An essay by Talia Marshall on publishing as a Māori writer
After the Verb writers festival, I lie on the sand at Lyall Bay with maybe the third worst hangover of my life. The beautiful family who dragged me here willingly to the beach were all out swimming as I stayed put wanting to die with a floppy purple fedora over my face.
But also, I felt a bit happy, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how I feel with a hangover, which is why I secretly love them so much. I like to feel adrift and wincing with it and it was soft there in the deep indigo under the fedora my e hoa lent me.
I was hungover because I am a drunk but also I had been at karaoke with the writing children, who have the worst taste in music I have ever encountered. I announced, with some glee, during each butchering: This is my most hated song from the 90s! I was even relieved to hear Alanis Morrissette.
And now here I was lying like a dehydrated killer whale in Lyall Bay wearing an expensive Nom D* goth sack I bought when I had a flash writer’s residency and when I was also a bit homeless. Admit it, the future seems as far off and pointless as a carnival, so burning money makes sense! Especially on a classic item that will last well into the zombie apocalypse.
My sack dress has duck egg blue and rusty pale sirens climbing up its sides, their nakedness eats into the Hotere black and I was pleased at the anarchy of it not quite matching my adidas red mobster slides on the beach. I was a genuine lost Māori goth from Dunedin. It was totally the wrong thing to be wearing on the beach.
During the first lockdown and then through its descending levels I did my bit for the suffering global village, I ordered a lot of stuff I didn’t really need online. I lie down a lot, so thread count is important. Even as a semi-homeless person.
I sort of own a house now, bought for me by my lesbian parents, but don’t tell anyone on Twitter, I will lose all whinging rights over the two years I spent semi-homeless.
I wore the red slides on the Saturday of the festival when I made Becky Manawatu take me from the hotel for brunch at Olive so I could be basic ordering an eggs benny. Afterwards I walked her down Lambton Quay to the wrong festival venue at the National Library. I spotted a homeless woman with a blueish mink blanket with two horses printed on it, black and white as salt and pepper. It was identical to one I brought for my son as a gag for his 21st earlier this year instead of pāua key to the future. Forget blood quantum; the real marker of being Māori is a mink blanket.
My son’s blanket was twenty dollars at the Warehouse. Here on Lambton Quay, her blanket is scrunched up on the ground with some of her belongings. Becky observed to me once we were out of earshot that hardly anyone carries cash anymore, which must make it hard to muster up enough notes and coins to get through another day.
After getting Becky with a bluebell in her hair to the wrong venue, I walked, nay, I slid in my slides past the lion statue with tino rangatiratanga scrawled in chalk on its side near the Beehive. And further up Lambton Quay I see her again, the Māori woman in the grey hoodie with the blanket.
Everything is sorted in the supermarket trolley she pulls to a stop like a snail wearing its spiral whare. I remember my boy’s dad’s rare manners when he bumps into anyone from the Coast and I search for her eyes by lifting my brows but she stares right through me. My slides are not working out in the dim, wet weather. Wellington is too slippery and I try not to feel bad about the privileges of the hotel, or brunch where Becky surprised me by getting her tiny, wiry frame through The Works.
It is only when I get home to Dunedin from Wellington and I’m crouched smoking in the dark at the drop off zone of the airport waiting for a friend to pick me up in his car that reminds me of Batman’s whip that I realise my dress has been on back to front the whole, hungover day in Wellington.
I suppose it doesn’t matter. Dunedin is much cooler than Wellington, mainly because it’s so fucken cold so we have a head start on being cool and our uncool jerseys keep us humble….back to front or otherwise.
How many of the straight white men in New Zealand’s literary village would you trust with a chainsaw?
Without doubt, Bluff is the coolest, heartiest place in New Zealand. I met reclusive Dunedin poet Rob Allan there at a poetry festival in 2006, but I don’t remember meeting him. About a month ago he went quiet on Facebook and Twitter and then Nick and Kay, our poet friends posted that he’d died after a brief illness. I flung open the door to the dining room with the news and cried to my son while I tried to explain Rob to him and how sad it was that there would be no more of his photos. I can only cry to my son like this because he will be careful with how he dismisses my feelings, a gift he shares with his father.
Rob was the kind of gentleman used to sitting in almost empty church back rooms in Port Chalmers for a poetry reading of five people including the readers and maybe a rubber plant. Poetry and indoor plants have really taken off during the plague, and sometimes Rob could seem slightly bitter, there was just the slightest trace of arsenic in his jolly ephemeral posts. I enjoyed his sensitivities and half understood the bitterness. I like most Cancer men, they are tender as crab meat.
For mysterious, astrological reasons, Cancerians are often fine photographers, I suppose their pincers have a firm grip on the camera. Rob took photo after photo of Dunedin’s former decadence and grey wasted elegance. Despite his oversharing of his love of literature, his retweets of northern British life after the war and the incessant quote tweeting, he rarely alluded to the personal, no one knew he was dying. He won an award for his 1991 collection Karitane Postcards, which includes this fragment from the eponymous poem:
I hardly knew you
scarcely measured your indifference
you are walking away
there is much room to do this
Instead of being too personal, Rob rose with the birds and would fold into his electric blue hatchback driving through Port Chalmers and up past the feral chickens on the hill pecking at the Captain Scott monument just to capture the sun crowning above Taiaroa’s Head.
On the drive home from the beach with the beautiful family around Wellington’s bays I looked for the island Tapu Te Ranga. A stubby little place in the middle of Island Bay that Rita Angus made famous and where my tipuna Tāmairangi fled during the Musket Wars.
Straight white men are an endangered species in New Zealand letters
I get distracted by searching for the island by our chat. We are trying to name all the straight white men who have a high profile in New Zealand letters, how many of the gatekeepers are left and how many is the gate holding up. We went around the curve of whole bays in silence except for the racking sounds of our brains. I finally remembered Tim Upperton. I lamented that Aotearoa has no Tim Winton. I remembered Tim Gregc, Tim Jones and Tim Corballis. I threatened to do some invasive stalking of their sexuality because the abundance of whitey Tims were disproving my thesis.
I remembered James Brown of Palmerston North’s subtle refrain for a broken umbrella that can never be fixed. It took an age to recall Dominic Hooey and his chihuahua.
How many of the straight white men in New Zealand’s literary village would you trust with a chainsaw? It’s a redundant question when Paula Morris would annihilate them in any chainsaw challenge and get decent sponsorship for the event.
And why should we hold any thoughts about masculinity in our heads, at all, when Pākehā women are mostly running the publishing scene while brown supernova like Tayi Tibble and Tusiata Avia shine and rogue talents like Annette Morehu and Hana Pera Aoake run free. You can’t have order without anarchy.
But I’m contrary and so I posited to my e hoa driving the bays that straight white men are in fact an endangered species in New Zealand letters.
I tried to decide whether Bill Manhire counts as a straight white man or a druid priest
In the carpark at Island Bay New World we talked about how great Maurice Gee is for five minutes. Well I did, on and on and I remembered to include the daughter in the backseat and asked her if she was frightened of the blood cat because they had just finished reading The Halfmen of O. In my mind, as I was raving about the books, Susan freed Jimmy with his own axe from the ice and I had to stop myself revealing this detail from The Priests of Ferris, which is my most beloved of Gee’s trilogy. Susan really comes into her own and I was enchanted by Ben, the rippling blue bear, telegraphing his internal pictures to her.
I tried to decide whether Bill Manhire counts as a straight white man or a druid priest rattling the long bones at his neck and we snorted a bit. I gave her daughter the polar bear necklace I was wearing that my mother bought for me.
My mother has a habit of buying me beautiful things and I have the habit of giving trinkets she gives me away. I get this habit from my Maori father, who left her, with me. But do Maori ever really give anything away for free, or for just a few beads and blankets? Why would we give away the whenua we belonged to for blankets? Our weavers were the best in the world. We sat on the finest flax mats.
Tāmairangi flits through my whakapapa on a mat, riding it like a magic carpet. She was so high born her feet were not allowed to grace the ground. She was carried from place to place like a princess. Hopefully by gorgeous, oiled slave boys, this is what I like to imagine because my fantasies are becoming middle-aged.
And in reality Tāmairangi was tipped from her mat during the musket wars and fled to Tapu Te Ranga with her son Kekerengu. When her refuge was discovered she sang a waiata begging for mercy and Kekerengu laid down an inanga mere called Tawhito-Whenua. Instead of losing her head, Tāmairangi is taken to Kāpiti and Mana Island as a wife for Rangihaeata. Kekerengu gets in trouble for being too good looking with one of Rangihaeata’s other wives and he and Tamairangi flee to the chalky place north of Kaikoura.
Tāmairangi died there, I believe, near the place named after her son, killed because they would bring trouble to the hapū sheltering them. Tāmairangi was an ariki, one of the only wahine who didn’t need to cover her eyes with kawakawa when crossing the strait between the waka and the fish.
Almost200 years later I stop with my son at the bougie eatery at Kekerengu. The eatery is furnished in a banal, insidious hipster way and it takes three young Pākeha ten minutes to get around to serving me they are so busy chatting. I am stroppy because I have just fled my life and am thrilled to discover shortly afterwards that the toilets are dirty with the mess of fleeced tourists. The servers aren’t really Pākehā either, they are tauiwi backpacking on the cheap.
When I come back in to get my order, which is still taking its painful time, I whisper to the tangata wiwi girl behind the counter: your toilets are dirty, someone needs to go clean them up.
My son and me stare at the beach briefly holding our disposable cups, scanning for the dolphins we have already seen coming down the valley and beside the coast before Kaikoura. He insists we are not going back through the eatery to get to the car and onto Blenheim. We have to climb out through the harakeke landscaping because I have embarrassed him at the counter by acting like I am Princess Margaret over some scruffy toilets.
Rob Allan was fond of Princess Margaret and even more fond of the famous dead actress Elizabeth Taylor, my idol. I had this fantasy he was out there, catching on that my red slides are really my ruby slippers. Although it is foolhardy to wear them in places like Kawhia and Ōpōtiki if you also favour black.
A straight white man suggested to me that I was a sell-out. I was not amused tbh
When I try and explain the connection between Tāmairangi, Kekerengu and my haughty behaviour in the eatery to my son he jokes that my stories are boring after the first sentence. He is right, I guess, my stories are taxing and my friend with the Batman whip says my poetry is gruelling, well he said this eleven years ago and I won’t let him forget it.
I’m no Scheherazade, but I do use these royal wāhine being carried around on mats to explain a lot of my trouble. And the reason I tolerate and even invite their teasing is because they are Māori like me so are free to take the piss. At the festival a straight white man suggested to me that I was a sell-out. I was not amused tbh.
I want to exercise my tino rangatiratanga, not be paid almost nothing to keep whining that I have none. For two years I refused to publish anything in Aotearoa and whined about it after an experience with a kill fee where my throat seemed to close in and I literally lost my voice over a Māori story that was precious to me.
And then I got over myself, shut up, built and rebuilt some good working relationships with Pākehā editors because I had finally figured out how to make it work for me: Just shut up and do the mahi. It is a small death to be stuck whining about not writing.
I no longer send emails calling people white cunts. When I feel that way about white people I stay away from my gmail account and be nice to the kurī instead who is also white and can’t help it.
It is wahine Māori writers, at least three or four of them, who have got in touch with me privately when I was homeless and offered me and the kurī somewhere to live. But also wahine can give the hardest whacks, the harshest rakes with our nails, maybe because we care too much for each other’s opinion, past the prickle and through to the roots that just won’t budge.
And I’m careful when I write about our perceived deficits, but equally I believe you have to be ruthless as a Māori writer, as ruthless as a war general. Really, I am thinking of novelist Graham Greene and the internal sliver of ice he deemed necessary to write.
Why hide that we are a ruthless and powerful people? Why hide that our glory has an edge that is too defined by Pākehā trying to cry all over us? I refuse to let a Pākehā cry over me.
The publishing world looks good, virtuous even, when it markets someone indigenous
And if I do I want them to feel uncomfortable afterwards because I feel too jaded by my own whakamā that I am wielding their tools instead of a mere. I am far too anxious about being authentic. I worry too many Māori writers, including me, are trying to write our way into our world, instead of writing their way out of the very circle of it like Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace did when they stepped us into te ao marama.
The publishing world looks good, virtuous even, when it markets someone indigenous. It is worth remembering this because we can take their world by stealth. Although it’s hardly stealthy of me to announce this.
We hover between polarities every time we pick up a pen or start tapping on our device and it makes our writing richer. Which is simply to say we’ve been here longer, and that really means something.
It doesn’t mean we don’t have to make sense, a side effect of the raruraru with Pākehā editors is that I make more sense now. Hopefully. I have tried to curb my tendency towards poetic insular candyfloss but I still fight for the inclusion of the totems that make me feel safe, as a wahine and a Māori writer.
This time I fought to include Tāmairangi and cut the bit where I referred to her infamous beauty, despite her beauty being historical fact. I have had to read a lot of dry material online to find my way back to her. Māori stories are full of love and war. Even Pokarekare Ana is both a tragic love letter and a war song; it is a true synthesis.
Recently I took Becky Manawatu out to Mosgiel for a smallish family function. There was piles of sandwiches for the kids which Becky helped slick with butter as I sat there doing nothing in the best chair drinking a sav out of Kiri’s favourite glass.
Becky loved Kiri, my son’s auntie on sight, the scene was so familiar. This is a world that we dually recognise and hope to write about with dignity and grace. Maybe our aroha for our world is embarrassing, maybe it is too much, but afterwards in the car Becky thanked me for not mentioning who she was. I had introduced her as Becky and said that she was from the muttonbirding Te Au whānau down south. I don’t mention the Burns fellowship and the awards. It didn’t matter, Lulu, boy’s nan had figured out who she was the next time I see her. Auē was in her pile of books opposite the two-bar heater.
After we had left her birthday, Lulu found that her other moko had a copy of Auē in her room. Maybe it doesn’t matter that someone who should know Becky’s surname has recently been given 500k to promote our literature when a young wahine who loves to write has a copy of Becky’s pukapuka. Becky’s koha is already out the gate.
It is Pākehā who insist we are entertainers and handed us a guitar
Which fatally reminds me of being accused of being a sell-out, I guess, bragging here about my expensive gothic sack like I AM dUneDin. No one in Dunedin wastes money except the fraudster who ripped off our health board, that is why he was caught, he was too flashy with it. I need to remember Tāmairangi being tipped from her mat, crouching in the dark.
How else to account for the actions of Pākehā mowing the lawn of the present tense with their ignorance and their bland assumption that the playing field is a level one?
The place we start from is behind you and ahead of you, it is everywhere at once. It is a primordial swamp. I’m not sure this makes it harder for us anymore, just different. There is a real appetite for our stories, no one really cares about all the Tims. And of course, Rob Allan knew this. He observed all the new talent emerging from the sticky dark lake. It’s why I don’t blame him for being slightly bitter.
And if any raruraru, or any kurī with three heads rears up in our community of bitches, I just tell myself: that will be the ancestors, using us to figure stuff out. It’s easier that way. It’s simpler to pretend we all love each other’s mahi and get along and keep our critiques subterranean.
But I feel compelled to write about the Musket Wars because I am a niggly shard of desecrated bone among many poking up from the sand. Otherwise, Pākehā turn our epic battles into fairy stories to tell their children on the industrial and institutionalised carpets that have replaced our mats.
They make nice of us, and the thing I have learned about our histories is that we are not nice. That kupu does not belong to us. It is Pākehā who insist we are entertainers and handed us a guitar.
I grew up in Wellington imagining I was an adult by 10. At five, my most favourite place was the old Dominion Museum. I was torn between the Mummy exhibit, the meeting house and the mannequins in Victorian dress. I used to clutch the poutokomanawa with a hongi because there was no one to tell me not to. I would stare and stare at the toes breaking through the bandages of the preserved body of the Egyptian and wonder at the canopic urns.
Maybe stereotypes about Māori are so troubling because the statistics match those stereotypes
Māori and Ancient Egyptians share the same word for the sun. Yet, I think we are being a bit dishonest about the ropes that tether that flaming god to us.
Maybe stereotypes about Māori are so troubling because the statistics match those stereotypes. We cannot tell our stories without doing the basic math of our existence. I’m aware that the politics of representation are fraught, but they are perilous partly because we can’t pretend there are not all these gaps when our path should glisten. It is hard to stake a pou in thin air, all it does is expose the bare roots. Why can’t we allow each other multiple modes of resistance?
I don’t think the endangered straight white men of New Zealand letters can stop our rising from the swamp. To imagine they could endows them with too much power. Nor do I imagine that the emergent canon of Māori writing makes much material difference to us as a people, this will take time. I did not notice Susan’s whiteness when I was in raptures at nine reading the O trilogy. I was happy as a greedy reader to insert myself into any world.
Rob Allan wandered around Dunedin like the shy surrealist artist Joseph Cornell wandered New York looking for lost treasure to make his assemblages and delicate diorama. Joseph Cornell enjoyed odd, platonic friendships with ballerinas. This sounds both quaint and creepy to our modern sensibilities, but Joseph was a harmless recluse who took care of his family.
When Rob died I thought of Eefa, his social media BFF and I followed her on Twitter to see if she was alright. Despite occupying opposite ends of the literary spectrum, here were two sensitive Cancerians who had forged a lasting friendship. Eefa loves the hottest pink, the noughties OG incarnation of Paris Hilton, her kurī, enhanced gummy bears and being quietly outrageous from her padlocked account. She is from the Maldives, that exquisite archipelago under threat from the aqua sea. Rob appeared to adore her, and she appeared to enjoy it. Twin moons wearing the shy bat of the other in their virtual Gotham city.
Eefa has never experienced a loss like this online. They talked everyday and now he is gone.
I miss him too. I miss his old lady reaction GIFs. He took an interest in us and was plainly devoted to the talent of our friend Kay McKenzie Cooke. He seemed resigned to being a witness. One of the last photos he shared on his account was a of blue building that housed Exit funeral services.
The real incandescent happening in Arabian Nights, the true oasis, is that after three years the king is still in love with Scheherazade’s stories. I have had men that would gladly behead me as easily a wife just to shut me up. Being a wife is no real insurance from the same pyre that burns the hōhā witch.
Rob was different from the others. He wasn’t endangered, he was a thin blue man. Now he hovers like a dragonfly above and below Cilla McQueen’s meniscus.
Moe mai rā e hoa and kia ora for the axe.