National Library of Australia staff Rowan Henderson and Leah Wilson recently visited Vanuatu to attend the Melanesian Arts and Culture Festival (MACFEST) 2023 in Port Vila. When they returned, they brought back piles of Pacific publications for the collection, as well as new connections and updated knowledge of publishing in the Pacific.
The Melanesian Arts and Culture Festival, co-run by the host country and the Melanesian Spearhead Group, has been held regularly since 1998. It brings together people from Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Kanaky/New Caledonia, the Torres Strait, and West Papua. Over two weeks the event brought thousands of people to Vanuatu to share their diverse Melanesian cultures through dance, song, arts and crafts and literature. This year’s theme was Rebuilding my Melanesia for our common destiny to promote and preserve traditional culture as well as provide a platform for the contemporary expression of Melanesian identity.
Sharing the Library's collections
As part of MACFEST, the National University of Vanuatu organised a symposium where writers, poets, artists, and academics came together to share different research projects taking place in Melanesia, as well as discuss the state of writing and publishing in the Pacific. Presentations were diverse, including a hip-hop performance, poetry readings, academic papers and a panel on life writing in Melanesia.
Rowan and Leah were honoured to present about the Library’s Pacific collections, explaining that collecting from the Pacific, with a focus on Melanesia, is the Library’s next highest priority after collecting Australian material. They also shared how people can discover Pacific collections held in cultural institutions, including the National Library of Australia, through the free Digital Pasifik website. Additionally, they encouraged participants to apply for one of the Library’s Fellowships to allow them to engage deeply with relevant Library collections onsite.
Leah and Rowan were pleased to meet with colleagues at the National Library of Vanuatu, the Emalus campus of the University of the South Pacific and a meeting of the Vanuatu Library Association. Through these meetings they learned about the realities faced by colleagues in the Pacific, including the impact of natural disasters and disaster responsiveness, barriers to digitising their collections and the lack of local tertiary education for librarians in the Pacific.
They also gathered useful knowledge on the current state of publishing in the Pacific. There are a limited number of publishers, and most works are self-published with many published online. Publishing printed locally can be perceived as lesser quality, while printing overseas is expensive. The circulation of titles is limited by the cost of printing and limited distribution options are available to authors. In addition, there are few local editors available, with many authors turning to Australian editors who often do not understand Melanesian culture and concepts or value the Melanesian voice.
Piles of publications
Rowan and Leah brought lots of books back to Canberra, picking up Pacific publications at the Alliance française de Port-Vila, the University of the South Pacific bookshop and direct from authors and publishers who were attending MACFEST.
One highlight was purchasing a copy of West Papuan women's rights advocate Esther Haluk’s Nyanyian Sunyi: kumpulan pusi, of which only 200 copies have been printed. By attending the festival, they were also able to collect public health posters and brochures, many in Bislama.
Another interesting title is Sala Ni Yalo: path of the shades by Clarence Dass. This is a graphic novel in Na vosa vaka-Viti (Fijian) language, with English translation. It tells the story of a man whose body is washed and wrapped, prepared for the afterlife. It follows him on his journey into the spiritual realm.
Rowan and Leah had a few adventures during their week in Vanuatu, including navigating the local bus system which has no set route or timetable. Rowan and Leah returned to Canberra with heavy suitcases full of books, with new knowledge to share with colleagues, and with an understanding of the importance of events such as MACFEST in nurturing and strengthening culture and storytelling. The visit also reinforced the importance of accessible public collections in maintaining language and cultural practices, and the difficulties faced by Pacific writers in navigating intersections between customary knowledge and creativity.
If you would like to explore the Library’s Pacific collections, a good place to start is our website where we share highlights of the Pacific collections. You can explore Pacific collections more broadly at Digital Pasifik, including collections held by Pacific partners. Finally, consider booking a trip to Fiji for MACFEST 2026!