Mary – A Fiction Writer Inspired By Real Life

Marry Rokonadravu writes very good stories. So good she has been shortlisted for the prestigious 2017 Commonwealth Short Story competition. But her own personal life story is a winner too
08 Apr 2017 08:53
Mary – A Fiction Writer Inspired By Real Life
Aunt Rukhmani Sami (left), who bought books from travelling booksellers and introduced it to Mary Rokonadravu before Levuka opened its first library.

Marry Rokonadravu writes very good stories. So good she has been shortlisted for the prestigious 2017 Commonwealth Short Story competition.

But her own personal life story is a winner too and worth telling.

Ms Rokonadravu talks with the Fiji Sun about her childhood upbringing and who are her greates inspiration. She also shares her current plans and long term goals with us.


Just a brief background about yourself (where you’re originally from, where you grew up, family, educational background etc.)


I am of mixed Indian, Fijian and European heritage but was adopted by a South Indian family. I grew up on a copra estate on the island of Koro and attended Levuka Public School before joining the University of the South Pacific. I knew I wanted to be a writer from about the age of seven, in Class 3, the year I was introduced to the beauty and miracle of a public library.

I was disappointed and quite disillusioned in my university years because writing was not an option. And just as now, you’d be called crazy if you wished to pursue pure creative writing or any of the arts as a career and commit to it for life. I faced this challenge from my late teenage years when I was at USP and onward.

In retrospect, I realised that I could write in my early years but I lacked the hallmarks of what makes good writing – these are the humility to listen to life and the world; the sharpness to read people and journeys; respect for human life and dignity; the wisdom to convert anger into stories; loads of love for my people and my country – my very own part of the world; in my personal experience, these are the basic things that allow a writer to develop empathy. I could easily speak it but these things lacked in my soul. It takes life to teach you these things but only if you’re a willing student and I am still very much a student. I am still learning.


Just briefly explain about your short story entry and criteria for the 2017 Commonwealth short story?

The Commonwealth Short Story Competition is now six years old and it covers about 53 countries. It is so far the only short story competition I can enter because it does not require an entry fee to be paid by a credit card. It is free.

I wish other writing competitions around the world had such compassion and understanding of the realities of third world countries. I could pay the very minimal fees for other contests but I do not own a credit card yet and it is cumbersome to request such favours even from friends.


How does it feel to be short listed for the entry?

I am humbled, again.


Have you competed in such entries before?

Yes, the only one other time was in 2015 and I won the Commonwealth Regional Short Story prize. I did not enter for 2016 but decided to try again for this year and am humbled to be shortlisted, to be part of the top 21 from 6000 entries from 49 countries.


How many years have you been writing and what inspires you to write?

I have been writing since I was a child. It has always been an obsession – this act of scrawling meaning and narrative onto paper. I am inspired by every single thing because all I have is one shot at life. Every day of it is a miracle and I remain immensely grateful to be alive and to grow into my purpose.


Just briefly explain about your short story entry and what it’s about?

My story is about a Part-European man who lives alone and how he plans and commits suicide. It is a very basic story – about how so many issues are beyond our control as ordinary people. In this story, his choice of death and the manner in which he arrives at it is not important – what becomes important is friendship and love; and how 200 years of history disappears with him and what we’re left with is an empty house open to interpretation by a little town.

It’s important to note that this is fiction. I remember receiving a lot of messages when I won in 2015 – from people who were concerned that the story was autobiographical. All fiction is of course inspired by real life, but it remains fiction.


What do you do currently?

I am in the process of establishing my own business, a very small publishing house to launch an online magazine with an online and face-to-face offer of creative writing classes. After I won in the regionals in 2015, I discovered there is a hunger for publishing infrastructure in Fiji – and with it, associated innovation.

I taught creative writing in seven prisons from 2008 to 2011 under the then Commissioner of Prisons and Corrections, Brigadier-General Ioane Naivalurua, who is currently our ambassador to China. The man was a visionary in his approach to offender rehabilitation and I taught this under my work with the Pacific Writing Forum at USP.

The programme taught me that Fiji’s real storytellers and writers are behind bars and on our streets and in villages.

I am going to trial a new method of payment which will allow people in villages, and in our marginalised communities to participate should they wish. It has taken about 10 years of planning.

I hope that for participants, come 2018 or 2019 it allows more Fijians to be shortlisted in international competitions and to bring due recognition to our country and to our Pacific region. The best platform for this is the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and I am keen on preparing Fijians toward such a goal.


Who do you attribute your success to?

I attribute my success to my mother and her sisters, my two aunts, and to a long line of fine teaching I received from a list of wonderful teachers at Levuka Public School. Suliana Sandys, Apao Solomone, Robin Henry, Swadesh Kumar, Serah Lockington at secondary level. But in primary school, Mrs Vasu and Sarote Erasito who took my class to the Levuka Community Library and gifted us with our first library membership cards.

These are from my past. Then I have Dr David Whish-Wilson who was the first voice that told me my writing mattered.

My current success is a direct result of the support of my husband, Filimoni, who understands the demands of art, the necessity of my switching off from time to time when I am on a flow, and the one who offers me the space to be myself.

For both the 2015 and 2017 competitions, he made me sit one day before the closing day and drove me to write. On both occasions, I had marked the deadlines then decided I’d pull out given the time constraints.


What happens now, is there a confirmed date of when the winners will be announced?

From the 21 shortlisted writers of the original 6000 entries five will win the regionals in May and from this five, one will be chosen as the overall winner in July.


Mary is has been under a writing fellowship from the Fiji Arts Council and the Department of Heritage and Arts. She is grateful to Peni Cavuilagi and Sipiriano Nemani for providing this writing support in 2016.

Edited by Naisa Koroi


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