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.




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



Book Review: Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016, edited by Fergus Barrowman

cv_sport_44Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

is an annual publication that anthologises fiction, essays and poetry in one volume. The criteria for selection, with this volume as evidence, is a certain high standard of technical ability allied with a capacity for formal experimentation that doesn’t draw attention away from the progression of ideas and images.

Sport 44 is populated with the work of writers ranging from high-profile (Manhire, Knox and Stead) to well-known in the field of literature (Wallace, Dukes and Tiso) to well-regarded in a variety of cultural contexts (Bollinger, Wilkins and O’Brien). Regardless of the names of the writers, the writing has one key element in common: quality. And the book itself has an aesthetic appeal, with its textured paper and austere cover design. It may not stretch things too far to suggest that just as Sport the publication provides a space for new writing, the physical object provides a series of spacious pages in which words, sentences and stanzas can float or declare themselves without fear of overcrowding. Has it always been thus, or has the digital era, with its emphasis on filling spaces with data or colour, highlighted through counterpoint this wondrous effect of black ink on white paper?

Regardless of the answer to that question, the focus here is quite clearly the words and their cargo of ideas and symbol, emerging from the empty space. In Sport 44, there is valuable freight on every page, but there are several pieces that may especially catch the eye of the reader.

Tusiata Avia’s poem I cannot write a poem about Gaza, in which the poet tells herself why she can’t write such a poem, is in her words ‘like a missile plotted on a computer screen’… that will… ‘enter the top of my head and implode me.’ By the time she comes to the end of her list of reasons (she will be called anti-Semitic, it’s too complicated for a non-PhD to talk about, she will upset her Israeli friends in Tel Aviv, her fury and grief will explode but this pales beside the fury and grief of her Palestinian friends), the hopelessness and seeming insolubility has entered the top of the reader’s head also.

Breton Dukes, who has seen the light and moved to Dunedin, contributes an excerpt from a novel he is working on — Long White Cloud. This short piece, with its customary Dukes wit, astute characterisation, and analysis of the uneasy relationships that sometimes define New Zealand society, is a prompt to hunt down the novel once it is published. Dukes is a real talent, as is Craig Gamble, who also has a novel in progress; this excerpt, taken from The Society of the Air, is a shimmering molecule of fluid language.

The essay section provides many excellent examples of how nonfiction writing can make effective use of the devices and principles often associated with fiction writing, such as disrupted chronology, reincorporation, metaphor and subjective revelation. The truth of the subject matter is made doubly resonant, and at the very, very least we learn something we might not have otherwise known. Nick Bollinger’s piece The Union Hall casts light on the genesis of his career-forming obsession with music and musicians; in the piece While you’re about it contemplate werewolves, the speculative and inclusive genius of Sara and Elizabeth Knox is revealed in a transcribed Skype conversation; and Emma Gilkison, in An Uncovered Heart, charts the repercussions of a diagnosis of ectopia cordis, a condition whereby the foetal heart grows outside the body. In her tender and painful essay, the writer probes the literal and figurative enigma of the human heart.

In unison, the writers of Sport 44 aim at the head and heart. It is the best kind of writing, it is the best kind of book.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016
Edited by Fergus Barrowman with Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by Fergus Barrowman
ISBN 9770133789004-44

Book Review: Fale Aitu | Spirit House, by Tusiata Avia

Launched over the weekend at the Auckland Writers Festival, this book is available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_fale_aitu_spirit_houseFale Aitu | Spirit House is a dreamworld that not only portrays strong and assured voices, but also explores the whispers of quieter ghosts. With Tusiata Avia’s brilliant language, this dreamworld becomes a landscape that is both quietly eerie and beautiful.

The collection is split into three parts: ‘Fale’, ‘Fale Mafui’e’, and ‘Aitu’. ‘Fale’, meaning house in Samoan, explores the stories that fill the rooms of family homes. Poem This is a photo of my house, describes a household of ghosts and memories, some painful, whilst moving from room to room. The brilliance of the poem lies in the way Avia drip-feeds the tiniest details with each description, hinting at perhaps a tragedy, a deep and dark feeling of loss. Avia warns, ‘The carpet is dark grey and hurts your knees, it doesn’t show any blood… Watch out for the girl in the corner, she is always here.’ It is a place that is rife with emotions and memories that cannot quite be suppressed or forgotten.

What follows is ‘Fale Mafui’e’, a short segment on the Christchurch earthquake. Maifui’e: 2 February 2011 is a title and date that resonates with significance even before the poem has begun. It is an erratic poem that portrays the panicked yet surreal moment of disaster; at first, the poet’s view is filled with “black sea creatures” and the next she is “underwater” in a strange dream that she describes as eternal.

Finally, ‘Aitu’ – spirits, in Samoan, further focuses on the characters and people that flit in and out of life. Poem Today we are in a Hospital Ward, becomes an interesting piece in this context. The process of giving birth feels unsettling paired with the earlier descriptions of ghosts and memories; even the newly born will someday become just recollections. The final poem, Fale Aitu, returns to the concept of spirits that consistently appears throughout the collection. The imagery of these spirits “grazing the glass” doors is a chilling description in such an intangible landscape. Even though there is an attempt to run quickly from the house and escape these ghosts, these spirits are always waiting: “some blowing smoke; some with hooded eyes, pacing”.

Included after Avia’s notes and acknowledgements, however, is another poem. Titled Poetry Manifesto, Avia states how, for her, writing poetry is “a supernatural force” that doesn’t necessarily need the supplementary explanations of academic writing. She talks about spirits and how their voices and words feed into her poetry. In a declaration that made me smile, she simply ends the piece with “I can write poetry, but don’t ask me to talk about it”.

Tusiata Avia’s new collection Fale Aitu | Spirit House is utterly alluring. The supernatural quality of her imagery perfectly brings the concept of ghosts to the fore of her collection. Avia is an expert at her craft and finds layers and layers of memory in old homes, broken buildings, echoed words. Although these aitu are eerie shadows in the background at first, it becomes apparent that these spirits are not here to harm, they drift and “move over us like water”. Memories may flit through the background but they are memories for a reason: they come from what is now the past.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Fale Aitu | Spirit House
by Tusiata Avia
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560646

Spirit House, Foreign Soil: Maxine Beneba Clarke and Tusiata Avia at #AWF16

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

The talented Maxine Beneba Clarke, Slam Poet, bit of a genius

As I walked in, Maxine Beneba Clarke launched into her first performance of her poetry: “Black kids don’t do Hans Christian Anderson. We were the hunted wolves, crouched down in Grandma’s room… I am the Match Girl, left out in the cold. If I don’t burn this fiction down, it’s not for lack of trying.”

maxine_clarkeThis was performed with such force, such wonderful intonation, that the entire crowd of teenagers were silent. You could have heard a pin drop. They were spellbound. To see Maxine perform, is to be transported.

Today’s group was the year 9 – 13 crowd, older teens, those who are just now trying to work out what is relevant to them and how to make things work within their world view. They had much to learn from Maxine. She says, “Even if you don’t see the value in what you are being asked to study, there is value in working out why it is you don’t. In working out where you fit in relation to it.”

Maxine, like Tusiata Avia whom we saw yesterday, began without realising that she was allowed to do the type of poetry she does. She started being inspired by music, then later, making mix-tapes of her own voices, trying out new characters as she created. “I wasn’t taught that poetry was to be performed, that you could stand in front of somebody and give them your work.” Her next performance was all about ‘real poetry’ – by “people with PhD’s, bushmen and working class heroes.”

Foreign_soilMaxine fell into short fiction thanks to the characters she created in her poetry. Her book Foreign Soil comprises short stories about different people from different places – from Jamaica where her parents are from, from the USA, England, Australia. It wasn’t until her book picked up the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript award that she was finally published. And just yesterday, her poetry collection Carrying the World was published in Australia and New Zealand.

I can’t wait to see Maxine’s memoir, about growing up black in middle-class white Australia – called The Hate Race, due late in 2016. She loves this work, because it brings her experience full circle – and inspires others. She says, “Make yourselves the heroes of your own stories.”

An incredibly important aspect of her talk for teens was focused on the ways in which you can write what you know. Don’t be restrained by medium – a story expressed via a Facebook message is no less a story than one written in pretty, poetic language. “There’s something very interesting on short-form social media: you get many different voices, and stories, intertwining in one place. I found this fascinating in my work, finding new ways to deliver stories.”

The teenagers in this group were awestruck, and asked pertinent questions – including for a poem about her experience of racial discrimination. This poem was called ‘Marley,’ and moved me to tears. She was also asked whether she felt empowered when she performed. “Yes, because sometimes the poem doesn’t do what you want it to do. I sometimes take friends to open mike nights, to get their honest opinions.”

The takeaway quote for me, and for the students: “Think about the things you love doing, and write it.”

Go and see Maxine Beneba Clarke in action, with Tusiata Avia this weekend at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. Don’t worry if you haven’t read her, you will experience her and be blown away. And I guarantee you will be buying her – and Tusiata’s books from the fine folks the festival bookstall on your way out of the Aotea Centre.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Maxine Beneba Clarke will be part of the event: Spirit House, Foreign Soil: Maxine Beneba Clarke and Tusiata Avia at 1.30pm on Saturday 14 May, in the Lower NZI Room at the Aotea Centre, as part of the Auckland Writer’s Festival. Go to this, it is unmissable.

Foreign Soil, published by Hachette Australia, ISBN 9780733632426
Carrying the World, published by Hachette Australia, ISBN 978073363640