Black Stone Poetry: Vanuatu’s Grace Mera Molisa

By | 1 February 2014

This sample of titles testify to the ‘thousand coloured dreams’ that informed a Ni-Vanuatu woman poet whose was assertive, educated, well-travelled, community-oriented, globally aware, politically adept and constantly writing in a highly volatile post-colonial society. As the titles attest, the scholarly and creative influences in her life are varied and many.

Like many Pacific Island poets who by necessity are also employed in nation-building vocations, Molisa openly acknowledges the limitations of writing in island communities where rates of literacy are low, book culture is limited, and the expense of books high: ‘Literacy is a luxury so Writers mean nothing …’ (Molisa 1994, 31). But if creative writing is so unimportant in the larger scheme of things in postcolonial societies, why do it? Why persevere with it? Why, when Molisa was already heavily involved in the politics of Vanuatu, did she pursue it with so fervent a passion and publish three sole collections within six years, founding her own successful publishing house? The obvious reason points to Molisa’s somewhat disingenuous disclaimer, strategic in its deployment during the time. In the context of women’s ongoing deprivation, writing is indeed a luxury. But, when added to the other avenues of empowerment via consciousness-raising, writing is a powerful, emotive, creative vehicle and in Molisa’s case, a medium for personal and political empowerment. And of course, one can’t help think of the numerous syncronistic moments between Molisa’s work and Audre Lorde’s poetry activism where she argues:

‘For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.’ (1984, 36)

Like Molisa’s central volcanic metaphor, poetry offers a condensation of ideas and ideals, as apparent in the poetic rendering of Vanuatu’s constitution, which bears all the hallmarks of Molisa’s hand. For Molisa, poetry was a fundamental vehicle for voice and subject to far fewer controls than her political activities. It made possible for her a certain freedom of expression, a medium in which she could, as iconised on her covers,1 be herself.

This essay focused on the literary strategies Molisa used to argue for national, political and cultural equilibrium that not only took account of, but was dependent upon women’s equality. In the context of a relatively new postcolonial Vanuatu, Molisa faced several major obstacles. Molisa’s use of language as a strategic poetic device to familiarise and win over support for women’s equality in what is essentially a conservative patriarchal culture is evidenced in how she indigenises the discourse of human rights and extends it to equal rights for women by giving it ‘local resonance’ (Jolly 1997, 23). She does this by framing her work in indigenous imagery.

The didacticism, polemical instruction, and political rhetoric in Molisa’s writing also sit beside a subtle beauty created by nuanced metaphors and images formed from the land. They provide powerful literary allies in Molisa’s struggle to raise public consciousness about women’s inequality. The most primary of these literary strategies is found in Molisa’s incorporation, indeed, her strategically poetic and professional identification with black stone – the volcano. In order to address criticism that any talk of women’s equality was essentially a white foreign feminist discourse that ran counter to indigenous thought and ways of life, Molisa needed to establish from the beginning that equality was inherently a Melanesian concept. For societies renowned for their egalitarianism (Keesing) one would have thought that this would have been an easy task – but cultural egalitarianism between men seemed to survive colonialism far better than egalitarianism between men and women. Essentially, Molisa needed to wrap the discourse of equality in a distinctly Melanesian package. She did this by extending the notion of equality to that of maintaining volcanic equilibrium and balance, and representing that equilibrium as deeply embedded in pre-colonial Melanesian life – culturally, politically, and socially. By drawing upon the volcano, an image embedded in the Melanesian psyche as well as in the physical world, she established the connection between the nature and physicality of the volcano and a core Ni-Vanuatu identity, evolving over time and into the future. Unlike foreign newcomers, both the volcano and indigenous identity emanated from the land – both possess rightful inheritance.

After establishing proud indigeneity through the land in concepts like man ples, Molisa was able to draw parallels between humanity and place, psyche and environment. Initially, this was done by targeting the most urgent issues with her typical poetic fury and force. The imbalance of power between indigenous people and foreigners throughout colonialism and the transition to Independence provided the focus of her first collection, Black Stone. Firstly, a parallel was made between the volatile nature of the volcano and Vanuatu’s transition to Independence. Primarily both had counteracting forces at work; molten hot lava against cold air and rock; French and British colonial forces and foreign-aided secessionist movements against the formation of one indigenous governing body. Both needed to form a state of equilibrium, defined as a balance of counteracting forces: one, in order to further form its volcanic foundation upon which land and life exist; the other, in order to form a sovereign and indigenous-led post-colonial nation-state. Molisa’s poetry insists that balance and the maintenance of equilibrium constitute a natural state reflected in the same land that Ni-Vanuatu people are so intimately connected with. By extension, differences amongst indigenous groups who have conflicting loyalties, definitions and realisations of kastom, must also be balanced; they too must reach a state of equilibrium and steadfastness in order for the foundation of an indigenous nation to be laid.

Molisa’s next target for her particular brand of poetic justice was the imbalance of power between Ni-Vanuatu men and women. She had previously laid out an indigenous paradigm for the argument of balance and, by extension, equality between two (oppositional) entities in her first collection of poetry. Few would argue that the desire for indigenous Independence from (and equality with) foreigners and the necessary formation of a nation-state derived from imported theory. Neither was Molisa’s call for the realisation of Christian principles and democracy in the achievement of nationhood ever under serious threat of criticism or attack from the majority of Ni-Vanuatu. Indeed, Molisa merely reiterated the principles of the Vanuaaku Pati. However, switching the terms of negotiation from indigenous/foreign to women/men meant being vulnerable to attack, and Molisa needed to be strategically (and poetically) prepared.

Colonised People was published a mere seven years after Independence was gained. The violence and confusion of the 74 year colonial reign under the Joint Condominium was still fresh in the memory of the nation and Molisa used this recent history to draw parallels between colonialism and sexism in order to increase empathy with and facilitate understanding of the situation of indigenous women. Colonialism was another metaphor for imbalance, specifically, the imbalance of power relations.

Furthermore, Molisa turned what were used as weapons against her argument for women’s equality as tools to ‘build up’ her cause. When notions of kastom and Christianity were used to subordinate women she critiqued its use and manipulation, challenged its authenticity and problematised its relative application. Such creative critiquing also opened up the potential for the re-appropriation of custom and the realisation of kastom, an aim supported by the frequent endorsements by kastom chiefs of both her poetic and political publications (see Woman Ikat Raet).

Molisa was indeed, ‘amazing’. The contents of her bookcase testify to a woman who was adventurous and courageous in her thinking and learning as evident in her political and poetic writings. The identification of a volcano aesthetic at work in Molisa’s poetry has aimed to deepen appreciation of her words which, true to form, have coagulated, black, uncompromising, and indelibly onto the page and into our Pacific psyche.

  1. See also Black Stone 2 and Colonized People
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