Book Review: Real Fake White Dirt, by Jess Holly Bates

Available at bookstores nationwide.

cv_real_fake_white_dirtEverything about Jess Holly Bates’ book made me uncomfortable. The astroturf affixed to the front cover meant the work did not sit easily amongst my other shelved books. Skimming through the pages I spied pseudo-Maori neologisms − the author conjures ‘wei’ to transliterate lyrics from a popular rock song. One sequence of poetry is even titled ‘disgussed'(sic).

This is a book too big for its boots, I thought. How I was wrong.

This is not to say that a deeper reading lessened the discomfort. Real Fake White Dirt is a work as dissonant as its title. The reader is hurled between post-colonial guilt and a tenuous pride in ‘Whakapapapāpākehā ‘, between ignorance and tokenism. One feels they might be the victim of an ideological ‘wedgie’. Bates invites us to engage with something fiercely uncertain, a terrain where the grass is withered on either side of the fenceline. It takes a brave reader to set off on this literary journey.

But one shouldn’t let the thematic heaviness deter them. There is humour here, and character sketches that are at once comic and familiar. We meet ‘miranda von stooth / who works with underpriviledged youth’ and ‘jennifer kato / growing organic potatoes’. This is poetry as satire, and everyone is ripe for the picking.

Real Fake White Dirt was written for theatre, and took the form of a energised one-woman show, performed here and abroad earlier this year. This is not poetry that speaks softly. Often it is shouting, rambunctious, wailing from the page. Font size acts to guide the reader through the crescendos and lulls.

There is a glossary too, to ease the reader through neologisms, Te Reo Māori and historical footnotes. This is poetry that is determined to engage its audience. Bates’ work is uncomfortable but user-friendly. Even the astroturf affixed to the front cover has gained my appreciation – this is a book that doesn’t fit amongst the others and, for that matter, nor should it. This is one of a kind.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Real Fake White Dirt
by Jess Holly Bates
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473290030

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