Emma Espiner on that bloody woman Lana Lopesi

Lana Lopesi’s collection of essays Bloody Woman combines personal memoir and flinty academic syntax to construct dreams and nightmares, to speak of hope and desperation, grief and joy. Both introspective and galaxy-broad, the essays deal with personal issues like Lopesi’s experience of having an abortion, and then being a young mother, of being part of the Samoan diaspora, being “bougie” and the trouble with being representative of a whole community, to cataloguing global movements in feminism, art, workers rights, reproductive rights and immigration.

These parallel tracks are reflected in “Swimming in Circles” where Lopesi shares achingly intimate experiences of her own alongside a forensic itemisation of the milestones in achieving reproductive rights in Aotearoa and around the world. Lopesi reflects in this essay on an excess of focus on individual responsibility in society judging the choices of young women “This thinking relies on the fallacy that there is nothing structural or societal that makes living difficult. It insists that lived difficulties are the fault of individuals and their individual choices.”

Writing is not a financially rewarding pursuit for many in Aotearoa, which affords most of our writers the dubious advantage of having a day job from which to draw both an income and inspiration. As a renowned art critic and academic, Lopesi writes with her whole self. Tusiata Avia writes that “Lana crosses the vā between creative and academic language.” Ruby Solly, the Māori writer and taonga pūoro virtuoso, once explained to me why Tayi Tibble’s work resonates the way it does, “She code-switches effortlessly.” Lopesi does the same thing, sliding from spare gutsy prose to clinically recalling research that supports her themes.  

This idea of “range” is intrinsic to Lopesi’s writing style but it bleeds (literally) into the reality of existing as a Samoan woman in Aotearoa. She writes, “While an idealised Sāmoan womanhood is coveted by some, there is in reality no ideal Sāmoan experience. To get out from the perceived fixation on a particular kind of woman that we have inherited from the colonial imaginary, the fixation on just one kind of experience, is to claim range.” And on challenging limiting stereotypes: “A culture isn’t typified only by its pious and moral values: there are other qualities as well that balance them. These are values you wouldn’t uphold in your public-servant work, maybe, or the methodology chapter of your doctoral research, but that have just as much influence in everyday Sāmoan life and culture.”

The greatest trick that colonisation tried to pull on Indigenous people was to convince us that our culture was dead…Our artefacts stolen and put in museums as morbid relics and our language suppressed and despised

Lopesi is driven to make sense of herself, to herself, but she also carries the urgency many Indigenous writers possess to make visible the suppressed and unseen. The greatest trick that colonisation tried to pull on Indigenous people was to convince us that our culture was dead. Our stories were told back to us, with the best bits removed or twisted, our artefacts stolen and put in museums as morbid relics and our language suppressed and despised. Of course this particular work is unique to Lopesi and, reading it, you know that she understands the problems inherent in being tied into speaking for a collective. But this collection of writing is undoubtedly an emphatic example of the importance of telling our own stories as Indigenous writers.

An example of this is making visible names that have been deliberately overlooked and undervalued. Historically this has been the fate of women generally, with Indigenous women faring worst of all. In these essays Lopesi is collecting the receipts, and recalling the whakapapa. She mines the archives, the whispered bedtime stories, her own extensive experience as an art critic and the work of women like Tusiata Avia, Rosanna Raymond, Selina Tusitala Marsh and Leonie Pihama. As a reader you appreciate how difficult it is to find the authentic stories of Indigenous women, how worthwhile it is, and how work like Lopesi’s excavates it and displays it like a well curated exhibition. You have no excuse not to know, once someone has done this work and made it available. She cites everything, and there is an extensive bibliography of names that there is no excuse not to reference in future. I was reminded of the re-released collection of stories “Wahine Toa: Omniscient Māori Women” in 2018 by Patricia Grace, Heni Jacob and Robyn Kahukiwa. In the introduction to the re-print of the 1984 classic, Ani Mikaere notes that the reading list included in the book is dominated by Māori women, a stark contrast to the reading list which accompanied the 1984 publication. “It is anticipated that the determination of Māori women to speak on our own behalf will continue into the future.”

“There Is A Vā Between My Thighs” reflects the uniquely excruciating experience of those of us who want to see more of our culture reflected around us, and then being baffled sometimes by how it manifests. As Lana, wincingly, relates the particular agony of an Indigenous academic trying to jam a deep cultural concept (for her, it’s Vā, for some of us it might be whanaungatanga) into epistemology. As you tangle with the literature and seek evidence and thinking, you go home and try to tell your family and they look at you like you’re mad. “I hold on to the memory of my dad questioning what I was talking about because it reminds me how abstract cultural concepts can appear to their own communities when they are plucked from spaces where they just exist and are instead set in spaces, such as the university or contemporary art world, where they become something we describe and theorise.”

“You could argue that this is a project where a bougie Islander who wears shell earrings explains what a Sāmoan woman is”

She’s unsparing about her own role in all of this. Recounting a conversation between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, in which Baldwin talks of being allergic to being told how to be Black by “middle-class Black folks who have gone through white universities and wear daishikis,” Lopesi is unsentimental “You could argue that this is a project where a bougie Islander who wears shell earrings explains what a Sāmoan woman is – I accept that.”

The final essay “An Open Letter to My Future Adult Children” circles back to a theme of an earlier essay, in which Lopesi struggles to overcome the patriarchy by winning at the patriarchy with overwork and achievement defined by others. In doing this she says, she was in some ways denying herself the role of a mother. By ending the collection with a resonant letter to her children, she firmly reconciles her position.

There will be readers who stumble over words like intersectionality and who are unable to cling on during the excursions into dense academic phrasing. But this is beside the point; it’s a deeply authentic work, and wouldn’t be so without Lopesi using this platform for the questions and philosophy that has captured her intellectual curiosity for years. “The personal is structural” she states firmly in the penultimate essay “Becoming a Bloody Woman.” Lopesi also has a practicality that is refreshing in the modern cacophony of noise around identity and activism. On the well-traversed problems with feminism as a word she says “Not liking a word, or having trouble finding the right non-problematic word, doesn’t feel like enough reason to not do the work.”

It was hard not to write myself into this review. To be an Indigenous essayist from the same generation, reading each other is still a fizzing, rare, real pleasure. If Lana was my friend I would have messaged her constantly while reading her book, yasss queening her, sending snapshots of the passages I’d underlined, quoting her back to herself endlessly “mf this is genius.”

But that interpretation of this collection of essays would have been limiting, because, as a meticulously researched and persuasively argued piece of work it opens a door for anyone, from any background, with a curious mind. This work has a natural home with Bridget Williams Books, a publisher known for introducing readers to thoughtful explorations of contemporary social issues. The best writing is essential cultural infrastructure and we’re fortunate to live in the age of the essay. We have an abundance of pillars to build ourselves out of a past and present that has glorified some at the expense of others, among which Lana Lopesi stands firm. In her own words, “Power structures are sustained and maintained by ongoing cooperation, only complicated by action. And I don’t want to cooperate any more.”

Bloody Woman by Lana Lopesi (Bridget Williams Books, $39.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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