Artist In Residence: Writer Kasi Valu's Correspondence Of Feeling & Family

The artist's work as part of Tautai's residency offers a luminous celebration of connection and fale

Kasi Valu. Photo / Supplied

As part of our Tautai Fale-ship artist in residence series, we get to meet some of the 10 artists who have successfully gained the opportunity to partake in this year’s Tautai Fale-ship residencies.

The leading Pacific arts organisation's Fale-ship residencies are responding to global transformation through a localised lens, helping amplify, collaborate with and support the indigenous authorship of Tagata Moana artists in Aotearoa.

“The Fale-ships form part of a deeper kaupapa to bolster the creative expression of Moana artists during this time of great change,” explains Tautai director Courtney Sina Meredith.

“The residencies are about more than platforming exciting talent during lockdown, they are driven by an indigenous determination to re-centre the power dynamic within the wider arts landscape. The celebration of Moana artists creating within their own sacred spaces is as political as it is beautiful. I cannot wait to see what these residencies inspire in the 10 selected artists and within the Tautai community.”

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The Tautai Fale-ship Residencies are generously supported by Creative New Zealand and Foundation North.

Our next profile is with Kasi Valu, a poet, performer and playwright whose work is intimately connected to his experience of community, and of being a part of the Pacific diaspora. For his Fale-ship residency, the Wellington-based Tongan artist created two richly textured works of writing, centred on his fale, and his family, where his grandmother "recites her rosary every single morning without missing a beat, without missing a bead; Her prayers echo through the dusty wooden floorboards underneath the feet of my bedroom door.”

"I cannot describe what family means to me in words," says Kasi, "no matter how much I write. That’s why I do what I do. I honour their sacrifices by doing what I love to do."

Tell us about your writing process.

My writing process continually adapts to the environment, people and work that I am committed to. During the Fale-ship residency I wrote sporadically over the two-week period. It’s interesting what I write on my laptop, the pace, rhythm and context of what I choose to share. When I write in my black A5 notebook, covered in black duct tape to sew the torn edges of the book together, I tend to dream more, and be more patient with my pen.

Even as I type this right now, it feels as if my thoughts are synonymous with the pace of my mind, the thoughts I am processing and speed of my fingers bashing these keys. Moving deeper into my practice means moving out of complacent patterns that stunt the growth of my ability to learn and adapt. I do not prosper in soils of complacency.

One thing that has always remained consistent ever since I was young, was that I love to work (and in this circumstance) write under pressure. Setting deadlines is good depending on the piece, but the liberty to write for the sake of understanding for me is one of the deepest privileges to have. It’s like dreaming without the weight of guilt or shame.

With reference to writing, you’ve spoken about not desecrating the Va and forcing a vibe. How do you know when something is right when you’re creating?

I don’t think I ever know if something is right or wrong, I just know that I am doing it because I enjoy it. Putting too much pressure on trying to make something that is ‘right’ becomes a futile deadweight that I myself do not wish to carry.

If the research, time and joy have gone into making something, it will be what it is meant to be, right, wrong, green or shrimp.

Have you ever found yourself going in a different direction you never anticipated when creating a project because of this instinct?

In a way, I move with both my instinct and intellect. Both balance each other and offer perspective and counsel that the other cannot. Light cannot exist without darkness just as darkness cannot exist without light.

You’ve also mentioned the sense of releasing yourself from guilt to work on what you love, which I think a lot of people experience when following a passion. When did you feel like you’d relinquished that feeling?

I relinquished that feeling when I stopped worrying about getting paid to do what I want to do, and found ways under the wisdom and mentorship of Tupe Lualua to bask in the joy of service through the arts. I know there are bills to pay, but choosing joy as Tupe says seems to work, so that’s what I do. Choose joy.

How has your environment shaped the way you understand and approach storytelling? Has working inside your fale during lockdown changed your approach?

Working inside my fale has made me realise how insanely hungry I get if I am working on the dining room table and the cupboard is only four steps away from me. What it has highlighted is the importance of discipline and consistency.

With the current climate of Covid, I’m doing my best to move with the wind. The Fale-ship offered an amazing opportunity to better my practice with the circumstances of this Covid world, and navigate the "homely" tendencies that seem to collide with my practice within my fale. But that’s what it is. Practice.

Growing up, when did you find writing and performance could be a means of expressing yourself?

I didn’t know my writing had value. Most of my teachers were palagi, and the short stories I would write didn’t fit the mold or criteria of their eurocentric atypical style of expression. It wasn’t until I had written my first theatre play under the mentorship and guidance of Suli Moa in 2018, where I found value in writing as a means of expression.

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What I learned from this is that it is fundamentally imperative to share your stories with your community, and be specific as to who you are writing this for and why.

The moment we lose the specificity in our writing the universality is watered down, and it begins to bathe in colonial ponds that suppress the organic brown voice and uplift the oppressing white frameworks and systems that do not wish to see such writing flourish into its full excellence.

What do you hope people will take away from your stories?

I hope the youth of my Tongan and wider Pacific communities who are children of the Pacific diaspora feel anything. Whether they hate it or love it. Whether it makes them laugh or cry or even confuses them.

It’s meant to be something that engages and initiates Talanoa among us before anyone else.

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