A confessional memoir from the latest and radically good issue of the literary journal Sport, by its editor, Tayi Tibble.
When I was in Year 9, I had my first taste of irrelevant stardom by way of making the 1st XI soccer team—a rarity for freshmen. This achievement resulted in attention: proud kiwi slaps on the back but also some kiwi side-eye, but both made me determined to work hard, play hard. However I spent approximately 3/4 of every game benched, and it was decided that I should go play for the 2nd XI team, so I could have a go on the field.
My reputation as a glorified waterboy preceded me. I was welcomed into the 2nd XI team like a star. I got my pick of positions and everyone always passed me the ball. The problem was that everyone always passed me the ball. The more the ball was passed to me the more aware I became of the pressure. People, whether it was warranted or not, were counting on me.
This all came to a head during a specific match against, idk, Chilton Saint James School. I captured the ball in the midfield, stepped out a player and passed the ball. The ball was passed back, and I got past another player and passed the ball. Once again the ball came back, and I made it past another two players and all my teammates were, like, wtf!!!! but in a good way and passed me the ball.
Having never experienced an exercise-related endorphin in my life, this was why I even bothered to play a sport. I did it for the camaraderie, the energy; all of our hopes, dreams, victories and regrets thick and electric in the air, like 5G. In that moment, an ancient compulsion moved me. It told me to do the mahi. I thought, āe. If the ball was passed to me, then the ball was mine. I decided I to go the last stretch, take it up to the box and get that goal. I bossed up, dribbled a few paces, then immediately lost it. Some stocky blonde sweeper with Dutch braids captured it and sent it right back to our defence with a single mighty horse kick. The entire team let out a unanimous, heartbreaking groan. My coach called me a ball hog, and pulled me off the field.
And ever since that match I have been haunted by a sphinx-like creature with a translucent hog body with a soccer ball head. It appears at random times, to boo at me. Once, a sexy Spanish man asked me to dance with him and because I was a redacted-amount-of-margaritas in I did, but it wasn’t very far into grinding to “Gasolina” when he hissed at me to let him lead and dropped his hands from my waist in frustration. The thought Ball Hog slapped me off the dance floor.
I was so terrified that I went home and visited a wise tohunga (my mum) hoping they might dip my head into a water trough, or give me some greens to sage my home. Instead they decided that I needed to confront a specific childhood trauma: my sister’s first birthday.
It’s late summer, 2001. February 20th, to be exact. Shavaughn Ruakere is on What Now and my mother’s ringtone is a bells and whistle version of “Angel” by Shaggy. Nana is in the kitchen whipping cream for the cake and Aniqueja is sat on Grandad’s lap, all rosy and adorable. Grandad is reading Aniqueja her new picture book, something about a duckling who wants to go rollerskating with some frogs, one of her many, many 1st birthday presents. It looks like a warm and wholesome scene, but there is a dark force in the room. The dark force is me.
Like most traumas I have repressed it and don’t remember much, but apparently I am so disturbed by jealousy, and also quite sure of my own stardom, that I am compelled to start hopping, and I mean like, literally and lamely hopping on one leg, demanding that Grandad stop playing with Aniqueja and “look at what I can do” instead.
Mum says that this was the first time she was properly embarrassed that I was her child and it certainly wasn’t the last time.
I hate this story and I hate myself in this story and every time it surfaces, which it does quite often, I wish Mum had slapped me and furthermore I wish I could’ve been there to slap myself. At home, if I accidentally talk over someone—which is very easy to do when you’re one of seven big-lipped bitches—at least two sisters will roll their eyes and say “look what I can do” out of the corners of their mouths. It’s a cheap move, like button bashing the controller while playing Tekken, because instantaneously, without getting a kick in, I am dishonoured and defeated.
TLDR: Basically, if I was MK Ultra’d by the Illuminati as I one day hope to be, “Ball Hog” or “Look what I can I do” would be the safe word/down phrase my handlers would use if they ever needed to brainwash me back into submission.
I’ve been thinking about what I can do, which is apparently hogging the ball, because I was at a book awards recently eating fry bread and caviar like the bougie native that I am when a friendly face materialised and asked me what it was like to be living the dream. I accidentally sucked a fish egg down my windpipe. I was high key wrecked from being too tu meke at the Jess B gig the night before. I was also on my shy buzz and wylin’ in front of Carol Hirschfeld and Stacey Morrison, the OG Bougie natives. I assumed they must be referring to the food, because if the dream is a world in which Māori and Pākehā can engage in mutually beneficial and reparative relationships that enhance the world, then yes, without a doubt, fry bread topped in caviar and cream is the height of that dream, but when I said, “Mmmm mean oi,” they said, “How was Europe?” and “Gee your book seems to be doing so well.” Essentially they were giving me the Kris Jenner, You’re doing amazing sweetie.
So like the good Māori girl that I am I immediately felt shameful. If I had less melanin in my skin, my cheek would have reddened. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Frankenstein’s ghost pig booing ball hog, ball hog, ball hog at me. I covered my mouth politely and exaggerated my chewing. I was buying time as I mentally sifted through the details of my recent trip: the Edinburgh Book Festival, the VUW Alumni reading in London, fun in Paris with Annaleese [Jochems].
More importantly, I thought about the photographic evidence of the trip; me laughing while straddling a cannon, me looking sunkissed while strolling the Thames, me actin’ Parisian while in Paris. Then, for good measure, I thought about some of the un-Instagrammable actualities of the trip like the food poisoning I gave myself cooking dead animal with salmonella tongs or the late-night drinks where I was encouraged to talk to international agents who barely acknowledged my existence, which may or may not be related to the fact that one of them also thought that Māori were extinct. I thought about all these things until finally, the big payoff for all that chewing, sifting, thinking and stalling, I swallowed and said, ‘Yeah it was cool.’ I heard a cricket and thought, weird time of year.
I watched that friendly face droop with disappointment. I might have seen their lip curl. They offered a polite smile, but a specific kind of polite smile that you only really give to someone you think is a real dick. I felt as though I had confirmed something for them which also confirmed it for me: the dream was wasted on me. I felt like a hog who shouldn’t have been passed the ball. They peeled off and made their way towards the kiwifruit juice.
This is not the first time I have been asked this question or something similar and it’s definitely not the first time I have had the same limp reaction. Weird flex but it’s sort of like when I get referred to as a star or a literary it girl. I think, that’s hot, because I love Paris Hilton and vanity is a dark-sided Libra trait, but the thrill is also accompanied with a specific kind of awkwardness. It is an awkwardness that stems from our national allergy to tall poppies and the noxious fumes we all inhale from living in the land of the long white colonial shame; the shame of recognition, the shame of wanting to be recognised. Which is why every trip, literary festival, panel, reading, editorial position, hint of quasi fame that I get the slightest whiff of amongst the same 10 people who attend book launches in this country, is both thrilling and terrifying; like I’m back on that soccer field. Even when I’m preparing a pic for Instagram, I mind find myself scoffing “look what I can do” like a self-flagellating disciple. I think these things, fret, hesitate, wait for my coach to yell at me, but then, almost always, I upload it anyway.
TLDR: Despite not always feeling like that bitch she continues to be that bitch.
I was having a coconut gelato cocktail and a mini debrief with my e hoa Nicole recently, following the Te Hā National Māori Writers Hui. She was filling me in about a session I missed in which Patricia Grace, in conversation with Renée, mentioned that even with her most revered and popular works, like Pōtiki, she felt as though she had fluked it. My reaction to this was weirdly defensive. I thought impossible and ridiculous. But then I started thinking about imposter syndrome, how I’ve experienced it, and how it is almost impossible not to feel like an imposter when you’re the only non-white voice in a journal, or brown face in a room. Or maybe, there is another brown face at the reading, but it’s the bro serving the drinks and you make eye contact and the overwhelming feeling of stink makes your voice crack while you read your poem which you now recognise as having an ironic tone. You don’t know how you didn’t notice it before. I know because E! True Hollywood stories, it happened to me.
Sometimes the most powerful revelations are the most obvious ones. It’s a cool feeling, being so braindead that the smallest eureka is like being defibrillated back to life. I was fully shook as I thought about how weird vibes it would be, to not only be one of the few brown faces in a room, but the actual first brown face to pull up. Ever. In history. It occurred to me then that there was no Patricia Grace for Patricia Grace to look up to. Patricia didn’t get to grow up self-identifying as one of the sleeping cousins while reading The Kuia and The Spider or writing essays on “The Geranium” at high school. But I did and I am so lucky that I did. If I was in that position, writing into the dark/white world, the first published wahine writer, ever, I can easily imagine that the whakamā and imposter syndrome probably would have paralysed me.
I worry about whakamā and imposter syndrome paralysing our people, making them too afraid or inhibited to really live their best lives or at least the best lives they can under the hell skies of capitalism and party politics. I’m all about the people, and I’m all about the best lives.
At the end of 2018 I was named one of New Zealand’s most fabulous people by Viva magazine and I can’t front, I was Beyoncé x Nicki Minaj feelin’ myself, because I don’t serve these outfits like I’m working in a diner for nothing, and also because Kanoa Lloyd and Rose Matafeo gave me the follow back, OG bougie natives. However, in the write-up it said “she doesn’t indulge in fake modesty”. They asked me why I was so confident. I was like, sounds fake but okay, but what came out of my mouth was “my mother”.
I told the magazine that she “grounds me” and “helps me keep my big head on my shoulders” and “looking in the right direction”. It’s true, she does, mostly by way of mocking me with tales of tantrums past, but she also encourages me to “do the mahi” so that her own mahi pays off.
I think about all the things that my mother and foremothers have done for me, but I also think about all the things they couldn’t do. I think about their lives, the stories they have told me. I think about the ways they have had to internalise their experiences of inequality and assimilate, in order to get on with minimal harassment, in order to avoid bringing attention to themselves. I think about how my mother and my Nana have never left the country. Maybe they never cared to. For a long time I didn’t care to, but it also didn’t seem like a possibility. It always seemed like a privilege that for whatever colonial reasons I never entertained. But now that I have been, I wonder if they ever wanted to. I feel guilty and afraid to ask.
I was sick in London, and spent the majority of that time killing the vibe. However, on the day before we were to leave for Paris, I
felt a little better and caught the train to meet Annaleese at the Tate Modern. I sat outside on the grass, waiting for her to arrive and felt deliriously happy. The sun was out and I could stomach fluids—simple yet underrated pleasures. Afterwards, we walked along the river and I asked Annaleese to take a photo of me and like a good bitch she took a lot. There is one photo in particular, a b-side where I am looking off to the side, all natural and candid and unposed and upon seeing it, I didn’t recognise myself at all. I saw my Nana.
Another very obvious yet powerful revelation struck me and in that moment I was almost moved to tears, overwhelmed by the realisation that I am my ancestors and my ancestors are me. And despite a history of colonisation, alienation, annihilation, here they were, facing up to this notorious city, alive, Māori as, and smiling in a photo. And, even if only for a moment, I felt properly proud of myself in my entirety, all my work, history, whakapapa, I looked around just in case, but the ghost hog was nowhere to be found.
Sport, edited by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press, $35), launched this evening in Wellington at Victoria Books.