AWF18: Writing the Suffrage Past

AWF18: Writing the Suffrage Past, with Alice Canton, Emma Espiner, Linda Olsson and Tusiata Avia

Feelings. FEELINGS! I have them.

One of the things I really like about Auckland Writers Festival is the way it puts me in touch with the whakapapa of NZ feminism. I remember having a great old chat with older queer women in the audience for Gloria Steinem a couple of years back about second-wave feminism and how it’s different from contemporary feminism. Sitting in the audience for Writing the Suffrage Past I got talking to my neighbours again: I had (I think) an older lesbian couple on one side, and (I think) a teenage girl and her mother on the other. The intergenerational vibe was also set with an introduction from Claire Mabey, who, like our Prime Minister, is hapū.

IMG_20180519_152841648The four writers were Alice Canton, Emma Espiner, Linda Olsson, and Tusiata Avia. Canton is a NZ-Chinese theatre artist; Espiner is Māori journalist and medical student; Olsson is a Swedish novelist; and Avia is a Samoan-NZ poet. Each writer had been given access to the “Are we there yet?” exhibition about NZ feminism at Auckland Museum, and had written a piece inspired by something from the collection. An image of their chosen piece was displayed on the screens as each writer gave their talk.

Olsson was up first. The object she had chosen was a photograph from a protest with one woman holding up a sign that read “I can’t believe I am still protesting this shit”, which got a laugh of recognition from the crowded room. She spoke about a recent Oxfam report which has found that we must achieve gender equality if we are to end financial inequality. It is not enough to integrate women into existing financial structures; the structures themselves must be changed.

Olsson read out a piece she had written that was a conversation between herself and one of her female ancestors who had been sent to prison. Prison was not sad: it was safe. The women all looked the same, so they felt safe.

Next up was Espiner, who began by speaking her mihi. The objects she had chosen were issues of Broadsheet, NZ’s seminal feminist magazine that ran from 1972 to 1997. She spoke with great humour and affection about growing up with a radical feminist lesbian mother, and how what now looks like a feminist utopia felt, to a child who just wanted to fit in with her peers, like a terrible affliction. She would choose Women’s Weekly but her mother always threw it out of the supermarket trolley: ‘Broadsheet reflected our reality’.

Espiner is studying medicine and spoke about how healthcare has often been deeply misogynistic, citing in particular Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s “An Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s”. Some progress has been made towards equality in the medical world, though: ‘the feminisation of medicine and surgery has been positive and valuable’.

Espiner honoured her mother for being a Pākehā woman who understands Māori sovereignty: ‘Doing the right thing when nobody is looking is the definition of an ally’. She ended by addressing her mother Colleen Smith directly: ‘I’m sorry for being a shit, you were right about everything’.

Next up was Canton. Her object was a black and white photograph of an unnamed servant maybe a century ago. She invited us to reconsider the way we view the suffrage movement in NZ. We tend to picture middle-class white women with their ‘spunky Elizabeth Bennet charm in the face of adversity’. But what about the no-names?

Canton used an over/under formula to invite us to think about which women are over- and under-represented in our feminism. Under: working-class women, rural women, Māori and Chinese women; disabled, queer, migrant, and indigenous women; women of colour, queer women of colour, poor women, fat women, old women, trans women. Over: cis-gendered and white women. Canton said that, even at the risk of splintering the movement, we must acknowledge that not everyone is equally benefiting from feminist achievements. As with the previous writers, she sat down to enthusiastic applause.

The final writer was Avia. Her object was a photograph of women on a protest in 1977 holding a sign on which is a photograph of a woman who has died from a backstreet abortion and “this woman died, we care” is written. Like Espiner, Avia grew up as the daughter of a lesbian feminist. She performed for us a poem she had written about being home sick one day when she was 11 years old, reading her mother’s issues of Broadsheet, and seeing the photograph on the sign. Avia looked for the photograph again in the museum’s collection for this event, because she still remembered it after all this time. Avia said of her poem: ‘Only I could have written this piece, but I don’t think it’s particularly special. It’s a glimpse into a huge female experience.’

Avia is an extraordinary performance poet and, despite the fact that she had recently  fainted backstage, this occasion was no exception. She sat and spoke calmly but we were hanging on her every word. The poem was about backstreet abortions, and it was visceral. ‘I flinch for forty years.’ We groaned and grimaced. The photograph of the dead woman shows her lying on the bathroom floor naked. Avia called the V of her legs ‘her final vanishing point’ and said ‘I have not misremembered her aloneness / I never forgot that’.

This was a really powerful session that gave me a great sense of community and of the whakapapa of mana wāhine in Aotearoa. In a similar vein, I recommend the podcast On the Rag from The Spinoff about Kiwi feminism. (I am a massive fan and keep secretly hoping they will invite me to join them.)

Words and photos by Elizabeth Heritage

Books by each of the writers participating are available nationwide.

WORD: Being Chinese / White / Other, with Helene Wong and Alice Canton

Event_Being-ChineseWhiteOtherBeing Chinese / White / Other is the fullest session I’ve been in so far, and began with the fullest Maori greeting I’ve heard so far this festival. Alice Canton was born on the West Coast, grew up in Canterbury, and has spent much of her life battling being ‘othered.’ Helene Wong was born in Taihape, and grew up in Lower Hutt. She has worked in social policy, and is currently a full-time writer and occasional actor. We are talking today about Helene’s book Being Chinese, and the session is sold out.

The book is looking not only at the notion of Chinese as an ethnic group – but that of being Chinese in New Zealand. What is it to be a Chinese New Zealander? Helene says, “The same thing as it is for everybody else – about shared values we try to practise.” Most relevant to settlers is the idea of a fair go, not only in fair play, but in giving things a go too – rolling up your sleeves and just doing things.

Helene was born in New Zealand in the 1950’s. Her family assimilated as kiwis – Helene was brought up as a New Zealander. And New Zealand allowed it through the 1970’s: she was being cast in plays as a daughter within a white family; as a French princess. She went into the 80’s feeling pretty relaxed about her Chineseness. And then came the 90’s, when the new immigrants came in. She suddenly became Chinese again: that is when she realised that she needed to write this book. She is wondering whether we have to go through this all again: do we have to turn it upside-down again? Helene then went back and examined the history. There is a cycle of racism that has gone up and down, and back up again.

NZ has, right now, stopped giving immigrants a fair go. Chinese have been set aside and othered more than once before: New Zealanders need, now, to monitor ourselves through our commentary to bring us back into the equilibrium we would like to have. The fact that Alice is again encountering what Helene encountered trying to work in theatre 30 years ago, is disturbing and wrong.

What role does the media have to play in moving this discourse forward around equality? Helene sees the media playing negative role at times, shown in the way that stories are presented and written with all sorts of insinuations – eg. The ‘Chinese Real Estate Agent’ that wrote what Winston Peters wanted to hear. “Anybody who read that letter could smell a dead fish. Yet the NZ Herald got the ‘Agent’ to write an opinion piece.”

And the equality issue isn’t only about race, it’s about gender. The stereotypes of women and vixens, prostitutes, grumpy mothers, tiger mothers, oversexualised bookish nerds, are still being perpetuated. And the race issue is overarching – a role for a Chinese person must be specifically for them. There is no such thing as colour blind casting at the moment in New Zealand.

Alice and Helene discussed the trouble of how to talk about racism without drawing negative attention to yourselves – it is easier to try to be invisible, but that allows it to continue unchecked. I am horrified to see this growing again – every time I see a new media editorial about immigrants being responsible for the insane Auckland housing market, I flinch. It seems xenophobia is alive and well and living in New Zealand. Helene says, “It’s scary speaking up in this world.”

Another side of being Chinese in New Zealand is trying to recognise your own Chinese-ness as valuable. In 1980, Helene went to her parents’ “home” village, and it was utterly alien. She describes the effect it had on her in Being Chinese. The shock of realising where she might have ended up, and realising also that she was part of this world – her world was much bigger than she had considered, was hugely emotional and physical. Alice has also travelled to Borneo, to her mother’s home. She never learned to speak her mother tongue so she was confronted with people who undeniably looked like her, were part of her, but whom she felt had to make an effort in communicating with her.

In writing the book, Helene recognised that her primary identity now is as a New Zealander. But she’s no longer ashamed of being a Chinese person ancestrally. “I see my identity as a pie chart, with wedges that represent certain part of your identity. I no longer step tentatively into my Chinese wedge.”

Helene’s response to this time in NZ history is that we all need to accept it is time to make something new. “There is no one superior culture. I have always seen culture as sky and clouds. Once, all the clouds were non-white, with the white culture as the sky. She now sees the white culture as just another cloud. When you butt up against one another yes there is conflict, but in the collision of two quite different things is creativity.” When artists bring their different interests together, they will come up with something unique, which reflects the unique NZ identity.

Alice ended by talking a little about the word ‘diversity’. She sees it on a page and automatically replaces it with inclusivity. “We don’t want to all go for the same goal – it is the difference that is the most joyful part of that inclusivity.”

This session has forced me to take a look at how I can help a change in New Zealand culture happen. Like one of the audience members who asked the question how do I reach out to these new Chinese immigrants, I am considering this myself, in the context of how I read the world. I bought the book.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Being Chinese / White / Other, with Helene Wong and Alice Canton
Friday 26 August, 12.45 – 1.45pm

Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story
by Helene Wong
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492380