This session was cousins Tusiata Avia and Victor Rodger in conversation, chaired by Anton Carter. Avia and Rodger are both Samoan New Zealanders from Christchurch who have become writers and performers.
Rodger is known for his work as a playwright. He said he wanted to be an actor as a child, but after hearing Kirk Douglas say ‘there are no roles for fat leading men’, he changed his career trajectory and focussed on writing. He had ‘a fire to tell the story’ of his tumultuous relationship with his father, who he never lived with. His Samoan father left his Palagi mother when she was a pregnant 15yo. ‘I couldn’t respect him even though I came to love him in my own way.’
Avia, who is now known as a performance poet, said her poems started coming when she was about ten years gold, but that by the age of 15 she had cut them off. ‘I became aware of who I was in my society – a brown girl in Christchurch in the 80s, at the bottom of the pyramid. I had internalised that girls like me don’t become writers, so I decided to aim lower.’ As a young adult she backpacked around the world and had all kinds of crazy adventures, but it caused her ‘beautiful pain’ to read really great writing because ‘that was the thing I most wanted’. It wasn’t until her mid 30s that she gave herself permission to write.
Both Rodger and Avia talked about the importance of role models; of seeing other Pasifika people write and make art and succeed, and then thinking, I could do that.
Avia read her poem about having epilepsy, which in Samoan translates to ‘death sickness’, and Rodger read from his essay in the Journal of Urgent Writing about his journey towards embracing his Samoan self. ‘I went from factually brown to actually brown.’ He credits the work of James Baldwin for helping him become ‘woke’ as a young man.
Although the session title was “Cousins Talk it Out”, and both Avia and Rodger are normally charismatic performers, I was struck by how little they interacted with each other and by the quiet, almost stilted vibe of the session. Often they would say their piece and then silence would fall. Carter asked good questions, and, although he hadn’t been billed as part of the event, I was glad he was there to keep things moving.
Carter asked about the risks of writing openly about difficulties in their families. Rodger said his first play, Sons, was very autobiographical. ‘I had a strong desire to speak my truth, in fact so strong that I didn’t really take into account that I was speaking other people’s truths.’ His mother sees herself as the villain in Sons, which is painful for Rodger because he wrote that role as a tribute to her. He’s still not sure whether he has a right to tell her story.
Avia said, ‘I’ve been writing my family since the beginning’. She sees writing as a release: ‘I just had to get that shit out’. Her father, who is now dead, never read her work but always carried around her books in his satchel. Avia lives now with her 10yo daughter and 84yo mother. Her mother said ‘it’s all got to come out’. Avia is working on a performance with her mother and daughter.
Carter asked about what it was like growing up Pasifika in Christchurch, a city not known for its diverse population or excellent race relations. Rodger said: ‘There’s a real tension between me and Christchurch. I love people in that city but I do hate the city itself. It gets my back up.’
Rodger and Avia both spoke about Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, a play written by Avia a while back that she has performed as a one-woman show. The current production at the NZ Festival, starring six Pasifika women, is co-produced by FCC, the production “entity” that Rodger set up to connect Pasifika practitioners. ‘It’s for doing the stuff that wins people awards, rather than serving a Palagi narrative.’
Avia spoke about her experience being racially profiled at Unity Books 15 years ago. ‘It remains a breach in the va.’ She has received a written apology from Unity, from which Avia has just this week created a found poem. She performed it for us in the session. ‘In this poem I take their words and I choreograph the dance for once, to reveal what lies behind the innocuous language of racism.’ It was a powerful poem, repurposing words from the email and repeating phrases such as ‘which you feel was racist / you feel’.
Both Rodger and Avia have lots of projects on the go. Rodger will be releasing a collection of short fiction later this year called Warmish Pacific Greetings, and is working on a film adaptation of his play Black Faggot. Avia will be at WOMAD and is writing a novel and another collection of poems.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Cousins Talk it Out