In 2014, Victor Rodger was writing a play based on the life of Shalimar Seiuli. Shalimar is perhaps one of Samoa’s most well-known, albeit tragic, Fa’afafine stories. Her untimely death, shrouded in mystery, has sparked years of ongoing debate. When we think of legendary, we think of Marilyn Monroe; Shalimar was Samoa’s Monroe whose story continues to fascinate long after her passing. In 2004 when I became involved in Fa’afafine organizations and pageantry in American Samoa, I began collecting stories of the Fa’afafine movement and its iconic personalities; this included a large collection of vintage photography. Victor wanted to portray Shalimar as accurately as possible, so he contacted his friend, Samoan novelist Sia Figiel, for guidance. Sia had worked as a liaison for a Samoan Congressman’s office for some years in American Samoa. She was also my high school English teacher and later became my mentor and friend. Sia would put me in contact with Victor and the rest as they say, is history.
Victor is a multiple award-winning playwright, actor and journalist in New Zealand. His career, spanning over 25 years, has taken him to the stage, television, and the silver screen. His theatre work is known for its depiction of race, racism and identity and he continues to produce plays that explore and challenge racial and cultural stereotypes. When asked to be featured in “Fofola le Fala”, he was gracious and honored to be asked, which came as a surprise to me considering his extensive and prolific career. “It’s funny even though I had won some stuff and had a measure of success I still feel very reticence” he said.
…In his own words… Victor’s Story…
I was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1969 to a palagi (white) mother and a Samoan father. I was raised by my mother and my palagi grandparents. Actually, my grandparents adopted me and tried to pass me off as their kid, so for a while I thought they were my parents and mum was my sister.
As a kid I was spoilt AF!!!! (Only I did not realize it at the time). I was all about TV stars and movie stars. I had individual scrapbooks for each Charlie’s Angel and a separate one for their group shots. Mum bought me countless movie books and movie magazines and took me to the movies all the time. When she took me on holiday to the US when I was ten I brought back all of these iconic posters: that famous one of Farrah Fawcett (Majors) in her swimsuit, one of Cheryl Tiegs, Cheryl Ladd, Lynda Carter…
Even though I never lived with my father, I knew who he was. I saw him now and then, like a day here and a day there, but back then he represented someone who had hurt my mother very much, so I was always pretty dark whenever we spent time together. I could never wait to get away from him.
Mum said she would never become involved with another Samoan after my father, but ironically, she ended up marrying another Samoan when I was about fourteen and outside of sapa sui (samoan noodle dish) and fa’alavelave (family gatherings) he didn’t really bring too much Fa’a Samoa into the house.
I was raised as a born-again Christian but I tapped out of church when I was about eleven or twelve. I knew from a very young age that I was gay and I remember feeling really guilty about it for a long, long time. I recently came across an old diary of mine from my last month of high school. I described how I watched a documentary about the gay politician Harvey Milk and that I thought it was interesting, but that I did not like how homosexuality was portrayed as normal. Like a lot of us brought up in the church, I was full of self-loathing for quite some time.
…Career Beginnings and Success…
After I left high school in 1986, I became a cadet reporter for a daily newspaper. I was the only brown face in the newsroom and this was around the time that I started to figure out what being Samoan meant to me – even though I didn’t have the language or really knew how to move in the Samoan world.
When I was about eighteen, I went through this pretty intense period where I tried to establish a relationship with my father. I wanted him to welcome me into his family right away – since my half siblings did not know about me. But when that didn’t happen, I got to know my half-brothers without telling them I was their brother. To cut a long story short, when the truth about my identity came out, it caused all sorts of drama.
I came out to my best friend in the late 80s but I didn’t start telling the rest of the world – or my own family – until I was in love for the first time, when I was in my mid 20s and studying acting at the national drama school here.
I did not come out to my father though, not until I was about 40. He was a pastor and part of me expected him to start quoting Leviticus at me, but he was actually pretty calm and just said “It’s a choice.” I said to him “let’s just agree to disagree” and we moved on.
After journalism I got into writing for theatre and then I moved into television, writing for New Zealand’s daily soap opera Shortland Street. It was kind of like General Hospital, only it’s on at 7pm every night. I also produced theatre sometimes and last year I took my cousin Tusiata’s play ‘Wild Dogs Under My Skirt’ to New York and performed it Off-Broadway. That was definitely a career highlight for me – being able to get a Pasifika work performed Off-Broadway, starring six amazingly talented Pasifika women and written by a Pasifika woman.
Another one of the highlights of my career was this year, being given an Officer of the Order of New Zealand merit for my services to theatre and Pacific arts. The honor was ostensibly in recognition of my body of work, but for me it was in recognition of the amazing upbringing my mother provided for me, all by herself. Having mum there to see me get it was such a proud moment for me.
…Representation of LGBTQ and Pacific Islander on Stage and Screen…
I wrote my first play ‘SONS’ (1995) partly as a way of making sense of a very painful and confusing chapter in my life – and as a way of making sense of my father. But I was also driven by a desire to represent my very specific point of view – which didn’t exist at that time - that of an afakasi (half-caste white and Samoan person) who had been raised as a virtual palagi and therefore didn’t know how to negotiate the Samoan world and furthermore didn’t know how to negotiate his father.
In ‘SONS’, the character who was based on me is straight. I thought making him gay might have been too full on for the community. But ever since then my plays have all featured at least one LGBTQ+ character, driven by a desire to see myself and my sexuality represented onstage.
My biggest commercial success has been the play ‘BLACK FAGGOT’. I wrote it in 2013 when there was a lot of opposition from the Pasifika community in New Zealand against the marriage equality bill. I really wanted to broaden the spectrum of gay Samoan male roles in theatre.
At one show, I met a young Maori man who worked at a Wendy’s and he told me “This is my second time coming. This is my story. Thank you for writing it.” And that was incredibly meaningful for me – that he had seen himself represented.
Earlier this year we had a reading of my play ‘Girl on a Corner’ (2015) which was inspired by the life of Shalimar Seiuli. We were all just sitting around a table, reading the script, and the fa’afafine actress playing Shalimar – Petmal Lam – had us all in tears. She took us deep into what felt like the truth of Shalimar, with all her hopes and dreams and sorrow. That low key table reading is also one of the absolute highlights of my entire career.
I’m not gonna lie: I spend a lot of time procrastinating and distracting myself from deadlines. So, when I’m not scrolling through Grindr profiles, I’m most likely watching clips from Paternity Court on YouTube with Judge Lauren Lake! I love her.
But when I do get my groove on, I tap away here in Wellington, NZ, on my laptop in my apartment which overlooks the water.
Being a writer has not always been the most financially secure career in the world, but I would not have it any other way.