Sun Tracks & Coconut Milk

Sun Tracks & Coconut Milk

In 2009, I was a graduate student in the Comparative Ethnic Studies Ph.D. program at University of California, Berkeley. My research focused on Native American and Pacific Islander literature and theory. To fund my education, I was fortunate enough to receive a fellowship from the Ford Foundation and to attend their annual Conference of Ford Fellows in Irvine, California. In a shuttle from the airport to the conference hotel, I met Patti Hartman–the senior acquisitions editor for the University of Arizona Press (UAP)–and we chatted about indigenous literature and publishing.

We continued to correspond after the conference.  At the time, I was editing several manuscripts related to Pacific literature, and I inquired about the possibility of publishing one of these books with UAP Press. After several more emails and phone conversations, Patti proposed that I join the editorial board of a UAP series known as “Sun Tracks.” This series, launched in 1971, was one of the first publishing venues that focused exclusively on Native American creative writing. In over 30 years, the series has published more than forty books by well-known and emerging native poets and writers (for a history of the Sun Tracks series, read here). My responsibility would be to propose manuscripts by Pacific Islander poets for Sun Tracks. Apparently, this was one of Patti’s last editorial acts before she retired.

Literary kinships between Native Americans and Pacific Islanders are not new. Duane Niatum’s important 1975 anthology, Carriers of the Dream Wheel: Contemporary Native American Poetry, and Geary Hobson’s 1979 anthology, The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature, included work by Hawaiian poet Dana Naone Hall.  Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird’s 1994 anthology, Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America, included work by Hawaiian poet Haunani Kay-Trask. More recently, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s 2009 anthology Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing features work by Hawaiian poets Brandy Nālani McDougall and Mahealani Perez-Wendt. Those are just a few examples.

Personally, I have learned so much from reading Native American poetry. We write about many of the same themes, including colonialism, indigenous identity, migration, historical trauma, urbanization, language loss/revitalization, militarization, decolonization, sovereignty, family, food, environmentalism, genealogy, and more. As I argue in some of my scholarly writing, there are many productive aesthetic relations as well (read Chadwick Allen’s books for more–Blood Narrative: Indigenous Identity in American Indian and Maori Literary and Activist Texts (2002) and Trans-Indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies (2012)).

Now, let me tell you about one of my favorite Pacific poets: Samoan poet, painter and filmmaker Dan Taulapapa McMullin. I got to know Dan when I was living in California, and we performed together over the years, in San Francisco and Long Beach–both vibrant centers of diasporic Pacific culture. I also published a review of his chapbook, a Dragqueen named Pipi and Other Poems: Fagogo ma Solo (Tinfish Press, 2004). Recently, Dan has published some of his work in Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature (2011), an anthology that explores the complexities of native gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, and two-spirit identities.

Needless to say, I was excited when Dan agreed to submit a poetry manuscript for consideration as the first Pacific Islander text within the Sun Tracks series. His book, Coconut Milk, was published in 2013. Here is the  description of the book (you can order a copy through this link):

“Coconut Milk is a fresh, new poetry collection that is a sensual homage to place, people, love, and lust. The first collection by Samoan writer and painter Dan Taulapapa McMullin, the poems evoke both intimate conversations and provocative monologues that allow him to explore the complexities of being a queer Samoan in the United States.

McMullin seamlessly flows between exposing the ironies of Tiki kitsch–inspired cultural appropriation and intimate snapshots of Samoan people and place. In doing so, he disrupts popular notions of a beautiful Polynesia available for the taking, and carves out new avenues of meaning for Pacific Islanders of Oceania. Throughout the collection, McMullin illustrates various manifestations of geopolitical, cultural, linguistic, and sexual colonialism. His work illuminates the ongoing resistance to colonialism and the remarkable resilience of Pacific Islanders and queer-identified peoples.

McMullin’s Fa’a Fafine identity—the ability to walk between and embody both the masculine and feminine—creates a grounded and dynamic voice throughout the collection. It also fosters a creative dialogue between Fa’a Fafine people and trans-Indigenous movements. Through a uniquely Samoan practice of storytelling, McMullin contributes to the growing and vibrant body of queer Indigenous literature.”

Just last week, Dan was a keynote speaker for the New Oceania Literary Series sponsored by the Creative Writing Program in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa (I am the current Director of the Creative Writing program). We launched Coconut Milk at his public reading here and several of our Pacific graduate student poets performed with Dan (pictured below (L-R): No’u Revilla, Jamaica Osorio, Keali’i MacKenzie, Tagi Qolouvaki, and Dan Taulapapa McMullin). All the copies of Coconut Milk we tabled at the reading sold out.

A few days later, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Roundtable of the American Library Association named Coconut Milk one of their “Top Ten” books published in 2012-2013.

I feel humbled to join the Sun Tracks editorial team and continue the transindigenous kinship ties between Pacific Islander and Native American poets. I will work hard to honor the vision and generosity of past and present native editors. Deep thanks to Patti and current acquisitions editor, Kristen Buckles. Deep thanks to Dan for his powerful work and to everyone who has already bought a copy of Coconut Milk.

In addition to creating space for Pacific writers, I hope this collaboration will encourage Pacific poets to read Native American writers (you can buy a Sun Tracks book from their catalog here). Next month, I will be chairing the Indigenous-Aboriginal American Writers Caucus at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, and we will be discussing ways in which we can further support each other as we continue to prove that our voices will never be silenced, our stories will never be forgotten.

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