Poetry Unbound

Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi

Say My Name

Last Updated

October 26, 2020


What is the story of your name?

In this poem, the poet calls on place, ancestors, and history to bear witness to the dignity of their name. They recall how their ancestors “acknowledged my roots grew in two / places” and how their name “is the definition of resilience.” With Black/Indigenous, Pasifika, and West Asian heritage, the poet speaks to those who mispronounce their name: “Say it right or don’t say it at all / for I am Meleika.”

Guest

Image of Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi

Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi aka Vika Mana, is a proud Torres Strait Islander and Tongan storyteller that takes many forms. They descend from the Zagareb and Dauareb tribes of Mer Island and the village of Fahefa in Tonga. They perform poetry, write criticism, breathe life into worlds. They've written for Overland, The Big Issue, The Saturday Paper and several publications both at home and internationally.

Transcript

Pádraig Ó Tuama, host: My name is Pádraig Ó Tuama, and lots of the time, poetry can be seen as an abstract art. But often, I think, a poet is trying to say something about “I am,” trying to speak of the dignity and the power of their own life, and that they’re using that powerful word “I” and locating it in the poem, to say something that’s true for them. And because of that, it’s true for many.

[music: “Praise the Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: “Say My Name” by Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi:

“My name was my name before
I walked among the living
before I could breathe
before I had lungs to fill
before my great grandmother passed
and everyone was left to grieve

My name was birthed from a dream
A whisper from gods to a king
A shout into the stars that produced
another that shone as bright
They held me without being burnt, humming lullabies in pidgin

My name was passed down from my
ancestors
They acknowledged my roots grew in two
places
So, they ripped my name from the ocean
and mixed it into the bloodlines of my totems

My name has survived the destruction of worlds
and the genocidal rebirthing of so-called ones
It’s escaped the overwhelmed jaw of the death bringer
Many a time
It has survived the conflicts that resulted in my gods,
from both lands, knowing me as kin,
but noticing that I am painfully unrecognisable and lost
They are incapable of understanding
the foreign tongue that was forced on me

My name has escaped cyclones and their daughters
It has been blessed by the dead
As they mixed dirt, salt and liquid red,
into my flesh
My name is the definition of resilience
It is a warrior that manifested because of warriors

So, excuse me as I roll my eyes or sigh as you
mispronounce my name
over and over again
Or when you give me another
that dishonours my mothers and fathers
That doesn’t acknowledge my lineage to my island home
or the scents of rainforest and ocean foam

You will not stand here on stolen land
and whitewash my name
For it is two words intertwined
holding as much power as a hurricane
Say it right or don’t say it at all
For I am Meleika
I will answer when you call”

[music: “White Filament” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Ó Tuama: This poem is such an interesting one in terms of tracing the importance of name and asserting, with full strength and validity and truth and power — the power of a hurricane — that the name should be pronounced correctly and not made to sound like something else that somebody might think, “Oh, your name sounds like that, so I’ll just call you what I recognize it to be rather than call you the name that’s yours.” This poem recognizes that the name carries within it heritage and story and dignity and power and resistances to empire and colonization.

Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi is an Indigenous/Black, Pasifika, and West Asian writer. And she’s asserting the stories in her name, and the places that her name comes from and the places that her lineage comes from, with a sense of power and with a sense of self-narration — a self-narration that has been threatened by the European projects for so often.

This poem has a dedication at the beginning of it, where she says, “Thank you, Dad, for my name. Thank you, Mom, for letting me keep it. Thank you, Sydney Naan, for saying my name lovingly, every time. Lastly, thank you, Papa Annaan and the rest of my ancestors. I dedicate this all to you.” So even in the dedication of this poem there’s ancestors, recent ancestors and long ancestors, and the recognition of being able to keep a name for hearing a name being said lovingly. And the name she’s giving to people — Sydney Naan, Papa Annaan — the dedication of all of this to all of the ancestors, going back to the places that she’s from and to the blood that courses in her veins that she is declaring needs to be taken on its own terms, and not translated into any name that sounds like it’s from somewhere else.

[music: “Ashed To Air” by Gautam Srikishan]

Ó Tuama: This poem does create a real particularity of place, but it also opens up a real temporal, and even liminal, holding of space and time. “My name was my name before / I walked among the living / before I could breathe […] birthed from a dream / A whisper from gods to a king.” And then, this “I will answer when you call” is the final line. There’s a quest, a task, a level of rising to the dignity of being called to be a representative, you and many others — not just one, but she is representing the mothers and the fathers that have come before her, the people to whom she’s dedicated the poem and the people who share the languages that she knows and the languages that have been taken away from her, also.

There’s something so important in the recognition that when an Indigenous language has been taken away from the place where it is native, that that is a permanent lament amongst the people who were from there, the people who wish they could speak that language. And you see this here in her poem: “noticing that I am painfully unrecognisable and lost / They are incapable of understanding / the foreign tongue that was forced on me.” She’s speaking about these old gods that wouldn’t understand her and that perhaps she wouldn’t understand, and this sense of being displaced, even though you’re in your own place — being internally displaced, linguistically, and the lament and the grief and the wound that that is, and the recognition of a world that has been threatened, and perhaps, even destroyed and stolen.

[music: “Flor Vjell” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Ó Tuama: This poem has six verses, really. And the final verse starts off by saying, “So, excuse me as I roll my eyes or sigh as you / mispronounce my name / over and over again / Or when you give me another / that dishonours my mothers and fathers.” And the “mispronounce my name / over and over again” isn’t just about now. The “over and over again” from that echoes back into the past. What are the ways, that location and dignity and self-determination, over and over again, have been taken? And each deliberate or un-deliberate or who-knows-what mispronunciation of a name is an echo in the present of the over and over again that’s been happening for a long time, while peoples have been displaced from their own cultures, from their own languages, and from their own self-determination.

She speaks about being held “without being burnt”; the brilliance of her name; “humming lullabies in pidgin.” She’s honoring the ways within which language and changes of language have evolved in all kinds of parts of the world. And she’s saying, this is the birth of a star. This is the birth of a power, the birth of a hurricane, and not something that needs to be translated. This is something that needs to be encountered. And she is saying, I — and by association, we — need to be encountered within the names we give to ourselves and not the names that seem convenient for somebody who might find it easier or more convenient for pronunciation.

She says that when you give me another name, you dishonor “my mothers and fathers” — mothers and fathers — not just mother and father, mothers and fathers. This poem resists binary declarations, over and over again. This poem says that she’s from twin places, that there’s all kinds of energies that live within her: sea and bloodlines and roots and air. This poem is a very elemental poem and is creating a profound link with place and declaring place, as well as declaring name, and recognizing that both place and name have been stolen. And this is a resilient declaration of saying: Not from me, and not from us.

[music: “Flor Vjell” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Ó Tuama: “Say My Name” by Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi:

“My name was my name before
I walked among the living
before I could breathe
before I had lungs to fill
before my great grandmother passed
and everyone was left to grieve

My name was birthed from a dream
A whisper from gods to a king
A shout into the stars that produced
another that shone as bright
They held me without being burnt, humming lullabies in pidgin

My name was passed down from my
ancestors
They acknowledged my roots grew in two
places
So, they ripped my name from the ocean
and mixed it into the bloodlines of my totems

My name has survived the destruction of worlds
and the genocidal rebirthing of so-called ones
It’s escaped the overwhelmed jaw of the death bringer
Many a time
It has survived the conflicts that resulted in my gods,
from both lands, knowing me as kin,
but noticing that I am painfully unrecognisable and lost
They are incapable of understanding
the foreign tongue that was forced on me

My name has escaped cyclones and their daughters
It has been blessed by the dead
As they mixed dirt, salt and liquid red,
into my flesh
My name is the definition of resilience
It is a warrior that manifested because of warriors

So, excuse me as I roll my eyes or sigh as you
mispronounce my name
over and over again
Or when you give me another
that dishonours my mothers and fathers
That doesn’t acknowledge my lineage to my island home
or the scents of rainforest and ocean foam
You will not stand here on stolen land
and whitewash my name
For it is two words intertwined
holding as much power as a hurricane
Say it right or don’t say it at all
For I am Meleika
I will answer when you call”

[music: “Praise the Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]

Lily Percy: “Say My Name” comes from Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi’s Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today. Thank you to Meleika for giving us permission to use her poem. Read it on our website at onbeing.org.

Poetry Unbound is Chris Heagle, Erin Colasacco, Serri Graslie, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Christiane Wartell, Karen Navarre, Karyn Towey, Sue Ariza, and me, Lily Percy. Our music is composed and provided by Gautam Srikishan and Blue Dot Sessions. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise, and This Movie Changed Me — find those wherever you like to listen or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.

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