microwoman interviews: dr. katerina teaiwa, author of consuming ocean island (2015)

dr. katerina teaiwa, is the author of a book that will be launched officially later this month, consuming ocean island: stories of people and phosphate from banaba, indiana university press, 2015. katerina is the pacific studies convener and head of the department of gender, media and cultural studies at the australian national university (anu). she’s also my younger sister. so it seemed appropriate to begin a new year for the microwoman blog by interviewing her. [disclaimer: this is not typically how we’d converse with one another…so we’re literally turning a new page here.]

photo credit: nicholas mortimer, 2015 with permission
photo credit: nicholas mortimer, 2015 with permission

microwoman: congratulations on the publication of your book, kat! how long did it actually take you to pull it all together?

katerina teaiwa: oh hello big sister, thank you. 🙂

i began historical research on banaba in 1997 as part of my masters in the center for pacific islands studies at the university of hawai’i (uh) and continued from 1999 at the anu as a phd scholar in anthropology. i was very inspired by your work and early writing about contemporary banaban identities and, as you know, dad became a key interlocutor and provided much support for my work. this was always a family project, even when i was in a more academic or analytical mode.

i finished my phd in 2003 after lots of archival research and fieldwork (i called it “homework”) and then took a break while i taught at uh for 3.5 years. i then dived back into archival work at the macmillan brown centre for pacific studies at the university of canterbury in christchurch in 2006. john macmillan brown had shares in the phosphate company in the early 1900s. 

i had to take another break after i began a new job at anu in 2007 with a few trips to the archives every year and visits to rabi in fiji. i had also collected many hours of film footage and archival photographs and transformed some of these into short visual studies and collaborated with artists and curators to share this history in visual and multimedia forms. finally, in 2010 i began to reimagine this as a book proposal and finalized that in 2011 while on a fellowship at the university of rochester in new york. thus began the task of taking apart my masters and phd research, reconstructing parts i could use in a book and writing 5 new chapters. this took almost 2 years and it went through a long process of feedback from 3 reviewers, and 3 editors at indiana university press in the same period. the challenge was to write this story for a wider audience and particularly american readers who are unfamiliar with oceania and pacific studies. 

i think reimagining the book in this way made it better but it was a long, challenging process. for a 4-month period i was in my office till midnight on many days and lost at least 7 kilos but was so happy when everything finally came together at the beginning of 2014 and i had a real book ready to finalize for publication. i really appreciated the detail and attention that came to the book because of the rigour of the indiana university press team, as well as the additional readings and edits provided by great colleagues such as margaret jolly, carolyn brewer and rachel harvey, and my husband, nick mortimer.

so, the short answer is 15 years of research and preliminary writing, and 2 years of book writing!

mw: that’s a pretty epic process! but wait–so americans were the main or intended audience of your book?

kt: i tried to write the book for anyone (or everyone) but had banaban, i-kiribati, pacific islander, australian, new zealand, american and global audiences in mind, in roughly that order. i hoped people involved in environmental studies, activism, mining, resource extraction and agricultural research or activities might also pick it up and contemplate the impact of fertilizer manufacturing and mass agriculture on indigenous peoples.

this is a trailer katerina made for her book, using footage she’d either shot or collected while doing the research for the book:

mw: what plans do you have for making sure banabans have access to your book?

kt: i have been in conversation with banabans who have access to the internet through a facebook group- banaba: untold tales- run by kata tawaka. It has 299 members and i’ve posted all news or media and information to that page. i’ve also got a copy of the book for the community library on rabi and have given a copy of the book to the president of the banaban community in brisbane to share with the growing community there. i plan on sending copies to the presidents of kiribati and nauru as well. ummm and teresia, your copy is on its way too, as well as one for the museum of new zealand te papa tongarewa.

mw: oh, that’s nice. thank you. i’m not sure if it’s the gift from you, but i hear te papa has a copy already. i shall look forward to receiving mine. now, your book sits in a bibliographic genealogy that has harry maude’s book of banaba (1994), king and sigrah’s rii ni banaba (2001) and shennan and tekenimatang’s one and a half pacific islands: stories the banaban people tell of themselves (2005) as some of its predecessors. how is your book different from these? what do you think banaban readers will make of it?

2015 microwoman book of banaba 2015 microwoman te rii ni banaba 2015 one and a half pacific islands

kt: indeed, banabans are familiar with certain versions of their history (from maude, grimble, williams and macdonald) and jennifer shennan, makin tekenimatang, ken sigrah and stacey king have produced recent books telling many banaban and european versions of this history and contemporary rabi life. i wrote to ken and mentioned that i do not cover the te aka version of banaban history as this is not something i know enough about. wolfgang kempf and elfriede hermann have also written many articles and book chapters about life and identity on rabi.

but i think what my book does that these works do not, is explicitly link banaban history to that of a deep history of land, global agriculture, phosphate mining and the significance of the phosphorus element. i thought as much about what happened to the land as to the people and previous authors have focused more on people. so i hope banaban readers will say: oh, that’s why they wanted our phosphate so much and this is the role it played in global agriculture. and they might ask: so what is “te aba” really, and why should we know more about the science and technical aspects of phosphate mining and environmental destruction? i argue that what happened to the land is like what happened to the people and both are still waiting to be rehabilitated in a just fashion.

mw: your book is part of the indiana university press series called ‘tracking globalization’. why was it important for you to tell the stories of banaban people and phosphate in the context of globalization?

kt: well, as a banaban, i became very, very, very interested in what phosphate and phosphorus were and why these were such valuable elements and commodities. if we lose an island what does everyone else gain and was it worth the sacrifice? turns out that the globe has these planetary boundaries and phosphorus has a key role to play in the maintenance of our ecological systems. this is something i think banabans need to know, the mining destroyed not just our island but phosphorus is a limiting factor for life on earth because it’s normally locked away in inaccessible forms like rock and takes a long time to naturally cycle back through the system. so messing with natural cycles in order to mass produce food might provide short term solutions for food security but results in all kinds of other problems in terms of siphoning off key minerals strictly for human needs while destroying landscapes, oceanscapes, plant and animal life, and cultures in the process.

i used to wonder if i’d ever use my bachelor of science degree from santa clara university but it sure came in handy for this research. i could generally follow the geology, biology and chemistry i had to read to write new chapters of the book but i was still unsure so went to the commonwealth scientific and industrial research organisation (csiro) in canberra and spent a bit of time with an agricultural scientist checking things. i hope banabans will rethink te aba, or abara, in these material and global terms and realize what role our small ancestral island played not just in terms of developing australian and new zealand agriculture but as part of a global environmental and agricultural system. tracking banaban lands and peoples is a global tracking in many ways because of the chain of phosphate and superphosphate commodities and the agricultural commodities and processes that are linked to fertilizer production and application.

this is a promotional video the anu released about katerina’s book:

mw: there was also another american guy (not part of the indiana series) who was doing a global history of phosphate, right? what was his name? are you and he saying similar things about phosphate’s role in processes of globalization?

kt: greg cushman wrote about guano: guano and the opening of the pacific world. i discovered it just as my book was finished and wrote to him to say, yay, great, i’m interested in your work. he never replied and I’ve only seen small bits of his book via google books but it does tell some of the banaban story based on archives and sigrah and king’s book. i’m not sure if he travelled to rabi and banaba. his is very much a global history linking south america and the pacific.

but guano and phosphate are a bit different in terms of geological life, access, mining technology required for extraction, and proportions of phosphoric acid available for agricultural use, or in terms of what industries need to do to the raw material in order to unlock the phosphoric acid (that’s what you need to help improve the capacity of plant roots to take in nutrients and thrive). 

guano mining played out a bit differently in south america and oceania but the same companies (like the pacific islands company) were involved in both types of extraction and exploitation of labour and indigenous land.

guano really is piled up bird and bat poo while phosphate–which can be formed by guano leaching through and reacting with a coral bed and then sedimenting over time–is locked away in rock formation.

mw: that’s interesting. you did a lot of archival research for the phd and this book, but your doctorate was awarded in anthropology. how important was anthropology for the way you’ve ended up writing the book?

kt: my writing is ethnographic. i tell stories, many in rich detail so i’d say ethnography rather than anthropology per se was very important. however, anthropologists’ previous work was very important, as was that of historians and a few scientists. so this could be described as historical ethnography but it not written to debate some particular theory or issue in the discipline.

mw: so the discipline of anthropology is not the focus. the people are. that’s cool. but your spoken kiribati is minimal, because dad didn’t use it much in our household when we were growing up. did you feel that was a barrier at any point in your research?

kt: it’s not only because our dad didn’t speak directly to us in his first language. i have studied kiribati, fijian, hindi, chinese, japanese and french over the years. and i cannot speak any of them though my kiribati comprehension is best. i believe my japanese teacher thought i was an imbecile and my french teacher similarly. but i can write any word in mandarin with the correct directional strokes—i see chinese characters, i don’t comprehend them.

anyway, yes, not paying closer attention to language did influence my project—the downside was not going deeper into banaban epistemologies and stories rooted in language, the upside was paying attention to materiality, to land, to commodities, to bodies. i am a visual and choreographic person; unlike you, languages are way, way beyond me in spite of time in kiribati and on rabi surrounded by kiribati speakers and listening to my father speak the language on and off since we were little. but i can learn any dance quite quickly; dance is my language. and when i look at a page, i don’t read words, i look at the shape of the text (i’m hypersensitive about fonts), spacing, blocks, tabs and margins, before i read anything. 

i did, however, work closely with our father to translate many interviews that were in gilbertese (kiribati) and I published them in the book with english translations.

here are some pictures of katerina using the language of dance over the years–from ballet to contemporary kiribati dance and other genres. we couldn’t find a photograph from her years of chinese dancing in time for publication:

Slide2 Slide1 Slide3

mw: have other disciplines influenced your analysis and writing in this book? how?

kt: history and anthropology have been the major disciplinary influences (i adore archives, they are so exciting) but interdisciplinary pacific studies is where my work sits i think. and that includes the indigenous studies and cultural studies elements of pacific studies. cultural studies and women’s studies on their own have also influenced my thinking and work, especially in terms of the politics of knowledge and cultural production.

it’s not a discipline per se but analytically, methodologically and politically, feminist ethnography had a major impact on my phd years, especially the writing of kamala visweswaran (fictions of feminist ethnography), dorinne kondo, ruth behar, deborah gordon, all the women writing culture folks, especially kirin narayan. she is such a master storyteller.

dance studies also had a massive impact on my work, especially the work of susan leigh foster, deidre sklar and sally ann ness. i think I write as a dancer, even when i’m not writing about dance.

mw: this is a microwoman interview, so can you tell us a bit about how women feature in your book? you’ve been influenced by feminist ethnography, so do you consider yourself a feminist? can you say more about how feminism informs your work?

kt: my two academic goddesses are kirin narayan and kamala visweswaran. yes, i’m a feminist but i find any superficial and simplistic varieties of western feminism irritating. i’m a feminist in a catholic, indigenous, eco-critical, multi or inter-spiritual kind of way. i tell my daughter god is not gendered and definitely not a man sitting in the clouds. i believe in gender equity and equality. 

gender was not the focus of my research but i noticed it everywhere, including in the archives, and carolyn brewer, who worked with me on the index, found much more content then i remembered thematically on women, children and gender issues in my book. this was especially the case with respect to land, land rights, colonialism, christianity, spirituality, oral traditions, and resistance amongst the banabans.

mw: just changing tack a bit, we’ve been talking about academic influences a lot so far, but i wondered whether there were other less academic influences you might like to discuss. for example, have you felt our ancestors’ spirits intervene or assist in the process of researching and/or writing this book at any point?

kt: ok, i have. and it’s never popular or a good move to discuss this in an academic (or public) context, except with some indigenous or pacific studies folks in hawai’i, new zealand and the u.s. i have a couple colleagues who i can talk to about such things at anu but it’s usually a no-go zone, as is revealing you have any kind of membership in organized (or disorganized) religion. academics aren’t expected to be spiritual, and definitely not religious as, scientifically, your objectivity will be seen to be compromised.

usually i’m not sure if i’m living up to our ancestors’ expectations. right from the beginning of the research process, if not before, i had many dreams of people trying to instruct me on banaban, kiribati and other indigenous knowledge and ways of doing or seeing things. after i went to banaba i had several dreams of skulls or heads without bodies accompanying me on the research journey and prompting me or pushing me to keep going. keeping ancestors bones was of course a custom on banaba and throughout the gilberts. on tabiteuea—our other ancestral island—i think i was visited by more than a few spirits and on banaba i definitely had waking encounters with vivid things i couldn’t explain. in 2011 my husband said that a tall man visited him in a dream and said to tell me i could do this book and it would be good. he said it was our african american grandfather.

mw: that’s heavy. do you have any funny stories from doing your research or writing the book?

kt: yes, lol. many of them involve bodily functions, like most anthropologists. one of them involves an entire section of betio town in south tarawa accompanying me to the shop to buy toilet paper and then sitting outside the school toilet, waiting, while i went. others involve showering under the stars with some awesome nuns on tabiteuea only to find out that a toddy cutter was up a coconut tree somewhere in the dark and decided to reveal himself by singing one of those toddy-cutting songs. 

a not so funny one was when a drunk young man climbed under my mosquito net in tekabwibwi, north tabiteuea, while my two uncles slept not too far away, claiming he just wanted to touch my hair. i woke up while his hand was inches from my face.

another one was when i thought i could play netball for our village, tabiang, on rabi but didn’t quite know the rules of the game and some clever woman put me into a match against the toughest village on the island. i think she wanted to show everyone how no amount of education will help you on the sports field. so i married a former athlete and he played volleyball for tabiang years later and his team decimated all the reigning champions (first time tabiang every won a trophy i hear)!

fun fact: i listened to lots of pop, hip hop, reggae, r&b and world music while finishing the book and danced in the chair as i was writing and editing.

mw: cute. 🙂 do you feel you have exhausted the archives on banaba? is there more work that could be done?

kt: no, no, no. the archives of the british phosphate commissioners, western pacific high commission, and others relevant to banaba, phosphate and mining are MASSIVE. they’re in canberra, melbourne, adelaide, london, auckland, wellington, suva and would connect to other records such as ship cargo manifests from many more countries. and this doesn’t include the content in private collections of former company employees and that of stacey king and ken sigrah on the gold coast of australia. there is a lifetime of work to be done and i’d love to keep going. i think it would also be great for younger banabans to study the humanities and social sciences and write more of our histories and contemporary stories.

mw: what will your next research and publishing projects focus on?

kt: my current work with indiana university’s “framing the global” project is called “indigenous peoples and the global remix” and is about the performing arts, policy, international cultural relations, regionalism and festivals. but i need to clear some months to finish it! i also hope to find funding to do more rabi and banaba research one day.

mw: well, that will certainly keep you busy! thanks for taking time to share with us on the microwoman blog. is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers before you go?

km: tekeraoi and go microwomen!

microwoman interviews: dr. katerina teaiwa, author of consuming ocean island (2015)

2 thoughts on “microwoman interviews: dr. katerina teaiwa, author of consuming ocean island (2015)

  1. Lily Gubbay says:

    Congratulations Dr Katerina love your work and very proud of you -Microwoman!!! Will write more later but tell me where can I get a copy of your book? Lily


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