Jacinta Tonga, the author of a memoir called ‘A Remarkable Rotuman Woman’, was born and raised on the island of Rotuma and now lives in Suva, Fiji. She works as a Registered Nurse with the U.S. Peace Corps. In this interview she talks about her late grandmother, her book, and her country.
Pasifika Tales: Your book is quite an intimate memoir. Why did you decide to write and publish it?
Jacinta Tonga: Well, I promised my grandmother that one day I would write her stories. She was my role model and I want my nieces, nephews and their children to get to know her through my book.
PT: Was it difficult for you to relive your past?
JT: Yes, it was quite emotional, so I tried to be positive and reflect only on her funny stories. I had a wonderful upbringing. I understand each family have their own closet issues.
PT: And what was your family’s reaction to your book? Did they like it?
JT: (The book received) a mixed reaction. Some (people) were surprised, others curious, and a few were disappointed. I did not inform them in advance. I remember one of my close cousins, Sharon Morris, who is more a sister said, I quote: ‘Jaz, I am proud of you. This book is really positive and I enjoyed it so much’. My mother is not really enthusiastic about the book, but she said that the old lady would be happy.
PT: Tell me something about your grandmother, Petera Veu. From what I can tell, she was a truly amazing woman.
JT: Yes, she was amazing and a role model to me. She was known to a lot of people to be an entertainer, and to an extend some people have commented that she was a very arrogant and mean old lady. As we are all aware, people who speak their mind and are upfront with their opinions are known to be very rude at times. She was all that, and I had never known her to say or does anything that she did not agree with.
PT: You two seemed very close. How would you describe your relationship?
JT: My grandmother was more a mother to me then my own mother. My mother is there, but the old lady brought me up. She fed me, put clothes on my back and paid for all my expenses, even my school fees. I would not have been where I am today if not for her. I wish she could have lived longer so I could have given her back a little of what she has given me.
PT: Do you think you are a lot like your grandmother?
JT: Not really, my sister Mareta and my cousin Sharon are a splitting image of her in every way. Personality wise, I am very sensitive and definitely a follower, not a leader. My grandmother was a born leader. She was friendly, kind, domineering but definitely not sensitive. She seemed to thrill in a heated argument and she was pretty good at convincing people to follow her ideas. I do not know how she did it. Maybe people just got tired of trying to prove their point.
PT: Let’s focus on Rotuman culture for a moment. Would you say it shaped you as a person? I’m asking because, as a child, you didn’t always follow the traditions of your country…
JT: Yes, in a way. I did not always follow the Rotuman culture or pay particular attention to it because my grandmother had a culture of her own. It made her happy when you did what she wanted and to me, she was everything. Before I broke any rules, even without her physical present there, I could actually see her face. At that time, if you asked me who I feared the most – God, teachers, parents or my grandmother – my answer would definitely be my grandmother. Anyway, sorry I am drifting away, but our culture did shape me in some way, especially when I left home to move to Fiji and then finally to Tonga. My identity is Rotuman, so I learn to associate myself with my heritage.
PT: Rotuma – your true home?
JT: Yes, my true home even though my grandmother’s ancestors are from Wallis and Futuna.
PT: If you were to say what places are worth visiting in Fiji, what would you choose?
JT: I would say visit Rotuma for its amazing beaches and friendly people, Savusavu to see the hot springs and Taveuni to see their famous waterfalls. If you happen to be travelling to Fiji make sure you coordinate your trip to fall during the Hibiscus week, which is around August 3rd, so that if you are bored with nature you have a carnival to attend.