Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand: An anthology edited by Michelle Elvy, Paula Morris and James Norcliffe with art editor David Eggleton (Otago University Press, 2020) 250pp, $39.95
In the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre of 15 March 2019 and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s declaration that ‘We are all New Zealanders’, the editors of this anthology called for creative work that responded to life in contemporary New Zealand. The response wonderfully displayed in this collection was wide ranging and diverse. And after all, portraying range and diversity is the job of anthologies. In an article from a 2020 issue of the New Yorker, writer Clare Bucknell states:
Etymologically, ‘anthology’ refers to a collection of flowers, varied species of blooms selected and arranged so that they look like they belong together. Since the term’s origins in the seventeenth century, multiplicity has always been the form’s selling point: the provision of very different voices and concerns that nonetheless have some kind of collective force.1
Multiplicity is certainly on show in this collection, which has an extensive scope of artistic expression ranging over fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art. It is also a beautiful artefact containing the written word alongside vibrant and colourful contemporary art. Well-known senior artists, such as Andy Leleisi`uao, John Pule and Pasifika poet laureate David Eggleton are featured, together with the voices of emerging and ‘novice or young writers’. It is gratifying to see new voices adding to the collective force behind this book and it bodes well for the future of writing and art in Aotearoa.
In addition, the range of cultures and ethnicities represented in the collection sweeps across the reality of twenty-first-century Aotearoa. Take Hanif Quazi’s description of our largest city: ‘Auckland boasts 220 ethnicities and is culturally more diverse than London’ (although the default majority nationwide is Pākehā, according to the 2018 census, and I hazard a guess Auckland’s cultural diversity may not be reflected so extensively in the regions). Nonetheless, as Alison Wong quotes from Farid Ahmed’s speech at the national memorial service in Hagley Park: ‘we are a beautiful garden’.
Conceived and collected in the time between the tragedy of the terrorist shootings in Christchurch and the global coronavirus pandemic, this anthology captures a moment in the artistic life of creatives in Aotearoa that has already changed beyond what may have been comprehended when they produced their work. Thus, there is no mention of coronavirus. And yet, what stays when I read this anthology from the standpoint of a world now dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects, is a documented creative window into painful aspects of Aotearoa society that are as ingrained and persistent as noxious weeds.
Some of the recurrent concerns articulated in these works show, in creative form, the reality for a multiplicity of minority communities living in Aotearoa. Given the catalyst for this collection, it is fitting that the editors chose to open the anthology with Tusiata Avia’s powerful poem ,‘Massacre’. Avia takes issue with Prime Minister Ardern’s declaration following the terrorist attacks in Christchurch. The speaker’s viewpoint talks to the minority position of Māori, Indigenous, migrant, queer, Pasifika, black peoples and people of colour living in Aotearoa, a society where white settler colonialism and imperialism is the hegemonic framework:
you are watching that ‘individual’ from Australia
you are saying to me: He isn’t us.
But I grew up with him
He was Eddie the skinhead in my science class
Given the last 500 years of global imperial push into Indigenous territories, it is understandable that colonisation is a repeated theme. The pernicious and ever-present effects of colonisation and neo-colonialism on Indigenous peoples and migrants to Aotearoa thread their way through many pieces in the collection. Selina Tusitala Marsh’s hilarious poem ‘Breaking Up with Captain Cook on our 250th Anniversary’ talks of Cook’s ‘possessive colonising Empire’ and the speaker’s exhortation, ‘I just don’t want to be in a thing right now.’ Stacey Teague’s beautiful poem ‘Tupuna Wahine’ asks:
did you watch the land
get pulled out from underneath you
like one giant whāriki
Amber Esau’s tragicomic observation is that ‘Sāmoans used to navigate by the stars. Now they navigate by streetlight.’
Several pieces creatively navigate the anguish, discrimination and displacement often experienced by migrants and diasporic peoples making a life in New Zealand. As a daughter of migrants myself, a second-generation immigrant and member of the Pasifika diaspora, I understand the migrant realisation articulated so well throughout the collection: that the homeland is no longer the same and you are caught between two or more cultural worlds. Ali Shakir asks: ‘Am I still an Iraqi, or have I become a Kiwi? I guess I’m somewhere in the middle, standing on a bridge.’ Ghazaleh Golbakhsh writes: ‘For me the question became: is my home the place where I was born but about which I know very little? Or is my home the place to which my family immigrated, and where I hold the most memories?’ Nataliya Oryshchuk writes compellingly of the immigrant experience: ‘All the constellations were wrong. I was on another planet. An alien … Immigration is trauma … I was an eternal outsider looking in.’
For these writers and many others in the collection, the migrant experience in Aotearoa is often characterised by issues of language, identity, racism and colonialism. Naomi Simon-Kumar writes:
no word for
that in my
english the heavy vice
in my mouth is home.
Mohammed Hassan’s haunting poem ‘When They Ask Where You Are Really From’ investigates a question that we diasporic and migrant peoples are often asked by those of a white settler mindset, together with the follow up:
When they ask you why you speak so well
for an immigrant
The theme of coping with the English language is set against the white settler difficulty with spelling/pronouncing/allowing names other than those of English origin in Angelique Kasmara’s story ‘Isobar Precinct: Symonds Street Cemetery’: ‘And I thought I had a hard time with Lestari. Dirt common in Indonesia, says my mother. She’s not the one having to spell it out for every second person.’
There are also celebratory notes in many pieces, such as those focusing on the unique, delicious and varied cuisines of Indigenous, migrant and diasporic peoples and how these have changed the culinary landscape in Aotearoa. Hanif Quazi’s observation as a Pakistani immigrant to New Zealand in 1967 is: ‘Fish and chips were the only fast food and bacon and eggs was the main breakfast in our college cafeteria—a challenge for a young Muslim with strict law around pork.’ Anna Woods writes: ‘Roll dough into a ball of forgetting. The meat must be hidden, this is 1980s West Auckland—too strangely spiced for mince-and-cheese land.’
I loved Blaine Kelly’s queer love story ‘Duckie’, which traces a sweet life journey between two boys from small-town New Zealand. I also loved Catarina de Peters Leitão’s nonfiction piece ‘The Packers’, which chronicles the exploitation of kiwifruit packers in Ōpōtiki who come to the town from around New Zealand and overseas in kiwifruit season. The writer structures this piece around reportage from her mum, who works in one of the packing houses and forms a friendship with Ana, one of the Tongan workers.
Mum says working in the packing house is slavery … and the kiwifruit workers think the Tongans have it worst of all … The Tongan packers come with minders, too, employed by the Tongan government to watch them.
The artworks punctuating the book are a wonderful counterpoint to the written narratives. The sea features in many of them, which is not surprising giving we live on islands in the Pacific Ocean. I love Yuki Kihara’s Takitimu Landing Site, Waimarama, with its moody Victorian silhouette looking out to an overcast seascape, and the melding of seashell and kauri gum in Bridget Reweti’s photographic study Kūtai. Sabine Poppe’s Kiss Me portrays a face awash with colour, with green eyes that appear to look past you while at the same time looking straight at you. Melanie Dixon’s exuberant black and white study Freedom shows a figure in mid-air over the ocean, bringing to mind carefree summer holidays beside the sea.
Vaughan Rapatahana’s shape poem ‘So Let’ closes the collection, as the Afterword, in a visual representation of Aotearoa, made up of different languages and formats. The metaphor is well illustrated. It is a great bookend to Avia’s opening piece.
This anthology absolutely exemplifies Bucknell’s description of the form as a ‘collection of flowers’. It is a gathering of varied and beautiful literary and artistic blooms representing multiple voices and themes, including the acknowledgement of Māori as tangata whenua; the diversity of cultures that make up Aotearoa society; and the historical and current forces at play in New Zealand through white settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, immigration, diaspora and Indigeneity. The editors have arranged the work into a feast for the eyes and the mind. The collective force that holds the book together and reaches out to the reader comes from the very multiplicity of voices in Aotearoan society that live and breathe their way through its pages.
- Clare Bucknell, ‘What do we want from poetry in times of crisis?’ The New Yorker, 22 December 2020: www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-do-we-want-from-poetry-in-times-of-crisis?utm_source=nl&utm_brand=tny&utm_mailing=TNY_Daily
GINA COLE is a writer based in Tamaki Makaurau of Fijian, Scottish and Welsh descent. Her collection of stories Black Ice Matter won Best First Book of Fiction at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Her work has been widely anthologised and published in literary journals. She has a forthcoming science-fiction novel and holds a PhD in creative writing on the topic of Indigenous science fiction and Pasifikafuturism.