Rachel Reeves is a journalist whose paternal heritage derives from the island of Atiu in the Cooks. In 2014, she was commissioned to write a book that would tell the story of Cyclone Martin. This is how ‘Mātini’ came into existence. If you want to know more about this wonderful title, just read the interview.
Pasifika Tales: ‘Mātini’ is not your ordinary non-fiction book. It tells a powerful and unbelievably tragic story. Why did you decide to write it?
Rachel Reeves: I was commissioned to write this book by Cook Islands News and the Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust, whose board includes cyclone survivors who wanted their stories recorded for two reasons – for the sake of their offspring and for the betterment of disaster management in the Cook Islands and the greater Pacific Islands region.
PT: So you were chosen as the author. How did that happen?
RR: I have no idea! By the grace of The Big Man Upstairs. I owe the opportunity to John Woods, who was my editor when I worked as a reporter for Cook Islands News. When the Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust approached him about what it would take to publish a book, he suggested me as a possible writer. He then trusted me to deliver on deadline even though I absolutely did not trust myself.
PT: Your paternal heritage derives from the Cook Islands. How personal is this book for you?
RR: Very. My grandma’s from Atiu, not Manihiki, but the Cook Islands are part of me. Writing this book was for me about telling a particular story, but it was also about highlighting the nuances that make the Cook Islands and the Cook Islands people so special.
PT: Was it difficult to hear all those first-hand accounts from people who had been lucky enough to survive Cyclone Martin?
RR: Yes. I got sick a lot. I felt a lot of sadness and fought a lot of tears. But whenever it was tough I thought about how much tougher it had been for the people I was interviewing.
PT: Whose story moved you most?
RR: I can’t answer that. I felt every story in my soul. Watching big island men cry over lost children was emotional, but so was talking to people who were overseas when the cyclone hit and couldn’t get through to Manihiki when they tried to ring their families.
PT: You had a chance to visit Manihiki, didn’t you? Does the 1997 tragedy still linger over the Island of Pearls?
RR: There are psychological reminders and there are also physical ones – memorial plaques, new emergency shelters, cracked foundations, vacant buildings. Locals say there’s a sense of emptiness now that wasn’t there before. Before the cyclone, Manihiki’s population was 668. Today it’s about 250. Cyclone Martin wasn’t the only reason for the population decline – there was also the decline of the contraction of the black pearl industry, and the larger national depopulation trend – but many people believe it bears the greatest responsibility.
PT: You don’t collect royalties from this book, which is very admirable. Who benefits?
RR: The Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust. The trustees are Manihiki people who care a lot about their island and their people. Two are cyclone survivors.
PT: It can’t be denied that you are an extremely talented writer. Do you plan to write more? Is there a new book on the horizon?
RR: I’m still coming to terms with all of this! Writing a book has always been my life goal, and honestly I’m still pinching myself. But now that this one’s finished, I’m dreaming about – and also dreading! – doing it all over again.