As Dr. Selina Tusitala Marsh famously recited to the Queen of England and other Commonwealth dignitaries, “There’s a ‘u’ and ‘i’ in Unity” - her poem of the same name.
From the hallowed walls of Westminster Abbey as the first Pacific woman to create and recite a poem representing 53 diverse Commonwealth countries, to her recent appointment as New Zealand’s first Pacific, woman Poet Laureate, Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh knows all about those ‘glass ceilings’ other women speak of.
And it has not all been good luck and an easy path for the poet and academic of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent.
Sel, as she calls herSELf, was the first person of Pacific descent to graduate with a PhD in English from the University of Auckland where she is now an Associate Professor and lectures in creative writing and Maori and Pacific literary studies.
And it was initially as a somewhat reluctant student years ago, that she was asked by the renowned Maualaivao Albert Wendt and Maori novelist and short story writer, Witi Ihimaera, if she had considered doing her doctorate.
Fortunately, her classic reply of “Um, no”, was brushed aside by the two academics and with their encouragement, she successfully completed her studies and scored another first of several firsts.
Fortunately, any accolades she has received in the academic world and beyond, are nicely balanced by her own upbeat approach to life and her down to earth family on Waiheke Island.
One of her sons she laughed, told her frankly that “poetry makes me want to vomit.”
Clearly she has some way to go before converting the world, but that hasn’t stopped her trying.
This 6 foot something, stunning woman recently launched her latest poetry collection, interestingly titled, ‘Tightrope’ in Auckland and was herself in awe that Samoa’s former Head of State, Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese attended.
“I was so honoured,” she said.
And it was with Tui Atua and Filifilia she stayed on her most recent trip to Samoa in November for the Pacific Arts Association conference, taking the opportunity to consult them on Samoan protocols and other cultural matters. During her conference workshop, she had young students and adults spellbound at the National University of Samoa fale. ‘Inspiring’, ‘magical’ and ‘amazing’ were just some of the words used to describe her session.
Unlike former Laureates, who deposited the largely-ceremonial to’oto’o (tokotoko) they were caretakers of, back in its glass cabinet, Tusitala Marsh has embraced it and given it life.
She takes it wherever she goes and in fact took it apart to fit it in her suitcase and brought it to Samoa. Here she told its story and encouraged as many people as possible to handle it and feel its mana (power).
Trailed by a TV 1 film crew during her time in Samoa, she used a run up Mt Vaea as part of her training for a run this month where she intends to cross the finishing line wearing Eveni sporting attire. It will all be part of a feature programme to be aired on this unique Laureate in the new year.
Clearly this is no dusty academic we are talking about here.
For Samoa, her open and sharing approach to life and literature is never more evident than in the time she gives generously every year to encourage other writers as one of three judges of the Samoa Observer’s Tusitala Short Story competition for Pacific writers.