Monday, December 9, 2013

Because Christmas minus Christ is just Mas. (And snow-themed songs in Hawai'i.)

On Saturday, Vula and I went to a Christmas parade in Honolulu - it was for lighting the big tree at the 'Honolulu Hale' (Town Hall) and there were floats, school marching bands, and the obligatory Santa waving from the final vehicle. There were also lots of lighted-up trees, and vendors selling food. We had a great time - I've always been a big fan of Christmas, and Vula and I really enjoyed the opportunity to do something with a big crowd of 'normal' people here where we live.

After a while, I noticed that the marching bands played lots of Christmas music but no carols. There was a lot about Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, quite a few renditions of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and plenty of Dreaming of a White Christmas. I actually really enjoy all of these songs, as part of the general mix of Christmas tunes, but after a while I turned to Vula and said sadly 'there haven't been any carols.' Actually there were some carols, when a troupe of bagpipers came along with 'Joy to the World,' but that was all. Later, and again this morning as we reflected on our weekend some more, Vula commented that there wasn't a single nativity scene.

Now, I realise that Christmas is a religious celebration that has been widely distributed, secularised and commercialised. I don't actually expect everyone to be at church and singing carols like they mean the words. America is always trying to suspend itself between being secular and having each president stand up there intoning 'God Bless America.' I understand that religious fundamentalism and the imposition of a single religious experience in the context of a nation with many religious traditions is problematic. But I'm not sure that I'm sold on the idea that removing every reference to specific faith traditions that underpin things that have become largely cultural traditions makes sense either. (The same could be said, of course, to specific histories that underpin largely cultural traditions like Thanksgiving.) A friend in New Zealand, Maria, taught at schools in London for a few years before returning to teach at home, and told me about how in the UK a note went home at the beginning of the year to ask about the various traditions and celebrations of the kids in the class so the class could join in celebrating all of them, rather than (as in NZ) none of them.

A couple of years ago, I was travelling with my sister and nephew and we stayed with my dear friend Lauren, in Ithaca NY, and her family. Suddenly there were carolers outside, singing their hearts out - and we (who has grown up in NZ with no history of carolers but lots of movie exposure to them) all rushed to the door to watch. After a couple of songs, they finished off with a rousing version of 'We wish you a Merry Christmas, We wish you a Merry Hannukah, We wish you a Merry Solstice, And a Happy New Year.' We all laughed and thanked them, and commented this was how you know you're in Ithaca. But actually, I have to admit, I kind of liked it. It didn't try to turn everything into a celebration of Santa, presents and winter. Instead of making Christmas about things can agree they don't believe in, it acknowledged the whole range of things of things people *do* believe and celebrate at this time of the year.

In the interests of full disclosure, I grew up in a family in which Christmas and church were the same thing, and in my new family structure (Vula and me) we also have a commitment to Christian faith and church is, for us, not only a natural but cherished part of the Christmas season. I admit that as much as I enjoy the Santa-themed songs, I also note that their usual themes of being about being good in order to receive something is the exact opposite of the grace and forgiveness that the humble Christmas story is really about. There's plenty of interesting history in the development of Christmas as a specific Christian celebration too, including the incorporation of other cultural and religious traditions in the timing, symbols and naming of parts of the holiday... but there's also the reason these various traditions have been brought together (and supplemented as they've moved out around the world) and that has to do with a baby in a manger. I've been surrounded by people who use the phrase 'You can't spell Christmas without Christ' - which is something I have sympathies for, but that's not what this is about. I guess I'm wondering - when we decide as a community to rid ourselves of the roots of Christmas (even if they're understood merely as historical roots rather than basic tenets of a faith tradition that is actively held, and even if we want to focus on the many roots of the parts of our various traditions), what do we have left?

In other areas of my life, I find myself asking similar questions about other things: when we don't know the meaning of the words or the context of Te Rauparaha's composition of the haka 'Ka Mate', what does it really mean? What does it mean when most people living in Auckland and Wellington couldn't tell you the names of the iwi whose land they're on, or the names the places were known as before they were Auckland and Welllington (or, indeed, how to pronounce them even if you did tell them). Isn't that what this is about, on some level? People are welcome to have the Christmas they want, and there's no way for me to say my family's experience of Christmas is any more important or meaningful (or correct or authentic) than the experiences of people who have celebrated a Christmas season without reference to Christianity. But we're not talking about family celebrations here - we're talking about cultural and national celebrations.

The thing is (*this* is the thing!), when you take Christ out of Christmas, even as an historical reference, you don't actually end up with nothing. You end up with winter. Snow. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Mistletoe. 'Folks dressed up like Eskimos' (OMG, I wonder how awkward this line is to sing with/ as Innuit people around this time of the year). Santa, who is more often than not a big white (or in the case of the garish figure at the Ala Moana Shopping Center, very pink) man dressed up in warm clothing suitable for a blizzard. The normalization of the idea that Christianity is the only possible or admissible or appropriate form of spiritual life has been a very sad form of colonialism - but the normalization of snowy winters is the exact same process.

Because, what does it really mean to stand on the side of the road with a range of the Hawai'i community (mostly Asian, Pacific, African American and Latino families) on a warm Saturday evening in December, wearing shorts and tshirts with jandals, singing "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas"?

The classic colonial strategy of telling us that where we are doesn't count - what matters is somewhere else - is pervasive. Here, 'what matters' is what's happening in wintry America (only the bits that are suitably wintry - not LA, not Arizona, not Alabama either). Growing up in NZ, 'what mattered' what England. By the time my generation came along, we thought it was hilarious that our parents had grown up spending their balmy Decembers decorating Christmas trees with cotton wool which was supposed to look like snow. For many years now, I've refused to use wrapping paper or Christmas cards with pictures of snow on them, resisting the dressing up of Jesus' birth in a warm place - and its celebration in another warm place - with European and Continental American experience. But we're never immune from the long arm of colonialism in its various guises, and I admit feeling bereft when Mum casually mentioned one day that once my grandparents were no longer with us for Christmas dinner it would make sense to abandon the practice of having a roast dinner on Christmas day and have a more weather-appropriate BBQ instead.

Sure, decolonise your Christmas in any way you want. But be careful about what sneaks in - removing Christ and letting in snow isn't really much of an improvement when you live in the Pacific. Be cautious about the dreams you allow people to dictate to your children, including the ones about white Christmases.

Christmas minus Christ is just mas. I live in the US, where the second largest language spoken is Spanish, and in Spanish 'mas' means 'more'. More sales. More gifts. More food. More travel. More parties. Busy busy busy. Loud and showy and more more more. Which is funny, because at the heart of Christmas, at least for me, is another series of ideas: simple, humble, even - yes despite the tree and decorations in the lounge and CD of Christmas music in the car - less.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The point of poetry

I've been thinking a lot about poetry recently. Things started to shift in my head about a month ago when my dear poet friend Leilani Tamu asked me what was happening with my own poetry.

I remember exactly where we were: we'd left a movie at Dole Cannery (yes, even the names of cinemas bear traces of history in settler colonies), and we were driving down the ramp from the parking building towards the road. There was a small booth at the bottom of the ramp, and as we edged closer I saw the attendant had gone home, which meant that even though we'd been issued with a ticket on the way in, noone was there to collect it at the other end. Something we wouldn't have been able to leave without suddenly became another scrap piece of paper.

(Yes, this is a foreshadowing metaphor.)

When Leilani asked me, I was only half paying attention because I was driving down said ramp, looking into said booth, and clutching said ticket, so I accidentally told her the truth: "I've given up on poetry."

Once I said the words, I realised they were true; but at the same time, as they hung quietly in the car between us and I eased the little blue Nissan onto the dark wet road that night, they betrayed me not only by being true but by forcing me to admit how true they were. Since then, I've been wondering about whether I really have given up on poetry, and perhaps whether poetry has given up on me. Perhaps both of us would say it was mutual, to protect each other and also perhaps so we don't have to figure out who started it.

There are practical reasons to give up on poetry when you're a Māori poet: publishers aren't interested, and there's too much other stuff to do. Although there are a thousand more reasons, these two are the most harsh and most true.

Poetry will always be a form of journalling for me, and perhaps even a form of intimate communication. I am keeping a secret blog of poetry about the difficult journey of fertility, I write poems all the time to save 'for a rainy day,' and just yesterday I wrote a poem to my husband in which I complained, apologized and shared a vision for our marriage. All of these kinds of private poems make a kind of sense: I'm not sure the latter would have made sense on a post-it note, and he and I both know that if I'd tried to express the things I wrote in the poem by saying them out loud rather than typing and editing, typing and editing, I would have had far too many words and quite probably would have dissolved in tears before I got to the bits that I really wanted to say.

These are private poems.
But what about the other kind?
What about public poems?

When I was a graduate student at Cornell, one of my fellow students invited one of his fellow Nigerian poet friends to come and share his poetry. After the event, which I had thoroughly enjoyed, there was a small function to finish the evening off nicely, and I ended up meeting the poet over a glass of wine, at which point I thanked him for a wonderful reading. Having understood his poetry in my bones, I accidentally made the mistake of thinking he also would understand me. So I confessed that I, too, was a poet, and I continued by saying how much I appreciated the way he'd talked about the role of a writer. He smiled at me in a warmly condescending way, and corrected me that although I may write poetry, our role as a writer was totally different because I probably wrote about (and here he didn't literally scratch his head, but I could tell he was wondering what on earth I might write about) flowers and things, whereas he came from a community that was actively and violently oppressed, and his poetry was about the difference between life and death.

Of course, it goes without saying that he saw my beige skin and assumed I was white. He wasn't to know that beige can mean different things in other parts of the world, and that sometimes Māori people come in exactly my colour. I actually have sympathy for him, because sometimes I, too, wonder how on earth poets who aren't writing on behalf of an oppressed group of some kind manage to feel so passionate about what they do. I would probably have come up with "flowers" too.

Now, perhaps one poetic response would be to write a poem about how deeply hurt and angry I am that this awful man hadn't imagined that I wasn't white, and that I demand respect for myself which he hadn't given, and this is why it's so hard to be a Māori with beige skin. I could write a whole series of poems about my tragic life of being caught between two worlds, and I could spend time coming up with lyrical descriptions of my own personal individual oppression. Oppression which, it has to be said, usually works for me more than against me: looking the way I do, sometimes my own community asks where I'm from, but they believe me when I tell them; looking the way I do, I am very rarely followed around shops, pulled over or abused by police, or asked if I'm the cleaner when I turn up to my professional workplace. Now I'm living in gun toting America, I am well aware that the time it takes for someone to be murdered for wearing the wrong skin is a lot shorter than the time it takes for me to patiently explain who I am to those who ask.

But this poor man hadn't met a Māori person before, and didn't know we come in all shades. He looked at me and, at the end of a long poetry reading and lots of schmoozing during which he was gobbled up by so many hungry conversations, he found himself trying to be polite to someone he didn't immediately recognize as an ally and had actually - to his credit - given me the benefit of the doubt by even spending three seconds coming up with "flowers."

So, I decided to focus instead on the claims he made about the role of the writer, and the politics of poetry. His response to me revealed his deep commitment to poetry that can make a real difference, and even though that gift didn't come wrapped up in a way that felt ideal at the time, his stories of being arrested for poetry and my ongoing curiosity if I would be prepared - or able - to write arrest-worthy poems has more than overshadowed his perfectly understandable mistake.

When Leilani asked me about my poetry and I told her I'd given up on it, I meant it. Then a week later I started to teach the ni-Vanuatu poet Grace Mera Molisa's first poetry collection 'Black Stone' to my undergraduate class of Pacific Lit students, and the poems reached out to us from 1983, past all the work we'd been reading, and grabbed us by the scruffs of our necks: the first time for me students; for me, all over again. Molisa writes about independence, violence, freedom of the press, and the range of possible futures for her people. This past week a group of wonderful Wellington women held a fundraiser for West Papua by reading their own poetry. In 2007 I was involved in a project in which a whole range of people - including poets - shared their pieces for 'Burn this CD,' a compilation about the police raids on Tūhoe in October that year. I've seen what poems can do for students who connect for the first time with a text from their own cultural or experiential background.

So I guess it's not poetry, it's me.

Or, maybe it is poetry, but it's certain poetry. It's poetry that spends so much time talking about identity and self-righteous accounts of individualized oppression that it doesn't even bother to deal with the life and death stuff. It's poetry that thinks it's being political and doesn't realise it's just another flower. It's poetry that feels like it means something, like you can't leave the parking building and enter the big wide world without it, but when you see what it's worth - politically, I mean - you find it's just a scrap of paper.  

Epilogue: Eventually, later that evening, someone told the visting poet I was Māori, and when I walked down the steps outside Goldwin Smith Hall he saw me from where he was enjoying a quiet cigarette and apologised profusely. We had a laugh about it, talked poetry and politics for a while, and I went home.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Offence isn’t the point. (On Roast Busting and Non-Apologies.)

Thanks to Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, we have a broader context for understanding the young men at the heart of Roast Busters.

For the past few years, it turns out, a group of young men in Auckland calling themselves ‘Roast Busters’ have preyed on girls and teenagers, raped and sexually assaulted them, and bragged about their activities on a facebook site. Some of the women were plied with alcohol and approached at parties and other social events. The story has blown up in NZ, and at first there were at least two groups of people to be angry with: the young men who have carried on with their crimes for years; and NZ police who have known about their crimes for years but wouldn’t prosecute because they didn’t feel they had enough evidence. I am sure many women in NZ are not surprised, on the basis of our own encounters (on behalf of ourselves or others)  with NZ police about other instances of rape and sexual assault, that the police response was underwhelming to a mind-numbing and infuriating degree.

I wish I was more surprised by the police situation, to be honest, but many of us are already familiar with the problem of their appalling treatment of such cases (over the phone, when reporting on an incident: ‘but are you sure she said no? why would she have a shower when that has probably removed any evidence? are you sure she said no?’) and general reluctance to prosecute which rests on the blatant unfairness that a traumatized victim needs to be willing to come forward (unlike for example when a television is stolen and the police step in and prosecute on behalf of the television despite the TV not having provided its own affidavit) even though there is no guarantee the re-traumatization involved in coming forward and repeating statements will be enough anyway.

Over the past 24 hours, two radio talkshow hosts (the aforementioned Willie and John) have stepped forward and volunteered themselves to be the third target of national anger about this whole situation. They ‘interviewed’ Amy, an 18 year old young woman who had been victim of the young men and – as many other commentators have already noted – proceeded to reinforce the usual sexist framing of such a topic: her clothes, her consumption of alcohol, her virginity and whether teenaged girls are promiscuous these days. They proposed that if some girls had consented then it wasn’t really rape. Etc. Awful. Beyond words.

This display of characteristic sexism on the part of these two middle aged men who pride themselves on being ‘straight talkers’ etc etc yawn yawn attracts enough attention that they are drawn into a national discussion of whether an apology is necessary. The next day, Willie Jackson apologises, kind of. He says “we have no problems apologising to Amy for causing offence.” 

And here’s the question: is this the apology demanded under these circumstances? Is offence the problem here? Or, to put it another way, if Amy wasn’t “ofen[ded]” would it have been okay?

The idea of offence, and apologies offered for causing it, make me wonder.

In another context, when we have small children, and they do something bad to another child, we say ‘apologise!’ and we expect that the child will say ‘I’m sorry for breaking your toy,’ not ‘I’m sorry if breaking your toy might have made you upset.” In the moment, we can see the cause and effect, and the central point of the interaction is not the upset, it’s the breakage. Both children, and all adults standing around them, can see the relationship has been ruptured because the first child broke the toy, not because the other child cried. The crying – the upset – of the second kid is neither here nor there in terms of the relationship between the kids; it’s a by-product, not the problem.

But somehow once people become grownups, it becomes acceptable to place a little breathing room in an apology: I’m sorry if I offended you. I’m sorry if you are offended when I dress up in a parody of your culture for Halloween. I’m sorry if you’re offended that I said people from your community are all stupid. I’m sorry if my African themed 21st party to which friends came dressed in blackface and a KKK costume offended you. I’m sorry if my comment that you’re ugly has offended you. I didn’t mean to offend you when I suggested you sounded like a slutty teenager and probably asked for it.

This kind of apology isn’t an apology because it refuses to focus on the actual site of the rupture; it attempts to deflect attention, suggesting the victim’s response is unpredictable and arbitrary, and locating the problem with the response rather than the thing to which the victim is responding. It turns an actual act or comment into a neutral entity, and places all of the emotion – and all of the responsibility for emotion – on the side of the victim. Once the emotion quietly slides to the victim end of the equation, so too does the central weight of the issue. Focusing on the response of the victim means the possible effects of the original act are rendered unknowable and therefore, because this opens up the possibility of alternative responses, the original actor is rendered potentially innocent at least because it is conceivable a ‘non-offended’ response is also possible.

(‘I’m sorry you’re offended I dressed like an Indian for Halloween.’ ‘Oh I’m not offended.’ ‘Oh great I’ve got nothing to be sorry for then – glad we cleared that up.’)

Apologizing for causing someone else’s offence is facetious because it cannot ever be truly genuine: how can one genuinely apologize – and by that I mean reflectively and absolutely take responsibility for their own wrong actions – when one suggests that the rupture in the relationship between the two people is only knowable through the outward sign of a specific response of offence? Surely taking responsibility for one’s own wrong actions necessarily involves taking the time to thoroughly consider all of the possible implications and effects and take responsibility for these as well.

(‘I’m sorry I dressed like an Indian for Halloween. I have participated in a specific form of stereotyping which has deep colonial roots and dehumanizes your people, and I can see that this thoughtless act contributes in real ways to the ongoing injustice and violence inflicted on Indigenous people.’)

Apologising for offence caused rather than for your actual behaviour renders the person making the apology incapable of repairing the relationship because the rupture is located at the end of the victim, and presumably one cannot 'make' someone feel different. Apologising for offence caused rather than for your actual behaviour is a refusal to take responsibility for your own actions and a refusal to do anything further to repair the relationship (which surely is the best possible outcome of an apology). 

[For clarity: I'm talking here about taking responsibility in a collective, relationship-focussed, sense rather than an individualistic right wing sense.]

This – this - is at the heart of the non-apology to Amy (“we have no problems apologising to Amy for causing offence”) – as if causing a specific reaction is the problem rather than their words to which she may or may not be reacting. This pattern of thinking ultimately denies there can be clarity about right and wrong, cause and effect, of the original behaviour… and it does this by leaving open the possibility that there is an plausible alternative understanding of the interaction, in which the victim does not feel aggrieved. If Amy did not feel offence – unlikely, but theoretically plausible seeing as offence is an individual emotion – they had nothing else for which to apologize.

And this – this – is at the heart of what’s wrong with how Willie and John – and some members of the NZ police force and many more - gently perpetuate rape culture. The idea that the perpetrator’s guilt depends not on the act of rape in and of itself but on the specific and provable response of the victim. According to this pervasive logic, there is always the possibility not only that Amy won’t be offended but that Amy wasn’t raped. 

If men like Willie and John took full and serious and thoughtful responsibility for their own actions ('we apologise for...'),  perhaps men like those behind Roast Busters might grow up seeing models for how they can take full and serious and thoughtful responsibility for theirs. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Shine bright like a moko: the history of Rihanna’s tattoo

This is the story about a young woman of African origins from Barbados, a former English colony in the Caribbean (although Spain and Portugal claimed it at earlier points too) from which Indigenous people have been, if not exterminated, incorporated and made invisible. While in Aotearoa she received a tattoo on her hand that was done traditionally (tapping, not buzzing) by a Māori artist in the aesthetic form of a design he learned from a Samoan master tattoo cultural practitioner. While Pacific people in Aotearoa, the Pacific region and beyond debated whether it was a malu, moko, kiri tuhi or plain old tattoo, Rihanna decided she didn’t ‘love, love’ the tattoo anyway and flew a white tattoo artist to the Dominican Republic to rework it into a new tattoo which allegedly draws its inspiration from the designs of henna.

You’ve got to hand it to her: the landscape of a single human hand

This is, at its heart, the story of a single human hand; it is also, in its full breadth, the story of race, colonialism, empire, gender and indigeneity. In its full depth, however, this is the story of the fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. Rihanna’s hand is now a landscape; literally it is a contested place, but also metaphorically it is the place where imperial histories play themselves out. She is not the first black woman whose body bears the traces of histories of violence and appropriation; she is not the first woman of African descent whose body is held up for close inspection by ‘the world.’ Her hand is a landscape in the way that Indigenous people know landscapes; it belongs to someone who has known it as long as it has existed, and while for some people it now represents a resource to be exploited, for others it is a result and continuation of complicated and important family histories.

We often talk in literary studies about the palimpsest; a piece of paper used over and over again so that when you read the latest text applied to its surface, you can’t help but be aware of – and even distracted by – the other texts that have existed underneath. The palimpsest I encounter most often in my day to day life is the shopping list scrawled on a piece of paper that turns out (upon closer inspection, while pushing a trolley around the supermarket) to be a bill, a letter or an interesting clipping. We are capable of reading one text for its meaning (I need tomatoes and shampoo) at the same time as we consider the literal meaning of other texts underneath (did I pay this bill?) as well as the histories of those texts (oops this is an article a student asked me to read), Palimpsests are actual things, because of the historical scarcity of paper or other such materials, but the palimpsest is also a rich metaphor.

We talk now about places as palimpsests: the impossibility of engaging with any one account of history (either a story about history or its material proof) without noticing – even being distracted by – the many layers of history underneath. Rihanna’s hand is a palimpsest because it is a surface on which has been layered many stories: a tattoo, another tattoo. However, each of those stories is itself another story. The first tattoo is wrapped up in a story of Māori and Samoan cultural revitalization, specifically in the area of applying ink to the body, and the involvement of another Māori person, a musical artist. This story is wrapped up in other stories, each of which is densely packed with still more stories: why revitalization was necessary (Christianity and the outlawing of tattoos in the Pacific, national and regional interruptions in cultural practice as a result of a long history of Europeans understanding Pacific people as savages), how questions about tattooing women have been negotiated in the past few decades (the range of understandings about gender and the tattoo, from a Samoan story about twins who swam from Fiji, to young Polynesian feminists in 1970s Auckland, and beyond), and why Māori and Samoan people would have such a close relationship in the first place (NZ’s colonial history in Sāmoa through overt as well as economic imperialism). Still more stories. And more. And more.  

She found culture in a hopeless place

The tattoos (malu? tatau? moko? kiri tuhi?) applied to her hand in Aotearoa piqued our collective interest not because of the aesthetic dimension of the design but because of these stories. The history of Indigenous Pacific control over our own cultural practices, including practiced of tattooing and other body arts, is so complicated that we have inevitably over-reacted to Rihanna’s hand. We responded to her decision to acquire the tattoo, and we responded to her decision to (attempt to) cover it up. Such an over-reaction is understandable, though, because her decision to acquire such a tattoo in such a context brings up a rollercoaster of emotions: pride, jealousy, defensiveness, anger and shame. Because so much has been taken, because cultural integrity and cultural proximity are still such flimsy things in 2013 in our region, and because of Rihanna’s sheer fame, we respond to the situation in ways that are important. We believe we are reacting rather than over-reacting because the weight of past and ongoing injustices and appropriations, weighing heavily as they do on ourselves and also on our descendants, justifies our response.

This is not really about Rihanna’s hand - what power could the small hand of a single Barbadian woman really have over us? – but it is about the many layers of history we cannot help but see when we look at her skin. And, as we ‘read’ each text, more texts become apparent: her African skin bearing the marks of Caribbean diaspora, the tattoo applied in Aotearoa, and finally a design applied in another (American-occupied, Spanish-speaking) part of the Caribbean which is apparently intended to look like the henna design which has its roots in the Indian subcontinent. Of course, the movement of ‘henna design’ from its home to the Caribbean comes through (at least) two pathways: historical movement of Indian people through the British system of indentured labor (which also brought Indian people to Fiji) to plantations in the Caribbean; and contemporary appropriation of specific Indian cultural (and food) items in hegemonic American popular culture (bindis, butter chicken, henna, and so on) which are both removed from the inconvenient truth of India’s geographic and cultural proximity to states deemed by the US as questionable in relation to terrorist activities, but also quietly pick up on a long history of what Said called ‘Orientalism’ back in the late 70s.

On some level, the conscious decision made by Rihanna to cover the prior ‘Pacific’ tattoo with a henna-inspired tattoo seems less significant here than the point that there is a longstanding link between India and the Caribbean, and the circulation of specific Indigenous cultural forms in the context of European (and American) imperialism. Am I claiming that Rihanna has no agency, that she has no choice, that she is powerless in the face of the broad sweep and devastating waves of colonialism? Do I see her as a thoughtless pawn in someone else’s game? Am I replicating the history of non-African people treating African people as if they have the intellectual capacity of children? Is it not okay to expect more from ‘our own’ – to expect that a person who is rather more from the victim rather than victor part of the colonial story would use her considerable position of power in order to make visible the plight of other victims, or at least not replicate the same old systems of cultural appropriation?  

Shine bright like a moko: a tattoo, a beloved grandchild.

This isn’t only about Rihanna - this is about us. We have all participated in viewing Rihanna’s hand as if it had been removed from the rest of her body, because this is how the photographs have been distributed in corporate and social media. Peering at the layers of ink, we find ourselves trying to separate overlapping patterns rather than asking the question about the rest of the body to which the hand is attached. Each time we do this, we normalize the chopping up of black women’s bodies. We like to think we are outraged by the unauthorized removal of body parts from Indigenous bodies for medical research but we are happy to visually detach a body part for the purpose of arguments about cultural integrity. It is awkward to realize that we have no problem treating Rihanna’s body the way Chris Brown did just before those famous photographs: as something to project our own violence upon; as something less valuable than us. Even as we stare at the photographs of her hand, making important arguments about the importance of cultural wholeness and continuity, we sidestep the rather awkward situation in which the ink on her hand means more to us than the blood that flows in and out from the heart which is located somewhere out of the view of the camera. We have chosen our holy liquid: ink is more important to us than blood.

Of course, in the Māori language we have a little pun on the word ‘moko’ – as well as meaning ‘tattoo’ it is widely used as a shortened form of ‘mokopuna,’ or grandchild. Rihanna is a descendent of her own family tree, a family tree that includes a number of branches. We all are. Surely our ancestors not only want us to be alive but they also want us to be well: physically, emotionally, spiritually, culturally well. I was angry with Rihanna when I started writing this, but now I feel aroha for her. I wish her all the best. I hope one day she finds a way to shine bright like a moko of her own ancestors, rather than looking for who she is in a palimpsest of other peoples’ moko stretched across the skin of her hand.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Publishing Pacific Lit: Alice, do you have a blog?

Lani Wendt Young, a prolific and dynamic Pacific writer, came to visit us at UH Mānoa on Monday.

(I call her a Pacific writer rather than a Samoan writer because she also has whakapapa to Aotearoa if memory serves correctly.)

It was lovely to host her, lovely to hear her talk, and especially lovely to have such a strong Pacific presence in the English Dept lounge... a room packed full of Pacific people, listening to a Pacific writer talk about Pacific literature... yes, this is what my dreams are made of.

Lani is a bit of a publishing phenomenon, partly because she has brought the marvels of electronic publishing into our watery region... literally tens of thousands of people have downloaded her 'Telesa' novels, and as she points out, that's only counting the people who have accessed them legally. So, far and away the biggest hit in Pacific lit in terms of access and distribution.

This makes me think a lot of things about publishing in the region.  We've been talking about the politics of publishing in classes and other conversations for a while - ever since Papa Ron Crocombe wrote in the 1980s that publishing and distribution was an especially important factor in the world of Pacific literature, scholars have tried either to ignore the problems of 'traditional' publishing or to overstate them to the point that we spend all our time talking about the existence or mobility of Pacific books and not enough time talking about what's between the Pacific book covers.

I've been rampaging about for a while about what I keep calling 'a crisis in Māori poetry,' which is to say that far fewer Māori poets in English are coming to publication in the 21st century than we might expect given the range and sheer number of Māori poets. The upshot is that there is no tangible record of the diversity and vitality of the Māori poetry scene if the place you look for such a record is a bookshelf (especially a bookshelf at an ordinary bookstore).

I had a conversation with a good friend who's a Pasifika poet about my own journey with poetry, and when she asked me about my own poetry I gave her two honest answers: one, I am sick of trying to get published and sick of the 'scene' side of things; and two, it feels a bit disingenuous to rush about proclaiming the racism and narrowness of publishers given the number of amazing Māori poets whoa re writing, and in the same breath providing my own unpublished manuscript as some kind of evidence of the fact.

So, I now write poetry in an uncommitted way. I have a secret blog where I write poems about infertility; this is 'therapy poetry' in which I write through the anguish of finding it difficult to conceive a baby in the context of a community which is more concerned about a perceived problem of our inability or unwillingness to prevent pregnancy rather than any inability to achieve pregnancy in the first place. I have a manuscript of poems that I submit on occasion to publishers or prizes, and each time I do so I update it, sub in and out a few poems, wriggle it around, all the time (if I'm honest) knowing that it's probably not going to be published anyway. I agree to read poetry when asked, usually, but I try to avoid being asked.

When Lani was on campus she asked if I had a blog, and I replied truthfully that I do. Although, the real truth, when she asked if I write on it regularly, is that I don't.

I'm an infrequent blogger - so infrequent, in fact, that my blog has barely had a pulse. I haven't blogged since I was outraged about faculty housing, and that was back in February. I think about blogging all the time. When I was on sabbatical, I kept a blog ( and I posted two days out of three for the entire year. It was an astoundingly productive year in terms of writing, and I found I had many things I wanted to write about. I miss blogging and I often find myself composing sentences, phrases and titles for posts I don't go on to write. I miss blogging like I miss knitting: I love it, I miss it, I seem to have not found time in married life for it to happen. I'm not blaming married life - I'm blaming myself. But it strikes me that maybe blame isn't the way to get back to the blog.      

So here I am, an uncommitted poet and an infrequent blogger. If I had to pick one over the other, I confess it would be the blog. Why? I love poetry, I love writing it, I love reading it, and I often (although not always) enjoy hearing it performed. But when I kept my sabbatical blog I felt like I was saying something - really saying something - that people were reading. I found in my blog an outlet for doing one of the things I believe is part of my role as a scholar: using my education and exposure to a range of experiences etc in order to contribute thoughtful ideas into a wider conversation. One of my favourite quotes about academia comes from William Germano, an academic publisher, who says "a scholar's life is a writing life." My job (my vocation, really) is not to be 'the expert' but it is to use my expertise to the best of my ability in order to make - through writing as well as through other means - a contribution.

I set up this blog when I first arrived in Hawaii, thinking I'd blog every day or at least a few times a week. When Lani asked if I blog frequently I gave her an honest answer. Next time she asks me I want to give her another honest answer, and I want that answer to be 'yes.' Why?

Not for me and not to please Lani. But because - and this was my 'take home' message from Lani's visit - Pacific Lit needs to stop waiting for publishers to get the words out there to our communities. We give them too much power. It's time to take control of our stories back, and the way to do that is not to wait for someone to publish them or even to busy ourselves with trying to replicate the same old models of publishing them but simply to tell them: urgently, passionately, widely, truthfully, and - in 2013 more than ever - electronically.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Faculty Housing: a tale for Waitangi Day

It was Waitangi Day on Wednesday... the 173rd birthday of the document which turned Aotearoa into New Zealand, at least for some people and in some ways. The treaty itself is laid out in three 'articles' and each of these has a different way of being problematic in terms of translation, application and breaches.

The major guarantee for Maori is the wording 'tino rangatiratanga' which is in the second article: this is what Maori retain, and it is often - (un)helpfully - directly translated 'absolute chieftainship' although, of course, it is perhaps more helpfully translated 'sovereignty' (well, more helpful if you think that's what Maori retain), a term which has become prominent in many Indigenous communities as an expression of - yes, here's another catchphrase - self determination.

But what do all of these things - self-determination, sovereignty, absolute chieftainship - actually mean? And how do they work across Maori and English languages?

Since 1840, one issue for Maori has been determining the relationship between tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake: both of these are translated 'sovereignty' but they are clearly not the same phrase in Maori. Rather than providing a linguistic or anthropological analysis of how these are and aren't connected, I think it's easier to tell a story. A tale.

A tale for Waitangi Day.


Here at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa there are three complexes of housing for people who work at the university. This is a very expensive real estate market, and moving here from outside Hawai'i is inevitably a costly process, and this housing is intended to 'soften the blow' a little for new employees as they transition to life in Honolulu. The benefit of Faculty Housing is that it is subsidised: rent for a large two bedroom place per month is around $1100, which is several hundred dollars less than on the 'open market' and with the advantage of being well maintained and close to campus.

So, as soon as I was offered the job at UH, I asked to be put on 'the list' for faculty housing. I was ineligible for one of the complexes (because it is for familes with more than three people, and we are presently a two person family) so my name went on the list for the other two.

I waited, and waited, and shortly before moving here I started to wonder if I should come up with an alternative plan for accomodation so I emailed someone who explained that I am a lower priority because I have come in as an Assoc Professor rather than as an Assistant Professor, and (in answer to my next question) no, the fact I was coming from overseas didn't make a difference. Clearly at some point they thought it would be a good idea to prioritise the list by 'need' and the way they thought they could determine 'need' would be to put the Assistant Professors up the list because they are newer to the game. That's fair, right?

This makes sense, of course, until you consider that 'Assistant' and 'Associate' are not the only ways that 'need' might be determined. If we're talking about financial need, it's possible that people coming from overseas are likely to be financially disadvantaged regardless of rank because it costs so much to move here and we tend to arrive with weaker currencies in our bank accounts than US dollars. Also, people are paid different rates depending on the College and Department they work for: as someone who works in English, even on an Assoc Prof salary, I am earning significantly less than I would be if I started in the sciences, for example. Indeed, I am unlikely to ever make as much money at UH, at any rank, as a starting Assistant Professor in Astrophysics.

This also makes sense unless you consider that US work visas work in such a way that new employees who are not US citizens are likely to be on a visa which disallows them from working for an employer other than UH (no second job to make a bit of extra cash, something many academics rely on) and their spouses will be disallowed from working at all. During the transition to the US, until green cards are in hand, the money of non-US citizens has to stretch further, wider, longer and deeper and we have no legal way to 'top up' our income.

I started to realise I needed a plan B for housing, and found a subletting arrangement elsewhere on the island that worked well for the first semester. As soon as I arrived, however, I sought further advice and information about Faculty Housing. I was in a holding pattern, waiting my turn on the list, and wanted to know how long I might need to wait.

It turned out we might have to wait a while.

The theory of Faculty Housing is that you can stay for a maximum of three years (a one year lease which can be renewed twice) which is fair enough. It means the available housing can be used by the maximum number of people coming into the university and three years should give people enough time to find their feet. However, the management of Faculty Housing doesn't apply this rule in any kind of consistent way, which means that there are people living in Faculty Housing for years. And years. Like, eighteen years. Twelve years. Many, many years. This isn't a transition for these people; it's a lifestyle. A lifestyle which means if you want to see a really nice selection of new (and often luxury) cars in Honolulu just go to the Faculty Housing parking lot.

Because people don't tend to leave, new people don't tend to be able to come in. There are always exceptional circumstances which mean a rule needs to be stretched - family situations, health situations, and so on - and it is appropriate for some people to stay for longer than three years I'm sure. But when we noticed the lovely cars outside many of the place, when we realised some families there are made up of two working adults who are highly paid, and when started hearing there are apparently people living there who own and rent out residential properties elsehere in Honolulu, we started to really wonder.

Now, you may be thinking 'but academics have sabbaticals - do the people who stay in their houses for all that time never leave? Or does that create 'natural' opportunities to move people out?' There's an answer of course, and that answer is subletting. This is expressly against the rules but overlooked. People on the waiting list are often desperate enough to sublet from people already in faculty housing while they wait for their name to come up... which is understandable because believe my I know how desperate one can feel in this real estate market! But, this only means that the people from whom they sublet are able to stay in their apartment for even longer. And so it goes on.

I kept asking about the status of my place on the list and kept being told my rank meant I wasnt a priority, and that there were so many people on the list that it always took this long. Which I believed until I heard about people who started at UH the same time as me who were already in housing and had been since they stepped off the plane. I started to get desperate, and was advised that the thing to do is lobby for my Dean to advocate for me to be prioritised. It turns out, you see, that 'the list' is not really followed after all. There's a complicated system of favours and advocacy which means the housing is assigned to people when they have someone higher up the foodchain arguing for the rules to be broken.

At the end of January Vula and I needed to have a place to live and we were desperate. I was frequently in tears: frustrated with the deep & multi-layered unfairness of the system, beyond stressed about the possibility of having nowhere to live on 1 February, tired from not sleeping properly, and fatigued by constantly having to spend so much energy trying to get some traction with faculty housing. I started to dream about spending our next paycheck on tickets out of here, in a classic case of wanting to run away from our problems.

One day, as I sat hopelessly sobbing and wiping away the snot on the sleeve of my tshirt, Vula gently pointed out the obvious. (No, not that I looked like a mess although that was also true.) The problem here was that we didn't have power over our own decisions. We were waiting for someone else to make this possible for us. As long as we thought faculty housing was our only (or best) option, we were stuck in a pattern of dependence on a system which was deeply unfair in its structure, had always been unfair, and was unfairly managed. None of our logical arguments would change this; none of our impassioned cries would change it either. Too many people benefit from the system in its present state for things to change anyway.

As soon as he said it, the clouds began to clear. It was a relief to suddenyl realise that we'd been confusing 'Faculty Housing' with 'Housing' and it wasn't actually a requirement to have faculty housing in order to move here. Sure, it would have been convenient but, as Vula said in the conversation, if faculty housing wasnt on offer we would have just gone ahead and sorted out our own accomodation sooner. It wasn't the only practical avenue to housing, and it would take less energy to find our own place than to attempt to work with - let along fix - the system presently in place.

I realised I had been nurturing a fantasy of living in faculty housing which I had had since I first lived in Hawaii back in 2003. I'd visited people who had apartments there and had always dreamed of living in such an wonderful environment. When we stayed in a friend's apartment there in January I found myself seeing another side of that dream: the fancy cars, the subletting, the way people kept asking Vula what he was doing there (I guess they don't expect Fijian men to be academics, or spouses of academics?), the narrow band of society who lived there. (Let's face it, Faculty Housing is a gated community with a list instead of a gate.) Part of giving up the fantasy of living there involves reminding myself that it has only been a fantasy: it has never actually functioned equitably, and when it has appeared to fuction well that has been 'paid for' by some other, inequitable, part of the system. And yet, miraculously, the dream has not been totally undermined by the inequity or the experience. Dreams die hard and are astoundingly resistant to facts or realities, including dreams about Faculty Housing. However, at some point you have to make a break with 'what could have been' and start with 'here we are, a family with our own needs, priorities and aspirations.'

In the last two weeks of January we both spent hours looking for places online, going to check them out, filling in applications for places, and trying to stay proactive. After quite a few setbacks we received a phone call offering us the small two bedroom apartment in which I am typing up this blog post. We scraped together the deposit (which we would have called a 'bond' in NZ) and moved in.

We're home tonite. If I lean sideways on my chair, I can look out of the study and see Vula in the lounge. The rent here is marginally more than faculty housing, although the length of our entire apartment is probably as long as the lounges there and, rather than having a bathroom and ensuite like the apartments have there, we have the smallest bathroom in the world. Nothing our neighbour upstairs does goes unnoticed because we can hear his every move; we suspect it's the same for him. Our cockroaches are sturdy and stubborn and there's a giant can of bug spray on top of the fridge which we need to grab most nights. We're still very close to campus - actually closer! - but we're close in the opposite direction and it turns out this means we're closer to lots of other great places and even more buslines. Our neighbours here are all happy to wave and say 'good morning' to both of us, and we enjoy hearing the kids playing up and down the driveway just outside our window. We are deliriously happy: we have our own place, our own whare, our own vale.

At the end of the day, we needed housing. It didn't have to be faculty housing. It just needed to be a place where we could stop constantly battling to get up the list or on the list and could start getting on with our lives as a family. This place isn't as flash as Faculty Housing would have been but it's much more 'us.' We look forward to hosting people here, cooking here, gardening here, writing here, living here. I'm looking forward to blogging here.

I've received an email letting me know it's time to re-enrol on the housing list: I need to supply the letter of my offer of employment at UH, my contract, a signature from my boss. We're not going to bother.


The  moral of this tale, I hope, is clear.

This process has reminded me of what can happen when we as Maori find ourselves locked into a relationship with the Crown in which we are waiting for the email to let us know we got the apartment. I still believe in the dream of Waitangi, and in the dream of an equitable and mutually beneficial relationship between Maori and non-Maori in New Zealand. And yet, we risk wasting so much energy and living our lives 'on hold' if we are not honest with ourselves about the deep flaws in the system and the impact of the intertia of those who presently benefit so much from it.

Mana motuhake, tino rangatiratanga. Sovereignty. Self-determination. These things aren't just big political phrases but how we live our lives... Sometimes it means responding to our material circumstances and making decisions based on what we actually need rather than what's on offer. Sometimes it requires us to address our dreams and aspirations, recognising that if they have been shaped by someone else's values and power they have the capacity to limit us too.

Waitangi Day 2013. That place up there on the hill may be housing, but this place is home.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

New Years Resolutions

Yesterday afternoon, as she walked towards her house and Vula & I walked towards ours, I turned to my friend Lisa and called out 'Happy New Year!' and then, afterwards, 'how long do I get to say that?' How long indeed. This was the first time I'd seen Lisa since December so it seemed like a reasonable thing to say when I first saw her waiting for the same bus on campus... but after a twenty minute bus ride it seemed a bit, well, out of date. 

Here in the US time is marked by colours in the stores. Last time I blogged, the stores were crammed full of orange and brown, the colours associated with Thanksgiving, regardless of the fact we live in the north Pacific and trees here are just as green in November as they are the rest of the year (but this is the US, and even after all of these years the 'real' US remains in Boston and New York and other places where Europeans first moved in to stay); brown and orange were quickly followed by the green and red of Christmas (and a touch of blue and white for Hanukkah); this was replaced recently by the red and pink of Valentines Day; which will give way to pastel shades for Easter (I've never been able to make sense of why Easter gets pastel); then red, white and blue for the 4th of July and before you know it we're almost back to Fall. Yes, these are the colours of shopping, and they ensure that every few weeks   a trip to the shops becomes an opportunity to buy new things for the new festive season. It's a colour party, and we're all invited. Orange and brown! Red and green! Blue and white! Red and pink! Pastel! Red, white and blue! Woohoo! Get in the party mood! Buy! Buy! Buy!

Here in our home, time is marked on the one hand by semesters and academic years, and on the other hand by anniversaries. We're both at school this year: Vula is studying and I'm teaching, and even though it's only week two we have already developed memory imprints of daily patterns and routes and  breakfasts and lunches and bus timetables. Here in the orderly world of American university study, where timetables come in variations of only two basic forms - MWF or TR - and our classes are MWF (for me) and MW (for him) we have found that we have lovely Tuesdays 'off' together and we've found that Monday and Wednesday mornings are a collaborative effort to get out the door. The school year will shape our home year: fifteen more weeks of our MWF/MW routines, punctuated by a 'Spring Break' to celebrate the return of nice weather (not that it actually went anywhere when you live in Hawai'i, but I'm sure it's lovely for people in Boston); then a long lazy stretch of 'summer' which is three months in which our time is completely our own. Summers in academic jobs in NZ don't mean quite the same thing: here, summer means you're not actually employed by the university and so if you sleep or knit or go to the moon for three months they really don't care; there, summer means you still have to go to work but with easier parking and less food outlets open on campus. Yesterday I got my course assignments for 'next year' (starting late August), which means the other end of summer is less an open range of possibilities and more a quiet return to yet another semesterly routine. Vula's thinking about his next classes. And so it goes on. 

Time is also, however, marked by anniversaries, and with a relationship history like ours there are anniversaries scattered all over the month: when we 'friended' on facebook, when we first met, when Vula arrived in Hawai'i and we started properly living together, when we got engaged, when we got married. Our first three weeks were spent apart, while we waited for his US visa, and I found myself impatient to wait for a whole year in order to celebrate crossing a line in the sand... so I bought happy anniversary' cards and replaced the word 'year' with 'week' three times in a row until he arrived and I could tell him to his face. 

So, am I too late for New Years Resolutions? If wishing Lisa a cheery 'Hapy New Year' felt a bit awkward yesterday, maybe I am. 

Perhaps I need to just follow through with them rather than list them. Perhaps I need to just do it. (Swoosh.) 

And so I did, I just did it. I just wrote a blog while sitting in singlet and sulu, listening to the gentle domestic sound of Vula did our breakfast dishes, putting aside for the moment my teaching prep and research 'to do' list. I miss the blog, I miss writing, I miss the feeling that the most natural thing for me to do each day is write. I miss the feeling of feeling like something wasn't right when I hadn't blogged. I'm not going to make it a resolution because the stores are already crammed with red and pink, it's week two of semester, and we're nearly at our five month anniversary since becoming engaged. 'Set goals, not resolutions!' someone's facebook status recently read. It's not quite a resolution, not quite a goal. Certainly not a lifestyle and nothing to put on a planner, calendar or diary page. Just a practice of stopping the world for ten minutes to write. 

I'm back.