Queer Pacific Islander Woman: A Memoir

Tagi Qolouvaki is Fijian-Tongan through her mother and German-English American through her father. She was born and raised in Fiji and migrated to the U.S. at 16. She holds an MA in English and is an instructor at Hawai’i Community College in the English Department. Tagi is also an author, poet and artist. Some of her work has been published in Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English, The Yellow Medicine Review, Vasu: Pacific Women of Power, and in the Ika Journal. Her art has been exhibited in Fiji, Aotearoa (NZ) and Hawaiʻi. For this week’s edition of Fofola Le Fala, we are honored to feature Tagi.

Picture of my mother and me as a baby
My bubu and me as a baby

Tagi in her own words… 

I was born at CWM (Colonial War Memorial) hospital in Suva, Fiji in the 70s, just a handful of years after Fiji’s independence from Great Britain. My mother, Katalaine, is Fijian-Tongan (her grandmother, Melevesi, settled in Sawana, Lomaloma on Vanuabalavu in the Lau group, from Vava’u, Tonga, and her grandfather, Ro Etuate, is from Lomanikoro, Rewa). My mother’s people are warriors/protectors, healers, song-makers… She was raised in Sawana and then 
Suva when my great-grandmother moved the family (my great grandmother, my bubu/grandmother—Ro Litiana—mum, and her younger sisters, Mele and Sineti) there from the village. She met my father, Don (whose family is German, Irish, English American from the East Coast), while he was in the Peace Corps in Savusavu where they were both teaching. I was raised very close to extended family—at this point in my childhood we mostly lived near the Suva area—so I grew up with all my many cousins, aunties, and uncles. We also visited my mother’s home village, and her grandfather’s village less frequently—visits of our entire clan back home to Sawana are some of my happiest memories (picking mangoes in the early morning; crabbing; tickling the belly of Domi, my uncle Talanoa’s pig, whom I loved; feeling the harmonizing of Tongan hymns wash through me in the village church pews, the sound of home past; and so much loloma/love).  

Grantham Rd.

My mother raised me for most of my young life in households of women I called aunties. Later on, I would make the connection that two of the aunties who raised me were life partners (they are still together), one of whom taught me to love the taste of yaqona/kava from sips of her bilo/cup. The first women-centered home I remember was on Grantham Road around the corner from USP (the University of the South Pacific). The aunties in this home, with its warm hardwood floors, curtains with raised stripes of varying blue, singalongs, parties, and storytelling were mostly teachers. They rented the home together. My mother was completing her BA at USP at the time. She was my everything—as a single mum can be to a child—and has shaped me in definitive ways. One event that stands out from my childhood, for example, is a time when, after kindergarten, I came home confused and upset that a teacher had punished another child, unduly. My mother took me to school after this and asked the teacher to explain why they did what they did to me. I think it was my first lesson in justice and accountability. My bubu visited us often to take care of me (she made the rounds among her children and family all over eastern Viti Levu). I would save cents I found for her cigarettes; I loved her so enormously for my smallness and I would not be myself if it were not for her unconditional and unbounded loloma/love. She taught me the importance of selfless generosity, loloma, humility, and reciprocity. Very probably, I would not speak Fijian today if not for her, given that the parochial schools I attended were strict about only speaking English.

Bubu and me as a toddler
Mum, Una, and me

In Fiji, as elsewhere in the Pacific, where you went to school is part of your genealogy. I went to multiple schools following my mother’s teaching career, including Yat Sen primary and secondary school, St. Anne’s primary, and Xavier College—spending the bulk of my early education at St. Anne’s, an all-female Catholic school. When I was 16, after sitting the national Fiji junior exams at Yat Sen Secondary, I took the opportunity offered by an aunty (my mother’s cousin who was part of my early Grantham Road household and who had moved to Utah many years earlier), to finish high school with her in Salt Lake City. Having been raised by women who taught me to love the worlds of story/literature, I was keen to experience the world outside of home and learn more about where my father came from. And so, I left my last women-centered home with mum, my sister Unaisi, bubu, and my sister’s bubu Mere. A few events best describe this first migration experience:  
● Leaving my bubu is still one of my most painful memories living so far from the ocean and too many months of the year far from the sun’s heat was so alien; flying home always felt like a return to embodiment  

● One of the first gifts my aunt gave me was an expensive analog watch from Costco and time has never been the same since (I have no recollection of time pieces from my childhood) 

● I lived for the first time in a household and family of just three people and the only thing Fijian about it was the soundtrack of old cassettes my aunty played with Georgina Ledua, Jese Mucunabitu 

● There was one other Pacific Islander (Samoan) in my high school and one Native American student. My first friend there, the first person I felt comfortable enough to speak to at school, Radha, is Indian American  
● For the first time I got to shop without worrying about money for my own things—clothes, music, gifts; my mother had worked hard to provide for us and these things were luxuries  
There is a freedom to growing up in the Islands; a decided fluidity rather than fixedness. Perhaps because we are so firmly rooted in the vanua and indistinguishable from this, our genealogy. People asked you where you are from and who your people were while shopping at Morris Hedstroms or on the street because they were genuinely curious. Sometimes because they recognized something about you and needed your stories to confirm their recognition, but identity was about far more than what you looked like, it was about who and where, specifically, you came from. The (settler colonial) United States is the only place where I have felt pressured to prove my identity because I did not live up to a phenotype or comfortable stereotype of Islander, as if I am not always the child of my ancestors/vanua. Because of my mixedness, often people in the US did not identify me as Islander, much less Fijian, or assumed me Indo-Fijian. My mother fondly called me her Guji-girl when I was a child because some people at home also thought I was Indian and my cousins teasingly-—mostly 
endearingly—called me kaidia (Indian). However, I also look just like my mother and my identity was mostly unquestionable. I was lucky to have been raised quite securely as Fijian-Tongan and connected to vanua for the first part of my life before migration, and feel deeply for our young people who must participate in authenticity games from both outside of and within our communities. To you I want to say what a poet friend taught me: your gods/ancestors/vanua are in your marrow. My first experience of migration to the US was quite traumatic for many reasons, and going home I acted out in wild rebellion, joining new friends/community in Suva in hedonistic abandon—night clubbing, alcohol, and explorational sex/uality. In this space, I discovered I was quite queer, although I did not name myself so until years later.  
Gender in Fiji is, in spite of the enduring harms of colonialism/Christianity, quite expansive and this was my experience growing up—what people identify now as vaka sa lewa lewa (I didn’t hear this term growing up, instead I heard derogatory terms taken from the British/English), third gender, and effeminate gay men were hairstylists, bank tellers, housekeepers, office workers…everywhere. I recall reading a coming-of-age story whose title I cannot recall out of my mother’s library as a teenager. At the center of it is a love triangle with an assumedly heterosexual couple thrown for a loop when they meet another guy whom the central boyfriend also falls in love with. I was quite affected by this story, which instilled in me further understanding that love is not bound by relationship or gender. Later, I spent more time with gay men who were friends of the family which only reinforced these values. There are “LGBTQ” folk in my family, only they weren’t identified as such and my mother only identified some of them to me as “like that” when it was clear I was interested in studying indigenous gender and sexuality much later. My upbringing and values primed me to be very open and appreciating of “difference,” although difference, I would argue, is only remarked on in Fiji because of some aspects of patriarchal culture (both indigenous and colonially-derived). In some ways, I grew up both inside of these cultures and also somewhat “outside” of them via the sanctuary of strong women and men (strong, kind, and gentle) who raised me. To be clear, the violence of colonial and indigenous patriarchal culture is real and has affected my life and the lives of loved ones deeply; I am grateful for all the ways that I have also had access to the healing aspects of my heritage. 

When I returned from Utah at around 18, I met a woman that I fell madly in love with around the same time that I also fell madly in love with a man. I was surprised to find myself so attracted to another woman (in hindsight I probably had “crushes” on beautiful smart girls before this but never associated it with potential sexual or romantic attraction where this was clear with boys), and was conflicted for some time about it, especially where a few in my community might have wanted me to be straight and to blame my “deviance” on her considerable 🙂 powers of seduction. In short time though I wanted to tell the world about how I felt about her, including my family, and we were openly together in public spaces fueled by the courage of alcohol and young love. I wrote my first poem about her, and my queerness centered around her for some time before I moved to San Francisco and also fell in love with trans-identified men. I guess I probably fit under the term “pansexual”, but I just think I’m an Islander, fluid in my capacity for love and sexual/romantic attraction and empowered by my upbringing to choose love, pleasure, intimate relationship and family arrangements beyond the supposed “norms.” Similarly, I never identified as polyamorous, although I fell quite “naturally” into relationships outside of monogamy early in my romantic life.  
My family was very patient about my nascent queerness, my mother remarking when I told her about my first kiss that “you would do that.” She was flustered initially, but our house eventually became another space for our young and very queer community to call home (this was something that others of my queer women friends had too). Years later, mum would march with me in San Francisco against Prop 8 which would ban same-sex marriage in California (I am not a huge fan of same-sex marriage, but I am even less a fan of state-sanctioned homophobia). I have never hidden nor needed to hide who I am from my family and this is a reflection of their capacity for love/veilomani. 

Mum in IDAHOT tee
Mum and I at Hilo pride

I identify as queer and Fijian-Tongan and as an indigenous feminist — identities I feel are quite bound together, inseparable. As a college student looking for community on the US continent, I found quite foreign the LGBT student center groups where there was so much separation (by gender, by sexuality, and certainly there seemed to be no people of color there). I made home instead with queer Indigenous, Black, and other people of color instead, and felt especially at home when I joined UTOPIA SF and later OLO (One Love Oceania, an arts and activism group of queer Pasifika women out of Oakland). In these spaces, I finally felt I could be at home with all the various parts of my identity (to invoke Black lesbian poet, Pat Parker), including class.

UTOPIA pride 2009, San Francisco
With OLO community, Oakland
NQAPIA interruption, Honolulu

I have been away from home for more than half of my life as a queer Islander woman who is now a settler in Hawaiʻi (and previously a settler on the US continent). I have tried to find home in academia, in particular in the study of Pacific literature and queer Pacific literature for a long time since leaving Fiji to study in the US. This journey has been motivated by my homesickness for home/vanua, for my bubu, for all of the things my journey here has cost me. While academia has taught me a lot, it is no replacement for lived indigenous community, for me. I continue to struggle and speak my truth to power in the places I inhabit (where I work and live) because everything I am that is good, I owe to vanua—indigenous and “queer” (for a need to name here)-loving Pasifika homelands, community, family. These genealogies, these kinships, keep me afloat away from home. This queer love is what sustains and makes sense of me. And like many of my queer Pasifika community, I believe that our queer love is integral to our specific and pan-Pacific movements for decolonization. It is in the way we (make) love and family and community. It is in the way our love unmakes the violence of binary logic and world-making. Itis in the way our queer love makes new futures of indigenous thriving possible.  
These days, as I age into becoming a queer elder, I am preoccupied with healing from the cumulative violence of living as a queer indigenous Islander woman in settler colonial US and settler US-occupied Hawai’i (this is not a bougie-journey, it is an attempt to make it to elder-hood). I am preoccupied with healing from the trans-phobic institutions. I am preoccupied with healing from the collective and continued traumas of colonialism past/present. I am recouping my energies and resources from institutions that negate indigeneity and queerness to focus on thriving, on joy, as resistance. This is a work in progress. 🙂 In the meantime, as a teacher, I focus on teaching my students the importance of critical thinking, imagination, and story to envisioning and making alternate futures where our people and places might thrive. I struggle with my love/r to undo the damages of heteropatriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism in our partnership and in spaces where we work to build community. I call my mother and sister in Australia twice a week (as much as I can consistently) to nurture our relationships, and with extended family and home on Viber and Messenger, and yes, even Zoom.

Mum and Una in Australia
Me and my love

To young queer Pasifika I say: invest your energies and resources into y/our thriving and the thriving of the communities and lands which sustain you. Protect your precious health/life, your capacity for joy, your capacity to build community in solidarity and struggle, your capacity for queer loloma. Try to work dispassionately (if you can) or subversively in/through institutions that weren’t built for us nor with us in mind (they will devour you/r energy); rather, invest in BIPOC and other like-minded community who recognize and reciprocate your queer loloma/love and generosity. Critique hierarchies of learning/education and careers; there are many places to learn, including from our family elders and from land work, and multiple places to contribute and make a difference. Invest in everyday folk rather than celebrity representatives and culture (yes, including queer indigenous celebrity culture). Center the stories of our everyday people, our lands, gods, challenges and resiliencies. Learn from our collective stories of resistance (small and large) and let us build communities and structures that reflect our bubus’ and tūtūs’ values, the values of vanua.  

Remember: your ancestors/vanua are in your marrow.  
Loloma bibi yani.  

My bubu
Queernesia, current community project

One thought on “Queer Pacific Islander Woman: A Memoir

  1. Bula Tagi. Was so encouraged to read your story. I know your mum well. As an ageing woman who has a gay past and 60 years old, it was not easy “coming out” and even today in Fiji with the so called strong social background of Christianity……you are sometimes frowned upon……I wish you well in your journey….

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