Comment: Shilo Kino anticipates a future writers festival where kids and their whānau can ask questions, share stories  and will be able to feel comfortable, because most of the room won’t be white.

My friend Mahia joked that we were hanging out with Pākehā kuia for the night – but it wasn’t really a joke. I looked around at the audience and was like, yeah, tika. True. We were at the opening night of the Auckland Writers Festival and each writer went on stage and told a story that was ‘stranger than fiction’.

The audience gasped when Fili Fepulea’i-Tapua’i came on, then gasped again when she spoke of women in Kiribati tying one end of a rope from their waist to a bucket where babies were tucked inside when the floods came. 

But then the gasps turned to chatter and laughter as soon as Fili left the stage and I thought about how it had taken an 18-year-old to bring the audience down to earth but her message was lost somewhere in between the privilege and the sea of whiteness. 

Fili had said: I don’t need to read stories about chaos … The stories from the islands are enough.

I wrote my first book, The Pōrangi Boy, for kids like me. But when I stood on stage at the festival and looked into the 1800 faces of the children in the audience, I didn’t see many faces that looked like mine. I blew up the cover of The Pōrangi Boy on the big screen and I asked the kids how many of them looked like Niko, the boy on the front cover. There weren’t many hands raised.

Afterwards, I was signing copies of my book and it dawned on me I was hardly signing any copies for Māori because kids who grew up like me don’t go to these types of events, we don’t get to meet our favorite authors, we don’t get to go to fancy workshops. I had written my book for Māori but where were they? Honestly, I felt like I had failed, that I had missed the mark, the whole point of why I wanted to become an author. 

The first writers festival I went to was two years ago. I wasn’t yet a published author but Huia Publishers had given me and five other Māori writers a lanyard that gave us access to some of the workshops so we could experience a literary festival, because let’s be honest I probably would never go to one otherwise. 

I love reading  but I didn’t even know these kinds of things existed. Neither did my friends. When I asked on Instagram if any of my friends were going or wanted to come with me, two replied, one with a laughing emoji and another saying, ‘My nana’s going, lol.’

On the first day of the festival I left my Māori writer friends and clutched my little lanyard, like the crutch that it was, and walked around the Aotea Centre blatantly aware that it was very, very white. 

The first workshop I wanted to attend was ‘The Good Migrant’ which  would explore topics of identity and race. I looked up the location on the map, walked to the tent outside and was surprised to see elderly Pākehā lined up. Had I stumbled across a St Heliers book club meeting I didn’t know about? I asked the usher if I was in the right place and he gave me a little smile and nodded.

Author Shilo Kino at a signing session for her book. Photo: Colleen Lenihan

It happened the whole weekend. Any workshop that had Māori and Pasifika authors or that explored uncomfortable themes of race and discourse and identity seemed to attract only an audience that was predominantly Pākehā. Because, as I came to naively realize, literary events are centred around the needs for the white, elite and privileged. 

But is it a bad thing? Surely the expansive wisdom and knowledge these types of audiences are gaining from attending these workshops and listening to authors of colour has to be a good thing? Surely.

At the weekend just gone, I went along to Witi’s Wahine, a sold-out play, and  it was a beautiful performance enjoyed by a predominantly older Pākehā audience. Afterwards, I walked out with a group of Pākehā, wiping their eyes and talking about how emotional the waiata was, and a cynical part of me thought, were you also emotional when racism was hurled against Māori on social media and in our own Parliament this week? Are you also emotional when you look at the statistics for prison and see that Māori women not only make up the highest representation in the country but they are the most imprisoned indigenous women in the world? 

Storytelling is powerful because it allows the reader to live in someone else’s shoes for a moment, to gain a perspective that is different from their own. But our stories and our culture have become  emotional trope journeys that Pākehā have ridden for decades. Our stories aren’t for your entertainment.

On the last day of the festival, the irony was not lost on me that the same people who enjoyed the  beautiful Ghazaleh Golbakhsh speak about leaving strife-torn Iran happily ignored the cry of  the inhumane injustices inflicted upon the people of Palestine as a protest flooded and beat against the walls of the Aotea Centre. 

What Fili said was true. We don’t need to read stories of chaos. Our reality is enough. 

I want to mihi to Anne O’Brien and the organisers of the Auckland Writers Festival. I know organising an event in the middle of a pandemic is no easy feat and there was a range of excellent workshops with Māori and Pasifika writers, poets and storytellers.  

I would love to see a Māori and Pasifika writers week where Māori and Pasifika children and their whānau can come and celebrate writing and story telling and our culture and every part that makes us who we are. Can you imagine having a noho marae style week where our children recite their whakapapa and get to sit in front of Patricia Grace and learn about how she wrote Cousins, and then learn from Fili about her stories of climate change and then sit down for a reading of Mophead from the Goddess that is Selina Tusitala Marsh and learn about reo from Hemi Kelly and then about myths and legends from Witi Ihimaera? Kids and their whānau can ask questions and share stories and won’t be made to feel uncomfortable – because most of the room won’t be white. We’d get to fill up the cups of our children and spark hope and excitement and a drive to tell our stories.

One day the Witis and the Patricias and the Albert Wendts of this world won’t be around and then what?  Who will then tell our stories?

Shilo Kino (Ngāpuhi, Waikato- Tainui) is a reporter and writer. She released her debut novel The Pōrangi Boy last November and is undertaking a year-long full immersion journey at Te Wānanga Takiura....

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