National Poetry Day — want to know a secret?

What better day than on National Poetry Day to let you in on a secret.

Oceania has poetry foremothers.

They’ve been publishing in English since 1979 – but who knew? I didn’t. Not until I did a doctoral thesis on them. But you shouldn’t have to have a PhD to discover the literary genealogies of our own region. So I’m writing a book. Its called Star Navigators: First Oceanic Women Poets. It navigates their poetry as guided by their own unique star charts. I map their collective constellation so others might explore the terrain of Oceanic literature in Oceanic ways. The following essay is a first installment. It begins in Vanuatu, 3,000 kilometers away, that’s three and a half hours flying time from Auckland.

I want you to meet Grace Mera Molisa and her poetry because like many first Oceanic women poets, she shares a connection with Aotearoa New Zealand. In the 1960s she attended Queen Victoria’s Maori Girls School in Wellington, eventually becoming Head Girl, before moving on to Auckland Teachers’ Training College. Her children, Viran (1976-), Pala (1979-), and Vatu (1983-), all boarded in Nelson during their high school years. Viran attended Nelson College for Girls from 1991, Pala attended Nelson College from 1993 and Pala followed four years later.

Viran and Pala went on to earn degrees at Victoria University while Vatu graduated from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. All three children have continued their mother’s legacy in the respective fields of Law, Accounting, and Environmental Studies. Viran and Vatu both live in Vanuatu now, with Viran having held the office of Solicitor General and Vatu working in the Environmental Unit under the Ministry of Lands. Pala continues to live in Wellington. After graduating with a Doctorate in Accounting, he accepted a lectureship at Victoria University. Pala recently left his teaching post to focus on writing a memoir on his mother’s extraordinary life.

This is the first of a three part blog.

Black Stone Poetry

Photo of Grace Mera Molisa
Grace Mera Molisa (1946-2002),Vanuatu

I never met Grace. By the time I arrive in her Port Vila home in Vanuatu in 2008, she’s been gone six years. She was 56 years old when she died from diabetes complications. Her husband Sela, a former Member of Parliament, and his family, welcome me with a lunch of fish, yam and laplap — pounded breadfruit, coconut cream and chicken in earth-baked parcels of taro leaves. We then walk around Grace’s garden.

Sela doesn’t know how she did it, but Grace managed to bring home all manner of plant species during her global travels. Their backyard is full of Pacific, American, English and European specimens. Eclectic, rich, unusual, exotic, the garden was a deep source of pleasure for a woman who ‘carried the bag’ for her family and her nation.

This colloquial phrase reflects the disproportionate and multiple burdens commonly carried by NiVanuatu women. Grace challenged this norm in the title of the first NiVanuatu women’s poetry anthology she edited, Who Will Carry The Bag? (1992).[i] Its cover bears a striking line drawing of a small scarfed woman dwarfed by a huge sack on her shoulders, complete with husband, child, and dog sitting on top of it.

Grace’s garden was a retreat, a delight, a respite from the daily challenges of being a leader, and often the only woman representative, in politics, women’s affairs, and writing. Sela recalls that she worked hard and well in it. I walk around the huge plants whose names I do not know, their leaves and blossoms plush with deep greens, reds and yellows. Sweet smelling seeds, spikey fruits, prickly stalks. I imagine her squirrelling away a root rolled up in The Observer or The New York Times, pressing seeds within books.

From the garden we walk inside the house and into Grace’s office, their bedroom. There, in Grace’s ceiling-to-floor bookcase, I find a similar kind of chaos — rich, bright, crammed with energy. It inspires my found poem, ‘Grace’s Bookcase’:

she got The Five Pillars of Tom and The Power of One
she got Usage and Abusage and How to Skyrocket Your Sales
she got Birds of Vanuatu and Kali’s Yug
she got Politics in Melanesia and Hidden Treasures
she got My House Has Two Doors and The Canterbury Tales
she got Doctor Zhivago and Thief in the Night
she got Carve her Name with Pride and Celebration of Awareness
she got Voltaire and Dr. Suess
she got The Peacemakers and The Politics of Land in Vanuatu
she got Everyone Can Win and Daughters of the Pacific
she got Agriculture in Vanuatu and The Melbourne Women’s Handbook
she got Vanuatu: Economic Performance and One on One
she got Change and Adaptation in Western Samoa and Warrior
she got Isles of Illusion and Culture, Kastom, Tradition
she got Winds of Change and The Written Word
she got Transport And Communication and A Life of Adventure
she got Poisoned Reign and One Hundred Years of Mission in Vanuatu
she got Malice in Blunderland and Small is Beautiful
she got Famili Loa and Stud Beef Cattle Breeding
she got The Russian from Belfort and Vanuatu
she got Vanuatu Victory and With Heart and Nerve and Sinew
she got Across Canada by Train and The Contemporary Pacific
she got Beyond Pandemonium and The New First Aid in English
she got Roget’s Thesaurus and Oiwi: A Native Hawaiian Journal
she got A Thousand Coloured Dreams.[ii]

Grace’s insatiable appetite for words and knowledge, power and beauty, are captured in the eclectic titles cramming her bookcase. In six years Sela hasn’t moved a book. The title of Josephine Abaijah’s autobiography, A Thousand Coloured Dreams, ends my poem and sums up Grace’s spirit as much as it does her tropical garden.

Described as ‘a love story set against a background of political intrigue in a decaying colonial regime’ in Papua New Guinea, the book resonates with Molisa’s own life of fighting for her country’s independence.[iii] Dame Abaijah’s many firsts, including becoming Papua New Guinea’s first woman member of parliament in 1972, mirrors Molisa’s own ‘litany of firsts’ in education and politics.[iv]

Some of these include being the first NiVanuatu woman to graduate from university (1977), the first woman to occupy a political position (1978), the only woman signatory to the Constitution of the Republic of Vanuatu (1979), Private Secretary to Vanuatu’s first Prime Minister, Father Walter Lini (1983), and the first woman to write a book. Molisa was front and centre when Vanuatu won its Independence in 1980 from a 74 year British-French Joint Condominium.[v]

Molisa’s political career, like Abaijah’s, was characterized by trailblazing streaks, both up and down. Molisa rose to the heights of Secretary to the Prime Minister when the Vanuaaku Pati came into power and led Vanuatu to Independence. Just as spectacularly, she fell from political favour when she was abruptly dismissed for challenging what many felt was Prime Minister Lini’s totalitarian behavior. Soon after, the Vanuaaku Pati split.[vi] Like Abaijah, Molisa also represented the needs of those most vulnerable to exploitation — women and children — and sought to hold the government accountable to its post-election promises for gender equity. Such highs and lows of political life were a constant.

Molisa’s family was no stranger to challenging the status quo for the communal good. Molisa’s father, Basil Meramalto Merakali, founder of the first independent district school, was a leader known for his ‘singleness of mind and purpose among Aombans’.[vii] Although he died when Molisa was young, her grandparents ensured she was educated, first in Aomban, then in other knowledge systems. She was literate in Ambae before English (two of the five languages she spoke), before attending the local boys-only school established by her father.

Early on Molisa exhibited an ability to thrive in multiple worlds by being grounded in her cultural identities. As the first NiVanuatu scholarship recipient to attend Queen Victoria’s Maori Girls School in Wellington, she saw first hand the impact of colonization on Maori. She lamented the cultural loss experienced by many of her peers.[viii] Determined to avoid the same fate, Molisa embraced both NiVanuatu and English worlds, eventually rising to the rank of Head Girl. This ingrained ability to rise in challenging circumstances and ‘stay steadfast’ (an exhortation found throughout her poetry) would prove invaluable in both her political and poetic lives.

Sela leads me from Grace’s office outside to the cool shade of the veranda. Dominating the space is a wooden table, at least five meters long — the heart of the indomitable Black Stone Publishing press established by Grace. This is where Grace wrote. This is where Grace laid out, page by page, pro-Ni Vanuatu tracts, post-Independence women’s rights pamphlets, soft covered books on sustainability and the arts, and poetry manuscripts, her own and others.

The end of the table is charred black. ‘From the fire’ Sela tells me. In the mid 90s their family home was burned down. Rumors tell of retribution for the family’s political views and their challenges to the government’s broken promises. They lost the house, but the table and Grace’s jam-packed metal filing cabinets escaped the worst of the fire. Against the backdrop of Grace’s defiantly beautiful garden, the table stands to this day, a blackened tongue still speaking.

Sela, Viran, Pala, Vatu and Grace enjoying a meal at the table in Grace’s Black Stone Publishing office/garage/dining area. Grace’s garden is appropriately seated at the head of the table (Photo: Pala Molisa)

Part 1 of a 3 part blog about the poet Grace Mera Molisa

Read Part 2 of the blog — Making stones


[i] Grace Mera Molisa. Who Will Carry The Bag?: Samfala Poem We I Kamaot Long Nasonal Festivol Blong ol Woman Long 1990. Port Vila, Vanuatu: Vanuatu Nasonal Kaonsel blong ol Woman, Festivol Infomeson mo Pablikeson Komiti, 1992.

[ii] Selina Tusitala Marsh. ‘Black Stone Poetry: Vanuatu’s Grace Mera Molisa.’ Cordite Poetry Review, 1 Feb 2014, 158-9, Accessed 11 Jan 2018.

[iii] Pearson Education New Zealand Limited, 2001.

[iv] Shirley Randell, ‘Tributes to Grace Mera Molisa’, 24 February 2001, Accessed 20 February 2018.

[v] Vanuatu: 10 Yia Blong Independens. Rozelle, NSW: Other People Publications, for the Government of the Republic of Vanuatu, 1990.

[vi] See ‘British Friends of Vanuatu Newsletter.’ Pacific Creative Writing in Memory of Grace Mera Molisa, edited by Shirley Randell, Port Vila: Blackstone Publishing, 2002, 74-75.

[vii] Paiaporou Antfalo. ‘Grace Mera Molisa: Second Secretary to the Prime Minister.’ In Yumi Stanap: Leaders and Leadership in a New Nation, edited by Brian MacDonald-Milne and Angela Thomas, 77-80. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, The University of the South Pacific and Lotu Pasifika Productions, 1981, 79.

[viii] Personal Communication, 10 April 2000.