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Theorizing Pō: Embodied Cosmogony and Polynesian National Narratives


Polynesian epistemology and cosmogony dictate that all life and existence come from Pō, the generative, liminal darkness. Pō can be temporally expansive, producing a view of time that is spiral rather than linear. Within Pō, time and space are not necessarily discrete categories.

In this dissertation, I argue that literary depictions of Pō can represent and articulate notions of political and cultural sovereignty throughout contemporary Polynesia. These forms of sovereignty are rooted in cosmogonic connections to darkness and land, which are manifested in the Indigenous body’s mediation of the intertwined spiral of time and space. I contend that the boundless potential of Pō is reflected in the varied ways embodied cosmogony appears in contemporary Pacific literature, and the methods by which Native Pacific authors such as Albert Wendt, Patricia Grace, and Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl rework Anglophone literary traditions of the novel and the short story to advance Indigenous notions of the nation. These authors invoke Pō through parallel yet distinct uses of “form”: first, in the exploration of how variously raced and gendered forms of the Indigenous body can affirm or contest the body politic; second, in the diverse articulations of space and time through the texts’ formal construction and narratology. In these texts, Indigenous storytelling techniques—such as kākau (tattoo), fāgogo, whaikōrero, and oli—suggest how literary forms and representations of Pō can variously (re)turn to the post/settler/colonial nation and (re)tell Indigenous narratives. My analysis relies on orature but also centers the ways the Indigenous body has always functioned as a legible text and a tool for mediating epistemology. My theorization of Pō draws on bodily- and sensory-based Indigenous concepts and discourses, including makawalu, Mana Wahine, and vā.

Overall, I investigate the literary intersections of cosmogony, body, and nation, to reveal how the Indigenous body’s cosmogonic connections can overcome the traumatic construction of the post/settler/colonial nation as the primary marker of community. In its place, I offer a theory of embodied cosmogony that requires an Indigenous reading praxis, resulting in a new iteration of the Polynesian body as text and a necessary intervention in postcolonialism and broader literary criticisms.

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