An Interview with Mary Rokonadravu, Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific Region

Mary Rokonadravu, a Fijian writer

Posted by Pacific Corporation Foundation

Mary Rokonadravu, a Fijian writer, is the 2022 winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific region. Her story, The Nightwatch, was one of 6,730 entries this year and shortlisted alongside 26 other writers from the continents of Africa, Asia, Canada & Europe, and the Caribbean. Of this shortlist, 5 made it from the Pacific, the fifth continent.  

This was her fourth time to enter the competition, her third shortlisting, and her second win. She previously won the prize in 2015, the first time she submitted a story – Famished Eels which was published in Granta. In 2015, she became the first non-Australian and non-New Zealander writer to win the regional prize, winning directly from the Pacific Islands, without any writing support, and from a space without infrastructure for the literary arts and publishing. Her short story The Brief Insignificant Life of Peter Abraham Stanhope was shortlisted in 2017. English is her third language.  

This is the second time you have won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific region. What is its significance to you?

It’s been seven years since I first won the CSSP (Pacific) Prize. Winning it again this year is reaffirming and a sign that what I do as a writer has meaning. In 2015 and 2017, I felt that I was in a competition. This time around, I do not feel as much that it is a competition – we are still floating on the waves of a pandemic and many of us have lost friends and family. The last two years of the pandemic and its media coverage and pumping of data on infections, deaths, recoveries, and vaccinations have kept me grounded in the realisation of just how fragile life is, just how fragile the planet we live on is.  

That disrespecting our one physical home has deeply tangible consequences, and that even when we choose to live peaceful, minimalist, non-exploitative lives, the actions, and choices of others can still maim and kill us. In this sense, the pandemic is a microcosm for the way we structure global living and dying through deeply exploitative relationships we have come to normalise as politics, economics, and trade. It very sharply brings to the fore the fact that all that we need to do to save ourselves, we must do together.  

In this shortlisting and then this regional win, I feel heard but deeper than that, I feel a sense of family with all other writers who entered the competition. I still feel this collective sense of being alive, that all our voices are surviving this terrible thing and I’m very aware of the fact that so many writers and storytellers, some barely beginning the realisation of their calling, could have perished in this pandemic. But 6,730 of us survived, kept writing, are alive and inspired enough to enter this competition. This competition is in some ways a celebration of life, of being human, of telling each other, ‘It’s quite something that we’ve come this far’.  

Our stories are lifebuoys we throw out into the dark ocean – we have no idea who it might speak to, carry, or save. I feel that every single writer who is writing anywhere in the world is doing this and those that came before us continue to do this for us.

You chose to remain in Fiji and in the Pacific islands although you knew you’d have better literary opportunities in other countries. Please explain this decision and the challenges and learnings from it.

 I have always been very aware that I stood to gain from better opportunities had I moved to another country. Fiji and other Pacific Island countries do not have creative writing programmes, publishing infrastructure, organised groups to safeguard the interest of writers and drive advocacy and lobby on their behalf, sustained funding, and resourcing for development of the craft. However, I’ve remained because I’ve always felt that my passion and craft depend heavily on my proximity to the physical, emotional, and spiritual spaces that serve as inspiration and repositories of my stories.

There are zero opportunities in my country and region – I believe the national arts and culture sector are still developing strategies and plans to engage with the literary arts and writers such as myself. 

Having said that, I’m also keenly aware of the fact that resourcing of the arts sector is sparse and even now, with little to zero going to writers, the little that is shared between performing arts, visual arts, heritage arts, continues to be deficient. I have previously argued that recognising and giving space to writers is critical to the growth of the arts and culture sector because the very nature of our craft positions us to promote and make a case for all art forms and the sector could benefit from it.

I had to learn very early in my writing that I must accept the fact that there are no opportunities, and I simply must live with that. I also had to learn that I have nothing except opportunities that exist internationally by way of competitions. So far, I have only entered the Commonwealth Short Story Prize competitions, but I now intend to broaden that if I’m to get anywhere at all. I have never ever applied for writing residencies but am actively embarking on that now. These are things I never did in 2015 and 2017 but am changing that this year. I also learned that I am not good at promoting myself, so I am working with a publicist this year, and it’s changed things positively. These are lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way.

The Nightwatch has been described as a ‘blisteringly relevant’ short story. It has also been described as ‘brilliant’, ‘unforgettable’, ‘heartbreaking’, and ‘so rich in its scope, language and devastating recognition of place and people’. In your own words, what is The Nightwatch about and what made you write it?

I was fortunate to grow up in the rural Fijian culture of oral storytelling. This was complemented by the oral storytelling my father practised and he was South Indian, as was my mother – my adoptive parents. Perhaps the most outstanding thing about my childhood and teenage years is that I was brought up on a copra estate which had been part of a larger estate where my maternal grandfather and his own mother served indenture in. My grandfather was a child when he entered Fiji as part of the Indian indenture system, and he completed his indenture and later bought out a sizeable portion of the estate that was in bush and he and his daughters planted coconuts on it. From a very early age I carried the audacity to believe my voice, my stories, and the stories of my people mattered. I was also audacious enough to begin putting these to paper once I learned to read, speak, and write the English language. It never occurred to me that perhaps my stories did not matter. The isolation of an island upbringing was a blessing for me. This is where I received the gift of believing in the value and worth of my own storytelling and I was blessed with a family that supported it and teachers in school who encouraged it.

The Nightwatch is about the tremendous loss that ordinary people face under the historical machinations of capitalism, neoliberalism, and religious fundamentalism. It was a story that arrived in multiple pieces from things I had witnessed as a child. But at the heart of everything is my concern that bearing the garments of Christianity and given the backdrop of the climate crisis, violence, poverty, and our exploitative practices, we remain reluctant to examine the role of faith in the mossed and degrading architecture of Christianity that arrived on our shores well before our colonial masters the British did.

As peoples who lend life to political and economic systems that in turn shackle us, we continue to talk about decolonisation but ignore the elephant in the room – Christianity’s most rank evolution – Christian fundamentalism through the rise of the Christian right. And much older than that, the Christianity that generationally justified the capture and sale of human beings; slavery; indenture, a euphemism for slavery; outright theft of land and other natural resources; and the rationalisation of current economic and political structures that normalise unequal trade, education, healthcare, food security, and the willingness of the affluent to let the poor succumb to a world that is becoming uninhabitable due to pollution and the climate crisis.

The Nightwatch is a story, and it is a set of questions. One of its first questions is: what happens when we are no longer able to question the faith we follow, or, what happens when religion becomes corrupt, and we are unable to question its turn? A later question could be: what does history show us about our faith, or, has Christianity evolved over different periods, and if so, what, when, where, how and why did it change? These are important questions in a time where fundamentalism is driven by the gospel of fear and the gospel of prosperity and undergirded by dogma.

These are not questions for our current time only, they are questions that need have been asked several decades and several centuries old as well.

After all, at what point did it become important to fear and hate others than to offer water to a thirsty stranger. It isn’t a Christian question. It’s a question of our humanity.

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Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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