University of Auckland graduate wins Fulbright Scholarship to Hawai’i

28 June 2013

University of Auckland history graduate and tutor Leilani Tamu has been awarded the 2013 Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer’s Residency.

The 30-year-old former diplomat, magazine columnist, Pacific historian and poet will spend three months at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa where she will work on a second book of poetry and prose, called Cultural Diplomacy.

The book is named after a column she wrote for Auckland’s Metro Magazine that tackled social and cultural issues including racism, unemployment, home ownership and youth suicide.

Her first book of poetry – The Art of Excavation – is scheduled for release in early 2014.

Her latest book will include an exploration of the life of Princess Kaʻiulani, a 19th century Hawaiian princess of mixed cultural heritage who was heir to the throne before the monarchy was overthrown and the kingdom annexed by the United States of America. Born to a Scottish father and educated in England, Princess Kaʻiulani visited the US following the deposition of her aunt as queen to fight for her kingdom and people.

To Leilani, Princess Kaʻiulani is “a great example of a Polynesian ancestor who effectively exercised the art of cultural diplomacy in her time”. The book will also feature dialogue with contemporary New Zealand and Hawaiian poets of mixed cultural heritage, discussing how their heritage has shaped their work.

Leilane completed a BA and MA in History at The University of Auckland, graduating with First Class Honours in 2006.

Her career path since then is impressive. She started out in Wellington working for Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) before becoming a diplomat in Canberra and the Kingdom of Tonga.

With a Samoan mother and Pakeha father, Leilani used her experiences of having mixed heritage in an opinion piece for Spasifik magazine in mid-2012, before writing her Cultural Diplomacy column for Metro magazine.

“I am a historian who ended up being a diplomat, then a poet,” she says.

Despite her achievements Leilani described the nine-panel interview to receive the Fulbright as “the toughest I’ve ever done.”

But she’s thrilled to have been the successful applicant and now heading to the University of Hawai‘i.

“It was amazing because to be honest in my wildest dreams this was something I always wanted to do.”

Leilani is grateful to the support of the University’s History Department during her studies.

“The department played a really key role in terms of my foundations and keeping me grounded.”

Leilani is taking her 3-year-old daughter, Kahlei, with her. The two will depart for Hawai’i in September.