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.