Si‘oto‘ofa, Richard. What did it mean for you to retell this story in a digital format, and who were you trying to reach?
I have this vivid memory from childhood. I grew up in Vavaʻu and much of the events in Mariner’s account takes place there, especially in the villages of Feletoa and Mataika where remnants of the Feletoa fortress still stands today. Mataika is my maternal grandmother’s village. Her sister lived in Feletoa. There was an area in the Feletoa we were told as kids to avoid because, according to locals, it was haunted. So I would just stare at this forested area and thought it didn’t look so bad. I was a naturally curious kid, the kind who when told not to do something, my curiosity would go into overdrive and I would do the opposite. And yes, this got me in trouble many times. But I didn’t go in that area but occasionally would think about it. It wasn’t until I read Mariner’s account as an adult that I finally realized why that area in Feletoa was tapu: the soil was stained with blood, restless spirits, cracked bones, instruments of war buried deep in the land. I’m relieved I didn’t wander into the area and disturb them. Mariner’s account has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster: a white kid from England who was a cabin boy on a ship with a dark history, stranded in Tonga after the crew was slaughtered and the ship stripped and burnt to the ground in Haʻapai, Tonga, who played a pivotal role and a front row seat to the biggest civil war in Tongan history at the time—I mean, why isn’t this a HBO special already?
Vavaʻu Press printed the first [modern] runs of Mariner’s account back in the 1980’s but it was rarely available. Thankfully, now with the internet, the book is accessible in terms of availability and cost. You no longer have to wait for Vavaʻu Press to issue another reprint because now you can read it on digital devices. So I felt doing a podcast was a natural progression, especially because of the pandemic. I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands working from home. I took advantage of that available time to do something creative while being confined, so it was also a much welcomed distraction and a way for me to cope with the strangeness and isolation caused by the pandemic.
The podcast really started out as a love letter to my childhood in Vavaʻu, to my Vavaʻu connections, to memories of growing up in Vavaʻu. Those were my personal reasons. I honestly didn’t expect I would get over ten thousand listeners. Then the feedback started coming in, the audience started to grow and the podcast began to evolve.
What feedback have you received from listeners?
The feedback has been overwhelmingly supportive and positive. There’s not one that particularly stands out but I did learn through this journey that I love the process of discovery with the audience, so I’ve had listeners fill in the gaps via feedback where my knowledge falls short. I love that aspect of interactivity, which happens mostly on social media, I love the spirit of collaboration. Traditionally, knowledge is co-created and shared, what Palangis today call crowdsourcing, and we’ve been doing it for centuries because of the communal and collective aspect of our respective Pasifika cultures. I’m not one to claim I know everything, I don’t believe in gatekeeping (to a certain degree, because there are shady people out there who exploit our cultural assets for selfish reasons whom I’ve had to check), so co-creating and discovering knowledge excites me!
Other feedback I’ve been enjoying immensely are the genealogy connections. People hear names mentioned in the podcast, the villages associated with those names, and then they start to make connections and share their genealogy to me. This has prompted me to also to look at my own and sure enough, I discovered my connections to pivotal figures in Tonga such as the main protagonist in Mariner’s account, Fīnau ʻUlukālala II, the Vavaʻu chieftess Toeʻumu, and many others through my 8th great grandfather Ngalumoetutulu.
I love hearing from faikava clubs who listen to the podcast. These are mostly young men instead of the older established kalapu, and they would send pictures of themselves sitting around the kumete listening to the podcast through a bluetooth speaker.
What does this positive reception of the podcast indicate to you about Tongan audiences worldwide and what they are searching for or hope to connect to?
I’m a Gen-X Tongan in the USA and I work in secondary education with a heavy Pasifika student population. Even before the creation of the podcast, I was already aware these young kids yearn for meaningful connections to their respective cultures, and I see this also in tertiary education, young adults, even in that advanced stage of their education, who feel empty and disconnected. In my line of work, I often find myself in a cultural mediator role, drawing on my own experiences as a transnational Tongan living in the USA to contextualize and translate cultural meaning and practices in a contemporary language they understand, and helping them to sift through all the noise and distractions so they can discover those connections and make it work for themselves. I really try to instill the idea that culture is dynamic, fluid, and adaptive, because too many of our young people beat themselves up over not feeling adequate when it comes to their cultural identity. I felt Mariner’s account would appeal to this demographic because it contains many themes that are relatable–the clash of two different cultures and values, pre-Christian Tonga compared to Tonga today, class and privilege, war and peace, cruelty and mercy, matriarchy and patriarchy. I figured if I can tell this story right, the audience would come. And I was right. My audience are mostly millennial, Gen-Y and fellow Gen-X listeners from all over the world and it has been a beautiful journey.
Richard Wolfgramm is an administrator and co-founder of Mana Academy Charter School in West Valley City, Utah, USA as well as the host of the Toki Ukamea podcast, which you can listen to here.