Moana, Polynesia as a Monolith, and Books by and About Polynesians

Have you seen Moana? Did you love it?

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Everyone running to see the Moana movie
GIF DESCRIPTION: Moana running quickly over grass in her village. This is part of the song “How Far I’ll Go” and she is running toward the beach to follow her dream of sailing

Of course you loved it, seems like pretty much EVERYONE loved it.

I loved it. I adored the animation, the story, the characters, the chicken, how Moana’s hair actually gets in her way all the time (seriously, Disney Princesses, how do you NOT have this problem???), and just about everything in it.

And then…

I started seeing opinions and reviews actually posted by people FROM Polynesian cultures. Many of them liked the movie but the phrase, “It’s about me, but it’s not FOR me” kept coming up. “It’s for White and POC Americans.” “Moana is brown but don’t erase that she’s Polynesian.”

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GIF DESCRIPTION: Moana standing on a beach, with an oar in her right hand. She is frustrated and shakes her head. 

Meleika, an outspoken Pacifika activist and writer, penned a fantastic article that sums a lot of these points up: We Need to Talk About Moana and What It Missed

The main point I saw from Polynesians giving their thoughts on Moana was:

The various, distinct Polynesian cultures and languages were presented as a monolith

This…this is not cool. I know Disney created the Oceanic Trust and sought advice from Polynesians themselves and anthropologists who should be near-experts in the cultures. Even so, it’s clear from articles like this one that Disney cherry-picked across the various cultures as a result of bringing together so many different cultures in their research group.

Moana is purposefully, intentionally, an amalgamation of distinct and different cultures. The film, then, must avoid explaining the meaning behind any of it’s choices to avoid calling out this smashing together of cultures.

So, what can we do about it? Hopefully Moana has opened up opportunities to actually have Polynesian writers working on the final script for a film ABOUT Polynesians (Taika Waititi wrote the first screenplay for Moana, but it was changed so drastically he isn’t even credited in the film). In the meantime, though, we can promote the work of actual Polynesian writers!

Good thing this is a reading/writing blog, right?

If you found, as I did in the back of my mind, that it might be strange to see various islands with different beliefs, traditions, and lifestyles presented as one people sharing the same culture, here is a short list of books that go deeper.

NOTE: To really drill in how different these cultures are, you should know one thing. When I went looking for these books, I started off in Google with phrases like “Polynesian YA books” and “YA Polynesian protagonist” and I got one book that’s on this list and not many others–at least not for teens. Lots of nonfiction.

When I searched for “YA book Maori” or “YA book Tongan” or “YA books with Samoan MC” then I turned up a heck of a lot more!

You can’t even make Polynesian culture monolithic when looking for books ABOUT POLYNESIAN PEOPLE.

I made a mistake searching so broadly. Don’t be like me.

I would also like to note that I see and recognize the criticism over not giving Moana a love interest. I think it could easily have been done and I agree with that criticism.

Okay, here’s the list:

TELESA: THE COVENANT KEEPER (first in a series) by Lani Wendt Young

Honestly, anything by Lani Wendt Young fits, although I am particularly excited to check out the Telesa series (it’s urban fantasy!):

WHERE WE ONCE BELONGED by Sia Figiel (ownvoices)

A story about a 13 year old girl navigating Samoan culture as she explores and comes to terms with her own identity. Told in traditional Samoan storytelling form of su’ifefilo.

  • Traditional storytelling form
  • Explores Samoan identity, especially that of Samoan women and girls
  • Found through Goodreads (Amazon link here)

WE ARE THE OCEAN by Epeli Hau’ofa

  • Collection of short stories, poetries, and essays
  • By an anthropologist born in Tonga who has traveled throughout Polynesia
  • Takes a more political bent than others on this list
  • Found through Goodreads (Amazon Link here)

Various books from Guam and Micronesia:

This website has a whole list of books for children and young adults, poetry, nonfiction, and adult fiction from Guam and Micronesia (not part of Polynesia but still a Pacific culture). I hadn’t considered including kidlit since I write and read primarily young adult, but how cool would it be for parents to find this list and grab a few of these books for younger readers?

Here are a few titles I found particularly interesting:

A Year of Reading Around the World List

Here’s another list of books usually recommended by people from those places (shout out to Erin Lynn Jeffreys Hodges for the recs!).  I’ve mentioned before the gargantuan efforts of Ann Morgan to read books from all around the world. Well, she includes various Pacific cultures (not all of these are Polynesian), as well, including:

  • Samoa
  • New Zealand
  • Tonga
  • Vanuatu
  • Micronesia, Federated States
  • Philippines
  • Palau
  • Tuvalu

WILDEFIRE by Karsten Knight (trilogy)

DISCLAIMER: The Goodreads reviews of this book are basically either 1 start or 4/5 stars. I found reviews FROM Pacific Islanders were typically 1 star reviews for a variety of reasons (a few of which included less-than-stellar rep). Check out Penelope Lolohea’s review here for a more in-depth look.

  • Wildefire (fantasy)
  • Found through Goodreads (Amazon link here)
  • The MC is based on a Hawaiian volcano goddess (whose name is mispronounced, awkwardly) and is apparently super violent.
  • Even though the premise looks REALLY COOL, I’m on the fence about reading this book over others I may enjoy more. If you have read this or the whole trilogy, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Want more? 

I have found Makalesi Moore (@fangirlJeanne), Anjulie Te Pohe ♅ (@YA_Geek), and Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi (@theauslibrary) to be extremely insightful in their criticism of Moana and very generous in providing these dissenting opinions, often free of charge. They also have lists of Polynesian writers and activists that you can follow on Twitter for a broader reach.

I still love Moana for it’s epic story, breathtaking animation, and wonderful characters. But I can love the movie and recognize it’s flaws, too. If you want more of what you saw in the movie, but with the cultures represented more accurately, please check out some of the books on this list (and, as always, provide a review of whatever you read!).

UPDATE:

A friend pointed out that I said I searched for books with Maori protagonists but didn’t include any in the list. This is an oversight. I did search for books but couldn’t find any YA books available in the U.S. that I could confirm portrayed the culture respectfully and accurately. The two books I found were AROHA by Anaru Bickford and KOKOPU DREAMS by Chris Baker. Anyone who has read this, I would appreciate your thoughts!

However, I have read THE WHALE RIDER and I know that is an ownvoices book about an 8-year-old Maori girl who must defy tradition to save her village. It’s a fantastic book and you can check it out here.

Author: JA Goodsell

I write YA fantasy, blog about it, and then take my dog out for therapy. My current manuscript is INNATE, a story of two sisters caught up in a war between the gods. Find me on Twitter at @JAGoodsell or Instagram at books_and_dogs

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