WORD Christchurch: Fast Burning Women – Selina Tusitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia

Fast Burning Women
featuring Selina Tusitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia

Selina Tusitala Marsh’s list of accomplishments needs a fair amount of time allocated to it’s recitation. Marsh is no layabout, and as her friend Tusiata Avia says after introducing her, ‘That CV is from earlier this year so you probably have to add about ten more things to it.’ tusiata selina.JPG

The focus of this session was on the juggling required of a woman in Selina’s position: Poet Laureate, lecturer and researcher, mother, runner, Writers in Schools ambassador, traveller, friend, wife, aunty….the list goes on. How does one keep so many plates spinning? How to stay a multi-tasking fast-burning woman without becoming a burnt out woman?

The pairing of Avia and Marsh meant we got a personal insight into just how Marsh is able to keep going. The two are friends, very similar in lifestyles and values, perfectionists who push themselves hard. Their closeness was evident in the easy manner in which they joked with each other, while championing and advocating for each other at the same time.

Avia opened up about her own story of burn out that saw her bedridden for 18 months. Incredibly, on the days she was able to get out of bed, she would still force herself to work. It wasn’t until the exhaustion started affecting her mentally and emotionally that she started turning down work. But how does someone get to this stage? A statement by Jesse Jackson that resonated with Marsh goes some way to explaining: ‘If you want to succeed as a person of colour you have to be excellent all the time.’ Avia points out that women of colour need to be doubly excellent.

And so how does Marsh not burn out? What tools and tips does she have for those of us who feel the mother guilt, who battle perfectionism, who are working under the weight of the communities we represent? Who does she look to for inspiration? Her answer came in the form of Oprah Winfrey’s book What I Know For Sure. As Marsh read it she realised what was missing from her own life, in comparison to Oprah, was a trusted friend, a sister to call on, and most importantly, a soundboard. Someone who got it. ‘I was Oprah without a Gayle.’ So Marsh and Avia embarked on what they call their earbud relationship. One where they call each other almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and check in, providing advice and counsel.

With Avia at the end of the telephone, Marsh is able to carry the tokotoko of the Poet Laureate wherever it takes her. She is able to ask for what she needs. She is able to share her load. Marsh noted: ‘When I was able to redefine what support means to me and my life, that’s when I found support.’

Both Marsh and Avia continue to write and create through the many challenges they face. An audience member asked Avia how her illness had affected her writing and she begins with coyness, saying she hasn’t written much. ‘That’s not true,’ Marsh corrects her. She knows Avia is working on a new book, and you can see the pride she has in her friend, Shine Theory in action. Marsh is working on a graphic novel (‘I’ve always doodled; Spike Milligan is my idol.’). She wants to make poetry accessible to all communities.

Leaving the session my friend remarked that most New Zealanders don’t know how lucky we are to have Selina Tusitala Marsh as our Poet Laureate. Everyone who attended Fast Burning Women knows, and we also know how lucky Marsh is to have Tusiata Avia at the end of the phone line, spurring her on.

Reviewed by Gem Wilder

Tusiata Avia will appear in two more events during WORD Christchurch 2018: 

Black Marks on the White Page: A Roundtable
Sonya Renee Taylor: The Body is not an Apology

AWF18: Wrestling with the Devil – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

AWF18: Wrestling with the Devil – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Occasionally at festivals like this, you get moments of where you feel utterly honoured by someone’s presence. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is one such person. While his name was not one I was familiar with before the AWF announcements, a little reading up in advance of his session quickly had me bowled over. And then, despite his 80 years, he proceeded to bowl me over once again at his main AWF session.

thiongo
Ngũgĩ was in conversation with Kubé Jones-Neill, who, perhaps deducing that many in the audience had not yet read extensive amounts of Ngũgĩ’s work, noted that the aim for the session would be to introduce his wider body of work to the audience, and provide a context for his writing to date.

Kubé began with a line of questioning around the transitional era in which Ngũgĩ grew up, mentioning that he was born into colonial Kenya, but by the time he graduated from university, ‘it was an independent Kenya.’

As he would prove charmingly adept at doing to over the next hour, Ngũgĩ took the reins of the conversation and drove things in rather a different direction. Eventually, we would get back to his formative years, but first of all there were important stories to be shared about his relationship with New Zealand.

He first visited Aotearoa in 1984, when he was invited to give the Robb Lectures at the University of Auckland – lectures that would ultimately lead to the publication of Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, one of his best known non-fiction works. These language-oriented lectures coincided with Māori Language Week, which was perhaps part of what spurred a conversation he had with a Māori woman after one of the lectures.

‘She said, “you are not talking about Kenya – you are talking about us – the Māori people”.’ – an anecdote that spoke to the power and parallels of the post-colonial experience across the world.

This conenction with UoA led to Ngũgĩ’s being awarded with an honorary doctorate in 2005. ‘So technically,’ he said with a grin, ‘I’m an old student! I’m back home.’

Having meandered a ways from Kubé’s question, Ngũgĩ was suddenly perhaps conscious of this fact, as before he headed on another tangent, he turned to her and asked ‘can I say this?’

Permission happily granted, he shared a tale about how he came to love mussels, courtesy of a trip to Waiheke on a previous Kiwi voyage. ‘In the Kenyan highlands, they are very suspicious of things that come from the sea. To her dying day, my mother would not eat fish – even if she was starving.’

So he was very suspicious of shellfish, mussels among them. But when in Auckland, Selina Tusitala Marsh invited him on a trip over to Waiheke, and while they walked on the beach together, Selina collected ‘some things’. They returned to her house, and her mother cooked ‘something’. When the food was laid out, it was – to Kenyan highlander Ngũgĩ’s horror – mussels. But unable to refuse food cooked by his friend’s mother, he ate it – ‘and from that day on, we became converts. Wherever we go, we ask for mussels.’

Courtesy of this revelation – and other soft spots for our shores, Ngũgĩ said firmly: ‘New Zealand is always on my mind.’

Appetite’s for cheerfully enchanting stories having been whetted by the mussel story, Ngũgĩ finally turned back to his earlier years. ‘As a novelist, you’re always drawing on the resources of your own life.’

He was born on the eve of the Second World War to a family with one father and four mothers – his own biological mother his father’s three other wives. It was his mother that really had the biggest impact on his life. ‘She couldn’t read or write, but her dream of education was realised [through me].’ She was the one who pushed him into school, to achieve great things. And even though she couldn’t read his work and keep tabs on his progress that way, Ngũgĩ said ‘She had a way of asking probing questions until she had an idea of knowing how I was doing.’

She put in his head ‘the idea of the best’, he said­, though he also said that ‘she was more interested in whether or not I put in enough effort.’

In an ongoing effort to provide as much valuable context for the audience as possible, he described the segregated nature of his school – Alliance High School – and an African History 101 type brief overview of settler versus non-settler colonies. While inside the school gates he took lessons and expanded his horizons, the outside world was a place of war and fights for liberation.

‘School became a kind of refuge for me. You could close your eyes and not hear the sound of war.’ When he went home to his village after his first term, he returned to a place that had been razed to the ground. ‘Desolation,’ he described it. ‘I’m getting teary when I think about it now.’

And university came next – specifically, Makarere University. ‘For me, it was a remarkable period in my life, those four years between ’59 and ’64 – when I graduated. I came out with an honours degree, two novels, eight short stories, newspaper articles and so on.’

Kubé asked him what he had been writing about, to which Ngũgĩ responded: ‘I was trying to understand myself in history.’

After a little tale about how his first novel was written for a competition – and therefore ‘for money!’ rather than love of the craft. Discussion wove around his journalistic pursuits, his scholarship to the University of Leeds – which was a real eye-opener for Ngũgĩ, introducing him to different types of thinkers like Marx and writers like Conrad, all of which had their respective influences on him.

Every fragment of his history that was shared seemed to have some kind of evocative fish out of water moment – like when he was invited to New York for PEN’s international conference, and he found himself trying out different poses for how a writer ‘should’ sit.

But the next core focus of the discussion was of his shift in his approach to writing and language and to the surrounding colonial environment.

He was instrumental in the ‘abolition of the English department’ at Nairobi University – really a shift in naming and focuses to beyond the traditional Britain-focused literary tradition, moving from Department of English to Department of Literature. ‘We were accused of abolishing Shakespeare – but no, Shakespeare would still be there, alongside other writings.’

‘That was the beginning of my fracas with the postcolonial government in Kenya.’

Petals of Blood, published in 1977 was the last novel Ngũgĩ wrote in English – marking a shift to prioritising his native tongue of Gikuyu. Devil on the Cross was written in a maximum security prison in 1978, where he was detained without charge for a year after his involvement in the setting up of African theatre in the area.

The conversation continued for a little while longer, reestablishing his connections to and fondness for New Zealand. Prior to his final reading, he kept getting caught on tangent after tangent, contextualisation after contextualisation – and ultimately, everything was the richer for it. This was a man of incredible history and reputation, and we were more than happy for him to drive the session on his own terms.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Wrestling with the Devil
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9781784702243

Writers & Readers Festival: Women Changing the World

Drawn by, and copyright of Tara Black

Featuring New Zealand Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh, broadcaster Kim Hill, novelist Charlotte Wood, fantasy champion Charlie Jane Anders, poet and memoirist Patricia Lockwood, poet and games maker Harry Giles, free-range celebrity cook Annabel Langbein, poets Anahera Gildea and Maraea Rakuraku, poets Jenny Bornholdt, Louise Wallace and Tayi Tibble, activist and author Marianne Elliott, and playwright, novelist and memoirist Renée, introduced by Performer, broadcaster and author Michèle A’Court. NWF18 Women changing the world(1)NWF18 Women changing the world 2(1)

Go to the Writers & Readers Festival! Three days of scintillating conversation live on stage: Be There!

Book Review: Tightrope, by Selina Tusitala Marsh

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_tightropeSelina Tusitala Marsh is well known for being the 2016 Commonwealth Poet, an honour that involved writing a poem and performing it for the Queen at Westminster Abbey. Marsh also includes this poem in Tightrope. Titled ‘Unity’, this piece is a smooth poem that captures ideas of inclusivity. Marsh beautifully writes how ‘though 53 flags fly for our countries / they’re stitched from the fabric of our unity’. Throughout the poem, Marsh further explores this idea, repeating the phrase ‘There’s a ‘U’ and an ‘I’ in unity / costs the earth and yet it’s free’.

Marsh then follows this poem with other afterthoughts of the event. One of these poems is named ‘Pussy Cat’, where Marsh’s personality and identity stands strong. She paints a beautiful and vivid image of herself in the scene, talking about how ‘I frightened the Western world with my big hair… My moana blue Mena… My blood red lips / My Va philosophising / My poetic brown hips’. She wonderfully ends the poem by reiterating the theme of her previous poem, ‘Unity’. Here, she states, ‘Inverting West is Best / Instead drawing a circle / Encompassing all the rest’.

Marsh also explores other ways of describing identity. In the poem ‘Led by Line, Marsh portrays identity as something formed by several different factors. She tells how ‘We are led by line / blood line love line land line… when out of line / with the colonial line’, and how these lines—some part of us, some imposed upon us—make up our identity. Marsh then goes on to describe how we craft that identity by realigning and ‘drawing our line in the sand’. We must navigate what we ourselves feel is true. In doing so, we walk the tightrope of all these lines.

In the poem ‘Explanation of Poetry to My Immigrant Mother, Marsh also wonderfully portrays the joys of writing. She starts with describing the forms that a poem can take, how a poem can feel like ‘the kids’ lucky dip bin / love, grief, rage wrapped in headlines’. And then Marsh tells how a poem can also be a passport and send you to new places. She describes how a poem ‘can transit the likeness of you from New Lynn / to Niutao… can launch you across lined waters / where in another country / you find yourself / home’.

Throughout Tightrope, Marsh also included several black out poems. Black out poetry involves blacking out existing words and, in doing so, bringing out certain words and thus creating a new text. As well as being simple and sweet, Marsh’s black out pieces created a nice interlude between longer works. Using Albert Wendt’s novel Pouliuli, Marsh finds various parts of poetry within this broader context. One poem implores, ‘wake up Samoa and bring a New Zealand storyteller a pen’. Another declares, ‘discover the question recognise how to follow’.

I loved the fierceness and strength that Marsh invokes through her writing in Tightrope. Her recognition of identity and the multiple lines that create it is especially crucial in an ever-changing world. Marsh’s own pride is a stunning facet of her identity, and it shows through in her poetry.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Tightrope
by Selina Tusitala Marsh
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408725

WORD: The Power of Poetry: Dr Paul Millar with CK Stead, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Fiona Kidman and Bill Manhire

While it was raining and bleak out in the street
We had wonderful words to finish the week.

So National Poetry Day saw five craftspeople read and discuss their poetry, in this, the second poetry-focused event of today. Dr Paul Millar from the University of Canterbury had cleverly selected a number of poems to introduce the guests.Auden was read to introduce CK Stead, because Stead has a great love of Auden.

Stead shared some of his tasks as Poet Laureate and the guidelines that come with such a commission. WW100 was written for the Navy on the 100th anniversary of WW1. He read a series of beautiful vignettes; each a glimpse of some aspect of war. They were very visual and included Mansfield reflecting on the loss of her brother, ‘Gallipoli’, ‘Passchendaele’ and ‘In Memorium’. This final poem was for his Great Uncle.

We then moved to the more lyrical poetry of Selina Tusitala Marsh. ‘Eviction Notice 113’ was written on the death of her mother and links the family home to her mother, as gradually one becomes the other. Her reading was rhythmic and musical and urgent. It really made the words come to life, truly put them in orbit. Her next offering was the poem she was commissioned to write for Queen Elizabeth. We had the conditions, the guidelines, the performance and the response. It was a very clever way to use words, to unite 53 Commonwealth nations.

Ali Cobby Eckerman is an Australian poet who weaves her Aboriginal experiences into her poems. Meeting her removed son at 18, her own Mother at 35. This was gritty writing, raw and difficult. ‘I Can’t stop Drinking’ says much about how experiences shape us, and the danger of judging on appearances. “…don’t judge too hard, cos you don’t know what sorrows we are nursing.”

Fiona Kidman took us to her childhood memories of country living, ‘living at the end of Darwin road’. The landscape plays a big part in her poetry. She reflected on the Irishness of her Dad and her memories of Christmas.

Finally Bill Manhire launched us into a list of all the things we had as kids in the 1950’s. It was brilliant and I just itched to rush off and create a visual. I loved his quote from Emily Dickinson about poetry, “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense”. He also shared a poem commissioned for the war memorial services. ‘Known Unto God’ brought the Somme experience to the current time, and finished with a young girl in the Mediterranean.

It was a powerful hour of wondrous words. I was reminded of the importance of spoken poetry, rather than my silent personal reading.

We ventured back out to the dark, wet streets with a song of words in our hearts to keep us warm.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

(ed’s note: books to come. Possibly also pictures.)

 

Dark Sparring Goes for the Knock-Out – book review and interview with Selina Tusitala-Marsh

Dark Sparring is Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh’s second book of cv_dark_sparringpoetry, after her début, Fast Talking P.I.. Selina teaches Pasifika Literature (Pasifakature?) and Creative Writing at the University of Auckland.

‘Poetry is a coping mechanism for me, as much as an expression of high ideals,’ Selina says. She wrote to cope with her mum’s long battle with breast cancer, right from the diagnosis. ‘Mum very rarely saw me without a pen and piece of paper in my hand.’ Her Mum was exuberant and defiantly true to herself – she used part of her divorce settlement to get a burnt orange sports car. She always supported Selina to be strong and take her own path, too.

A week after the funeral, Selina took the kids to school, then climbed back under the covers. Beep, beep, a txt from a kickboxing friend asking, ‘Still coming?’ ‘I’m a poet, I can’t be a a kickboxer!’, Selina remembers thinking. But she got out of bed, and her comfort zone, and hasn’t looked back. Being in the Muay Thai ring has been ‘a fascinating introduction to my own body, other people’s, to moving in a completely different way.’

Kickboxing has connected Selina with ‘a new language’ of physical expression, that’s perhaps lacking in Palagi culture. At the Funeral, Selina and her sister were pulled up to perform a Fatele, a Tuvaluan funeral rite:
Men and women formed separate lines and began to move unhurriedly yet with purpose around the coffin, feet stamping out an old rhythm while hands, arms, shoulders and heads swayed, tilting right then left. Song filled our lounge. They mimed for my sister and I to mimic the movements and sounds. The tide of the escalating rhythm pulled our bodies into a faster pace, and with it, our blood and the intensity of emotion began to rise until, as a collective, we reached a crescendo. Until Mum’s spirit could then fly, in peace, out the north facing window.
Selina felt a release of ‘emotion, spirit, and a shift under the dead weight of our grief.’ Kickboxing stirred similar emotional currents. ‘You can’t over-think, you must rely on the body’s instinct to dance/fight/grapple with your partner.’

In Dark Sparring, agile, elegant words are hard-hitting. A Formal Dinner makes you smile at the Funeral’s catering – ‘food overflowing from every orifice’. But this feast is juxtaposed with dwindling family dinners, from which the ‘table setter’ is absent. First Spar details the personal battles of Rosie, Sophie, Chloe, Nita (her sparring partners), before Ana faces grief at the funeral. Floating Ribs breaks the body down into vulnerable targets, like disease does. Selina fights foes other than her grief – cultural identity, gender politics, and other power struggles.

Selina signs copies with ‘may your dark sparrings be numerous and victorious.’ Lovers & fighters alike will appreciate Dark Sparrings’ strength, beauty and heart.

This 100-page volume is published by the Auckland University Press. It includes a CD of Selina performing over twelve rounds of poetry, set to music.

by Drus Dryden

Dark Sparring
by Selina Tusitala-Marsh
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869407865