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’.

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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.

NZF Writers & Readers: Tikanga Now, with Emma Espiner, Māmari Stephens and Morgan Godfrey

Tara Black and Elizabeth Heritage have both reviewed Tikanga Now, Tara in pictures, and Elizabeth with considerably more words.

Emma Espiner, lecturer Māmari Stephens and unionist Morgan Godfery discuss why Pākehā need to understand and embrace tikanga Māori, alongside Paula Morris. A timely conversation for all  New Zealanders.

NWF18 Tikanga Now

Big chunks of the Renouf foyer had packed out for Tikanga Now to hear Paula Morris chair a panel with Emma Espiner, Māmari Stephens, and Morgan Godfery. They all have essays in the Journal of Urgent Writing.

We started with definitions of tikanga. Godfery said people think of tikanga as magical, ‘but it’s simply the right thing to do’.

Stephens said it’s a Māori approach to things and mode of doing. Tikanga can be uncertain, but that uncertainty is positive and generative. Tikanga provides a framework upon which practices can hang – it saves you from awkward silences. Stephens also noted that there are ways in which tikanga can be used to exclude. For example, there are tensions between groups saying that te reo Māori is for all Māori, and those who say it is for everybody. ‘The same thing could be said for living our lives with tikanga – it’s a gift for beyond just those of us who are Māori.’

Espiner said that, for example at a tangi, the tikanga helps take the pain out of it a bit because you know what to do. Sometimes people are frightened of getting it wrong, but that discomfort is part of it. Look for the situations where you don’t feel safe. If you’re feeling comfortable it’s probably because you’re within the dominant culture.

Espiner said that as someone who is both Māori and Pākehā sitting across two worlds, she notices how things could be done better if you apply the principles of one to the other. She spoke about the importance of representation, noting for example Mihi Forbes’ essay on The Spinoff about being invited to a prestigious event celebrating International Women’s Day and Suffrage 125 but then being nearly the only Māori in the room.

There was an interesting discussion about ‘Maussies’ – Māori people in Australia. Māori are the tangata whenua of this land, but not of the land in Australia. Is it appropriate for them to build marae there? Godfery thinks it’s unacceptable. Stephens pointed out that ‘as Māori, we were not born to be just in one place’, and talked about the Māori diaspora.

Another point raised was about how cultural familiarity with te ao Māori can vary enormously even between neighbouring suburbs. Damon Salesa has written about segregation in Auckland and white flights from South Auckland. Espiner said that one of the most harmful things about our society is that we don’t live together.

Morris noted that te reo is having a cultural moment. Espiner is very optimistic about this, especially about the recent increase in enrolments in beginner te reo classes. She says the next step is to have lots of places where te reo is spoken, to support te reo teachers, and to have excellence all the way through.

Stephens noted the learning te reo isn’t just about learning the lexicon and the grammar, it’s also about engaging with the practices of Māori life and with real live people. ‘Whanaungatanga is the act and art of creating relationships.’ She spoke about the importance of marae, and how small rural marae are in danger of ‘going cold’ through neglect. She noted that, often when Māori are faced with threat, they build a wharenui to come together and discuss. In the 1960s and 70s especially there were massive marae built because of all the political ferment. Pan-tribal marae in urban centres are particularly important.

Morris brought up the question of tikanga and gender. In the 21st century, is it fair to ban wāhine from doing certain things? Stephens said it makes more sense if you take a step back and look at all the history. Tikanga can be changed, but it has to be the people of that particular marae who make that decision. Espiner pointed to the most recent episode of Kaupapa on the Couch, a web series about all things Māori from Te Ātea editor Leonie Hayden at The Spinoff. In it, Hayden addresses gender issues and mana wāhine in tikanga. She points out that, although men and women have traditionally had different roles in te ao Māori, women were not regarded as less than men. And many Māori gods and supernatural deities that we now think of as male may have been female, since te reo has gender-neutral pronouns. Maleness may have been imposed upon them by colonists.

The standard of audience questions in this session was very high. One question was about combining tikanga with environmentalism and business practices. Godfery said that on the issues of whether tikanga Māori can coexist with capitalism: ‘Hell no! But reasonable people have different views.’

Reviewed in pictures by Tara Black, and in words by Elizabeth Heritage