I Have Loved Me a Man: The life and times of Mika by Sharon Mazer, with a foreword by Witi Ihimaera (Auckland University Press, 2018), 288 pp., $59.99
It all began in Timaru. Neil Gudsell, who later transformed himself into the drag artist, activist and performer Mika, started his life in the provincial South Island town. A Māori child adopted by Pākehā parents, he had to ride the ‘swings and roundabouts of identity’ in a not-always bicultural Aotearoa/New Zealand. As a ‘reflexively daring’ child he invented a sense of himself through performance. I Have Loved Me a Man: The life and times of Mika is a lively tale of all of these things: biculturalism and the everyday expectations and politics that surround it; self-fashioning; enactments of culture, gender and sexuality; and a society that has changed – mostly a lot, although not wholly – since Mika’s birth in 1962. Biographer Sharon Mazer provocatively suggests that Mika’s life offers a useful perspective on the liberations and repressions of the 1960s, the slowly waning homophobia of the 1970s and 1980s, and the neoliberalisation of the 1990s and 2000s. Mika’s awakenings tell of broader patterns of social change.
Mazer’s engagement with Mika’s life offers an intimate perspective on the decades Mika has lived through. A remarkable array of images and ephemera reflects Mika’s early determination to document his own life. These colourful items carry as much weight as the text. The inevitable baby photos give way to school images, and the book explodes into a riot of colour as Mika’s many stage shows, television appearances and dance performances take centre stage. The cast of characters is wide, and many New Zealand readers will be familiar with those who assisted Mika’s creative projects and career: Dalvanius Prime, Carmen and Helen Clark are just three. We also learn the backstory of some well-known local productions: Jane Campion’s film The Piano, Shortland Street and Shark in the Park. Mika was in all of them.
I Have Loved Me a Man also teases out the connections between local and global culture. Like other recent books – Joanne Drayton’s Hudson and Halls: The food of love for example – this one pays careful attention to the interactions between New Zealand influences and international inspirations. These run in two directions. Mika draws from overseas performances, including San Francisco theatre troupe Pomo Afro Homos, and he also shows how, as a New Zealander, he made an impact internationally: at the fringe festivals in Edinburgh and Adelaide, and even on stage in India and Cuba.
Mazer demonstrates how Mika’s performances could be both popular and transgressive. Some of his performances work to burlesque old racist ideas about the ‘scary savage’ and he ‘puts on the native, explicitly playing on the idea of colonial desire’ before further twisting it by adorning his body with a grass skirt, moko and the signs of ‘feminine allure’: feathers, eyeliner and sequins (p123). These are the complexities of a distinctly New Zealand – perhaps even a uniquely Mika – kind of camp.
Gender and sexual diversity sit at the heart of Mika’s project. Mazer suggests his performances are as much ‘gender contrary’ as they are ‘gender fluid’ (p85). Mika is something of a magpie who looks for shiny things to grab and ‘tart up with other glittery bits’, and his combinations – a red leotard and Doc Martens, or David Bowie-esque glam rock makeup – scramble the binary. This is not just about appearance, of course. Mika has never been backwards about coming forwards politically, whether as an openly gay teenager in Timaru, as an opponent of the Springbok Tour, or as a supporter of Homosexual Law Reform, and he has played a crucial role in promoting Māori culture in New Zealand’s performance culture. Having fun and doing politics are far from mutually exclusive for Mika.
There are some half-buried nuggets in the later chapters. Mazer introduces the idea of ‘postcolonial camp’, a kind of beautiful and absurdist mucking about with the residues of colonisation, and implicitly compares it to ‘conservative camp’, the kind of over-the-topness exhibited by Sarah Palin and Donald Trump among others. Mika is a proponent of the first but not, of course, of the latter. These fascinating ideas could be further exhumed. Occasionally the book’s documentary aspects overshadow the cultural and political interventions that glimmer just below the surface.
The book itself is tactile and gorgeous. The many photographs are arranged intimately and with impact on a lovely silky paper, and the flexibind cover is cloaked in a satiny dustjacket. A bold cover with gold lettering proclaims the biography’s title. Who would not want to pick up this book that boldly performs its identity, much like its subject and creators do?
CHRIS BRICKELL is an associate professor in gender studies at the University of Otago. His first book, Mates & Lovers: A history of gay New Zealand (Random House, 2008) won the NZSA E.H. McCormick Best First Book Award for Non-Fiction in the 2009 Montana Book Awards. His most recent book is Teenagers: The rise of youth culture in New Zealand (AUP, 2017).