The last proper conversation I had with Teresia Teaiwa involved a lot of scheming. We had, the year before, come out of a partial victory through industrial action at work, and were pondering what we might next have to expect this coming year. That led to a conversation on the state of our union’s branch, on the Living Wage, and how we might build the movement of staff and students at Victoria in order to win this demand. And then that led – by way of talking about who would benefit from a Living Wage, and who loses out the most currently – to talk of Māori and Pasefika students, their needs and aspirations, their literature, how we might be failing them or serving them as teachers and trade unionists. About where Māori and Pacific literatures could be found in universities and criticism, and about how they might unexpectedly offer insights in places – our unionism, our activism, my socialism – we least expect.
The exchange was typical of my experiences with Teresia: off-hand and yet urgent; measured, thoughtful, calm, seemingly infinitely patient and yet all the time shot through with what Martin Luther King called ‘the fierce urgency of now’. Teresia was a relaxed and relaxing presence amidst a hum of anxiousness and self-enforced busyness, but that was only because she realised how much there was needed to be done. And how little time, once the question of climate change and the ecological devastation of the Pacific came into consciousness, there is for us to do what is needed. She brought these qualities to her writing – both poetry and critical pieces, especially on militarism and the militarisation of the Pacific – and to her organising and activism. Much of that activist work was, as usual, unseen or not easily visible: relationships built, colleagues drawn into union, tensions eased or – sometimes – usefully drawn out into open debate.
Teresia was a genuine intellectual, something not at all the same as – or often, indeed, really coinciding with – the role of the academic. She made thinking possible, encouraged thought and criticism and wrote, spoke, and organised always with an audience and a goal in mind: anti-colonial struggle, and the long freedom struggle in West Papua in particular; the project of human freedom. That project, in Teresia’s work and life, was rooted in the Pacific and in the celebration and critical exploration of Pacific resistance and cultures, but, as always with properly critical work, it opened out to us all. She received accolades and official recognition, all richly deserved, for her research and teaching, but these were just red roses on the highways: the road itself led on to getting thought working for social transformation.
Once you stop thinking about small islands in a large sea and start thinking about a sea of islands, Epeli Hau’ofa teaches us, what seems insignificant and weak reveals itself to be vast, strong, knitted together and full of expansive possibility. I learned about and through that text thanks to Teresia, who herself had important personal and scholarly ties to Hau’ofa. Teresia managed a similar kind of reversal with her teaching and her approach to Pasefika students. Endless repetition of statistics about disadvantage, no matter how well meaning, can reinforce stereotypes of failures waiting to happen. Talking to Teresia introduced you, instead, to poets, performers, intellectuals in formation, almost boundless creative energy wanting to take its place in this unequal world needing changing. One sign of how much that trust and belief mattered is the enormous response we’ve seen from her students already, just hours from the news of her death. Some highly intelligent people make others around them seem smaller, but Teresia had the anti-capitalist gift of making you feel, after conversation or exchange with her, cleverer yourself.
Her work developed in dialogue with Marxism, drawing on the dissident Marxists in particular of the anti-colonial struggles and, although we adhered to different traditions, programmes, and organisations, I drew – and will continue to draw – on her teaching, encouragement, inspiration and example. These institutions can be lonely places for socialist intellectual life: Teresia managed, by her work and example, to make this one feel like it could be made a viable home.
These thoughts I’ve written down without taking the time properly to revise so I’ve a chance now to say thank you, and to share them with the many others of us who have benefited from having this poet and militant thinker a part of our lives. I only wish it could have been for many more years still.