Debbie Broughton at the launch of her debut poetry collection The Ani Waaka Room in 2022, with her daughter Haariata Broughton-Kaihau and her mother Margaret Broughton. (Photo supplied)

Debbie Broughton wanted a break from her arid, challenging job in Wellington, so she took a creative writing class. She not only rediscovered her love of poetry, which led to a high-profile exhibition, and then to her debut poetry book The Ani Waaka Room. She also reconnected with her Taranaki whakapapa and whanaunga — and with the history of how her tūpuna ended up in Wellington.

Here’s Debbie, who also has whakapapa to Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga ā Hauiti and Ngāpuhi, talking with Maraea Rakuraku.


You’re a researcher and editor, and you’ve studied law, both Pākehā and Māori. So what is it about poetry that moves you?

It’s freeing. I can say what I want to say, and it’s not negotiated by an organisation or a boss or anyone else. My words aren’t changed.

But I didn’t really start writing poetry until I was in my 30s. I remember writing a poem in Form One, when I was 11 years old, and I loved everything about it. But then in college, I wrote a story about a girl whose nan’s request to whāngai her was rejected, and the fallout from that. I thought my story was choice and that I’d get a high grade. When I saw the “C”, I was gutted. Then my paper got moderated to an “A” so I didn’t know if it was good or if it sucked.

I was pretty nerdy and I liked getting good grades. I didn’t want to risk another “C”. So I self-banned myself from creative writing. And didn’t write a poem again for 25 years. Dramatic, eh?

And now you’ve written a whole book of poems, The Ani Waaka Room, which we’ll talk about shortly. But what was it that led you back to poetry after so long?

I was working in Te Ūpoko o Te Ika at a kaupapa Māori research unit.

I was writing a lot of stuff there. But any research organisation goes through different layers of hierarchy, and whatever’s published doesn’t feel like it’s actually from you. And it’s definitely not from your ngākau. I wanted something completely different.

So, I signed up to the Māori and Pasifika Creative Writing Course at the International Institute of Modern Letters, at Te Herenga Waka, which was being taught at the time by Hinemoana Baker and Tina Makereti. They taught different forms of writing and poetry, and it all just kind of came back to me.

I was like: “That’s right, once upon a time, as an 11-year-old, I was into this.” And I just loved the way that Tina and Hinemoana taught. It was very much: “You do you. You say what you want to say, how you want to say it. You set your boundaries. No limits.”

I really took that on board because I was in the opposite environment at work. For me, it was the freedom to really say what I thought and what I felt.

And that was really the start of your journey, nē hā? Not only as a poet but in terms of reconnecting with your Taranaki whakapapa and whanaunga, and with the history of how your tīpuna ended up in Wellington.

We’ll circle back to that, but let’s start with your whānau first. The poem in your book that resonates the most with me at this moment is the one about how you didn’t even know your koro was Māori. “The things I knew about my granddad when he was alive, and things I didn’t know about my granddad when he was alive.”

True story. I loved my grandad. I grew up in Pito-one, and Grandad and my nanny, Mum’s parents, were in Whāngārā running Millar’s General Store (which was named after Grandad). And then they moved to Dannevirke when I was eight. We visited them all the time.

My grandad was always really warm and really welcoming to us kids, because there were six of us running around the house when we went there. And I thought he was just lovely. But I didn’t grow up knowing that he was Māori.

It’s a real sadness for him, Debbie. It’s part of the colonising process. But that’s not the case now, nē?

It’s not now, because we’re reinvigorating those connections. But the poem was very much reflecting on that. As a kid, I didn’t realise that my beautiful blonde-haired mum, Margaret, was Māori, so I never traced that back to my grandad.

On the other side of my whakapapa, my dad, Jerry Broughton, was Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, Ngāti Porou and Ngāpuhi, and I grew up knowing that I was Māori through my dad.

Then at some stage, as an adult, there was this gradual realisation that Mum had whakapapa Māori too, through Grandad, and that she had links to whenua in Taranaki and Te Ūpoko o Te Ika. And that realisation eventually became: “What?! Grandad was Māori?”

That thought had never entered my head from when I was born to when I was 11, despite all the interactions that I’d had with him.

Inevitably, we end up reconnecting to who we are. Our tīpuna want us to. They’re just waiting, and then as soon as you make the connection, you start to see it everywhere.

Yeah, absolutely, 100 percent.

“There was this gradual realisation that Mum had whakapapa Māori too, through Grandad, and that she had links to whenua in Taranaki and Te Ūpoko o Te Ika. And that realisation eventually became: ‘What?! Grandad was Māori?'” Pictured: Debbie, in the blue hoodie, with her grandfather Leonard Millar (whose grandmother was Ani Waaka), mother Margaret Broughton, and siblings. (Photo supplied)

So when and how did you learn about your mother’s whakapapa? Was it a slow process of piecing together the jigsaw over time?

When I started my master’s at Te Wānanga o Raukawa in 2010, I had to do iwi-hapū papers. Distance made it hard to focus all my papers on Dad’s side, so I thought I’d try Mum’s. But my fear of rejection was huge. I asked Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust for their support. All I knew was that Mum was registered with them and pretty much nothing else. The whanaungatanga they showed me was next level, from the moment I walked in the door — and the kōrero they shared with me was beyond generous. It felt like a homecoming!

And maybe another kind of homecoming happened after that writing course, nē? Because, after you finished the course, Tina Makereti suggested that you apply to have your work exhibited in the Courtenay Place light boxes in Wellington. And that led to The Magical Māori Mystery Tour of Wellington in 2018, which Tina curated. And you also invited Rachel Buchanan and Alice Te Punga Somerville to contribute work as well.

What’s fascinating is that the light boxes are just across from the site of Te Aro Pā, which you whakapapa to on your mum’s side.

That’s right. The lightboxes are around the corner from Te Aro Pā Visitor’s Centre on Taranaki Street. The rohe of Te Aro Pā is actually much larger — it’s an extensive rohe which runs from the waterfront right down to the southern coast.

So that was the genesis that turned a few years later into my book, The Ani Waaka Room, which was published in 2022. It was triggered by going to that course, and having the tutors give me permission to be me on paper. And then, after the course, came the chance to do the light boxes exhibition.

And, as I was walking around the city, I’d have these weird experiences, and I’d think: “I’m supposed to write about that.” I just had that feeling. So I’d walk down the street to meet Mum for lunch, and I’d run into someone, and I’d go: “I think that’s something I need to record. Even if it’s just for me. Even if it never makes it into the book because it’s too personal.”

So, all those things were happening, and everything was firing. And I saw this sign that said: “Take a tour of taonga Māori — it’s just half an hour,” or something like that. And I was like: “Yeah right, because it only takes you half an hour.” You know, there were these things that were showing themselves to me, revealing themselves, as I was walking along.

Kind of like a found poem. Like you’re seeing a layer, but then when you’re learning more, that layer is revealing itself to be something else.


Courtenay Place light boxes exhibition. The Magical Māori Mystery Tour of Wellington, curated by Tina Makereti and written by Debbie Broughton and guests, in 2018. (Supplied)

I think it was 2005 when they discovered the remains of Te Aro Pā during the construction of an apartment building.

That’s right. And one of the things that I think has changed, or has entered people’s perception with the visitor centre there, is knowing that this is where Te Aro Pā was located and that Māori people lived there. Some people in cities have historical amnesia. They forget that Māori didn’t just move to cities after they were built. We were here before their cities. We were pushed out. Our homes became their cities.

I ran into a woman who had lived in those apartments, and she said that when they bought their apartment, the building manager took them down and gave them the tour and told them the history.

And she was really impressed. He was like: “You’re living here. You need to know the land on which you’re living.” I was really impressed with that too.

“Some people in cities have historical amnesia. They forget that Māori didn’t just move to cities after they were built. We were here before their cities. We were pushed out. Our homes became their cities.”

I also know people who’ve got apartments there and they’ve had some very eery, spooky experiences.

Oh, no doubt.

No doubt. They were from up north. They did not like it there. Obviously there’s something in their whakapapa that was connecting with the old people down there.

And that’s such an important point. As a new poet being invited to writers’ events and travelling to different rohe, I hadn’t thought to be mindful of relationships when visiting different regions.

That was apparent one time when I was in Wairarapa with my cousin Rachel Buchanan. I knew who the hau kāinga were, but I didn’t know the history between our iwi from Taranaki and Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa.

And talk about chilling. There were things that happened over there with me and Rachel, where I was actually like: “Get me out of here. I just want to go home.” And when we came off Remutaka, it all just went away. It all just melted.

What you’ve described is almost a work hazard, isn’t it, when you’re Māori? You must be mindful of whakapapa and relationship because what happened to you may not happen to someone from Waikato or Tūhoe. It’s yet another reminder that we carry that whakapapa within us, and, of course, it’s going to come up against what sits on the mana whenua of where we are.

Yes! Whakapapa is everything. My cousins Rachel and Hana Buchanan and I have been performing together as Te Aro Pā Poets since about 2019. We have this shared history that goes back to Te Kāhui Maunga and Kurahaupō. It’s not a new relationship, it’s a reinvigoration of what has been here since the mountains and the canoes.

Our kaupapa is to tell the stories of our pā and its descendants. Whenever we can, we do that in the rohe of Te Aro Pā. There are Māori in our rohe who are really good at recognising who we are. They support us without us even having to say anything. Like, they’ll tell us: “You guys go first.” That kind of recognition and holding of the space for us as mana whenua.

And we’ve also experienced the other end of the spectrum where not just non-Māori but other Māori are taking up these amazing opportunities in our rohe here. And we don’t deny them at all, obviously. But, we think: “Gee, you’d think they’d look at that programme and think, Hmm . . .”

Where’s the mana whenua voice?

Exactly. And that’s really hard because we don’t want to come across as the people who are going around demanding: “Look at me, I’m mana whenua. I’m a mana whenua poet.” We don’t want to give that impression at all.

“Our kaupapa is to tell the stories of our pā and its descendants. Whenever we can, we do that in the rohe of Te Aro Pā.”

But, Debbie, isn’t that a responsibility that you hold as mana whenua? As a poet of your whakapapa, with a certain degree of knowledge around the impacts of  colonisation. That’s the responsibility, nē?

It is. And sometimes you just think it’s too much, especially because our rohe is a city. It’s not a little town with one thing happening every few months. It has a really vibrant arts scene and there’s festivals going on all the time. But there’s things we’ll hear about literally the night before. And we’re like: “We didn’t even know that was happening, and we would have gone to tautoko or whatever.”

But then we also get others like The Performance Arcade, a live art and music festival which has been going at Te Aro Pā for something like 14 years. And they want to work with us — and they’re willing to respect our boundaries when we say, you know, we’re not here to do your karakia and your whakawātea.

We’ve had to be firm in our rohe about picking and choosing where our energy is best spent. We’ve identified key relationships to support and we’re finding these relationships are developing more easily with the arts scene rather than the writing scene.

When you did The Magical Māori Mystery Tour of Wellington, you didn’t know you were related to Rachel Buchanan. And you probably didn’t know that you also had a whakapapa relationship to Tina either?

When I wrote the first draft, I kind of knew that we all had whakapapa to Taranaki, but I didn’t really understand that it meant our tīpuna were here at the same time.

It wasn’t until we were developing the exhibition that I read Rachel’s book The Parihaka Album. And I was looking at the start of it, and thinking: “Jeez, these tūpuna names are looking pretty familiar.” Because, as it turned out, our whānau have deep whakapapa connections. We come from the same hapū of Taranaki Iwi.

My tūpuna from Taranaki were Pirihira Matangi (aka Pirihira Parai) and Wi Kingi Te Awhitu. Pirihira lived through so many life-changing events for our hapū. She died in 1897, at the age of 95. She was born into Ngāti Haumia and survived war, forced migration, Crown atrocities like Te Pāhua, and being pushed out of Te Aro Pā.

I always tell people that Pirihira was an absolute boss. She had three husbands. I come from her marriage to Wi Kingi Te Awhitu. The connection with the Buchanans is through the marriage of Pirihira and Hemi Parai — the Buchanans descend from Hemi Parai and his marriage to Tawhirikura Karopihia. Pirihira and Hemi Parai also had two sons. And one of those boys is the one I’m talking about in the poem about the ploughing of Parihaka when he was 14 years old.

Obviously, all those tūpuna who came from Taranaki are inter-related, and Tina has shared that story of the migration and the movement of Taranaki diaspora. So it was really super cool for all of us to come together on the Magical Māori Mystery Tour of Wellington.

Having those connections with other Taranaki diaspora, and being part of Te Aro Pā Poets with my cousins has meant that I haven’t felt like I’m the lone poet that’s putting out her story poems into the world. Because I’ve got my cousins around me. It’s just a really cool thing to not feel alone.

How do you find the Māori poetry scene?

I feel like it’s incredibly supportive and encouraging and there’s a real whanaungatanga, but that’s because I’ve got my rōpū who are connected by whakapapa. So, I might say my stories in my particular way, but I’m speaking a story that’s familiar to so many of our whanaunga.

I don’t feel alone on the journey. I feel supported and even encouraged. Not just: “That’s great that you’re doing that,” but more like: “Do it, do it! Do more! Do what you can. Share what you want to share.”

And Hana writes her toi kupu in te reo Māori as well, which is not my strong point, but she really encourages us to do that too, to use what we know.

Especially when we’re performing in te reo Māori, and making sure our Taranaki reo is reverberating around our pā. That’s a big part of our kaupapa. That our tūpuna names are heard on our pā. That our tūpuna stories and our generation’s stories are heard on our whenua.

Why is your book called The Ani Waaka Room?

I struggled with the name of the collection, which isn’t the case for the poem titles, which I love doing. I literally crack myself up with poem titles.

The Ani Waaka Room is a room in the Johnsonville Library. It was my editor who actually said to me: “I think it should be this.” And I went: “Why would it be that? That’s in Johnsonville, and the focus of the book is Te Aro Pā.” And then I thought, yeah, I’m putting my tūpuna name on the cover of my book. She’s my grandfather’s grandmother. So, yes, great-great-grandmother.

Why does the Johnsonville Library have a room named after her?

It turns out my mum’s aunty still lives on tūpuna land in Johnsonville. I don’t know all the details but it seems our tūpuna relocated to whenua in Johnsonville after being pushed out of Te Aro Pā. That’s the connection with Johnsonville.

And there’s a kuia called Ann Reweti at Wellington City Library, who I got to know when I was researching for my master’s. She would set aside information and books for me. She’s that person. Incredibly supportive. It was through Whaea Ann’s resources that I learned about my connection to Te Aro Pā. Because she works at the library, she was involved with Kura Moeahu in naming those rooms.

She wanted them to be named after wāhine, to acknowledge the wāhine in the area. Mana whenua wanted to acknowledge two of the tūpuna who lived on Māori reserve land in Johnsonville around the turn of the century. Those two women were Akanihi Himiona (after whom the Akanihi Room was named) and my tūpuna Ani Waaka.

I found out about the room because I’d been googling all my tūpuna names and I saw it. Normally, I’d be challenging that. “You’re not doing that. You’re not taking our names!” But I was so happy that she’d done it because there is no marae at that part of Johnsonville and we hadn’t yet re-established our connection back to Taranaki. So I was like: “We have a room! It’s a room in a library, and it’s got my tupuna’s name on it.”

It was a recognition and re-establishment of our connection, and it was super cool.

Debbie with Ann Reweti (second from right). (Photo Wellington Public Libraries / Facebook)

When you were ready to publish your poetry collection, you were working at Te Tākapu, the publishing arm of Te Wānanga o Raukawa, and you decided to go with them as publishers. How was that?

After we did The Magical Māori Mystery Tour, I wrote more poems and sent them to Rachel. Just to say, what do you reckon, tuakana? And she went: “This is great! Write more!”

I did that, then handed it on to Ani Mikaere, who was the kaihautū of Te Tākapu at the Wānanga. I thought they wouldn’t publish it because they’d never done poetry before, but because I worked there, it felt weird to go to anyone else first.

And Ani said: “Yeah! Let’s do it.”

The way Te Tākupu approached the publication was really trusting of me. I got to make a lot of the decisions about how my work was going to go out into the world. So everything from the font that was used to the weight of the paper.

I wanted this book to sit on a shelf in a bookshop and look Māori. So that there’s no mistaking that this is a Māori book, and there’s going to be Māori stories in it. Because when I had The Magical Māori Mystery Tour of Wellington up in the light boxes, one feedback was: “When you walk past it, apart from the words at a glance, you can’t see that it’s Māori.”

And I really took that on board. Which is why I asked Ariki Brightwell to consider creating the cover art for the book. She knew Te Aro Pā really well because she guided the walking tours around the pā. I just knew that she was the right person. The cover art she created, and the mātauranga within her work, showed that not only did she get the stories, she got, got the stories.

I was really lucky that Te Tākupu trusted me. I had really strong opinions around how I wanted things to look, and I’m sure I made mistakes and there were things I could have done better. But I really trusted myself and my typesetter and my editor. I trusted that I could do it and make the right decisions.

Rachel wrote the foreword, and she and Hana were a key part of supporting me to do the book. Early on in the process of writing the manuscript, I worked with an editor, and then I submitted for the Kathleen Grattan Award, and it was shortlisted in the top five, which was affirming.

The Ani Waaka Room was published by Te Tākupu, Te Wānanga o Raukawa. (Photo supplied)

But do those things matter? Does it matter when you get that kind of public endorsement in terms of building a career as a writer, as a poet?

I think for me, at the early stages of writing poems, it was encouraging to have someone who didn’t know me personally, say: “There is something in these stories.” It’s not just your mates or whatever saying: “Yeah, yeah, go Debbie.”

There’s something here that other people can relate to, which is what I found when we performed our poems. Afterwards, people would come up to me and say: “Oh, I can see myself in this. This is my story.” Those are the things that have meant the most to me.

Debbie, you straddle that line between being a written and a performance poet — or are you both? You’re not straddling anything, you just happen to be both. Or is there even a difference?

Is there a difference? I mean, it’s been interesting. I think I’m quite shy and introverted, but I love getting on the stage and just saying whatever I want, which is my poems. I love that part.

I do struggle with being whakamā though. Why would someone want to come and see me? Read my poetry? Why would anyone else care?

But we have to go back to the kaupapa. It’s actually not about us. It’s about the stories. And yeah, trying to become more comfortable with the fact that it’s you standing there sharing them.

This is something that I’ve thought about when I’m teaching poetry writing workshops. When I teach Ahunga Tikanga (Māori Laws and Philosophy) students at Te Wānanga o Raukawa, it’s actually not about writing, it’s about supporting their confidence and getting them to share their stories.

For those who’ve been in Pākehā educational institutions, we’re having to remind them that they’re now in a Māori space and we want to know from them who they are, how they feel about things, not just what they think from an objective standpoint.

It’s actually just reminding them that they’re awesome, that they have awesome skills, and that they’re not starting from nowhere. They’ve got all these tūpuna behind them. They’re bringing all of themselves to the page, and they write these poems that are just fire. Like, fire.

A few of them told me they were never going to publish their work. And I was like: “Why are thinking you won’t publish?”

For some, it’s about the safety of the kōrero and the harm that’s happened to them, and for others it’s because they might get something wrong. And they’ve been taught that if you don’t know, then you shut up.

There’s a lot going on there. But what I also took from it was that we’re so creative when we’re given the tools, and given the space. It’s inherent in us. By the end of the workshop, these students have all written poems — they are Māori poets. And it makes me wonder: How much of our poetry is actually being published? In Māori or in Pākehā journals or whatever.

I honestly think it’s a tiny percentage because our people are creating all the time — whether it’s for ourselves or for our whānau and whānau records for our tamariki and mokopuna.

There is a tiny little trickle that might make its way through into the wider world. But people shouldn’t be mistaken that they’re seeing all the creativity that’s happening in te ao Māori in terms of poetry. There’s so much more.

Is it because we’re not hitting those mainstream points? And is publishing the only way that you hit the radar? What do you think?

I think it depends on whose radar you want to be on. Te Tākupu has strong relationships with whānau, Māori organisations and allies. The Ani Waaka Room was shared with whānau that non-Māori publishers and bookstores are probably not linked in with.

Outside these networks is a different group of people, and it can be hard to get on their radar. One thing that makes that happen in a big way is through awards. Books that win at the Ockhams, or are long or short-listed, get a lot of media attention. They get on the radar of people who may have never heard of them otherwise, which is a huge incentive for publishers to enter. But Te Tākupu books aren’t eligible to even enter the Ockhams. I’m not saying I’d get anywhere, but the doors closed because you need to give at least a 35 percent discount to booksellers in order to even put in an application. Te Tākupu operates with a different model so its books can’t enter.

So in book-selling and awards, there is definite gatekeeping. There are questions I have in my mind as well regarding the writers festivals and how they’re even putting together their programmes.

I think there’s a real lack of transparency as to how poets get into different spaces in the literary scene, even things like journals. I’ve only submitted two poems to one journal. And they both got rejected. There’s this kudos to publishing in journals that can make you feel pressured to submit when you’re beginning your career. But the editors of these journals are very rarely the target audience for my poems.

What that taught me was not to submit my writing to people who can’t take care of it, can’t keep it safe. But also wouldn’t even know how to assess whether it means something, because they’re not the target audience. My writing is for readers who have stories similar to my own whānau — and then, who’s reviewing my book?

Are they equipped to review it? And then are you just constantly getting the same kind of voice. The same Māori voice, which is Māori and educated but not Māori-educated. You can tell by the reo that’s been used. And aren’t we therefore limiting what Māori writers are?

Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s all these gates that you have to jump through to get these invitations and to be on these lists and be considered as an up-and-coming whatever. But I don’t even know whether I want to bother with any of it anyway, because they’re not who I need to share these stories with.

I know I need to share these stories with whānau who listen to them and go: “This is telling my story! That’s me. I feel less alone on my journey, because you’ve written about your journey.”

And it makes these whānau feel more connected to who we are, and more okay with where they’re at in their journey. And they’re not the people who are, on the whole, going to the literary festivals.

We’ve got a million kaupapa. We’ve got our parents, we’ve got our tamariki, we’ve got our nieces and nephews. We’ve got all sorts of stuff we’re trying to get done.

My students who told me they didn’t want to publish reminded me that publication doesn’t have to be the goal for our creative activity. Sometimes all we need to do is to write. And only share it if it works for us — and with people who we know will get us, and will love on us and our creations. There’s beauty and value in that.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2024

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