The country's latest Fulbright recipient has come a long way since living on the street when she was 12.

Now, at 30-years-old Leilani Tamu, from Avondale, is one of the youngest recipients of the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer's Residency.

In those years she has done a lot of living - now an accomplished writer and poet, former New Zealand diplomat, Pacific historian and mum.

But it was living on the streets for a month that was the defining point in her life, she said.


Running away from home was the result of a number of factors including her father's compulsive gambling, her mother starting a new relationship and "I was entering that crazy period of being a teenager".

Tamu spent most nights sleeping in school playgrounds.

The moment that pulled her away from living on the street was waking up in a stranger's home in Manurewa with no money and only the clothes she was wearing.

"I just woke up one morning and I realised it wasn't the life that I wanted. So I walked the train track home from Manurewa to Morningside in central Auckland, and as I walked I remember I thought to myself 'I'm going to change this, I'm going to make this right'.

"And I did. In the end the fact that my parents forgave me and I wanted to be forgiven ... that was what turned things around."

"We've all got our own personal struggles - it's what you do about it that counts."

For her Fulbright residency Tamu will be based for three months at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

She will work on a second book of poetry and prose, which will include exploring the life of Princess Ka'iulani, a 19th century Hawaiian princess of Scottish and Hawaiian heritage, who was heir to the throne before the monarchy was overthrown.


Tamu is also of mixed heritage with a Samoan mother and Pakeha father, as well as a great grandmother who was half Scottish and half Tongan.

"When I found about about Ka'iulani I thought 'Wow, there's this real synergy in terms of the time in which she lived and also her mixed cultural heritage."

Tamu is the tenth recipient of the Fulbright-Creative residency, which was established in 2004.