Dr. Juniper Ellis
March 2, 2015
A Sea of Self-Determination: Hau’ofa’s “Our Sea of Islands” and Sesame Street Birds
Epeli Hau’ofa utilizes grammar to make a profound difference in understanding Oceania from an Oceania’s perspective opposed to an American perspective. He defines Oceania not as “islands in the vast sea”, but rather, “a sea of islands” (31). His defiantly asserts his country not as a collection of dots in a vast world but as its own universes. He replaces the notion of tiny islands to vast universes of islands in which each autonomous culture has the rights and free will to create and define itself. He states, “There is a world of difference between viewing the Pacific as ‘islands in a far sea’, and ‘a sea of islands’. The first emphasizes dry surfaces in vast oceans far from centers of power. Focusing in this way stresses the smallness and remoteness of the islands” (31). Unlike a tattoo, which is a dry surface that reveals more about self-determination, this dry surface of islands makes them sound vulnerable and constantly needy. If islands were isolated dry lands, then the inhabitants would need supplies from the main land if more foreigners forcibly move in. The islands was be seen as isolated from, “centers of power” the or Western European’s modernization. The small size would make outsiders believe the islanders are too weak to defend themselves militarily. Through a Eurocentric lens, Oceania is seen as weak, dependent, and not capable of asserting its own agency. Unlike a tattoo, “islands in a vast sea”, indicate insufficient ability or the unwillingness to make a mark for oneself or on oneself. This viewpoint inaccurately depicts, “Islands in a vast sea” as merely acne blemishes on vast unhealthy skin, which needs to be treated by outside parties (31).
On the other hand, Hau’ofa’s second definition is literally a verbal tattoo. A mark and an act of defining agency when others easily label what they think you should or can be. He states, “The second is a more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships” (32). The “sea of islands” indicates that the canvass of the sea as the islanders’ home, not the sole definer or damnation. The islands are prominent not fragmented blemishes. He also states, “Oceania denotes a sea of islands with their inhabitants. The world of our ancestors was a large sea full of places to explore, to make their homes, and to breed generations of seafarers like themselves” (32). They do not merely survive but thrive in their home. They are individualized tattoos part of the living canvass of the sea. They are each one of a kind, crafted by nature itself or volcanoes; therefore, they are the irreplaceable and permanent part of Oceania’s breathing body of water.
Meanwhile, I existed in the miniature universe of Langhorne, Pennsylvania guarding the Big, yellow bird and photographing children and their families having their day in puppet paradise. One day in particular, I noted a co-worker’s tattoo cleverly hidden under our chirpily, gold Sesame uniform. Tattoos were labeled in our handbook as inappropriate for fear of offending the customers or lacking professionalism. Even under the faint layer of foundation, the individualized tattoo was meant to be read. The tattoo is seven birds with each one color of the rainbow flying. They are freeing themselves from a black Victorian styled cage with locks covering it. As a literary nerd, I asked if this tattoo was a reference to Maya Angelou’s novel’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. He responds, “A Maya Angelou …sounds like some great booze. Let’s have one on the weekend sometime!” I was very embarrassed about my assumptions and felt ignorant. When I defined what I thought his tattoo says instead of him, I am no better than an outsider who generally defines Oceania as, “islands in a vast sea”, just to mold it to make sense in the context of what he or she knows. Instead of consulting the insider who lives and breathes their heritage on their skin or in their country, I assumed my literary background gives me more credibility to define my co-worker’s tattoo.
He later told me that his tattoo was symbol of his transition to freedom and self-identity. He remained mainly closeted as bi-sexual male till recently. Determined to make his stance clear to his family and very hostile anti-gay and judgmental homosexual high school he went to, he had his tattoo be an arrangement of birds that each represented any kind of person he could eventually fall in with. Each bird could be of any race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sex of anyone he would choose to love in the present or the future. He did not want to renounce who he is to his heterosexual family and friends, but he did not like being criticized as “being on the fence” or “being promiscuous for not picking a team”, to his homosexual contemporaries. He explained to me while we were guarding the Big Bird from the storm in July, “Why is it anyone else’s choice to define whom you love and live how you want to? Whoever defines me got too much time on their hands…because my skin speaks for itself!” Each bird is an island flying away from restrictive boundaries of Western, Victorian ideals of self. The birds together are more than what the cage that holds them is. They are, “a sea of islands” among a judgmental and uninterested audience. Hau’ofa states, “The second is a more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships”; thus, my co-worker is whole in his self-determination and his choice to define his relationship to the world on his arm (31).
Hau'ofa, Epeli. "Our Sea of Islands." Inside Out. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.