Speech: embrace failure, vulnerability and worthiness
A keynote address given at the 2013 graduation ceremony for the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts, Auckland.
I’m delighted to be here with you young and restless graduates, and with your families and friends, as we celebrate your achievements. I stand in awe of you. Not just because you’re done and you’re graduating but because of the industry that you’re committing to.
Performing Arts – nobody gets into that because they want to earn a lot of money. And it’s not an industry known for the guaranteed stability of a regular 9-5 job.
So, yes I am in awe of you. You’ve finished.
You’re on top of the world. Excited, nervous, and possibly a little drunk on this moment that you’ve been working so hard for, for so long. That’s exactly how I felt three years ago when I finished writing my first novel, Telesa. Looking back over the journey since then, I’d like to share a few things with you that you may find helpful as you set out into the big bad world.
1. Don’t be afraid of rejection. Let failure be your fuel. It took me a year to write Telesa in between work and five children but that book was the culmination of a life-long dream.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to write stories that hopefully, people from all around the world would read. Telesa was rejected by more than 30 different publishers and book agents.
They said, “there’s no market for a fiery Pacific romance.” (Not even for one with a boy as dalashious as Daniel.) I was tempted to chuck that manuscript in a drawer and forget all about it but this was my lifelong dream. You don’t give up on those. You don’t trash what you’re passionate about, the thing that sets your soul on fire.
I turned to digital publishing on Amazon which is the world’s largest book distributor.
My husband and I took out a mortgage on our home so we could print several thousand books to supply the NZ and Pacific market.
I’m so grateful I have a partner who believes in my dream enough to bet our house on it.
That was pretty scary.
But that’s what you do when you have a dream – when gatekeepers say no, you work hard and you give your all to carve your own gate way.
The support for these books has been phenomenal and so very humbling. I’ve done book events throughout NZ, Australia, Samoa, American Samoa, Hawaii and several in the USA.
Telesa is a required course text at universities that study Pacific Literature and recommended reading in many high schools. To date, the book that publishers told me would not have an audience – has been avidly read and embraced by thousands of people of all ages worldwide. And not just by Samoans and Pacific islanders.
I get emails from palagi readers in America and Europe, asking me for the recipes to the yummy Samoan food, asking where can they learn more about our unique cultural heritage, asking for recommendations of places to stay, telling me “I had never heard of Samoa before, but now I can’t wait to go there.”
My journey has shown me that rejection and failure are merely an opportunity to start again, in a new and wiser direction.
2. Be adaptable and innovative. Be willing to adapt your dream, learn new things and work hard to make it happen. Especially in the face of failure. I’m grateful my novel was rejected so many times. Without that challenge, I would never have turned to digital publishing and now have the independence that comes from being the boss of my own book career.
My dream was always to be an author but to realize that, I had to adjust my vision and be willing to go way outside my comfort zone.
Before Telesa, I’d never read an e-book and I didn’t own a smartphone. The only thing I used the internet for was email and my blog. My children will tell you I’m technologically clueless – I can’t work the Xbox and I don’t know how to turn on the DVD player.
I spent months reading books about digital publishing, hundreds of blogs and online articles about it, teaching myself how to format an e-book and do all the other stuff involved with self-publishing.
I was blessed to make wonderful friends in the indie writer community who generously shared their experience with me. My clever sister showed me how to use social media.
I had to become a cover designer, a businesswoman, learn about marketing and all kinds of stuff. Being a writer and publisher is hard work, but I’m grateful to have a job that I love.
Each of you has made the bold choice to pursue that which gives you joy.
That which allows you to do what you love – and get paid for it. Be prepared to go out of your comfort zone, take risks and work hard to make your dream happen.
3. Be strong enough to be vulnerable. What does that mean? A few weeks ago I wrote an article about the epidemic of rape and sexual abuse in Samoa in which I challenged a national religious leader and some commonly held misconceptions about women and rape.
In this article, I came out as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
The article was run in the Observer, various online news media and picked up by Radio NZ and Radio Australia. I’d kept this secret to myself for 30yrs and writing about it in such a public forum was terrifying.
I cried when I wrote it and publishing it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Thousands of people read that article and within minutes of it going live, many women were writing to thank me for voicing that which is too often silenced in our communities.
They wrote to share their own experiences of rape and abuse, and to engage in dialogue about ways to fight this problem.
I wrote from a place of anger, pain and healing to raise awareness of a widespread issue and I believe I was successful. Unfortunately not everyone was happy with my honesty and directness, my ‘fiapoto’, le mafaufau and ‘le fa’aaloalo’. Including a few members of my own family.
My father called from Samoa to offer his support, but others are angry and still haven’t spoken to me. One condemned my disclosure as “disgusting” and “bringing shame on our family.” The last few weeks haven’t been easy but I can look at that article and say from a place of inner peace – I’m not sorry I wrote it. I stand by those words.
You will produce your most powerful work when you speak from your deepest hurts, sorrows, joys and passions. It is then that you will have the greatest impact on others.
Whether it’s to make them laugh, bring them joy, uplift and inspire or to advocate for change.
But to do that, to access what’s within, you must first be strong enough to be vulnerable. Because sometimes the stories you tell will be the stories that your family, and your community will want left untold.
It is my hope you will be strong enough to stand by your work in the face of criticism and say, “This is how I think and feel – and I am not ashamed.”
4. Be worthy. I spoke at a high school in Brisbane and a young girl came up to me after, “Thank you for coming to our school. Now I know that Samoans can write books, not just white people.”
I attended a book convention in Kansas City and a young Samoan man invited me to lunch with his extended family. He said, “I read anything and everything about our country. Your book gave us so much pride in our culture and in our people. I was so proud to be Samoan when I read it. You’re taking our stories to the world.”
A Tongan mother brought her two children to a book signing, aged 6 and 8. She said, “I want my girls to meet you so they will know a Pacifi c Islander woman can work hard and make her dreams come true.”
In California, a young woman studying fashion design based her entire final portfolio on the Telesa Series because,“These books inspired me to design for the goddess within. To honor my Pasifika heritage.”
A teacher in Nauru sent me her poetry – handwritten because she doesn’t have a computer. She wrote, “Your story motivated me to start writing again, the stories of women in Nauru.”
A soldier in Afghanistan sent a photo of himself with a copy of Telesa. “I get homesick and your book really helps.”
A woman in NZ, wrote “I have made decisions in my life that halted my dreams of becoming a fi lm-maker. But inspirational Samoan people like yourself give me the motivation to pursue my dream and make the sacrifices that are needed to fulfi ll the ultimate goal of becoming a Samoan fi lm-maker.”
My dream was to be a storyteller and write stories people all over the world would enjoy. I never anticipated how my dream could help fuel the fire for other people’s creative dreams.
So what do I mean by “Be worthy”?
The incomparable Albert Wendt said of Pasifika, “We need to write, paint, sculpt, weave, dance, act, sing and think ourselves into existence. For too long, other people have done it for us – we have to tell our own stories.”
Each of you has a responsibility. You’ve been given the tools, skills, and resources needed to be a teller of stories – through film, music, dance, theatre and production.
You cannot take that lightly.
You must be worthy and live up to that responsibility.
Every time a young brown teenager turns on the TV and sees a brown face that’s not in the news for being a criminal or a social welfare fraud – that young person is empowered.
We are more than world famous rugby and football players. Every time we see and hear ourselves portrayed in diverse and meaningful ways in the media and in the arts – we are all empowered. When you go out there, you’re not just an individual flying solo, you take with you the stories of your family, the collective stories of your community. Because the cold white fact is that there aren’t enough of us telling our stories and owning them.
There’s not enough of us in positions of decision making when it comes to the media and the arts. You have the responsibility to do that and be that.
For one day, some young person can come up to you and thank you, “Now I know Niueans can work on television…now I know Tokelauans can be producers…Tongans can be broadcasters…Fijians can be actors…Samoans can be directors and playwrights…not just white people.”
And thanks to the power of digital and social media, the reach and influence of your story can go far beyond just us here, far beyond little New Zealand. Think bigger. Dream global.
That feeling you have tonight of excitement, hope and celebration - you hold on to that.
That belief in the fiery potential of your creative soul - it’s precious. It will power you forward on your journey of unlimited possibilities and challenges. But be ready to back it up with hard work, a willingness to adapt and be versatile in an ever-changing industry. Be fiery, be fierce and fabulous.
But above all – be worthy of the trust you’ve been given as our storytellers.