RM: As a face of Rotuman poetry in Aotearoa, what does Rotuman Language Week mean to you?
DE: Noa'ia 'e mauri Ruby, for me Rotuman Language Week here in Aotearoa is a reminder of my heritage, my family's history, of the island where my mother grew up and of my extended family, many of them now scattered across the Pacific archipelagoes and beyond. I spent my younger years in Fiji, but now many years later after living in New Zealand for so long I remember very little Fijian language and even less Rotuman.
RM: How do you maintain a connection to Rotuma from the diaspora?
DE: My connection now is mostly social media with my siblings, and I connect with Rotumans on Facebook and elsewhere. My brother and sister travelled to Rotuma a decade or so ago to visit family there, but unfortunately I could not go at that time. Nevertheless I know of our strong links with the Itu'ti'u district of Rotuma, and of the foods such as feke, the customs, such as the fara, and the music: my mother's brother Uncle Jimione was a well-known musician on Rotuma and I have cousins there and in Fiji who maintain that musical tradition. My mother had a collection of fine white mats from Rotuma that are still in the family. Also, I travel to and fro to Fiji and elsewhere like Australia and catch up with my Rotuman cousins. My cousin Fesaitu Solomone, (her grandmother was my mother's sister Aunt Lijiana), is a well-known teacher and promoter of the Rotuman language in Tāmaki Makaurau and I would like to improve my proficiency in the Rotuman language some day.
I am who I am and so I stay true to myself as an artist. My ethnicity as Pasifika is part of who I am since the beginning, from my mother's people, and from being raised in Fiji at a particular time.
RM: Whale in Rain: A Proverb from Rotuma speaks to a sense of tender endurance, much like the theme of Rotuman Language Week 2023 is Vetḁkia 'os Fäega ma Ag fak hanua - Sustaining our Language and Culture. How do you see poetry as a way to sustain culture?
DE: Yes, the myths and legends of Rotuma are important to me as a poet; and there are other poets and writers such as Vilisoni Hereniko now in Hawai'i who have also tapped into that heritage and kept it alive, most notably through the 2004 feature film he made in Rotuma incorporating legends and customs called The Land Has Eyes (Pear ta ma ʻon maf). And there are poets in the diaspora across the Moana Nui who are incorporating Rotuman language and proverbs into their poems and writings.
RM: How did your time as Poet Laureate shape your understanding of Rotuman representation in Aotearoa?
DE: Well, because I was the poet of the pandemic there were few opportunities to travel, but I was proud to be seen as a representative of the Rotuman community in small ways, such as at the Poet Laureate inauguration ceremony at Matahiwi marae at Heretaunga, where I was presented with my tokotoko or orator's ceremonial stick. And also in various poetry presentations to Pasifika groups and communities. My Rotuman heritage finds its way in the drumbeat, the rhythm that runs through my poetry and echoes the voice of awakened ancestors resonating along to the charge and chant of my recitations.
RM: Rotuma is known for its fertile land and clear sea; we are small but mighty. What do you wish more people knew about Rotuma?
DE: Rotuma has long and complex history of representation of its own rich culture as a remote island, yet also one strongly connected by ancient navigation traditions to Tonga and Tuvalu and Fiji, and so on. After that, there are the effects of colonisation, and Christianity and the rest. You also have the visits of whaling ships and blackbirding, taking labourers elsewhere, and other practices. The Polynesian island of Rotuma was absorbed into Fiji where the people were Melanesian, related but different, back in the nineteenth century. Partly as a defensive move against possible annexation by the Kingdom of Tonga at that time, they sought British protection, and that came at a cost. But there were a lot of connections made between Tonga, Fiji and Rotuma going way back that continue. More recently at the beginning of the 'coup culture' in Fiji there was a strong independence for Rotuma movement that sprang up, and I remember some conversations about this around the kava bowl when I was in Levuka in the early 2000s. Then there was the guy who claimed to be the King of Rotuma by descent, who got laughed off the island. So, there are many fabulous stories, some almost the stuff of fiction, still waiting to be told. And in the end, Rotuma has much to be proud of in keeping a sense of going its own way, maintaining its identity, as an island and a culture.
RM: Who are other Rotuman creatives that should be highlighted this Rotuma Language Week?
DE: Well, I am currently helping put a new anthology of Pasifika poets together, and it is good to have you included Ruby along with other Rotuman poets, in particular my co-editor Mere Taito, a very important Rotuman poet and scholar of the Rotuman language who lives in Kirikiriroa Hamilton. Amongst those who work in the visual arts, I will mention my brother Shane Tonu, formerly of Aotearoa many years ago, who is now based in the United States and who has made a name for himself as a master carver and eco-artist working with dead trees He is proud of his Rotuman ancestry and the talent he inherited from our Rotuman grandfather (our ma'piag fa), who was a carpenter and boatbuilder. Fai'akse'ea.