Strong Words #2: The best of the Landfall Essay Competition, selected by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, 2021), 184pp, $35; Te Kinakina: E Ngara i te Ngari. Remember where you come from. Stories from Cook Islanders in Tokoroa, edited by Vaughan Rapatahana (Read NZ Te Pou Muramura, 2021), 182pp, $50
We tell stories to understand and to share who we are. Two new anthologies, Strong Words #2. The best of the Landfall Essay Competition, selected by Emma Neale, and Te Kinakina: E Ngara i te Ngari, edited by Vaughan Rapatahana, add to the breadth of stories being told—the many shades and forms and opinions of contemporary writing in Aotearoa.
Strong Words #2 is, as indicated, the second anthology comprised of entries to the Landfall Essay Competition, judged and selected by Neale. As such the literary standard is very high—these represent some of the best essays produced in Aotearoa in the past few years. The anthology is a telling collection of what preoccupies the minds of writers in this moment. It is the personal made large, or as Neale states in her introduction (which I recommend not skipping over) ‘all of the more apparently intimate essays included in Strong Words #2 lead the reader into a fuller and more compassionate understanding of situations or subjects that affect numerous people beyond the individual author of each piece’.
Essays are, as Anna Knox notes in her essay (quoting John D’Agata), ‘a form that’s not propelled by information, but one compelled instead by individual expression—by enquiry, by opinion, by wonder, by doubt’. It is this doubt and uncertainty that leads the collection—that and questioning, endless questioning. There are themes of whānau, themes of loss and grief; there’s colonisation and racism and feminism; there’s abuse and violence. Also: how we value our most vulnerable, how we survive, the climate emergency we face and our imagined future. These essays move us through time from birth to now, dip in and out of the past and guess at what may lie ahead. The writing is honest and raw and truthful, and it is beautiful—lyrical imagery that is light and deft, particularly so in the poetic hands of Nina Mingya Powles and Siobhan Harvey. It is funny, laugh out loud funny; and sad, heartbreakingly sad.
The collection begins with the long tail of colonisation and racism. The first two essays by Tobias Buck and Mingya Powles were joint winners of the 2018 Landfall essay prize. Both are distinctly personal. ‘Tender Gardens’ by Mingya Powles speaks of connection to family and place against a background of racism, casual and intentional; while Buck, in ‘Exit. Stage Left.’, describes a life of ‘being the colour of candyfloss or marshmallows. I appear strawberry-flavoured.’ Shelley Burne-Field’s essay, ‘If the words “white” and “sausage” in the same sentence make you uncomfortable, please read on’, is challenging and heart-pulling reading, as it should be. Her fear for her whānau is laid bare: ‘Fear, because in Aotearoa the lives of the brown boys and girls in my whānau don’t matter as much as the lives of white boys and girls. They just don’t.’
Writing about grief is not easy. Writing about grief in a way that is funny is near impossible. Somehow Sarah Harpur Ruigrok pulls this off in ‘Dead Dads Club’, utilising the blackest of humour with true grief at the sharp heart of it. She writes of her life after her father is lost to suicide, until she is fine, with a capital F: ‘Seriously, we’re Fine. Dads are like wisdom teeth. Losing them is painful, but you’ll only have to go through it once.’
Daughter and father Ingrid and John Horrocks both feature in this collection, and both write on climate change—two different directions. ‘Ordinary Animals’ by Ingrid Horrocks dives into our connection to water and the reality of climate change, and seeks to understand the impact on our young people, asking ‘What are the effects of inhabiting this sense of doom? … How did those young people feel when released from the embrace of a march, when they were alone in the vast mental space of their bed at night, trying to imagine careers and sex and families and a world of unknowable futures?’ Meanwhile, in ‘The Certainty of Others: Writing and climate change’, John Horrocks looks at the place for creativity in our uncertain future and how writers in Aotearoa are writing about climate change.
Do not be put off by the weight of these themes—such is the skill of the writing that we are carefully taken through their sharpest edges, left with questions and images to bubble away in the weeks and months after.
Te Kinakina: E Ngara i te Ngari is an entirely different type of anthology. This collection of writing by Cook Islanders living in Tokoroa originated in a creative writing project with editor Vaughan Rapatahana. If the Landfall competition essays are led by doubt, then this collection is led by aro`a, love. It is a book filled with the colours of life, beginning with the bright tivaevae cover illustration; a collection which, as Rapatahana expresses, speaks of a ‘strong commitment to whānau, kōpū tangata and ānau, to hard work, to the Christian Church, to always supporting each other’.
The book is structured into four sections—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication—and tells the stories of families who migrated from the Cook Islands to Aotearoa over the 1940s–70s.
These are all deeply personal stories, opening with Akarere Henry writing about her father David Ngata. Ngata begins his own story, telling of his early life in Aitutaki, in the only the only part of the book written in Cook Islands Māori:
My parents died when I was young. Our life was hard. I wore the same shorts to school every day. I would wash it on Wednesday and wear it again for the rest of the week. When it ripped, I didn’t go back to school. We would share food with our neighbours—sometimes we didn’t have anything to share.
Parents, and in particular fathers, are a major focus of the stories: fathers who moved to Aotearoa for work and a better life, the majority finding employment in the forestry industry. These are fathers who are recognised for being honest, reliable, humble and patient, for their intelligence, adaptability and creativity, their passion for culture, and their love of their community and ānau and God. And they are all hardworking.
Community and family are woven through the collection, coming to life in beautiful simple imagery such as in Levi Sikking’s ‘My childhood memories’:
When family came to visit, our home would be cold … we would wrap ourselves in blankets and huddle up together spending evenings, singing, and listening to Bible stories or scriptures … I cherish those childhood memories of being cold but then feeling the warmth of my family and the joy of their music.
And while each story is written with love, they do not hold back on the challenges the families faced. Many families moved from the smaller islands of Aitutaki, Rakahanga, Mangaia and Penrhyn—a huge cultural shift. As Tere Ford notes of her parents at the end of ‘My Beautiful Trauma—A Collection of Poems’: ‘They were migrants from Omoka, Penrhyn Cook Islands, navigating a very different way of life, often struggling with the expectations of a new land.’
Ford’s words speak strongly to this in the opening stanza of her poem, ‘God is this your Hand?’
Hiding under the bed, my safe space, my safe place.
A hand reaching out trying to pull me out from under.
An unfamiliar hand—whose could it have been?
Loud drunken singing drowned out my cries.
The stench of alcohol faded the scent of my Mother’s perfume.
Falling asleep was my only escape.
While the voices are inherently different in both anthologies, the intention is the same; both are made up of writers who seek to better understand themselves and their community, close and far. All hold detailed moments of joy and pain, of love and family, of connection and disconnection. In doing so they make us feel and ache, question and reflect on our own lives.
I will end with words from Papa Timote Turu from the Foreword of Te Kinakina, where he writes of the need to document Cook Islands stories:
The vision was not only to uphold language so it may not die, but for the language to be used as a vehicle to drive forward our culture so our generations, past, present, and future could be weaved together to become living history for generations to come. The challenge was, is and is to come, ‘From here, where to next?’
RACHEL SMITH writes fiction, poetry and journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. She has been published in journals and anthologies including Best Small Fictions 2020 and Best Microfiction 2019. She is an editor at Flash Frontier. She and her ānau lived in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, for six years. http://rachelmsmithnz.wix.com/rachel-smith