Sit up and listen: Tusiata Avia.
Talofa lava. (Hello to you).
Sit up and listen! The poetry of Tusiata Avia demands that you do, whether you are reading it in book/online form, or more especially if you see her perform her work live. Check out also the links to her delivering on YouTube, as listed below this commentary.
Before I write more, let me provide a bit of background information about Tusiata.
Tusiata lives in Christchurch [New Zealand]. She has published three books of poetry, including Wild Dogs Under My Skirt and Bloodclot, and three children’s books. Known for her dynamic performance style, she has also written and performed a one-woman show, also called Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. In 2016 it became an award- winning play for six women. Tusiata has held a number of writers’ residencies and awards, including the CNZ Fulbright Pacific Writer’s Fellowship at University of Hawai’i and the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award. Fale Aitu | Spirit House was shortlisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards in 2017.
Let me also add that Tusiata is not a ‘maintream,’ as in comfortably white middle-class, writer: far from it — which is also, of course, why I feature her here in these Jacket2 commentary posts, designed to draw out the ‘vitally different’ in New Zealand poetry. An especially revelatory interview with her in e-tangata online during 2015 is well worth reading. This interview backgrounds her own lifelong struggles and efforts to depict, to catharsise such struggles via her never-afraid-to-be-honest work, in a country never easy to live in for its steadily increasing nonwhite population.
More, in Samoan, Tusiata means artist. She is, indeed, very much a word artist extraordinaire.
Manuhiri V: Innocent Bystanders
(New Brighton Pier)
The black body lies quite still on the concrete floor of the promenade colonial pier
The black body looks down through the concrete floor and the steel and the concrete pillars of the promenade colonial pier
The black body looks down through the concrete floor and the steel and the concrete pillars and the pre-stressed piles that Fletchers are fixing again (these will last for another 25 years) of the promenade colonial pier
The black body looks down through the concrete floor and the steel and the concrete pillars and the pre-stressed piles and down at the surface of the whenua and down through the whenua
down and down and down and down
The black body stands on the colonial promenade pier in a Captain Cook pose and surveys all that is arrogant
And the flag stutters rat-a-tat-tat
The Anzac poppy body stands on the colonial promenade pier
And waltzes an old time in quick time straight line shiny and upright
The black body squeezes between the bars of the colonial promenade pier one emaciated limb at a time
The black body escapes to Lyttleton and is locked up with prisoners of the Mau and dies
The black body escapes to Quail Island and is locked up with the young Samoan leper and is left there till they die
(They are allowed to write letters to better themselves in the mean time)
The black body stands on the colonial promenade pier hunched over and takes one imperceptible step at a time
No one knows where the old black body goes
The Kiwis on the colonial promenade pier talk about senior cruises: Tahiti first or Hawai’i? Which is the best way to do the Pacific?
The black body flaps its arms on the colonial promenade pier, flaps and flaps and flaps. There is no rise off the colonial promenade pier. Arms flapflapflap.
People walk around the black body
People avoid the black body
The black body crouches, rocks back and forth, rocks back and forth, rocks back and forth
There were whales that passed through this water but they are now in storage in Japan. The seniors talk about going to Japan to eat whale: Well, they’re running out of storage space for whales, aren’t they?
The black body climbs up onto the railing of the colonial promenade pier and holds onto the lamp standard
The black body stretches out over the colonial promenade pier, over the people, the seniors, the innocent bystanders, over the cenotaph, the arrogant flag, over the whenua, New Brighton, Hawai’i, Japan, over Te Moana Nui a Kiwa
and finally, finally the black body lets go
Here are her responses to my questions.
Would you define yourself as a Kiwi poet having a perspective that is different than the ‘normal’/mainstream (i.e. generally, Pākehā New Zealander) one? If so, how so?
It’s a funny old thing defining myself. Certainly other people: reviewers, academics, and the like define me as different to the mainstream, but in my experience they like to use their pegs to stake me out in a certain shape. It would be disingenuous to say I wasn’t (different to the Pākehā mainstream) but the defining always makes me squirm. I get really uncomfortable with the binary of mainstream and other. I don’t like being other. Or othered.
My good friend Hinemoana Baker once said something along the lines of: I reserve the right to be what ever it is I am feeling at the time. I think she was quoting someone else — but it was in reference to being of mixed heritage. The point being, right at the moment, as I write this I don’t feel like claiming the Pasifika space, the Samoan space, the mixed heritage space or the Kiwi space. As a poet/ writer, there is a much broader space I can move about in.
Do you deliberately concentrate on different and distinct themes, imagery, stylistic devices and do you ever employ other tongues (words/languages) in your poetry?
I tend not to know what I’m doing until after I’ve done it. A more intuitive approach works best for me: writing my way into something, writing to find out what is there — then the themes, devices etc emerge. Although having said that, I like using poetic forms — something to rein in all that free-writing, give it some structure. And I do many drafts of each poem.
I’ve always been interested in using non-English words in my poetry; Samoan obviously, but other languages too, like Arabic. I’ve also been mining Samoan myths and legends for years now. I refer to them the way a ‘mainstream’ Pākehā poet would the ‘Classics.’ These references resonate across the poem and the book and my body of work. If they were references to Oedipus or the Trojan wars the audience would know who/what I was talking about and get all the nuances. I’m a pretty generous writer in that I provide a decent glossary but you can only explain so much that way, so, I have to be content that it’s satisfying for me and the handful of people who read my work and know/research those myths and legends.
What would you like to see more of in Aotearoa poetry from your point of view as a poet? In other words, is there sufficient recognition, publishing scope, critical space given to poets who craft their work in ‘different’ ways …?
In the context of my last answer — that would be a no. Aotearoa is still very firmly entrenched in the mainstream. And what isn’t mainstream is still othered. I’m not saying there’s no progress but there are still too many Trojan wars and not enough Samoan/Chinese/Somalian/LGBTI legends. We may be able to point to a smattering of diversity, but before the literary establishment gets carried away with patting itself on the back for inclusivity and diversity, we need to be aware that their understanding to fully appreciate the work (particularly for the reviewers and people that write about and make decisions about us) isn’t there yet. Literary criticism is still dominated by straight white middle-class people who have few other lenses to view poetry through but straight white middle-class ones. [Rapatahana stress].
Publishing has some actual stats to quantify the inequalities. Janis Freegard’s work on inequality in NZ publishing 2015 report states: “Of 68 titles, Pākehā writers got 91% of the pie; Māori writers and Asian/Indian writers got 4% … and Pasifika writers got 1%.”
I’m quoting Sarah Jane Barnett here, from ‘Why Can’t We All Just Get Along’ (Pantograph Punch): “To put those percentages into context, the 2013 New Zealand census highlighted that 74% of New Zealanders identified as Pākehā, 15% identified as Māori, 12% as Asian, and 7% as Pasifika. If we compare those percentages to Freegard’s stats, it means that Pākehā writers are four and a half times more likely to be published than a Māori writer, three and a half times more likely than an Asian writer, and eight and a half times more likely than a Pasifika writer.”
A further poem
Manuhiri IV: Fafswag reprise
(Falencie and Moe)
Falenice tells me she wants to lose weight
I beg her by every sacred roll and dimple
You must keep that body
That is the body that fits inside my body
Like an engine inside the va’a
made of planetary metals fallen out of heaven
Moe wants a spell for Christ
I take her hands up high on the horizon
High on the frost rime, high on the first offering to the dead
The aitu bois and girls and in-betweens have squeezed aside the dead
The old and the white and the dead
The bones and the eyeballs, the easels and pocket watches
Falencie does the taualuga topless like the taualuga should be done
She is shining and bare and luminous, I am going to aiuli her
I am going to paper her pre-colonial body in New Zealand legal tender
Tender my precolonial body
Tenderise my body
Body tender me
Moe was born on a Saturday
I was born the same year as Janet Jackson
I can dance like Janet, sing like Whitney, do the splits
With the legs that live inside the space in Falencie’s legs
A paper doll with a meat doll inside
This is the spell:
Body tender me
This is the spell:
The meat inside the body
It is lit by the ma’í aitu
The fire-flies from Pulotu
Watch it gyrate, watch it slap itself against the holy skin
Watch it swallow the floor
Your white eyeballs
Once you see me, you cannot un-see
I’m not cold
I dress this way for a reason, bitch
If I was cold
I’d put on a jumper
Tell me who you hate
I hate them too
Look through the newspaper skin of my limbs
There are your thighs, fast twitch muscle
Meant for crossing the cold salt
Sea under the constellations
Don’t exist me
I am possessed by a ma’i aitu
When I am doing anything
I am possessed by a ma’í maliu
I can drop, I can die any time
Taualuga: final dance done by the taupou (high chief’s daughter, virgin)
Aiuli: to make much of in the dance
Ma’i aitu: spirit sickness
Ma’i maliu: lit. death sickness, epilepsy
Pulotu: residence of the gods, underworld.]
What are you working on these days, as regards writing, please?
I’ve been making very slow progress on a novel, working on a new collection of poetry, rewriting the stage version of WDUMS for 2018–19 seasons of the six-woman play, and a little children’s writing.
A key Aotearoa New Zealand poetry collection is Tusiata’s own Fale Aitu. Why key? Read my own review of this outstanding collection in the Landfall link below. I firmly state there that, ‘This is one of the best books of poetry that I have read in years.’
Links: Performance YouTube clips:
Reviews of latest book (Fale Aitu):
Interviews, poems and other
One more fine poem
Manuhiri III: Leafa Wilson
(Tu’u mai lou lima)
You are an emergency kit, but I don’t know that, I am getting used to you being anything. I come in to your very small va, I sit and we balance each other — 2 large women over an axel
I have two small ones behind me and although I’m not thinking about it right now I have a whole gafa of aitu too, trailing out behind me, a seaweed wedding dress down Montreal street all the way round Gloucester
You take my hands — I swim — the small ones watch, you tell me it is just an ocean, not a tsunami
(There are photos of you transfigured)
Last night I told the people in the dark that after three days he left and I haven’t been able to find him since. Most nights I am looking, maybe he is far away — my little one misses me when I am in Papua New Guinea
One night a man from PNG passed me in the dark. Don’t ask me how I know, just believe when I say that’s where he was from
Or it could have been my father
You take my hands, Leafa
You take my hands and I am already dead and so is my father. And you are using your hands which could be anything — they could be anyone — to fofo him and me, both of our dead bodies brown and shining with fagu’u
My bones are rising through my body, closer and closer to the surface. My father’s bones are underneath me. He is watching me through them
You take my hands, my father has swum all the way from PNG, walked up Gloucester to Montreal and into this small va’a
his weight doesn’t change the balance at all.
Tu’u mai lou lima: give me your hands
Va: space, relational space
Fa’afetai [Thank you] Tusiata Avia
Thank you for being on the significant edge of the slowly deconstructing inside that is Aotearoa New Zealand poetry (although some will say you are right at the contemporary centre. You should be too.) Thank you for your bravery writing about issues that need to be addressed, your candour in addressing these issues, your writing style(s), which reflect your significant alternative voice.