An interview with Larry THOMAS, Nouméa 24.10.2003
Born in Suva in 1961, Larry Thomas lectures in literature and theatre arts at the South Pacific University. In the last few years he ventured into documentary filmmaking. Author of three collections of plays : Just Another Day (1989), Three Plays (1991) and To Let You Know and Other Plays (2002), he was then working on a new play based on the life of Apolosi Nawai.
Jean-François Vernay: You seem to be very preoccupied with themes related to intimacy. “Searching for the Smile” opens on the love theme and talks openly about sex, “Yours Dearly” deals with marriage and adultery, for instance. How is that perceived in Fiji?
Larry Thomas : I must say I am more concerned with relationships than intimacy itself. I’m particularly interested in institutional marriage as a norm and I’m looking here at the Fiji context – though I suppose you could extend it to the Pacific region also. I’m interested in seeing how after the courtship, the many years of a life of sharing and friendship – sometimes up to 30 years –, two people have moved apart from each other, and sometimes can barely tolerate each other. There seems to be a lack of intimacy in relationships, we don’t become close, we develop it but we are afraid to pursue to a very deep level. I suppose you could say it’s the Western concept of how relationships are viewed whereas in the Pacific there’s a certain reluctance to discuss relationships. Two people meet, they love each other and much remains unsaid. Feelings are thus understated, there’s a certain psycho understanding, a certain intuition and perception that men and women have of each other so that their feelings don’t need to be expressed in words.
J.-F.V.: You regularly pass comments on today’s consuming society. In many of your plays, you seem to regret modernity’s changes in Fijian society. You also address topical issues like poverty, exclusion, alcoholism, or drugs. Do you see the artist’s work as a social act?
L.T.: Yes and no. I think there are some artists – and here I’m talking specifically again of the Pacific writers – who lament the past in their work, but change is inevitable, it’s dynamic and we have to accept that. I think we do accept that. I suppose a hundred years ago in Europe people were talking about the same things. What is lamented is the change of pace, the change of the quality of life, the change of attitudes. How I grew up is different to what someone born ten years ago is experiencing now. For instance, I had the pleasure of my grandmother who told me stories at a time when there was no television in Fiji. Radio was also a very important source of information, whereas someone born ten years ago grew up with television. That replaces stories and the radio, that replaces listening because you’re watching. And by watching you’re not necessarily listening! Technology now in Fiji like everywhere else I suppose is just so pervasive, affecting all cultures. I think that because we come from a traditional culture, from an oral culture, writers from my generation and earlier generations are sad that younger people are not listening, are paying little attention to their culture. As mentioned today by Professor Subramani (1), culture tradition becomes a hindrance to the development of young people and it’s only in retrospect when they grow up, when they read, understand and are interested in what older people are saying and have done, do they realise they have missed out on something important but it is too late. As for me, I try to strike a balance between understanding the present while appreciating the past. I talk about modernity, but at the same time I go back to the past.
J.-F.V.: Do you see violence as inevitable in a society condemned to proximity and promiscuity?
L.T.: Yes, I think that’s one way of putting it. Part of that comes from patriarchy. Men are in charge and women are subservient to men. If women disobey men, they are put into place. That was the way of the past. Formerly, if a husband died, his wife had to accompany him into death. I think violence comes about because of several factors : economic reasons, frustration, the lack of self-esteem. If women tend to be smarter, and there are many smart women nowadays, men would deal with them through violence. Women become frustrated and want to speak out, and to this day we still have such imbalance.
J.-F.V.: At one stage in “Searching for the Smile”, Simone says in a small country you hear about things more easily than if one was living in a place like Australia? Are confined spaces conducive to freeing speech? Is that why most of your plays take place in restricted premises?
L.T.: The paradox is that there’s all the space out there, and yet there’s also a lack of space. It comes from free expression to say what you believe in because you are confined to societal norms. And no matter how a modern a child is, he knows that there are things he cannot say or do without being condemned. We’re still careful about saying certain things, like becoming critical about the government, for instance. Some people could get quite offended. So everything has to be couched very carefully. And that’s quite prevalent throughout the Pacific region. There’s a certain sticking to the status quo within our societies. You must know where you fit in and what level you belong to, it’s very hierarchical, you have to know where you fit in from the bottom to the top. All these different levels come with respect and knowing where you belong.
J.-F.V.: Is criticism “very healthy”, as Peter has it in “Searching for the Smile”?
L.T.: Criticism is very healthy anywhere and even in traditional societies. But it depends what kind of criticism because as I said previously, people are very careful to criticize. When it comes to criticizing society we’re being very cautious, but when it comes to criticizing individuals we’re quite vicious because there’s this tendency that people don’t want to see somebody else improve. There’s always this pulling you down.
J.-F.V.: In Australia they call it the tall poppy syndrome, is that a Fijian version of it?
L.T.: Absolutely. It’s unfortunate because some people deserve to be praised and they are very humble. There’s a certain humility that comes with being an achiever. They’re not arrogant but they stand out and people don’t like that because everybody has to be the same. No one is supposed to be taller than the other.
J.-F.V.: You seem to shift slowly to postcolonial concerns (with themes such as uprootedness, hybridity, isolation from the metropolitan centre, etc.). Would you expand on this?
L.T.: I suppose now the term used is globalisation. That best describes many things that are going on in the world today. There is the rural-urban drift with many young people moving from villages to the city because of education and (un)employment but also the city is just so more attractive. Moving to the big city one encounters all kinds of situations and problems. And I don’t have to explain what they are, everyone knows. There is also this idea of wanting to experiment, push the boundaries, so to speak that young people are concerned with. And here in Fiji, we have a very multi-ethnic society so there is this hybridity. That form is exciting though there are those who always prefer a mono-cultural society and for whom any change is threatening. This is the way it is and it will only intensify as the years go by. All we have are the stories and these stories are important because they document the times and also serve as a history for the future.
J.-F.V.: It is quite odd that you chose drama, whose etymology means “action” to express yourself once we realise that speech is more valued than deeds in your plays? Is speech, as French critic Sonia Lacabanne (2) puts it, a deed in itself ?
L.T.: Yes I think so. Oratory is important and highly valued in Pacific societies. And one of the criticisms I received is that in some of my plays there is only a bunch of young people giving speeches especially for “Men, Women an Insanity”. My plays are part realistic, part naturalistic. There’s a lot of talking in “Men, Women an Insanity”. I wanted to talk about issues from the point of view of young people who sit around and there was hardly any movement. Having directed my own plays, I have that freedom to experiment, to do what I want to do. Because I come from an oral tradition, there’s a lot of listening. But of course you have to be interesting for people to listen to you. I’m a product of my own community.
J.-F.V.: Tackling the religious theme, you expose the failures of Christianity. What is its fundamental weakness?
L.T.: I’m looking at Christianity and what it is to be a Christian because to be a Christian is to be a very good person which is one of the most difficult things in the world. It’s easier to be bad, to swear, to hit somebody, to condemn. So for me there’s much of the ego which correlates with Christianity. It’s like Buddhism or any kind of religious philosophy, we have people who are Christians but yet who are horrible. There’s a certain Christian fundamentalism which has pervaded into the Pacific Christian life and this I think is quite scary. In Fiji we had three coups, the first two were bloodless; the third in May 2000 was the worst coup we ever had because people were killed. How do you reconcile Christianity and justice or peace? Because to be Christian is to be a just and peaceful person. On the one hand, some of them can be violent and on the other hand, they can be sitting singing hymns and talking about Jesus Christ. How do you reconcile the two? Christianity is about care, about loving your neighbour, about not being violent. And it is not idealistic because that is the way it should be.
J.-F.V.: Some of your plays have a cinematic structure, as Ian Gaskell puts it in his introduction to To Let You Know & Other Plays. Does your work for television influence your drama? Or is it that Fijians have an inclination for language imagery which you try to translate in your plays?
L.T.: In “Searching for the Smile” I was experimenting how a play moves around. It’s set in a bar and the action moves from one table to another table, and people don’t interact. I suppose you can take it as a two-level metaphor: firstly as Fiji in relation to the rest of the world and humans in relation to themselves. Meaning this lack of dialogue we have with ourselves. So in writing that play, it had to be very visual for me.
J.-F.V.: Have you been influenced by the ideology of Harold Pinter?
L.T.: No, I’ve read his plays but they did not affect my writings. If there’s a playwright who has influenced me, it’s been Tennessee Williams and Ibsen, and lately, Eugene O’Neill and August Wilson, the African-American playwright.
J.-F.V.: Do you have any future plans?
L.T.: I have many future plans but whether they can be realised is another matter. I’m currently working on a play. I’m taking an interest in Fijian history, from missionaries to indenture to the mid 20th century. Drama can create awareness of History. I’m also working on a couple of documentaries.
J.-F.V.: Do you connect the apathy of the lives of the young Millers in “Just Another Day” with cargo-cult mentality?
L.T.: That’s an interesting way of putting it. I guess you could say, yes, they are waiting around for the mana from heaven to fall. They are waiting and hoping that something wonderful or a windfall will happen that will solve all their problems. But it is going to be a very long wait because as long as they wait and not move themselves into trying to provide the opportunity for something good to happen, then there will always be that constant waiting and hoping, not realising that time is also moving .
J.-F.V.: You seem to have a harsh outlook on Fijian society. Basically, the man brings the money home, his wife hoards it and the kids spend it when they don’t choke it from other people. You seem to highlight a parasite system. Do Fijians recognise themselves in your plays?
L.T.: I don’t think it’s just limited to Fiji, that’s universal. That’s the way it operates. It’s all part of a cycle. But there’s so much more to life. So how can you break away from that cycle? How can you begin to have a wonderful dialogue with your partner and talk about things which are meaningful. In the Pacific we are overwhelmed by many things which as I mentioned earlier have pervaded our societies and having a lot of money is seen as good and uplifts one’s status. But it is also a means to an end, simple as that. What I write about reflects my society but the themes and issues are also very universal. What I am doing is telling my own story of my own country and some of the things I see happening.
J.-F.V.: Pauperdom is a running theme in your plays. What is your stance on that issue?
L.T.: It’s partly from my experience of growing up poor, struggling. And when you look at the world, it’s very important to me not to forget there are poor people. Compassion is very important in my life. If I loose sight of compassion, I loose sight of everything. I’ve come to a point in my writing where I have to be validated, to be affirmed. So I write about my own community, about the downtrodden and the oppressed. Some appreciate it, others find it boring.
J.-F.V.: How do you feel about the creative process?
L.T.: My whole life is one whole creative process. There’s constant thinking and scribbling. The creative process is an exciting process because there is a constant searching for everything, a constant search for what has meaning in one’s life and what doesn’t. I find life fascinating and being creative is an advantage that helps me try to understand what life is all about.
(1) Refering to Subramani’s FILLM (Fédération internationale de littératures et langues modernes: International Federation for Modern Languages and Literatures) convention paper entitled: ‘Changing Paradigms in Literary Studies’. The FILLM convention was held in Nouméa, New-Caledonia, from 19th-24th October 2003.
(2) Sonia Lacabanne, "Larry Thomas, le Fidjien qui a un grand « nombre de ces choses en tête »", Correspondances Océaniennes (Nouméa), vol.2, Hors-série, octobre 2003, pp.25-6.