Decolonising Our Bookshelves
Take your Shakespeares and Stevensons, give me our Hauʻofas and Teaiwas.
The first time I laid awake at night after reading a book I was around 17 years old. It was the day I finished “Poems from a Marshallese Daughter” by Kathy Jetnil Kijiner. I kept running her words through my mind and visualizing the stories she told all night. It was the first time I read a book with stories that I could feel. Not in a “Naww I wanted Bella to end up with Jacob now I’m sad” way, but in an “I want to get up in the middle of the night and go hug my mom” way. It came from this place in me that knew Kathy and her words were linked to me by the same ocean. I had never felt that way about a book or its author before. Then it dawned on me. Meyer, Austen, Fitzgerald, and Collins... I had only ever read work from white authors. It wasn’t anything intentional, the books that I happened to read at school were from white authors, and almost every Bookshop I ever walked into had predominately white authors in their “Top picks of the month”.
I never intentionally stayed away from BIPOC narratives, but I also never intentionally went out and looked for them. I allowed my bookshelf to be colonized by white narratives that I’d never fit in to. I’ll never be “remarkably fair” like Jane Austen’s Emma and I’ll never live in a Mansion on the East Egg like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. I knew all these things, but I still constantly invested in these books. I’m not negating the impact these writers had on me, but by buying into the myth that white authors have those little “Times Best Sellers” stickers on them because they’re simply the best I closed myself off to the magic that is BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Colour) and in particular Pacific literature.
After my little epiphany, I started reaching and looking for writing from people of colour. My Sylvia Plaths turned in to Terisa Teaiwas. My William Shakespeares turned in to James Baldwins. I started learning in a whole different light. Epeli Hauofa challenged my notions of Oceania and the concept of size. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi educated me on the dangers of a single narrative. Kevin Kwan taught me that there is a bigger world out there besides the Western one. Lani Wendt Young showed me that a girl like me could be the center of a romance novel. I began to change and started noticing my peers around me starting to transform their bookshelves too.
In this new age of social media and access to the rapid virtual connection, I’ve seen a rise in Pacific book clubs. A group of online friends of mine have this group called Pasifik Virtual Book Club. They describe the club to be a “Virtual space for ALL readers. Pasifika focused, but not limited to. Constantly moving and expanding like the Moana”. Each month they pick a book, read through the chapters together, and have Zoom talanoas to debrief. They are currently reading one of my favourites, Tui Atua Tamamasese Tai’isi Efi’s book “Su’esu’e Manogi”. This collective of Pacific readers have found a beautiful way not only to encourage the reading of important literature but have also created space for each other during times of disconnection. It’s like a little online village built on the magic of words and the power of storytelling.
The virtual book club is not the only way I’ve seen Pacific literature shared online. @thisisalanderreads is a new page on Instagram that posts information about Pacific literature and lists of books people could read. Account admin Mara is of Fijian and Yapese descent, who is passionate about prioritizing books by BIPOC and Queer authors. After finding her account I slid into her dms to ask about her page and to see if she was in the same boat as me... she was. Mara shared with me that starting her page came from a place of never seeing Pacific books included in BIPOC book lists on Instagram. She went on to say “even beyond Instagram, trying to find books by Indigenous Pacific authors is extremely difficult. As someone with a degree in Pacific Island studies, I know that there are many incredible Pacific authors out there who tell our stories in ways that are meaningful to us. So I was frustrated that most of the Pacific books recommended by popular book platforms and Google weren't by Pacific Islanders, and perpetuated harmful stereotypes.” Just over a few dms back and forth I connected with Mara over our commonality of wanting more appreciation for Pacific authors. I know there are so many young Pacific islanders out there who feel the same. There is so much power in words and in the way they are carefully woven together, the ones we choose to consume impact the way we move in life.
I know that as a Samoan girl I personally have benefited from decolonizing my bookshelf. I also know I’m not the only one that could reap the same rewards. There is a saying that those who only read the books they have written will always be limited in thinking. This doesn’t just mean reading books you literally have written but books written by the same type of person as you. Your knowledge of the world and of the systems at play will always be incomplete if you’re only consuming knowledge from one type of person. Before I found myself immersed in the worlds of BIPOC writers my thinking was so limited to a white-centred lens because of the books I was reading. The way I interpreted storytelling was so Eurocentric that I started believing stereotypes about myself as a brown girl through the eyes of white authors. Pacific, Black, Brown, Asian and Indigenous authors helped me break free from the constraints of Eurocentric worldviews. I had to unlearn so much internalised racism I had accumulated from reading white-centred narratives and I'm still working on this to this day.
If there was one piece of advice I could give my young self it would be... put down those Shakespeares and Stevensons, pick up those Hauʻofas and Teaiwas. Now that I’ve found myself in a space of reading more Pacific literature I’ve also found that my reading lists still need work as it's Polynesian-centric. So my mission going forward is to read more Melanesian and Micronesian books. I can’t wait to get into their worlds more and be moved by the power of their stories. There’s still a lot of room for me to grow on this journey as a brown girl reader, and you never know at the end of it I might write a book of my own. Take it from someone who is going through it, decolonize your bookshelves! Trust me it will be the most enriching thing you do for your mind and spirit. You'll start feeling words in a completely different, exactly like 17 year old me did when I picked up “Poems from a Marshallese Daughter”.
Check out the CoconetTV's list of Pasifika books to note here - let us know of other authors we can include!