Drifting off to sleep each night, a young Turia Pitt found comfort in the sound of her mother Célestine Vaite’s evening ritual. The French-speaking Tahitian native longed to tell the stories of her homeland. And so she had begun to write, in English; slaving away at what would be her debut novel, Breadfruit, after putting the kids to bed.
“I remember falling to sleep every night and I could hear the sound of her typewriter just tapping away,” Turia says now, turning to smile at the woman who she credits with giving her the strength to come through the hardest of times.
“I think that was a great lesson for me to learn as a kid. That if you work hard, if you are consistent and persistent then you will get results. That was definitely a lesson I used in my rehabilitation and in other things as well. I got my confidence from my mum. That sense of self-worth. And that sense of you can do things that are hard, you just need to keep going.”
As they arrive on The Weekly’s set, it’s clear that the bond between mother and daughter is a special one. The duo have converged here in Sydney – Turia from her new base in Far North Queensland’s Port Douglas and Célestine from her Mollymook home on the NSW South Coast – and are making up for some time apart.
Together, they have collaborated on their first children’s book, Koko and the Coconut, and the publicity blitz starts today. They’re staying for a couple of nights together in a small inner-city hotel and “the only time we stopped chatting is when we have slept”, laughs Turia.
“And even when I’m sleeping I want to talk,” Célestine interjects. “I’m from a culture that talks. The story I wrote about was passed on to me by my mother. Without talking, nothing is passed on.”
Célestine is vivacious and open, her enthusiasm catching, her love for her daughter expressed volubly and often. Turia may be comparatively softly spoken but her inner strength and passion have undoubtedly been passed down from mother to daughter, the latest in a line of strong women who have done their best to impact positively on the world – both in their actions and their willingness to share their stories.
“Storytelling is part of what makes us human,” says Turia, “to share stories that connect all of us. That’s a way you can pass on your knowledge and your culture to others.”
The strength of women
The first-born child of a single mother, Célestine was raised in the impoverished urban region of Fa’a’ā. She wouldn’t meet her French father until she was 27; he’d abandoned her mother long before Célestine arrived. Along with her three younger siblings and her mum, Vaite, she lived in a fibro shack behind the nearby airport.
“She is our first hero,” Célestine says now of Vaite. “Yes, she is petite, but they say never underestimate the petiteness of a woman. And a smart girl, it’s in her blood. If we hadn’t been colonised, she’d be the chief. From her father she comes from a long line of chiefs and from her mum she also comes from royalty. But the land was stolen.
“I grew up with a lot of women, not just my mum. Where I grew up it was very community, very family-extended, so I grew up with a milieu; talking about the land, talking about culture.”
A bright girl herself, Célestine received her first book from her much-adored godmother. It was the story of a brother and sister called Tiko and Marita. “They didn’t do much, just sat by the canoe on the beach,” she recalls of the moment that would change her life.
“But it stayed with me. Sometimes it only takes one book and you are hooked for life.
“Books are expensive in Tahiti. Mum was a cleaner but she would always find money for my books. Always. For everyone she would make the sacrifice.”
As part of French Polynesia, Tahiti has long been campaigning for independence and the women in her family were fierce agitators. Her mother’s three sisters would chain themselves to trees in protest. “They were hardcore,” Célestine laughs.
Her uncle, Oscar Temaru, meanwhile, was mayor of Fa’a’ā. A pro-independence leader, he served as president of French Polynesia five times in the coming years. “I used to read on the roof and I would see him walking by,” Célestine says.
“I would read on the roof because if you went downstairs they’d say, ‘Oh she’s reading, she’s not doing anything.’ So I kept that and extended it to the new world; I won a scholarship and everything.”
Célestine was 16 when she met and fell madly in love with Australian surfer Michael Pitt. He made surfboards and was living on Tahiti. The pair married and had two children – son Genji and daughter Turia. And after training and working as a school teacher, Célestine embarked upon a new adventure.
“I was 22 with two kids when I came to this country,” she says of the family’s move to Australia. “Crazy!” Two more boys (Heimanu and Toriki) would follow along with that aforementioned move into writing. Turia, she adds, may have slept while she worked but her daughter played a crucial part in the process of moving beyond the late-night typing to becoming a published author.
“I was 29 and still not knowing my English so I used to get my daughter to read [my book],” she says now.
“I remember that,” exclaims Turia. “She would give it to me to proofread. Not so much because I was young.”
“You were 12,” Célestine adds with a grin. “She would read it and laugh and say, ‘Mum, that’s awesome,’ and it gave me the confidence to keep going. [My second book] Frangipani is dedicated to Turia because she inspires me, I inspire her.”
Every Friday night, Célestine would take Genji and Turia to the library where they picked out books for the weekend, choices eagerly pored over in delight.
“Then we’d go to Sizzler for dinner,” Turia says with a chuckle. “That was the highlight of my week. My love of reading has definitely come from my mum.”
It’s a passion that Célestine is also passing on to a new generation. With Turia mother to two young boys – Hakavai, five, and Rahiti, two – the proud grandmother didn’t wait for either to make their appearance before weaving them a magic world of words.
“Hakavai was still in the belly andI would read a lot of Doctor Seuss,” she says. “Poor Turia, she’d be trying to have a power nap with this big belly and I would be [she begins shouting] ‘I do not like them Sam-I-Am!’ I would be using her belly button like
a microphone. I thought to myself, I really believe that if you are a reader, you will be alright.”
“Reading is a conduit,” agrees Turia, laughing at the memory. “It allows you to see places, to learn great things.”
And that is where Koko and the Coconut comes in.
Speaking from the heart
While there are plenty of existing kids’ books abounding with cows, rabbits and even kangaroos, what the pair felt was missing were stories and creatures set in the South Pacific.
“Mum and I had always talked about writing a children’s book,” Turia says of the genesis. “When she came up with this really great concept of a little coconut crab, it evolved from there.”
After Célestine came up with the creative narrative, Turia drove the practical vision and together they created the story of Koko, a young coconut crab who must show enormous courage to venture on his first trip up a palm tree.
It’s not hard to see how this is a story that resonates with the pair.
Courage is a word synonymous with Turia – a woman who not only survived unbelievable injuries but emerged to become one of Australia’s most successful motivational speakers. By her side every step on the way was Célestine, whose positive attitude to life Turia credits with giving her the strength to keep on going.
“When you think of the word ‘courage’ it’s a bit overwhelming,” she says. “You can think, ‘Well, I’m not a courageous person’ but I think it starts by just taking those small steps every day.”
Meanwhile, for Célestine the word courage is something that defines many women like her – women from the South Pacific who have endured hardships of their own.
“We have this word ‘mana’,” says Célestine of what lies at the core of Koko. “There is not one Polynesian who doesn’t know this word. Mana is a lot of words – courage, energy, love, forgiveness. All the good things are mana. Our first story could only be about courage and mana.”
As we talk today, courage again is very much front of mind. Célestine is preparing to return to Tahiti. But rather than her usual short trips home, this is a much more open-ended proposition.
Having fought for more than 20 years for the right to her ancestral land in Rangiroa – the place she was born before moving to Fa’a’ā at 14 – her 70-year-old mother is now preparing to settle there. To date, Célestine’s siblings have been looking after the matriarch. But as the first-born she knows it’s her time to step up and be there until her mum’s final days.
“It is my duty,” she says. “As she breathes her last breath, she breathes all her knowledge and mana and soul into my being. And then I will bring that to my son. Although he thinks that’s a little weird so it’s probably going to be Turia who breathes my breath when I die!”
With this she turns to her daughter, who looks slightly bemused. “You said you’ll do it, you are doing it,” Célestine urges her. “Or even just hold my hand. Someone needs to be there to take care of me.”
“Of course,” Turia says, taking her mother’s hand and squeezing it fondly before turning back to explain her feelings about this prolonged trip.
“I’m so frothing for mum to go back to Tahiti. We’ll be able to go there on school holidays. I want to take my kids to Rangiroa. To mum’s ancestral land and also my ancestral land. I think that will be a really good way to explain to them about where they are from.”
Hakavai and Rahiti have been liberally peppered through our conversation today. They were naturally the first to read the book (or have it read to them by Turia as she enthusiastically voiced the characters).
Their love of nature is a by-product of the seaside trips they’ve done with their grandmother since birth, as well as the more hair-raising adventures they undertake with mum Turia and dad Michael Hoskin. The quartet are intrepid outdoor explorers, hiking and surfing trips high on their list of family outings.
“I was nervous about becoming a mum because my own mum is obviously so energetic, loving, vivacious and full of joie de vivre,” Turia confides now – as her mother attempts to shush her with talk of her incredible parenting skills.
“I was like, ‘That’s why I’m not going to be as good here because she’s awesome’. But I’ve realised that every parent does it their own way. Every parent has their own strength and things that they are good at. So rather than getting annoyed at myself because I’m not cooking beautiful meals from scratch I’m like, ‘Well, I take my kids to the park. We go surfing and hiking and all that stuff’.”
“Turia and Michael are gung-ho,” smiles Célestine. “I love them so much.”
As they make moves to wrap up our chat to join Turia’s brothers over dinner, it’s clear that the pair will miss the close company. Phone calls can suffice but time together is precious. And while Célestine admits she’ll miss both her Aussie-based clan and the land she has called home for close to 30 years, she has no regrets about the decision she has made – one which is proudly supported by all her offspring.
“This country has been wonderful,'” she muses. “I became a writer, it gave my children a good life, it gave my daughter her oomph back [after her injuries]. I’m grateful. But it’s time to go home and be with my community.”
It’s also, she adds, crucial to ensuring she continues the family tradition of passing on story. Currently, she’s writing a new book – this time in French – with her mother’s testimonies. “I’m not going to translate her into English, so I’ll be interviewing her,” she explains. “Tombstones cannot speak. If you don’t record, it will be lost. Without talking, nothing will be passed on.”
Koko and the Coconut, Penguin Australia, is released on January 31.
Read this story and many others in the February issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.