Tusiata Avia gives the best housekeeping spiel, setting the tone for one of the most gentle and respectful conversations between two powerful writers I’ve heard, she told us that if our phones went off we’d have to buy lunch for everyone else in the room.
A spirit of community clung to this conversation. Which is weird because at one crucial point, Tusiata asked ‘where are all the brown faces in this room? Auckland is the biggest Polynesian city in the world… just saying’. Tusiata Avia and Maxine Beneba Clarke are both brilliant writers – the readings that they gently prodded each other to give throughout the session left us all softly gasping, such was their power. But just being a great poet, memoirist, essayist isn’t what defines them most of the time – it’s their brown skin. And this gets complicated.
Tusiata Avia says that something grates inside her everytime she is described as a Samoan poet or a poet of Polynesian decent, or any other iteration of that kind. And for Maxine, it’s the idea that this pigeon-holing needs to happen before there can be an engagement with her work that’s problematic. However, as this issue is rolled around over the hour, I think they strike what it is that truly defines their work in a way that could never define a writer who is missing the threads of heritage that follow these two writers around. And it’s something entirely magical – it’s voices.
Maxine Beneba Clarke has written in many voices – Jamaican, Sudanese, Australian, New Orleans, patois… and this is a result of writing the black diaspora. Tusiata read the poem ‘Vasanga’ to perfectly illustrate this point: The voice of a missionary and the voice of Samoan children attempting to ‘learn’ the precise ways of English pronunciation … funny, outrageous, important to hear.
Beneba Clarke says that she is comfortable in some voices more than others – she can call on the voices of her grandparents for some characters, but for those that are further from her own experiences, she creates distance. For example, the voice of a Sri Lankan asylum seeker in her volume of short stories is told in the third person and that character is accessed by the author through a secondary character who feels closer to her own knowledge and therefore allows the author a comfortable place to tell the story.
This discussion returned to the problem of “othering” – ‘it really pisses me off sometimes’, says Avia. Beneba Clarke experienced baffling criticism from those who couldn’t get past the location and culture of one of her stories about a white woman and a Ugandan man – ‘it was the story of an abusive relationship’, but all they could discuss was the setting ‘which is not the story’.
Both writers draw upon family, history and the discovery of heritage stories. Beneba Clarke described her research trip to the UK during which she visited the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. You really had to be there for the reading of Demerara Sugar – her poem describing the impact of that journey, forever redefining Penny Road for everyone in the room.
The two writers were so generous and understanding of one another – Beneba Clarke next pressed Avia to talk about the way she threads her heritage and her present together (we all must watch Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. Avia talked about the idea of channeling – of having an inherent knowing in her DNA that aided what she discovered about Samoa’s pre-Christian stories from here, and from there. Her reading of ‘Covenant’ was astonishing. The poem’s central image is that of brother and sister ‘grafted’ together by their pajama buttons, chest to chest. That poem will ‘follow me around’ just in the way that Beneba Clarke’s work has been following Avia.
The Hate Race is Beneba Clarke’s forthcoming memoir that addresses the broader issue of race relations in Australia – what it means to be a brown person in white Australia. The purpose, Avia said, ‘is to bring these things out of the dark and into where the light can touch them. Even when it’s painful and unattractive’.
Both writers have mirror poems that describe the difficulty of finding words to tell those stories: ‘I cannot write a poem about Gaza’ (Avia) and ‘What are you going to say?’ (Beneba Clark, on the Westgate Mall Siege in Nairobi). Please go and buy these books – read these poems out loud.
Question time saw a Scouse voice tell the poets that he’s proud to define himself as a Queer Poet and might not they feel proud to be defined, too, because they’ll be easier to find for those coming behind them who need role models? Both said yes – they’re proud of their heritage and it’s important to have a community of people who are also proud to identify with you. But the problem of being defined above all else remains: ‘You are pigeonholed in a white establishment. You’ll go to festivals and you’ll be with an indigenous poet and the topic will be writing the other. It’s good to be proud, but there are wider implications at work.’
Tusiata Avia pinned the issue down, for me, when she said ‘people who only have one voice inside them – who don’t have multiple voices inside their head, following them around – struggle to read other voices. They jar and then that other voice becomes ‘lesser’’. This discussion proved how very wrong that is – all of the voices in this room were rich, powerful, and needed to be heard.
Reviewed by Claire Mabey