On the 31st March at Waterstones Gower Street, author of new release I Am Not Your Eve, Devika Ponnambalam was joined by a prize-winning senior editor at Bluemoose Books, Leonarda Rustamova. Together, they presented the story of Teha’amana, Ponnambalam’s visit to Tahiti, Teha’amana’s home, and her subsequent writing process.
Nevertheless, before their conversation began, Ponnambalam started the evening by presenting a short film Spirit of the Dead, which she created while in Tahiti. Accompanied by quotations from the novel, which were narrated by Ponnambalam herself, the film followed Teha’amana strolling across the island. Incorporating compelling shots of both Teha’amana and various parts of the island, the film gave the viewer a sense of familiarity with the place. As a result, it allowed the viewers to gain a deeper understanding of Teha’amana while also providing an atmospheric introduction to the novel.
After receiving applause for the film, the conversation between Ponnambalam and Rustamova began. To start, Rustamova asked Ponnambalam a question that every reader has: Where did the idea for the novel come from? As Ponnambalam described, Gaugin’s painting, The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch, was the beginning of her seventeen-year journey with the story. She found herself entranced by the artwork, particularly by the girl depicted in it and wanted to know more about her. To her surprise, she found out that not much has been known or written about Teha’amana. It was at that point then, that her story and extensive research started.
During the research, Ponnambalam uncovered various issues, for instance, the fact that most historical accounts are accounts by male missionaries. By excluding other voices, the actual truth is more challenging to discover. Yet, what helped her uncover some more was her trip to Tahiti, about which Rustamova asked her. Firstly, Ponnambalam expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to visit Tahiti, which was thanks to a research and development grant given to her by Creative Scotland. The trip helped her vastly in her research as she got to speak to the native people, which gave her insight into Tahitian culture. Fascinatingly, most of the citizens did not have extensive knowledge of Teha’amana, or if they did, they did not wish to share it. However, Ponnambalam got the opportunity to talk to a priest on the island who had uncovered haunting information about Teha’amana. According to him, she was much younger than she is portrayed to be – instead of being thirteen, she was apparently eleven when Gaugin took her as a bride. Interestingly, as Ponnambalam shared, the priest does not know this from a written account but through oral history passed from generation to generation.
Another thing Ponnambalam shared from her trip was that there are a lot of souvenirs or merchandise depicting Teha’amana, yet, as she said: ‘She’s everywhere but no one knows her’. While not stated explicitly during the conversation, it was clear that Teha’amana’s story is a sad reality where a girl, who had to go through so much, is not remembered for who she was but rather for the artwork in which she was depicted.
Before it was time for the audience’s questions, Rustamova also asked Ponnambalam about Gaugin and the wife and daughter he abandoned. Gaugin’s daughter’s perspective appears in the novel, and according to Ponnambalam, there is an obvious parallel between the daughter and Teha’amana. Both of them were young girls who saw Gaugin as an authoritative figure. It makes the reality more disturbing, given that Gaugin’s daughter was most likely even older than Teha’amana.
One question from the audience revealed a particularly fascinating fact. Originally Ponnambalam planned for the story to be a film. Yet, as she described, portraying the story in the way that she desired did not work for her in the form of a script, which made her turn to the form of a novel. Moreover, she found that she was less restricted in what she wanted to write compared to the film industry, which could ask for changes for the marketability of the story due to its commercial nature.
As a closing remark, Ponnambalam raised that this novel is her version of the story. Although she went through extensive research, there is always something that could be missed or lost in history. Ponnambalam admitted that as much as the topic and Teha’amana’s story are uncomfortable, it had to be told as a reminder that the reality of the past may be hidden from us.
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor