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.’
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: