The day was warm – a thick, dangerous kind of heat that reminded me of my own tropical home in Far North Queensland. My large family ventured into the Polynesian Cultural Centre, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, with eagerness. Backpacks were slung over our shoulders and we passed cool water bottles around. I eyed the ukuleles in the storefronts, distracted with the idea of shopping.
Our tour guide greeted us at the front gates.
‘Aloha,’ he said, with a jerky wave, clearly a very new employee. The staff at the centre were all students at the Church College of Hawaii, a branch campus of Utah’s Brigham Young University. It was part of their education that they work at the centre.
We followed our guide through the large traditional buildings, dotted with sculptures, and covered under tropical plants – familiar coconut trees. The atmosphere was electric. People wandered around, eyes wide as they looked for exhibitions, tours, and activities.
Our guide explained the cultures that were on display in the park as we walked. He stopped at a map and turned to my family gathered around him. There were so many of us that we took up most of the tour group.
‘These are the islands, the cultures, that the Polynesian cultural centre showcases,’ he said, pointing to Hawaii, Aotearoa New Zealand, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, and Fiji.
‘Do you know why the Fijian workers may look a little different?’ he asked at some point. ‘It is because they are generally Melanesian and Polynesian. Melanesian–,’
‘That’s us!’ someone in my family said.
We pointed at each other, our own bodies.
‘We’re Melanesian,’ my auntie, a High School teacher, said. ‘We’re from here,’ she said, pointing at the tip of Queensland, Australia on the map. Her finger covered the entire Torres Strait Islands.
The tour guide laughed and asked us a little more about it. But I’ll never forget how excited my aunties, uncles, cousins, Mum, and Aka (grandmother) were at having the chance to be seen. At having the chance to share our culture and our heritage just a little bit. The Torres Strait Islands are a collection of islands at the tip of Queensland, we explained. And the people are Indigenous Australians with a culture distinct from the Aboriginal cultures of mainland Australia. We are a people with culture, history, and languages that are vibrant and still very much alive.
I’ll never forget how excited my family were at having the chance to be seen, to share our culture and our heritage.
In 2016, in the brightness of the cooling April sun, I turned 21. My family and I celebrated on the Gold Coast where we feasted on vegetarian curries and sat up late into the night. It was perfect. Two days later me, my mother, and some of my extended family flew to holiday in Hawaii. I’d been to the US before; I am African-American on my Dad’s side, and my mother had taken me to Alabama on more than one occasion to meet my southern family. But Hawaii was different to the parts of the States I’d already seen. Hawaii instantly felt familiar. It was tropical, warm, relaxed. It was only the second day when we went to, for me, the most memorable place on Oahu: the Polynesian Cultural Centre. I saw how the Polynesian cultures appeared to be celebrated, taught, and revered in Hawaii by locals and tourists alike, and I wished my own Torres Strait Islander heritage was just as widely known in my home country.
Meanwhile, in that same year, the Torres Strait Islander flag was stolen from a park in Melbourne at least five times. The blue and green flag flew alongside the Australian and Aboriginal flags, but community gossip had somehow got around that the flag was Arabic. This was a problem in itself – but to me, and other Torres Strait Islander people, it was also a sign that Australians didn’t know who we were. To stop the thefts, a plaque with an explanation had to be installed.
For those who don’t know: the green on the flag represents the land; the blue represents the sea; the two black lines are in reference to the people of the Torres Strait Islands; the symbol in the middle is the Dhoeri, a headdress in the Torres Strait Islander culture; the star represents the five main island groups; and the white signifies peace. Created by Bernard Namok in 1992, this flag ignites a swell of pride in me, but also makes me sad when I am reminded how little people know about the First Nations people of Australia. In Australia our First Nations people include Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders – distinctly different in language, customs, and more.
My own experience has shown me that people don’t know who Torres Strait Islanders are. While on a CareerTrackers Indigenous internship in Melbourne I shadowed a colleague; an older man, grey, with glasses and bushy brows peaking above.
‘Can you tell me,’ he whispered, as if admitting a secret, ‘where the Torres Strait Islands are?’ We sat at his desk as he showed me his work. ‘Are the islands in Australia?’
My heart stopped. I was at a national company on an Australian Indigenous internship, and staff didn’t even know if my people came from Australia. It wasn’t anger I felt, but frustration as I explained, yet again, where the Torres Strait Islands are.
The Torres Strait Islander Flag ignites a swell of pride in me, but also makes me sad when I am reminded how little people know about First Nations people.
A year later, under the bright sun of Hawaii, we watched as flat boats sailed by the Polynesian Cultural Centre’s internal river. Dancers from the various Polynesian cultures sang in language and wore traditional clothes with beautiful colours. The visitors watched with rapt attention, my family included.
I was on my second cup of pineapple ice cream when the drums and strong singing started.
‘Just beautiful, isn’t it?’ my Aka said as the performers floated by.
And it was beautiful: the dancers moved in powerful and graceful movements, their colours shone under the sun. It was hard to look away. But, at that moment I felt a dribble of sadness – a deep, unsettling worry that began to dig away at my head and heart. Watching the proud faces of the performers, the tour guides, and the wonder on the patrons, I thought about my own heritage. Would my culture ever be celebrated like this, on such a large and permanent scale, in my own home country? Would non-Indigenous Australians recognise language words, cultural clothes, and dances proudly?
When discussing the lack of cultural awareness in Australia my mind always reverts back to literature. When I first began writing this essay, I was in the midst of a dissertation on the representation of Torres Strait Islander characters in Australian young adult fiction. I searched many databases and asked by word of mouth, but I could only find one text with a Torres Strait Islander character, and it was written by a non-Indigenous author (The Dream Walker by Victoria Carless). To me, the lack of books available was astounding.
Reading The Dream Walker with its Torres Strait Islander secondary character, Polly, did feel heart-warming, particularly when I recognised traditional words, cultural objects, and stories. The importance of family is a significant theme for Polly; one that I relate to, and had seen in other YA books with Aboriginal main characters. To me family is everything, and this is evident in Polly’s character who gives up school to support her parents. However, her character did feel incomplete at times – possibly because the reader only learns about her through the eyes of the non-Indigenous protagonist. I was not able to see Polly’s own perspective on life, how she navigates traditional and contemporary problems. Polly’s father is abusive, and her home life not supportive; because this was the only text I found with a Torres Strait Islander character, I worried a negative stereotype could be formed.
In a 2009 TED Talk, Nigerian Novelist Chimamanda Adichie warned of the danger of a single story. Her talk cemented in my mind what I had begun to think when first brainstorming my dissertation. As a child, Adichie read English and American books about white children and wrote these white characters in her own stories. She never realised that people like her, ‘girls with skin like chocolate whose kinky hair could not form pony tails’, could exist in literature. Adichie passionately informed her audience that when society is presented with one dominating story of a people or place, they believe it is the only story. If there is no story of Torres Strait Islanders, or only a negative one, what will Australians think?
This is where OwnVoices works become an important part of the discussion. Coined by Dutch YA author Corinne Duyvis, OwnVoices refers to writing protagonists from marginalised groups by authors from the same communities or identities. In America, the Cooperative Children’s Book Centre (CCBC) charted a growth in African-American OwnVoices writing, from 18 African-American traditionally published authors out of 2,500 in 1985, to 194 books written by African-American authors in 2018. This growth has been particularly evident in children’s and YA literature.
If there is no story of Torres Strait Islanders, or only a negative one, what will Australians think?
I have found education for non-Indigenous Australians to be a recurring theme when looking at why it is important to show Torres Strait Islander culture and experiences. A 2018 paper on diversity in Young Adult fiction studied traditionally marginalised YA authors in Australia, and found that one of the reasons the authors had for writing their novels was to combat any negative representations. Writing Torres Strait Islander characters could combat this apparent lack of awareness and bring more cultural education to Australian readers.
But how do non-Indigenous authors navigate this? In an article for the Wheeler Centre, Anita Heiss, a prominent Aboriginal author, was interviewed on how to write Indigenous characters in Australia. The article quickly points out that cultural awareness is major issue in Australia, the lack of which can present itself in negative and unrealistic representations of Indigenous characters, as well as a lack of representation.
The publishing industry is one area where people are calling for change, at least in some small but significant way. Campaigns from the USA, such as the ‘We Need Diverse Books’ campaign, reach an international audience, and resonate within the publishing and reading communities in Australia. I often find myself coming back to Ambelin Kwaymullina’s ‘We Need Diverse Books Because: An Indigenous perspective on diversity in young adult and children’s literature in Australia’; Kwaymullina puts the questions around creating diverse characters in literature into a great perspective; she suggests that ‘Silence does not always exist to be filled; sometimes it should be interrogated.’ So why can’t I find any Torres Strait Islander young adult literature? Is there some unconscious biases that has been turning these stories away? Is nobody looking for this diverse experience to be shared in literature? I don’t believe that to be true – as a reader and a Torres Strait Islander, I am eager for my own people to be seen.
Why can’t I find any Torres Strait Islander young adult literature? Is nobody looking for it? I don’t believe that to be true.
Recently, a new three-part documentary about the unique history of the Torres Strait Islands, Blue Water Empire, aired on the ABC. The show retells events from before white settlement right through to the 21st century. As I watched my family watch our people on TV, it was exhilarating to see their eagerness, it was exhilarating to learn what I had never before known, and to see people share their knowledge of the islands through film. It reminded me again of the Polynesian Cultural Centre in Hawaii and the pride in culture the centre exhibited. Blue Water Empire is just one way Torres Strait Islanders are teaching our own proud cultures to a wider audience.
Our day at the Polynesian Cultural Centre turned quickly to night, the temperature still warm and comfortable. We ended our stay with a Luau buffet, where some of the food had been prepared underground. Called a Kalua in Hawaii, this method of cooking is also used where my people come from in Torres Strait Islands, where it is known as an Amai.
Seeing such similarities, even this small, left me coming home with pride in my own culture and inspiration to learn more for myself, and tell more Australians about my people.
Because I am in the editing, writing, and publishing world, I tend to think that books could play a huge part in growing Australia’s cultural awareness, to show the many stories of people from the islands.
But what also helps is the individual taking the initiative to learn what they don’t know. In response to the question of whether non-Indigenous people could write Indigenous characters, Anita Heiss wrote that research is always necessary first. I agree, and believe reading is a way for the individual to start their own journey in learning, whether that means a simple Google Search of the islands, or finding a fictional book (preferably written by a Torres Strait Islander) to learn. The Torres Strait Islander culture in Australia is a unique one, and one that I believe all Australians can and should be proud of.