An Introductory Blog: The Power of Talanoa and Picturebooks

From Angela Matemate Fuimaono

Growing up I never applied for scholarships, I thought only the smartest, brainiest people could get them. And that wasn’t me. I was the mischief one, who liked to run around and get into trouble. But that life took me on a journey, I eventually got an Arts Diploma which I never used, I moved around and met many wonderful and unique people. And then I met my husband and started a family. We were cultural opposites. He was from Samoa, an island in the Pacific, and I was from deepest Southern Africa. Many people said the old adage, ‘opposites attract’ about us, but what they didn’t know was that we were perfectly in sync. Many of our core values and ideals were the same! Instead of focusing on our differences we chose to learn from each other and grow towards a future that was inclusive of both our individual and cultural identities. As the years went on we had children and saw the way that education was placed for them as Pacific students within a predominately deficit thinking system. I found it hard to find books written in Samoan or which depicted Samoan characters. I had to actively advocate for an equitable learning environment simply due to others’ prejudice and stereotypes.

So, when I was finally in a position to study again I gained knowledge which took me down the pathway that could help students like my own children. My journey, though longer than most, had brought me to a place where I felt brainy and smart enough to look at scholarships, and when I saw one that spoke to my own struggles I leapt at the chance to apply. To be able to be a part of research which was specifically for Pacific children was a dream come true. The lead researchers, Janette Kelly-Ware and Nicola Daly, were looking at how faiaoga (teachers) and tamaiti (children) responded to Pacific Picturebooks, and how these findings could potentially support the Turu (competencies) and Goals found in the Early Childhood Education (ECE) curriculum, Te Whāriki, and cultural competencies framework for Pasifika learners, Tapasā. Working with dedicated and inspirational women has made my first venture into research and scholarship a fundamentally strengthening experience.

Our first chance to meet with the amazing group of Kaiako who would pilot the first part of the research was an eye-opening experience for many reasons. The main reason, from a palagi (white person) perspective is that of the concept of ‘Talanoa’, this means to speak, and communicate with all those involved in a safe space where all feel welcome and valued. Many times a western style of research will position the researcher as having more power and status. However, within a community-centred approach, everyone is given their due respect and has power and valuable knowledge to add to the research process. As three white women, we knew that we did not have the cultural capital needed to fully comprehend and speak with confidence about all things Pasifika. We approached a kindergarten which had children and teachers from a variety of Pacific Island nations who now reside in New Zealand. Many of the children and even some of the teachers were born here and have dual heritage.

This complex and unique situation called for cultural humility on our parts. Therefore at the outset of the research we had a talanoa – we came together as equals, we shared our stories, our food and drink, and our hopes and ideas surrounding the research. It was exciting to see how we all had similar yet unique stories to share. Many of the women or their children had been stereotyped by others, and all were wholly committed to helping children to succeed. It was also evident as we continued to talk that each woman had her own view of picturebooks. When we started to showcase the books which had been sourced by Nicola Daly and Cushla Foe, the previous University of Waikato Summer Scholar, it became apparent that the books which depicted Pacific stories and children had an affirming effect. Though even within these books which purport to be for Pacific children there are examples of cultural inauthenticity. One of the Kaiako (teacher) was quick to notice, as she scrolled through a book written in the Samoan language, that the illustrations still had English words. The book had been translated from English into multiple different languages and the illustrations had not changed for any of them. The images were of vehicles which had no Pacific Island significance, and the children depicted appeared as generic as possible.

It is encouraging to see that attempts have been made to provide more resources for Pacific children, but there is a long way to go before authentic picturebooks are widely available and their use has become normalised in schools and libraries around New Zealand. There is also a long way to go before the adults involved in writing, illustrating, publishing and buying picturebooks are willing to expend the time and money to be culturally inclusive. Our hope is that this research can take a step in that direction, by showing the positive effects that representation can have for the cultures, languages and identities of all New Zealand children.