Tales of Tahiti from a femme fatale
Nostalgia drove Celestine Hitiura Vaite to paint a portrait of her homeland and its compelling women in her best-selling trilogy, writes Bron Sibree
Talking to Celestine Hitiura Vaite is like getting lost in one of her best-selling novels. Vibrant, spontaneous and frank in the extreme, Vaite cannot hold a conversation without anchoring it in a rich smattering of family stories, old Tahitian sayings, French phrases and womanly advice.
This may explain how the Tahiti-born, Australia-based author has become an international best-selling writer inside six years.
The illegitimate daughter of a Tahitian cleaner and a French naval officer, Vaite is the real deal, a manifestation of the strong, outspoken Tahitian women she writes of in her novels Breadfruit, Frangipani and Tiare. Her greeting is a mix of Tahitian French and Australian English. She confesses to homesickness, a hankering for the cadences of French, and a headache 'that goes boom-boom' - all in one sentence.
'I love French and write all my dialogue in French, and I highly recommend it for wooing,' she said. 'I miss it because I live in this tiny little town on the New South Wales coast where it's all: 'How ya goin', mate'.'
Homesickness and a longing for French as it is spoken in Tahiti was what powered her novels to begin with, said Vaite, who left her beloved Tahiti for Australia after falling in love with a surfer at the age of 15.
She married at 18 and became a mother at 19. In a moment of nostalgia, in her 30s, when she was what she calls a 'surfing widow', she began writing short stories about a strong Tahitian woman called Matarena Mahi, based on the writer's mother, a single parent of four who earned a living as a cleaner. In one story, Matarena battles with the electricity man who has come to disconnect the power.
'We used to get the electricity cut off all the time, and my mum used to hide behind her colourful curtains, and that used to really upset me, because she's such a strong woman,' recalled Vaite.
'When I wrote that piece I transformed my mother into this strong woman who bursts out the door and ridicules the guy. And it felt great. After the piece was published I got a call from Random House, who said: We like that Matarena, do you have a book about her? I said no, but I will have. So I started writing.'
That first novel, Breadfruit, was an instant success in Germany and France, and continues to out-sell Harry Potter in Tahiti. Vaite kept on writing what has now become a trilogy of novels about Matarena, her husband, Pito, and the tribulations of their extended families, the Mahi and Tehana clans. Each draws heavily on her memories and experiences, and on stories passed down by her mother and aunts.
'Nostalgia was my driving force, and it's still what keeps me awake until two in the morning,' she said. 'When you leave your island, you see it with different eyes. When I went back for the first time after I'd been in Australia for a few years, it was amazing. I had always loved my culture, but I thought everything was fascinating. So I wrote the books as a Tahitian but with the eyes of a foreigner.'
Colourful evocations of Tahiti and its culture, the novels also dispense advice to women on everything from death and menstruation to 'sexy loving' and bad-hair days. The books have earned their author a six-figure publishing deal in the United States, and they have sold in 14 countries. Breadfruit, the first part of the trilogy, won the writer France's prestigious Prix Litteraire des Etudiants, as did the second Frangipani, which was long-listed for the 2006 Orange prize and adapted for the stage in Paris last June.
Her third novel, Tiare, released last year, focuses on Matarena's 'big zero' of a husband, Pito, whose paternal instincts are awakened late in life by the arrival of an illegitimate baby daughter fathered by his lazy, womanising son, Tamatoa.
Vaite said that, from the beginning, she set out to not only portray the matriarchal aspects of Tahitian culture but also break taboos and explore issues people did not like to talk about.
'We have a problem with alcohol in Tahiti, now,' she said. 'Men have lost their place and I think that's why a lot of them drink. Before the bomb came to Tahiti in the early 60s, women stayed at home and men went to work. It was very macho macho, and if you didn't like it, keep quiet. But then the bomb came, along came a lot of jobs, so women suddenly started to get out of the house to get a job, and they became financially independent, and with this came power.
'When I was in Tahiti last time, one of the men said, 'I tell my wife if there was 20 women like her, there'd be a revolution'. I said, 'There already is a revolution'.'
From the outset, the writer also wanted to portray the pride she feels in Faa'a, the neighbourhood outside Papeete, where she grew up in a fibro shack, behind a petrol station.
'It's one of the poorest suburbs in Tahiti, but the first to publicly proclaim itself against nuclear testing in French Polynesia by nailing a handwritten sign on a tree by the side of the road. We have a lot of pride. We used to say, 'We live in fibro shacks but, hey, we're the descendants of a chief'. And that's the Tahiti I want to show.'
It is the Tahiti she refuses to forget. When she was in Paris to receive her second Prix Litteraire des Etudiants for Frangipani (winning the first, for Breadfruit, gave her 'pride and joy because it was the first time it was awarded to a native'), she took the opportunity to admonish the French government for the lack of libraries in Tahiti.
'I did a little speech, to say thank you, but we need some culture, we need libraries, because there's only one library in Tahiti, which is a serious crime.'
These days, Vaite is busy setting up a scholarship programme for year-nine students in the New South Wales fishing town where she lives. She has enlisted the help of Maori writer Alan Duff to help extend the programme into Tahiti.
'I feel this need to give back,' she said. 'Tahitians are very spiritual, and I feel like God chose me in order to give back to people. I don't have plans for a big flashy car or a diamond ring. I've got my house, that's all I wanted, and I'm now going to give back.'
Celestine Hitiura Vaite appears on March15: The China Tea Club, 3.30pm, HK$150; March16: DotCod, Prince's Building, 7pm, $700; March17: Fringe Theatre, 12.30pm, HK$80