Wellington and Vanuatu, 2020
‘How do we get more writers to tell the stories of contemporary Vanuatu, and not just around the fire or in the theatre, but in published stories that are read?’ asks one of the writers in a forthcoming anthology of new writing from and about Vanuatu.
And how can we ensure contemporary and historical narratives contain women’s perspectives too?
The idea of an anthology had been simmering for a while and was seriously sparked by the inspiring Poetry Power / Poetri Pawa event held at the Fondation Suzanne Bastien in Port Vila in July 2019. Buzzing with adrenaline and cake, buoyed by the response of the audience, everything seemed possible. So why not an anthology? And why not the first anthology of women’s creative writing from Vanuatu? Once the challenge was let out of the bag like the proverbial cat, there was no holding back.
Obstacles – such as distance, and the fact that there is no publishing industry in Vanuatu – could be overcome by collaboration. The project team was spread across Vanuatu, Fiji and New Zealand, but we would get together and work things out as we went.
We set out to collate an exciting anthology of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction (memoir and essay) that celebrate women’s voices and the experiences that have shaped a nation to commemorate Vanuatu’s 40th independence anniversary in 2020. Our intention was to publish the anthology this year. The call for submissions was posted on the Sista website in October 2019. Work priorities and babies impacted the team constellation. Dead-lines were extended to accommodate writers heading off to their respective islands for well-deserved Christmas holidays, only to ask for more time upon their return to Port Vila in January. This meant the start of the editing phase was pushed out towards late March. The promise of things to come put a spring in our step.
What we could not have foreseen was the advent and impact of a global pandemic, compounded by a devastating category five Tropical Cyclone (TC Harold) that swept across Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga in April. In New Zealand, the project coordinator lost her paid job. In Vanuatu, everyone’s workload multiplied overnight.
It takes courage to put your innermost thoughts in writing and share it with the world. Especially when you have never had the opportunity to do so, when you don’t know of any other writers. When a society to a certain extent doesn’t expect, or encourage, women to speak up in public. And it takes tenacity to polish that initial draft into a fully-fledged poem, an essay or a piece of fiction.
Our project team – Yasmine Bjornum, Telstar Jimmy, Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen, Jane Kanas and Mikaela Nyman – was overwhelmed by the interest and the wide range of thought-provoking writing we received. We wish to thank everyone who submitted, and hope that all who picked up the courage to submit work will be encouraged to keep writing, even if their work was not selected for this particular publication.
With the pandemic, and then the cyclone, our project slipped from elation into a nightmare of unfulfilled promises. All of a sudden publication, printing and distribution (not to mention the fundraising necessary for all of this to happen) seemed impossible. This year demanded more than tenacity. We would never have made it through the editing phase to polished, full manuscript without the support of Creative New Zealand and an Arts Continuation Grant. And now Victoria University Press has accepted the anthology for publication in 2021. A mini-wave of joy is sweeping across the Pacific.
More than 30 writers are featured in this anthology. 65 years separates the youngest from the oldest writer. What the writers have in common is a sharp eye for detail, a love of language, a deep connection to Vanuatu, and a willingness to share their thoughts about their ancestors and a colonial past, women’s daily struggles and joys, and their hopes for their children’s and their country’s future.
This anthology is more than a commemoration of 40 years of independence: it is a time capsule of an unprecedented and chaotic year. It is also a celebration of women who stand up for themselves and their communities. Women who speak up and stand strong, together.
We are looking forward to celebrating an exciting anthology of Vanuatu women’s new writing in 2021!
With thanks to Victoria University Press and Creative New Zealand for enabling it to happen.
Banner art: Detail from ‘Victory Dance’/‘Viktri Danis’ (2020) by Juliette Pita, Vanuatu.
Title: Sista Stanap Strong: A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology (forthcoming), Victoria University Press
Editors: Mikaela Nyman & Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen
Link to the 2019 Poetri Pawa event in Port Vila: https://dailypost.vu/news/poetri-pawa/article_12ed1fe3-e461-537f-baff-9aa6d7437fdd.html
Mikaela Nyman’s first novel Sado (VUP) was published in March 2020. It is set in Vanuatu in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Pam. The novel can be found here: https://vup.victoria.ac.nz/sado/
Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen is a poet and contributor to Vanuatu’s first non-fiction book for children,Taf Tumas: Different journeys, one people (2020). Rebecca’s and Mikaela’s collaborative poem ‘I Love You?’ was published in Sport 47. In 2020 she had poetry published in Voes (Alliance Franςaise). More about Taf Tumas can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/vanuatuliterature/
Yasmine Bjornum is the founder and editor of Sista, Vanuatu’s first feminist magazine and online platform that uses arts and communication to share vital information on issues that affect women and girls. She is also an occasional poet. Check out Sista here: https://www.sista.com.vu
Telstar Jimmy started writing poems at 15, after being separated from her mother. In 2018, she self-published her first poetry collection Journey of Truth while studying in Fiji. This year she had a poem published in Voes (Alliance Franςaise).
Jane Kanas with maternal links to Malaita, Solomon Islands, lives in Suva, Fiji. She enjoys writing haiku and posting them on Instagram under a nom de plume.