WORD Christchurch: FAFSWAG Vogue

WORD Christchurch: FAFSWAG Vogue

Before you read this – or in fact instead of reading this – go and experience the FAFSWAG Vogue interactive dance video: https://fafswagvogue.com/  Turn the volume up and soak it in.

FAFSWAG is a queer Pasifika arts collective based in South Auckland whose name derives from fa’afafine and swagger. ‘We celebrate queer brown bodies, contemporary Pacific arts and cultural restoration.; They also perform phenomenal Voguing, a highly theatrical dance style special to the queer and drag communities and rooted in the fight against racism and homophobia. I attended the Vogue workshop run by Manu Vaeatangitau and Pati Solomona Tyrell of FAFSWAG, and Manu explained that Voguing originated amongst queer black prison inmates in the US, then expanded out to Harlem, and thence to the rest of the world.

The workshop was held at the Aranui Wainoni Community Centre. I was a bit nervous showing up by myself but was quickly made very welcome. The festival blurb said the workshop was for beginners, and I told Tusiata Avia – who had made the event happen as part of her guest programmer role for WORD 2018 – that I hoped it was okay that I had turned up. Yes Elizabeth, she said gravely, you are allowed to be here.

Being allowed to be present, to take up space, and to be who you are in the body that you have had been a major theme of the previous night’s event, Comfortable In Your Skin, also programmed by Tusiata and also featuring Manu and Pati. Conversation had been about being queer, being brown, and being bullied for it. Sonya Renee Taylor had talked about radical self love: not just self-confidence, which is inward-looking and fleeting, but aroha, which is connective and spills outwards. Manu and Pati referenced it specifically in the workshop and it felt like we were working our way towards it together.

There were 20 or so of us attending; a mix of ages, body sizes and shapes, ethnicities and gender expressions. Manu and Pati gave us an introduction to the elements of Vogue Femme: hands, catwalk, duckwalk, floor work, and spins & dips. Hands and catwalking were my favourite – duckwalking is extremely hard on the thighs and dips are a right bugger on the knees. But there was a wonderful energy in the room – we were all giving it our best shot and there was heaps of laughter and applause for everyone.

That room in the Aranui Wainoni Community Centre felt like a safe space where all kinds of bodies were welcome. The previous Centre was destroyed in the earthquakes and the current building is new. I got talking to a local woman who told me that, in the rebuilding of schools in Ōtautahi, the original shapes and contours of the land were being rediscovered. What was here before is like a thin mask, she said. And it’s cracking and falling away – the real Christchurch is emerging. It reminded me of what Pati had said at Comfortable In Your Skin: these days at their brother’s all-boys South Auckland high school being queer is no big deal, and on mufti days kids come to school in drag. Our real faces are coming through.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

 

WORD Christchurch: Comfortable in your Skin

WORD Christchurch: Comfortable in your Skin

In this session put together by guest programmer Tusiata Avia, Victor Roger led a panel of queer people of colour, each with different stories to tell about how they have come to be comfortable in their skin. As Roger invited each panelist to tell the audience about their journey to self-acceptance, we saw the similarities between stories that spanned continents and generations.

Comfortable-in-your-own-skin

Manu Vaeatangitau
Georgina Beyer was up first, and she led us through her fascinating tale, from leaving home at 16 with dreams of studying at the New Zealand Drama School, a stint as ‘the boyfriend’ on soap opera Close to Home, time as a stripper and sex worker, to becoming the first transsexual Mayor and then Member of Parliament. Add in renal failure and a kidney transplant, and you have what would make a seriously fantastical biopic. And who would play her in the movie of her life? Beyer is adamant: ‘First things first, it has to be a transgender person.’

Beyer is unapologetically herself. There was never a question of her being anyone else, and her ‘Fuck off’ to the haters attitude is refreshing. She says of her teenage years: ‘When I was being Georgina I was free, I was liberated, I was comfortable in my own skin.’

Sonya-Renee-Taylor

Sonya Renee Taylor

Radical Self Love activist and poet Sonya Renee Taylor is also unapologetically herself, and has made it her life mission to guide other people towards accepting themselves, exactly as they are. Roger asked Taylor how she came to this level of what she terms Radical Self Love, a movement that has it’s roots in a conversation Taylor had with a friend, which led to a poem, which led to activism and a book, The Body Is Not An Apology. Taylor answered: ‘Language creates things, so as you’re saying shit you’re making shit.’ Meaning that the more she performed her poem, the more she began living its message.

Artist and founding member of FAFSWAG, Pati Solomona Tyrell, also wants to help others become comfortable in their skin. He sees his work and the events and creations of FAFSWAG as a way to return power and knowledge to Pacific people. ‘A lot of [traditional Pacific] power and knowledge is held by the church, so it’s not accessible to queer kids.’ Tyrell talked of the close bond he has with his family, and how that bond forced his coming out to them in his first year at University, as ‘having to hold something back that was a very important part of my identity kind of wrecked me.’ Though Tyrell’s family are accepting and supportive, they can’t understand the experience of being queer. This is where the community that is FAFSWAG comes in. ‘We built, like, a little family.’

Manu Vaeatangitau is a part of that FAFSWAG family. He describes his own coming out at 15 as violent. The violence that was a constant throughout his High School years ‘made me very resilient.’ The youngest on the panel, and the last to share their story, Roger asked Vaeatangitau to reflect on whether he thought his generation have it easier than the more experienced panel members. ‘It’s a waste of energy to compare,’ responded Vaeatangitau. Drowning is drowning, no matter how deep the water. This nicely drew the panel together in a united front to wrap things up.

A last question from the audience saw Beyer respond with her same take no prisoners, give no fucks attitude, and Roger signed off ‘We end with fire from the whaea.’

 

Reviewed most excellently by Gem Wilder

Other events featuring these speakers:
Sonya Renee Taylor: The Body is not an Apology (Sunday 2 September, 1.15pm)
FAFSWAG: Vogue!  (Pati Solomona Tyrell, Manu Vaeatangitau) Workshop, 2.30pm, Saturday 1 September
The Neu! Otatahi Incident (Pati Solomona Tyrell, Manu Vaeatangitau) 7.00pm, Saturday 1 September
The Sex and Death Salon (Victor Rodger) 10pm, Saturday 1 September

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: 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’.

IMG_20180519_150248852
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: Cousins Talk it Out, reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Yes you have seen this session reviewed in pictures, but it was so good we’ve got some words from Elizabeth Heritage as well.

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.

tusiataRodger 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

NZF Writers & Readers Festival: Cousins Talk it Out – Victor Rodger & Tusiata Avia

Tara Black reviews Cousins Talk it Out – Victor Rodger & Tusiata Avia. Images copyright Tara Black.

Tusiata Avia joins her cousin Victor Rodger to talk about family, growing up in Canterbury and their collaboration on the play Wild Dogs Under My Skirt.

NWF18 Cousins Talk it Out

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is on at the NZ Festival until Sunday, 11 March.

ENDS

 

 

WORD: The Stars Are On Fire, with Tipene O’Regan, Caitlin Doughty, Stephen Daisley, Tusiata Avia, Steve Hely, Ivan E. Coyote and Hollie Fullbrook

Festival Director Rachael King opened this fsampler event to rapturous applause, speaking about the theme of the festival – how can we look after the planet and its people. This was followed by Kim Hill, who was suffering from the condition (not uncommon) of not being John Campbell (who was meant to do the introductions). She managed to find a quirky fact about each performer to announce them, and in no way was inferior to the great Campbell – and I prefer her voice, anyway.

The first performer was Sir Tipene O’Regan. It was an honour to hear one of the first Polynesian creation myths from such a legendary Ngai Tahu figure. His telling included humour, and felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience to savour. “First there was nothing, and then there were darks. All sorts of darks.”

The second performer was Caitlin Doughty, who took us through the routine of cremation. Caitlin is an undertaker, and runs a crematorium. She first got a sense of how many in the audience were intending to be cremated – about 50%, which she says is about average for New Zealand. I now know that it takes about 2 hours to burn a body (at around 815 degrees celcius) to the stage that it is ready to be placed in the Cremulator to be turned to ashes.

Next up was Stephen Daisley, who talked a little about emotions and family. He then, slightly bafflingly, treated us to a sample of an excellent review that Owen Marshall did of Coming Rain on The Spinoff. Daisley seems to me like somebody who can’t quite believe his talent is finally being acknowledged, so I’m happy to see him finding his space in the literary community.

Tusiata Avia performed two poems next: first, one from her new collection Fale Aitu | Spirit House, then one called ‘My body’. I have seen Avia perform many times, and each time I am newly grateful that she shares her talent with us. She is a dynamic reader, who knows how to play her audiences, and how to lose them in the beauty of her language.

Steve Hely was up next: he is an award-winning comic writer for TV shows in the US, including The Office. He talked about a bus trip he took through the Atacama in Chile. Most of the men on the bus were Coal Miners, heading home after long periods away: the attendant on the bus though chose Austenland, as the DVD to help take away some of the boredom. It does seem an odd choice, and I think Hely may have hit the nail on the head when he decided the attendant chose it solely to annoy the miners, who wouldn’t have had a hope of understanding it.

The absolute stand-out for everybody in the audience tonight, I think, was Ivan E. Coyote. They were such a stunning storyteller, that in telling about the females that they were influenced by while growing up made everybody in the audience feel they wanted to have known these great women of the Yukon. Elizabeth Heritage will be reviewing their solo event on Sunday.

The final performer was the talented Hollie Fullbrook aka Tiny Ruins. She also sang about a bus journey, and the space between individual experience.

I now want to see each and every one of these people in action again. Judging from Twitter, the near to sold-out audience was all with me. Get ready for another ticket sales spike, WORD!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Caitlin Doughty is appearing in:
Embracing Death, Sat 27 Aug, 9.30am
Ask a Mortician: Caitlin Doughty, Sun 28 Aug, 2pm
The Nerd Degree, Sun 28 Aug, 5pm

Stephen Daisley is appearing in:
Writing War Stories, Sat 27 Aug, 3.15pm
Coming Rain, Sun 28 Aug, 11am

Tusiata Avia is appearing in:
Hear My Voice, Sat 27 Aug, 5.30pm
Spirit House/ Unity, Sun 28 Aug, 2pm

Steve Hely is appearing in:
How to be a Writer: Steve Hely, Sat 27 Aug, 3.30pm
The Great NZ Crime Debate, Sat 27 Aug, 7.30pm
The State of America, Sun 28 Aug, 12.30pm

Ivan E. Coyote is appearing in:
Taku Kupu Ki Te Ao: My Word to the World, Sat 27 Aug, 1-4pm
Hear My Voice, Sat 27 Aug, 5.30pm
The Storyteller: Ivan E. Coyote, Sun 28 Aug, 11am

Hollie Fullbrook is appearing in:
Workshop: Songwriting with Hollie Fullbrook, Sat 27 Aug, 9.30am
Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?, Sat 27 Aug, 12.30pm
In Love With These Times, Sat 27 Aug, 7.30pm