The power of stories

Published on 06 July 2023 Go back to The ACU Review
Illustration of a character from Samoan mythology

Literature is a lamp that enlightens or banishes the darkness, and a mirror to reflect ourselves and our realities.

By Sina Va'ai, National University of Samoa

The Sustainable Development Goals propose a better future for all peoples and the planet: peace, prosperity, health and wealth and, most importantly, respect for what Pope Francis calls our ‘common home’: the earth. But how do we achieve such goals? And do our leaders and citizens consider them important enough to commit attention to their implementation?

One of the keys to answering these questions involves education: relevant, quality education for development which caters to the needs of the learners and communities being served. In the realm of education, the humanities, variously labelled, is the learning arena that emphasises the disciplines of helping humans live well and humanely, whether through the study of languages, the literary and performing arts, history, theology, philosophy, and beyond.

In Samoa, as elsewhere, concern about the marginalisation of the humanities has been growing over the past several decades as globalisation has accelerated, leading to an emphasis on business studies, accounting, and information and computer technology. Universities adopted business models of management with profit as a key consideration. Their ‘products’ – previously known as graduates – are assessed by data analysis for efficiency and whether or not they fit marketplace profiles. ‘Through this lens’, writes the Portuguese sociologist Rosário Couto Costa, the humanities ‘can be pretentiously seen as a luxury, as economically irrelevant or even as useless – worse still, as an obstacle to access the job markets.’

Of course, those of us who work with students, especially new entrants in their first year of tertiary studies, know this perception to be false. One of the most basic skills learners need at this level is the ability to read, think, and write critically and analytically about their chosen subjects. Through listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing, presenting, and mastering language to the point of comprehending layers of meaning in any text, we become critical, communicative, sceptical, and enlightened – essential abilities in the quest to help human beings live well and humanely, and vital to all the Sustainable Development Goals.

Moreover, all 17 Goals are deeply interconnected and this must be reflected in our path to achieving them: an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach that can address them in a holistic way. But as part of this interconnected effort to bring about change for the common good, I believe we must go back to the basics: to the power of story.

Illustration of hands pushing a rock

Giving testimony; bearing witness

Storytelling is now fashionable in many domains, including business training, health sciences, the analysis of research data, and providing narratives for video games. But since ancient times, stories have been passed on through oral traditions and performance to convey the histories and origins of peoples, places and important material objects, together with the cultural values and beliefs of particular communities. Eventually, these narratives were recorded in print and later broadcast via radio, film, television or uploaded onto social media platforms in the digital universe.

However, storytelling is nothing new to the humanities. It was always employed as a pedagogical tool in literature, history, religion, law, philosophy, cultural studies, and more. Giving testimony, bearing witness, and telling your story is powerful and can lead to transformation and positive change. Humans need to tell their stories, to relay their testimonies about real life experiences which are sometimes ‘stranger than fiction’. Who in the western tradition has not heard the parable of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan told by the master storyteller, Christ himself?

Literature is a lamp that enlightens or banishes the darkness, but it is also a mirror to reflect ourselves and our realities. Literature and storytelling are thus an entry into cultural competency and compassion that promotes understanding and respect about realities in different parts of the globe and ultimately brings us closer to living harmoniously, empathically, and peacefully together.

Illustration of a girl speaking to a lizard from Samoan mythology

Narratives from our sea of islands

But what of the realities for the people of Samoa, here in what the Tongan writer Epeli Hauʻofa called our ‘sea of islands’? Our daily challenges can be discovered in our literary representations, in our stories.

These narratives tell the stories of our colonisation and decolonisation, of the tremendous loss suffered by indigenous Pacific islanders and their ancestors, and their resilience as they struggled to regain their political independence and have their voices heard by paternalistic, colonial administrations. More challenging still has been the struggle to accommodate a tsunami of change on all fronts whilst retaining the core cultural values of the faamatai (a collectivist chiefly system of family leaders or matai) and our identities as Samoans.

In the contemporary, postcolonial present, literary representations from Samoan and other Pacific writers generally share several vital features. They are concerned with putting the Pacific at centre stage and in challenging contested stereotypes of Small Islands Developing States and their peoples as dependent, marginalised, and relatively insignificant. These issues have been discussed and critiqued in many fora over the last few decades, illuminating the divide between ‘insider’ versus ‘outsider’ literary representations with its various connections and disconnections.

In his 2015 memoir, Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater: A Writer’s Early Life, Albert Wendt, our most internationally recognised Samoan writer, speaks of his writing life as ‘a process of learning, through my writing, the depths of Samoan history and culture; the writing has been an attempt to discover it and to shape it my own way’. Wendt goes on to describe how his life’s experiences, from his mother singing the lullaby he first recognised as song, have infiltrated his writing. ‘In that process’, he writes, ‘I’ve learned how to further explore the real world and the world of my imagination. The total sum of your work is a mirror of your life that helps you to read your life… Or as I’ve said before: we are what we remember or want to remember, the rope that stretches across the abyss of all that we’ve forgotten.’

Here, Wendt’s words remind us yet again of the power of story: casting light onto forgotten memories, mirroring our unique and personal lived experiences and realities.

Lifting voices

Even before the global pandemic arrived in 2020, with its associated social, economic and cultural traumas, the demands of modernity and living in the postcolonial frame are reflected in many of our stories. Local short story competitions in particular have been motivational in creating opportunities for people to explore their lived realities. Lani Young, for example, won the first prize in one such competition with ‘A Sister’s Story’, about the suicide of a pregnant teenager and the feelings of shame and betrayal that led the narrator’s sister to hang herself from ‘the old mango tree out back’. The first prize in both the Samoan and English language categories was a laptop and this became the launching pad to a very successful writing journey for this particular writer. Teenage suicide is a concern both locally and globally, especially since COVID, and Lani’s story brings these realities to the fore.

Later competitions, organised by prominent Samoan writer, Savea Sano Malifa and his wife Muliagatele Jean Malifa, publishers of the daily Samoa Observer newspaper, have been instrumental in promoting literacy and expression in Samoan schools and for adults across Oceania. These have given many people, especially our youth in primary and secondary schools over the past decade, a voice and a platform for publishing and letting their views be recognised, published, and celebrated. This is certainly meeting the SDG goal of education and empowerment of youth, and particularly young women and girls.

Recent collections of short stories published by the Samoa Observer comprise narratives entered for the annual Tusitala Short Story Competition, which began in 2015. These contain local perspectives on often controversial or provocative subjects, including domestic violence against women and children – also the subject of a National Commission of Inquiry in 2018. The Inquiry's findings were cautionary, showing that domestic violence was prevalent and in urgent need of scrutiny, and this is echoed in some of the stories. ‘The Samoan Wife’ by Maureen Fepuleai, for example, ‘explores what is behind the veneer of everyday life, what the public is allowed to witness and what the reality is in peoples’ lives’. Meanwhile, speaking about her story, ‘Unborn Child’, author Sina Retzlaff, herself a survivor of domestic violence, reminds us of the imperative behind her story: ‘Women in [abusive] relationships need to be able to see it and need to be able to get help.’

Illustration of a character from Samoan mythology (1)

Racism, that most pernicious and relevant social challenge, is also raised in ‘A Haunting Thought’ by Seiuli Seti Ah Young and in ‘A Visit to LBJ’ by Poe Mageo. In these stories, the targets of discrimination are Chinese-Samoans in Apia and Korean migrant workers in American Samoa. Five collections of short stories have been published so far and they are valuable texts for degree courses in literary studies and Samoan studies at the National University of Samoa.

To conclude, to state that the humanities are important in helping to achieve the SDGs is, in my view, a significant understatement. These SDGs cannot be achieved without the help of the humanities. It is imperative that the humanities be used to help individuals and communities focus once again on what it is to be human and humane; to be intensely aware of the human condition, of the inevitable possibility of corruption – especially associated with power – and the nature or presence of good and of evil, as well as the rites of passage involved in this transformational journey of milestones called human development.

After pandemics and natural disasters, one should learn to be deliberately kind to one’s neighbour, to promote healing, humility, and a sense of gratitude so one can act with compassion, especially towards the homeless, the displaced, and the vulnerable. To this end, the power of stories illuminates and guides us.

Dr Sina Va'ai is Professor of English at the National University of Samoa.

The illustrations here depict stories and characters from Samoan mythology. They are the work of Dorothy Kneubuhl who, alongside her husband John Kneubuhl, worked in the American Samoa Department of Education. They produced three volumes of stories, which sought to restore teaching of the Samoan language in schools and to revive Samoan stories. We reproduce the images here with kind permission of Robin Kneubuhl. Visit to read more.

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