Author Interview: Lisa Uperesa


MILILANI GANIVET (MG): You’re an alumna of Samoana High School, with a BA from University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD from Columbia. You’ve taught at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UHM), and you are now a senior lecturer in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland. Can you tell us about the journey that ultimately led you to Auckland and Pacific studies?

LISA UPERESA (LU): First, I want to acknowledge my parents Tu’ufuli and Kristin Uperesa, since they put me on this path many years ago. They taught high school in Sāmoa when I was growing up and were passionate about helping their students go to college, so there was always an expectation that we would continue our education. They instilled in me a strong work ethic and a commitment to serving our community through education. I started high school in Tutuila and then finished it in California, where I worked hard to strengthen my profile as a potential candidate for college admission. The competition for selective schools there was intense and Cal was my number one choice - I checked the mail every day hoping for the thick packet that meant I was accepted!

Being a student at Cal was an amazing experience. Coming from a small almost rural town in Southern California after spending most of my life in the islands, the culture shock was real. I double majored in ethnic studies and sociology, where I found like-minded students who had a passion for knowledge and a commitment to serving our communities. My close friend group was diverse but we came from modest backgrounds—most had immigrant parents or were the first in their family to attend college. We were all broke, but we had big dreams! There was a small but connected network of PI students and I stayed grounded by working with the Samoan Community Development Center, both as a student and after graduation, and spending time with my extended family locally. On the school side, sociology and ethnic studies gave me solid training in critical theory and sociological critique. An ethnic studies major challenged me to understand the histories and current realities for other minoritized peoples, including how institutional inequalities marginalized them in the curriculum.  This, together with the complete erasure of the Pacific in all of my classes, raised all kinds of questions for me about Pacific peoples in the United States, Pacific histories, and Samoan society. Across both majors, I developed interests in gender, race, and ethnic identity, which planted the seed of what I would later go on to do with my doctoral research and continues to inform my teaching and scholarship in both my former and current academic appointments.

After graduation, I worked at a research institute, which gave me experience doing contract research. Five years later, I wanted to do more meaningful work and decided to apply to graduate school. I was drawn to Columbia University because of the faculty they had in anthropology (even though I had serious doubts about anthropology as a field, the reasons for which are familiar to many Pacific scholars). My dream-team committee—Lila Abu-Lughod, Paige West, Sherry Ortner, and Audra Simpson—helped me draw together different strands of study about Sāmoa and the Pacific, US empire and indigeneity, sport, race, class, and gender in my dissertation. Being at Columbia and in New York City meant I was exposed to many different kinds of conversations—inside and outside of class, on and off campus—that pushed the bounds of my thinking. The opportunity to learn from stellar critical thinkers was a privilege, and this challenged me as a developing scholar. Meanwhile, collaborations with friends and colleagues illuminated connections and shared histories on the margins of US empire. Through networking with Pacific scholars and connecting to the Indigenous academic network, I was able to develop important intellectual and personal relationships that helped me to navigate academia and to thrive. On the personal side, my husband David and I welcomed two additions to our family in New York, and our last is a Kiwi baby born here in Aotearoa. The Māori and Pacific whānau in NYC was a source of aroha/alofa/aloha that sustained us even on the coldest days of winter, and was our first connection to Aotearoa/New Zealand.

After completing my PhD, I was fortunate to join the faculty at UH Mānoa, where the ethnic studies ‘ōhana was a welcome oasis of shared purpose and commitment to community. While I was able to continue developing my teaching and research on sport in sociology, my affiliation with CPIS and my Pacific-centered courses in ethnic studies connected me to Pacific studies as a discipline in new ways. My time at UH Mānoa changed my teaching and my research and reoriented me personally and professionally. It’s hard to describe, but two things stand out: first, after twelve years of training in elite and elitist institutions, the ethos of aloha that permeates everyday life in Hawai‘i reminded me that humility is powerful and connection is central. Secondly, I had been socialized into an educational model built on privilege and hidden cultural capital, which many of my students didn’t have and I had to change my teaching if I wanted to do something other than reproduce privilege and inequality. I deeply appreciate my colleagues and the students I worked with, as well as the time with my extended family in Hawai‘i. In turn, I hope I made some small contribution while I was there. The move to Auckland followed the Pacific studies connection, and I joined an expanding team under dedicated leadership. In some ways this has brought me full circle to the questions inspired by my undergraduate study and my personal and intellectual foundations in Sāmoa. It has certainly been an interesting and unpredictable journey so far, and looking back on it this way, I am thankful for the opportunities I have had.

MG: How have your thoughts developed about the relationship(s) between the disciplines and Pacific studies over time? Where do you see Pacific studies moving in the coming years?

LU: The relationship between Pacific studies and the disciplines has been fraught for some time, and from my perspective, the underlying issue has been institutional and disciplinary practices that marginalize and devalue the Pacific and dismiss Pacific theoretical, philosophical, and scientific traditions—as other nondominant knowledge tradition and approaches have been similarly devalued and dismissed. While there is an important and longstanding tradition working against that dominant stream, the recognition of Pacific scholarship as equally important to other kinds is something that happens on an ad hoc, very localized basis. This can be difficult for individual scholars to navigate as they try to sustain themselves in what I can only describe as a constant onslaught. Only with a significant presence of Pacific and other minoritized scholars in the disciplines do I see this dynamic changing substantially, and it is likely again to happen in very localized ways and in particular departments and institutions. From my perspective today, given my journey and connections to various disciplines, I see Pacific studies being more aligned to critical Native and Indigenous studies in the coming years because it shares some of the same foundational concerns around community impact, the politics of knowledge production and circulation, and Indigenous knowledges and their value and placement in relation to mainstreamed knowledges inside and outside of the academy. Inside the United States, important moves have been made toward establishing more of a Pacific studies presence that I hope will continue to grow in the coming years. I am also inspired by connections being made to the histories, realities, and struggles of Black, Indigenous, and other minoritized peoples there. Outside of the U.S., the critical mass of transnationally connected scholars is shaping public conversation in significant ways, and it will continue to in the future.

MG: Are there things that you have done since arriving at the University of Auckland that have changed your scholarship, teaching, or mentoring of students?

LU: Being in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland has been an important development for me, building on my experience in Hawai‘i. One of the most critical reminders for me was who the scholarship and knowledge we produce is for. As an academic, it is easy to get caught up in H-indexes and certain kinds of recognition, but in a very foundational way, the work we do is for our communities both narrowly and broadly construed. Having a grounding in this sensibility produces stronger work with a more holistic scope and with a greater potential for impact. From where I stand today, this means amplifying Pacific, Indigenous, and other critical scholarship, demystifying academia, and engaging important issues and conversations that variously affect Pacific and other communities.

The vast majority of students I teach are Pasefika/Pacific Islander students (undergrad, postgrad, and PhD) and my immediate colleagues are as well, which is a significant shift. It has been a joy working with our students, and I have learned so much from them. My teaching, together with experiences in postgrad (previous) and PhD advising (current), have brought home the importance of both demystifying scholarship and research, and helping our students to be better positioned for making the jump to postgraduate studies as current and future knowledge makers: What conversations do they feel pulled to or can we open up for them? How can we provide opportunities that will help them prepare to succeed in the paths they have chosen? How can we support them through what can often be both extremely rewarding and extremely difficult academic journeys? How do we continue to foster the value of Pacific cultures and knowledges and at the same time help them to engage and understand their relationship to shifting historical, regional, and global contexts? This has always been a part of my approach on some level, but it has come front and center in my teaching and mentoring here in Pacific Studies as we continue to plan strategic directions for the future. Addressing these questions has taken various forms—from informal mentoring to shaping curriculum decisions, developing opportunities for undergraduate research through coursework and summer scholarships, and collaborative projects. These are all new areas for me. The goal is to support the development of our next generation of scholars while creating and holding space for them—I have no doubt they will be game changers!

MG: Many in our field keenly read The Contemporary Pacific (TCP) while entertaining the hope to publish in it. Journal articles are often seen as a good way to test out one’s ideas and share one’s research findings, especially for rising scholars. However, submitting still remains a daunting and uncanny process to many. How did you navigate submitting your work to TCP? Can you walk us through the process of how it happened? What was the editorial process like?

LU: It was a bit of trial by fire, since I was both an author and a coeditor of the special journal issue (“Global Sport in the Pacific”), and this was only my second publication. The issue grew out of a succession of ASAO meeting sessions on contemporary sport in Oceania with Paige West. After convening a few sessions, Tom Mountjoy joined as a co-convener and Paige stayed on as a participant. As the papers were coming together—almost all of us were emerging researchers finishing or recent PhDs—I approached different journals to gauge interest in a special issue. TCP was enthusiastic and supportive—and more importantly had a publication window of opportunity. The editorial process was intense, partly because this was the first major editing project Tom and I had taken on, and partly because most of the contributors were equally inexperienced in writing for journal publication, so we all ended up doing a million drafts before the final products. The anonymous peer review and editorial feedback was very helpful in focusing on areas of strength and weakness, helping us to think about the issue as a whole, and in laying out some challenges around global sport in the Pacific that the contributions took up. Jan Rensel was so patient with her editorial assistance, which I appreciated. We also were very fortunate to have Niko Besnier contribute an afterword that helped to bring together the strands of discussion in the issue and reiterate the larger significance of the work. One of the great things was that we all stayed friendly after the process was done, and we were proud of what we were able to produce.

MG: Would you have advice for those seeking to publish for the first time but who may be anxious about the process? 

LU: Many of us are wary of putting our ideas out there before we feel fully confident that they are solid and well developed, and this delays important conversations we could be starting or to which we could be contributing. My advice is don’t wait. The peer review process, while daunting, is part of the process of “baking,” and should be approached that way. There is a conference paper I gave in 2008 that is the foundation for a chapter in my current manuscript, and I wish I had the confidence to push it to publication earlier because now I see that it could have easily been an article that helped me build toward my book. The formulaic aspects of submitting (finding an appropriate journal, reviewing the kinds of articles they publish, their format, etc.) are teachable, but only you can make the decision to share your voice and ideas with others.

For emerging Pacific scholars: it can be especially difficult as younger people to feel like you have something to contribute, but if you don’t shape the conversation someone else will and they might not have the experience and insight that you do. Leave the impostor syndrome at the door!

MG: TCP is known for having published groundbreaking essays over the years, often leading to significant transformations in our field. Do you recall reading an article that really impacted you and made you rethink the field? (Maybe one that may have gone slightly unnoticed compared to ultra-famous pieces, such as Epeli Hau‘ofa’s ‘‘Our Sea of Islands” [1994].)

LU: I read Teresia Teaiwa’s “Bikini/s and other s/Pacific n/otions” when I was doing an independent study on gender in the Pacific as a doctoral student, and it was so brilliant! Not only did it introduce me to a major area that I knew little about (nuclear testing and Micronesia), it also incorporated critiques of gender, representation, militarism, and US empire. It was one of the early readings I did that gave me a model for what Pacific scholarship could look like. I was pleasantly surprised to find out it was written by such a lovely person (I first met Tere in Wellington the following summer, when I came to do research at the Turnbull Library). She was a giant and gone long before her time; she is deeply missed.

MG: Your TCP special issue, “Global Sport in the Pacific” (see Uperesa and Mountjoy 2014), has proved remarkably useful to many students and colleagues—how did that emerge? What were its challenges? What did you learn from working on that collection?

LU: Working on that issue taught me many things. First, patience! There were a lot of details to manage, but the most important thing was maintaining positive communications and good relationships with my coeditor and the contributors. It also showed me that it is possible to push for the vision you have even if it is not the most straightforward path, and to have faith in that vision. Finally, in terms of learning the review side of publishing and standard expectations of articles, it was an invaluable experience.

MG: What are you working on for your next project? Where is your work taking you?

LU: I have just written a book chapter on Indigenous sport in the twenty-first century, which has been a useful survey across different contexts on the role and meaning of sport for Indigenous communities today. My new project is on the globalization of haka, and specifically the movement of haka through sporting circuits, with a focus on American football. This builds on my previous research with Samoans in American football, and pursues questions around cultural performance, meaning, and the articulation of Pacific identities in diaspora. I’m excited to be developing more collaborative approaches in this project, and I look forward to talking with people again in person (post-COVID-19).

REFERENCES: Hau‘ofa, Epeli. 1994. Our Sea of Islands. The Contemporary Pacific 6 (1): 148–161; Teaiwa, Teresia K. 1994. bikinis and other s/pacific n/oceans. The Contemporary Pacific 6 (1): 87–109; Uperesa, Fa‘anofo Lisaclaire (Lisa), and Tom Mountjoy. 2014. Global Sport in the Pacific: A Brief Overview. The Contemporary Pacific 26 (2): 263–279.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Lisa Uperesa is Senior Lecturer in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland.  One strand of her research includes post-/colonial formations, indigenous politics, and contested sovereignties at the heart of and on the margins of U.S. empire. Another examines the place of sport in Pacific communities, with a focus on culture, political economy, and gender. Dr. Uperesa earned her undergraduate degree at University of California, Berkeley, her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University, and is a proud alumna of Samoana High School. Previous teaching appointments include University of Hawai`i-Mānoa, Columbia University, and Hofstra University. She has served as Acting Director of the New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research and is the former Chair of the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania.

An MA candidate in Pacific Islands Studies at UHM's Center for Pacific Islands Studies, Mililani Ganivet has served as an editorial intern with The Contemporary Pacific since spring 2019. Sustained by the Pacific Ocean and hailing from Taravao, Tahiti in French Polynesia, Mililani's research interests include the histories and legacies of nuclear tests in French Polynesia and in wider Oceania. Mililani proposed the idea of this interview series to the TCP Board and was instrumental in seeing it launched.