. If they are interested in learning about oratory and using it, then they will not use it in the
mwaneaba because that will not be right. But the advantage for them, even though they are female and have learned it, is that when the old men are speaking,
they will understand what is going on. They will be involved in it. They will be able to interpret the events and also help when it comes to implementing those decisions. They will understand the logic of it and what has been going on, and
why this man is speaking before this man, and why this man is speaking in this kind of language, and what does he really mean. They will have that advantage. If they find themselves having to speak for their group of women—where there are
men in a semiformal kind of [situation]—they will be equipped; they will be ready.