Samoan writer wins regional prize in global literary competition

By Elizabeth Ah-Hi ,

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Samoan writer, Jenny Bennet-Tuionetoa, has been announced as the regional winner for the Pacific in the Commonwealth short story competition.

Going from strength to strength, Ms. Bennet-Tuionetoa was a winner in the Samoan category for Samoa Observer’s Tusitala Short Story competition last year with the submission of “Matalasi”.  

Her story which covers the lifetime of a young transgender man, set on the day of his agreed wedding as a woman, was submitted for the Commonwealth short story competition. 

Making the coveted shortlist and then winning the regional prize for the best piece of unpublished short story fiction from the Commonwealth, Ms. Bennet-Tuionetoa put Samoa’s name on the global literary prize list for the very first time.

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, Ms. Bennet-Tuionetoa said the recognition was very rewarding having come a long way from her battles with low self-esteem in her formative years.

“It’s very validating to know that Matalasi has been recognized and yes it’s very rewarding to be the winner. However, for me the focus is on what I write about and not about me. I try to take the attention away from me because it’s really important to focus on the story and the issues that it contains.”

The issues raised in her short story Matalasi focus on raising awareness about the struggles of L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. people in the Pacific Islands. The human rights advocate and L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. activist has always been drawn to the plight of those who in her view have no voice in our society. 

On a winning streak in both her birth country and on a global level, Ms. Bennet-Tuionetoa is happy that with each victory, she takes a significant step towards realising her dream of using her writing as a voice for the Pacific L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. 

“I suppose I’ve always felt drawn to people who have no voice. It’s something I always felt was my obligation to do and while L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. is not entirely voiceless, in some ways they are invisible in our society,” Ms. Bennet-Tuionetoa said. 

“The aim of my writing is to make people see L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. as human beings, especially here in Samoa where the community is frowned upon. I heard there was a pastor on the radio saying this group of people should be disbanded and condemned. 

“The L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. is always being condemned and judged and I want people to see them as humans. I try to make my readers see them in a different light and see that what they suffer is relatable – they are just like you and I.”

CONGRATULATIONS: Jenny Bennet-Tuionetoa. Photo/Samoa Observer
CONGRATULATIONS: Jenny Bennet-Tuionetoa. Photo/Samoa Observer

Ms. Bennet-Tuionetoa said she found out about the Commonwealth short story competition through the Tusitala competition website and decided to take another leap of faith by submitting Matalasi to the global literary competition. 

Three weeks ago, she was contacted by the organisation and informed of her prize under embargo and was asked to keep the results secret from the media until yesterday when the results were announced in the United Kingdom on Wednesday. 

The Samoan writer, who battled with depression and low self-esteem, said she couldn’t have done this without the encouragement of certain mentors in her life; crediting her former lecturer Dr. Hayward from the University of the South Pacific for encouraging her to enter the Commonwealth short story competition. 

She also wanted to acknowledge a special literary figure in her life who gave her the inspiration and belief in herself to start her writing career.

“I want to acknowledge Gatoaitele Savea Malifa who has contributed a lot in starting me as a writer. After all he was the one that made me believe that I can write all those years ago when he paid for and published my story in his newspaper. He has faced so much opposition over the years but still continues with what he does and is someone that I really respect - so a big thank you to him.”

Ms. Bennet-Tuionetoa will travel to Cyprus at the end of July with the other regional winners of the Commonwealth short story competition to hear the announcement of the overall winner. The writer is currently working on a collection of short stories which will focus on the theme of diversity. She encourages other aspiring writers to take a leap of faith like she did in order to discover their gifts. 

“I’ve struggled with self-confidence a lot of my life and what I want to say is that Pacific writers need to be heard and they won’t be heard if we don’t put them out there. Although self -doubt can be quite crippling we need to find a way through. I’m extremely shy but there’s a greater call and a bigger purpose. You’ll never know if you don’t try.”

Ms. Bennet-Tuionetoa’s entry was picked from 5,182 entries from 48 Commonwealth countries.

The short story prize is a part of “Commonwealth Writers”, an initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation, which is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction between 2,000-50,000 words.

The overall winner will receive £5,000 (T$17,068.12) while regional winners will receive a monetary prize of £2,500 (T$8,534.06) each.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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