28 Oct 2019

Lani Wendt Young on how the digital era is changing writing and reading for the better

From Literary lectures, 11:05 am on 28 October 2019
Lani Wendt Young

Lani Wendt Young Photo: Lani Wendt Young

The text of the full lecture can be downloaded here

Highlights from the lecture

Castle Point Lighthouse

Castle Point Lighthouse Photo: Flickr / Peter Kurdulija

There is a great and spacious building standing tall on a hill looking out to the distant ocean. A castle. Its white walls are built high and strong; they hold back the tangle of forest that threatens to encroach on its territory. Its looming gates are impenetrable. They open only for those with the right credentials. Sentries atop its walls trumpet the promise of accolades, influence, and maybe even a fat royalties cheque for all who enter?

It has a tower with a beacon that shines through night and day. Its light beckons, promising safety, security and success. It says: ‘I know the way. I see what you can’t. I know what you don’t. Follow me and I will guide you.’ It’s an unregulated wilderness out there and nobody knows what they’re doing, but those within the castle walls know the way. They see what you can’t. They know what you don’t.

Or do they?

Today we hear many troubling things about the impact of the digital era on reading. There are surveys that show young people aren’t reading books anymore. Rather, they are online, via their phones. Let’s be honest with ourselves, it isn’t just the youth. It’s a lot of us old folks too. Research is showing that online surfing and skim reading is having lasting effects on our brains, resulting in a ‘subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy.'

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Maximilian Schönherr

There are also many people bemoaning the impact of the digital era on the business of traditional publishing. Amazon is squeezing out local bookshops, publishers are going bust, writers aren’t getting the advances they used to. Ebook piracy is devastating the book industry.

And most disturbing of all, according to some, is that there are now kazillions of people publishing their crappy books online, books that haven’t been edited. Indie authors are flooding the market with trash and making it impossible for good writing to get noticed. It’s not fair, some say. What about standards? Quality control? There’s a reason why we have gatekeepers! Listening to them, it would seem that the zombie apocalypse is well and truly upon us. The castle is under threat.

To delve into what it means to be a reader in the digital age, we must first talk about what it was like before. When my children found out that I can remember a time before the smartphone, they were horrifiedYes, I grew up in the dark ages. During a time when the printed form was the only way you could read a book. These are bulky, expensive to print and to transport.

Some books on the bed in the calm ambiance of teenager's room.

Photo: Flickr / Dejan Krsmanovic

Being a voracious brown reader before the digital era meant you were often hungry, always searching, and even when you did get books, you were fed an insufficient diet of whiteness only. The famine was even worse if you were LGBTQI or Fa‛afafine, Faatama, Takatāpui, Fakaleiti, Mahu, Vakasalewalewa, Fakafifine, Palopa or Akava‛ine. Young Adult novels with positive, authentic characters who were third gender did not exist when I was a teenager.This made no sense to me because I grew up in a community where gender fluidity was our reality.

That was then. How about now? Have things improved since I was a child scrabbling for books in Samoa?

Janis Freegard surveyed New Zealand fiction titles published in 2015 and found that 91 percent were written by Pākehā, 4 percent by Māori, 4 percent by Asian and Indian writers, and 1 percent by Pasifika writers. 2014 was equally dismal. I doubt things have changed that much in the last few years.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Ambrotisne

It’s not just the authors and stories though. A 2016 Diversity Baseline Survey of publishing companies across North America showed that, as an industry, publishing is white and female. It would be interesting to do a similar survey here in New Zealand.

Why is the castle of literature so white?

Is it because the rest of us just aren’t storytellers? (Even though our ancestors used oral storytelling to pass on our history and culture to their children?)

Maybe we haven’t quite mastered the intricacies of the written language of our colonisers enough to knock out a novel? (After all, we were punished in school for speaking our indigenous languages. Never mind that many of us had parents who made sure we spoke better English than the Queen, because they knew that English was the language that would get us into university and make us successful.)

Or perhaps we don’t write books because we actually don’t like to read? That’s why there are no books by brown people in your local bookstore! We’re too busy playing rugby. Eating corned beef and KFC. Being ‘dole bludgers,’ ‘cheeky darkies’ and ‘leeches.’

Or is there another reason why the castle of literature is so white?

Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy Photo: Mayaank Austen Soofi

Indian author Arundhati Roy said in her 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture, ‘There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.’

Are we being deliberately silenced? By whom? Are we preferably unheard? Why?

There are many reasons why a monocultural literature is a problem.

A lack of diversity not only influences how diverse peoples see themselves, but how we are seen (or not seen) by those of the dominant culture. The effect of this is far-reaching and insidious, manifesting in spheres beyond bookstores and libraries.

We are surrounded every day by stories where entire groups of people are missing. Or are misrepresented. Or included only as a token stereotype. It’s not just about making sure that brown kids get to see themselves on the page.


It’s about making sure that everybody else gets to see us too. If we are missing from the stories in the classroom, the library, the TV, the movie screen – then do we even exist? Will the powerful even notice when we are not in the room, not participating in the conversation, not invited to the table?

And so, when there is hand-wringing and wailing about cracks in the wall of the white castle of literature, I find it difficult to sympathise. Why should I mourn the supposed decline of an industry that didn’t make room for me anyway? A structure that either erases my existence or is directly hostile towards people like me and other marginalised people is not one I want to prop up.

But how is the digital era helping to change the status quo?

Three boys crowd around a mobile phone

Photo: Flickr / Adam Cohn

Firstly, by making books more accessible and affordable. Data from the United Nations shows that more than six billion of the world’s population now have access to a working mobile phone. Phones are plentiful in places where books are scarce, making them a game changer for literacy. In 2014, UNESCO released the results of a year-long study which looked at the mobile phone reading habits of nearly 5,000 people in seven developing countries. The study found that 62 percent of adults and children are reading more now that they can read on their phones.

Reasons given by respondents for reading on mobiles were convenience, affordability and lack of access to print books. One in three said they read to children from their mobile phones. School teachers in remote areas talked about reading ebooks to their students. The study found that there’s a demand for mobile reading platforms with text in local languages and more books written by local authors

Sure, most of us, when we have a choice, prefer to read a real book rather than one on our phones. But the reality is that many people don’t have that choice. I get messages from readers of all ages from around the Pacific who have thanked me for writing a story they could see themselves in – a story they were only able to access because they got it as an ebook download. Sometimes an illegal one. Remembering my childhood hunger for books, I can’t even be upset in this instance about book piracy.

When we fret about how phones are ruining the reading habits of our youth, let’s be mindful of the privileged position we are speaking from.

Sia Figiel, Albert Wendt, Savea Sano Malifa.

Sia Figiel, Albert Wendt, Savea Sano Malifa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Facebook

Secondly, the digital era means more diverse stories are being written and published. In 2010, when I was finishing up my Young Adult novel, there were only three Samoan novelists in the whole wide world: Albert Wendt, Savea Sano Malifa and Sia Figiel. Wendt’s first novel was published in 1973, Malifa’s in 1993, and Figiel’s first book in 1996.

These authors paved the way and raised us all up as Pasifika people. Wendt in particular, the acknowledged ‘father of Pacific literature’, has produced an extensive epic body of work. But for more than forty years, the industry only made room for three of us. In that time, how many others were rejected or had their voices stifled?

In 2011, I approached more than thirty different agents and publishers in NZ, Australia and America. They said my novel wouldn’t have enough of a market, so I published Telesa myself, making me the fourth Samoan novelist in the whole wide world. But very much an unsanctioned one, doing unregulated things out in the wilderness. I went on to write and publish more novels including a contemporary romance series, all of which quickly found an international audience thanks to the reach of Amazon and to the power of social media.

Now in 2019, in the space of only eight years, I’m excited to tell you that there are eight more Samoan novelists that I know of. There could be more. Seven of the eight are women. All are indie published, all are taking their multiple novels to audiences worldwide thanks to digital publishing.

What do we learn from this? When we abide by the castle’s rules, we are allowed three Samoan novelists in forty years. But when we don’t wait for permission or approval – we get more books in a range of genres from more of us. Books that we can see ourselves in, where we are the centre and not the marginalised other.

Lani Wendt Young

Lani Wendt Young Photo: FB Lani Wendt Young

About the lecturer

Lani Wendt Young (1973–) is an award-winning writer, publisher and journalist of Samoan and Māori descent.

In February 2019 she was named a recipient of a Waitangi Day Literary Honour by the New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc).In 2018 she was the ACP Pacific Laureate selected by the African, Caribbean, Pacific Group of States as they paid tribute to her ‘creativity, courage and entrepreneurship.’

Born and raised in Samoa, she attended university in the USA and New Zealand. Storytelling is her passion. She is the author of 11 books and has won multiple awards for her short fiction. She’s worked as a scriptwriter for Disney, and her stories for children are published by the NZ School Journal.

She was the 2018 recipient of the Douglas Gabb Australia-Pacific Journalism internship and in 2017 her reporting on climate change issues in the Pacific won her a coveted fellowship award to the UN Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany. In 2012 she won the USP Press Prize with her collection of short fiction, Afakasi Woman.

Lani writes columns about feminism, religion, culture, parenting, climate justice and everything in between. Her essay on A Samoan Woman’s Perspective on Ordain Women features in the Oxford Univ Press 2015 collection Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings. Her writing on child sexual abuse and domestic violence in Pasifika communities has generated dialogue in many forums worldwide.

Her work is described as ‘witty, ironic and delicious, flavored with poetic descriptions; garnished with intense passion; coated in the relaxed atmosphere of the Samoan archipelago’ (Tales from Pasifika, April 2015).

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 This lecture was recorded in association with Read NZ Te Pou Muramura​ (formerly the New Zealand Book Council) Photo: Read NZ Te Pou Muramura