Young, gifted, female and brown, Elizabeth Crayford

Fale Aitu|Spirit House
Tusiata Avia
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781776560646

Tail of the Taniwha
Courtney Sina Meredith
Beatnik Publishing, $30.00,
ISBN 9780992264895

Lucky Punch
Simone Kaho
Anahera Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473367510

Before Tusiata Avia’s Fale Aitu|Spirit House was published, she made a point of telling her mother what she’d written, to which her mother replied, “It all needs to come out.” Avia tells us this in an endnote, but it could stand as epigraph to all three books. Reading Avia’s work alongside Courtney Sina Meredith’s Tail of the Taniwha and Simone Kaho’s Lucky Punch is to be immersed, sometimes uncomfortably, in contemporary Pasifika culture from a female perspective. Each writer’s voice is distinctive, yet similar themes crop up again and again. Anyone who’s read Albert Wendt’s Leaves of the Banyan Tree, or Sia Figiel’s more recent Where We Once Belonged, both set in Samoa, will not be surprised by the level of violence in these new works. However, the “all” that Avia’s mother implies is alive and kicking in New Zealand in the 21st century.

At the same time, these three volumes are a celebration of what it is to be young, gifted, and brown. They are immensely inventive in terms of form, ranging across short stories, prose poems, found poetry and flash fiction, to the more formal pantoum, as well as playscript, and text language. They are also experimental in terms of layout and typography, incorporating te reo Māori, Tongan and Samoan, in ways that are accessible either via endnotes (in Avia’s case) or via Google Translate.

The spirit houses of Avia’s collection are, at various times, literal houses (often in Aranui, Christchurch), but also her own body, the bodies of her extended family, and the spirits by which they are haunted. Thus, in “This is a Photo of My House”, she lifts the lid on more than just real estate when she invites us to “Look down through the roof” via “a big hole” cut by the writer. We are shown the various rooms and the furniture, but it’s clear this is much more than an estate agent’s spiel. Each room testifies to the violence it witnessed: “the aunty punched the uncle in the face till he bled”, while the ghost of a small girl stands in one corner on the dark carpet that “doesn’t show any blood.” The panic of “ringthepolice-ringthepolice” contrasts with the calm itemisation of the house itself.

Similarly, the longest poem in this collection, “Demonstration”, describes how, “even after all these years” of consciousness-raising, of teaching and running sexual health workshops, of marching and protesting, “you wonder again / whether it was rape / and whether it might have been your fault”. The emphatic answer fills up half a page, line after line, the words running into each other. Like a mantra the adult woman repeats over and over: “ITWASNOTMYFAULTITWASRAPE”.

Avia is wide-ranging in terms of the locales of her poems. She confronts the hypocrisy of the Samoan tradition of White Sunday: “this is the day we love them / and let them eat first and don’t yell at them / too much or hit them”. A wicked sense of humour permeates the poem “Fale’s House”, set in a depopulated village in Samoa where “All the children have gone to New Zealand / they are overeating for the Lord”. A poem with a title such as “Ova-sta-ya” is clearly going to be set here, but the second half of this book has a more international flavour, ranging from Manhattan, New York to the Gaza Strip. While she does violence and scorn brilliantly, a poem such as “Elegy II” shows Avia in an unembittered, lyrical mode, as she describes the funeral of Robert Louis Stevenson in Apia, with “the Victorian ladies panting / and the intimate smell of stays.”

Avia was born in the mid-1960s, making her a generation older than both Meredith and Kaho, although she is no less inventive in terms of form, and just as direct in terms of content. The Tail of the Taniwha, Meredith’s first collection of stories, is populated by a range of female narrators who often speak with the brashness and confidence of a younger generation. As one of them says cockily, after a holiday fling with “the blackest guy on the island”, “girls my age make up their own mind”, in spite of their aunty’s warnings.

In the opening short story, “Great Works”, Akenese, an erstwhile law student from Auckland, stands baffled in front of Matisse’s cut-outs in the Tate, having visited the gallery at the behest of another aunty. Throughout the story, Ake maintains a conversation with the mythical Samoan warrior princess Nafanua, an avatar that keeps her strong and grounded half a world away. Snappily dressed, notebook in hand and keenly aware that she too is on show, Ake enjoys the stares and half-heard snatches of conversation. Her admirers clearly can’t place her in terms of ethnicity: “She could be Indian, you know? … . Nice African hips, mind, or … kind of part-Chinese part-Japanese.” Ake ends the story by confirming Nafanua’s prediction: “At the Tate I saw nothing but myself.”

There are other stories with international settings, such as “Corner of Bleibtreu”, which circles around Berlin; the narrator is confounded by the German language and thus, perhaps, this has a less linear approach to narrative than the opening story. Dislocation is both exhilarating and disconcerting: she’s aware that “Home has become an emotional membrane”, and she latches onto the almost untranslatable Heimat – meaning homeland or homeplace – while at the same time enjoying the exoticness of it all.

Works with a New Zealand setting alternate between the cocksure bravado of narrators such as Akanese and the much grimmer reality of the lives of young Pasifika women in this country. “Aotahi” is a devastating account of an accidental pregnancy which ends with a stillbirth. Speaking both to her lost child and to her extended family who want to hush it all up, she tells us how she “counted his fingers and toes, all of them so soft and warm.” The text of this story circles in on itself, repeating phrases and adding to them with each retelling, the whole lot held together by repeated imagery of the constellations. Thus her child “Aotahi is a tapu star that dwells alone.” Instead of the life-giving return of matariki in midwinter, this mother farewells her star-child: “I saw you, Aotahi, turn and rise.”

Suicide, sexual abuse and domestic violence are here, too, as they are in Avia’s collection, although Meredith undercuts a sense of male entitlement in the ironically titled and anatomically explicit “Old Friend”, which deftly skewers a dorky boyfriend with the wit of its last lines.

Tail of the Taniwha is a beautiful book to hold. It’s hard-covered, unusual for a first collection, and its endpapers feature lovely soft-focus photographs; extensive use is also made of different coloured pages. “Aotahi”, for example, is printed in white and varying shades of pale blue onto a dark blue background, echoing Te Ikaroa/the Milky Way and thus consistent with the poem’s imagery. In this and other stories, Meredith uses typography and layout to underscore meaning; incremental repetition gives a sense of inevitability to stories such as “Taniwha House”, while “Leaning Trees” uses found imagery over and over again to bury the traumatic event at the heart of the story. More power to Beatnik Press for a fantastic piece of production that is sympathetic to spirit and the heart of these stories. Nafanua would be proud.

Twice in one of Meredith’s stories, a narrator asserts: “We move as one great mass; it doesn’t matter who gets hurt or lost along the way as long as the group survives.” In the early stages of dementia, it’s not clear if the narrator’s “we” is her extended family (her aiga or whanau) or the human race, just as Avia’s mother’s “all” is not necessarily culturally specific.

Although Kaho’s roots are Tongan, rather than Samoan, her characters are also part of that greater “we” for whom the extended family is both a blessing and a curse. Violence and fate imbue the title of her first book of poetry, Lucky Punch. “Modern storytelling with the pace of flash fiction”, so the cover notes tell us, while also referring to Kaho’s work as “poems”. Nomenclature here doesn’t matter – one person’s flash fiction may well be another person’s prose poem. What Kaho does do, in a quirky and idiosyncratic way, is tell a love story across 86 pages, in short bursts of prose.

The story begins in an overgrown suburban paradise where there are trees to climb and long grass to hide in, a chook-run and a dad who builds compost heaps and grows vegetables. There’s a house and a driveway and a stand of bush that is the children’s world: safe, secure, and timeless. Except that it’s not, of course; in the ironically titled “Celebration”, Christmas day is marked not only by a “piglet on a stick … alive only three months”, but also by an awareness that “the trees are smaller every year”.

Death haunts this story, hinted at in a life cut short in order to furnish a Christmas dinner, more explicitly so in a piece called “Patu”. Kaho contrasts an ancient club hung in a museum with the lived reality of home: “We are almost safe from the patu here, but many more live under rocks and houses and backyards and beds.” Always present in the background of the story is Henry, growing up alongside the narrator, a constant in her life – handsome, gentle, protective, platonic – they are each -other’s lodestar. Only, he can’t save her from bad sex with other partners, depression and self-harm. And, in the end, he can’t save himself, and Kaho’s matter-of-fact telling of it is as brutal as Henry’s demise. The shortest of these “chapters” is five lines, the longest over a page in length; like icebergs, most of the story is beneath the surface, and part of the pleasure is in making the connections.

It’s a privilege, as a palangi reader, to be immersed in these worlds. Sadly, the market for poetry in New Zealand is small, and the print runs short. It may be apocryphal that Teresa May encouraged United Kingdom government employees to watch Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake in the hope that it might humanise a brutalising social welfare system. Nevertheless, if a few teachers, social workers, counsellors and politicians were to read these books, along with the author’s families and a small coterie of the poetry cognoscenti, they’d gain valuable insights into the state of the Pasifika nation. But I suspect I’m preaching to the choir.

Elizabeth Crayford is a Wellington teacher.

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Posted in Literature, Plays, Poetry, Review
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