“I realised I write because I have to, because it’s all I can do in those circumstances.” — Isla Huia, poet, musician and te reo Māori teacher. (Supplied)

Isla Huia is a 26-year-old poet, musician, and reo Māori high school teacher from Ōtautahi/Christchurch. Her first book of poetry, Talia, published by Dead Bird Books, was shortlisted in the poetry section of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards this year. The book is named for her best friend, Natalia Saegusa, who died in 2022, aged 32.

In this kōrero with Maraea Rakuraku, Isla talks about the impact of that loss, and about why she writes.

 

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Ockhams this year — and for your first book of poetry, too. Being in the final four, from a starting lineup of 44 books, is such a huge achievement. For you, for your whānau, for Dead Bird Books, and for Talia too.

Kōrero mai ki au mō Talia. Tell me a little about Talia, please.

Natalia Saegusa is my best friend who passed away in January 2022.

I met her around 10 years ago when she was working at a gallery where my dad exhibited his paintings. And from then on, we were like sisters. We clicked immediately.

Talia was eight years older than me but we were so alike in how we experienced and saw the world. I think that was the truest and most valuable part of our friendship, the feeling of understanding each other and being seen, especially in a world which isn’t always kind to those of us who are different in any way.

I always find that writing allows me the space and freedom to process things. And I can tell by the way Talia has been compiled that it does the same for you too, Isla. Has that always been the case?

Āe. I’ve been writing mai rā anō, for a really long time. But I’d stopped writing creatively. I’d been at uni for four years doing my bachelor’s degree in te reo Māori and Indigenous studies, and then my master’s in teaching and learning. And I loved it, but the academic world sapped all of my energy and ability to write freely and without self-critique.

And then, after Talia passed, I started writing again. I realised I write because I have to, because it’s all I can do in those circumstances.

Later that year, I met Dominic Hoey, one of the founders of Dead Bird Books, at the Christchurch Word Festival, where we were both performing.

I’d always loved Dom’s writing. I went to all of his shows, and I’m not sure how, but he got hold of my email address, and he was like: “I’m going to publish your book.” And I said: “I don’t have a book.”

He told me that they print two books a year because they’re a small press, and if I could have something by December, they’d publish it. This was in September. And I said okay.

And so I was scrambling to mash together lots of old stuff and new stuff. It was a bit of a whirlwind and I just kind of smushed it all together. Many of the poems were already written. I just edited them and, you know, did different things. It’s very much a mixture of older writing and newer writing.

I immediately knew the book would be called Talia. A lot of the poems that I’d written that year were about her, and about the experience of living without her.

The other big part of it for me was the editing. I was probably a bit of a fragile human being at the time, so I definitely didn’t want anyone editing Natalia’s stories.

Best friends, Isla Huia and Natalia Saegusa. (Supplied)

“Talia was an artist and a painter mostly, and a lot of the sadness of her being 32 and passing away was that she never got to have her moment.”

Did it help you while you were grieving?

Yeah, definitely. When I started writing again after she passed, I wasn’t writing for performances or for a book or for any of my writing ever to be read. And then I met Dom and he was so set on us doing this book thing. So, in a way, I feel like it was kind of meant to happen that way.

He tohu pea. It was a sign.

Oh, very much so. And I couldn’t have known that at the time. I was writing purely to get it out of me. But, then it turned into what it was. And it also makes the whole thing — Talia and the performances and the Ockhams — doubly important and significant because I see Talia as the tohu for the whole thing.

It’s named after her and it’s her artwork on the front cover. That makes it even more special. My best friend’s name is in all these bookshops and people can see her art.

I really think it wouldn’t exist, certainly not in the way that it does, without Talia or losing her.

Talia was an artist and a painter mostly, and a lot of the sadness of her being 32 and passing away was that she never got to have her moment. She was self-conscious and didn’t really believe in her abilities.

I love the idea of just putting her out there into the world in the way she deserves to be. That’s a big part of it.

It’s a mihi to her. An honouring of Talia and your relationship. Tino ataahua hoki, Isla. As writers, we are telling the stories of the people we care about all the time in our community. We’ve often got hundreds of people we evoke in our work/words. If you understand that as a Māori writer, then you already understand whanaungatanga, manaakitanga, whakapapa and all those things that actually make us.

100 percent. About a year ago, I had a kōrero with someone from a magazine and she said, “Oh, it’s so interesting how under all of your titles, you’ve got ‘for this person’ or ‘about this’ or ‘from this event’,” or whatever. And it took me aback because what else would you write about? From a wāhine Māori perspective, of course my writing is about people, and of course it’s about places, and of course it’s about history.

But that kōrero really made me notice. It is interesting to note how Māori writers, wāhine Māori writers more than anyone else, are writing about people and place. Which just feels like the natural thing to write about. But I’d never noticed that until she pointed it out. Now, when I read other books, even if I totally love them and there’s nothing wrong with them at all, I can see the difference. I think that reflects the more individualistic societies that a lot of other writers come from.

Whereas, for me, people and places are definitely at the core of everything I want to say.

That’s what makes our voices distinct and that’s what makes us of here.

Absolutely. And it’s so natural as well. Like, Birdspeak by Arihia Latham. I was reading her book recently and I love it. It’s the same. Through the stories she’s telling, she’s really just speaking about the lives of herself, her whānau, the places that she comes from, the places where she’s lived. And to someone like me, that’s so much easier to connect with than when it’s abstract.

I’m finding with wāhine Māori poetry in particular, at the moment, the voice I recognise is my own. I see and hear my whānau and wāhine Māori experience. And it’s diverse, just as we are, and 20 to 30 years ago, that just wasn’t the case. When you don’t see it, you don’t feel that you can be of it.

Absolutely. You need to be reflected so that you can believe that you can be there, otherwise —

Otherwise, you just don’t.

Āe, 100 percent. Or you question yourself and your own way of doing things. Whereas, having someone’s writing reflected back at you, it’s a mirror. Whether or not you can relate to everything they say is irrelevant.

Because Talia means so much to you, how was the editing process? How did you find working with somebody else about something so important to you emotionally?

It was really good. I have nothing to compare it to, but I’ve had such a good experience with Dead Bird Books because they only publish your writing if they already like your writing. They don’t want to shrink it down to something else, and everything was my choice the whole time.

I remember them saying: “It’s completely up to you. Do you want an editor who’s gonna nitpick through the whole thing and give you heaps and heaps of suggestions? Or do you just want overall basic spelling and grammar? Someone to read through it?” And I said the second one.

I was lucky with Talia that I got someone who was super helpful and the process was really geared around my needs — and that wasn’t my experience with journals and whatnot. I always find it so strange when someone accepts your writing or your submission, but then they get an editor and the editor completely changes it. And then you’re like, why did you say yes to this thing that I’ve written? And now there are so many bits that you want to edit that I feel a bit whakamā.

I think the job of an editor and a publisher in general is to think about how it’s received, how people are going to interpret it, or what the audience is going to think.

I remember saying to the editor, Liz Breslin, who totally got it, that the reason I started writing was because I understand myself more when I’ve got it out onto a piece of paper. And so if I understand what I’m saying, and it makes sense and has meaning to me, I actually care about that a lot more than if some other person totally understands every single thing. To me, it feels it has to be true and tika for me first, rather than thinking about how it would read to an audience.

But I was really happy with the way that it happened with Talia because it was so just chill and I didn’t have to accept any of the editor’s changes if I didn’t want to. But they were really good. So I did. And it was also really helpful to have someone with an outside kind of whakaaro.

“I hope that Talia will help rangatahi Māori who can write, so they’re not like, ‘Oh, writing’s lame.’ Or, ‘Writing is a Pākehā thing to do.’”

I’ve found, as a Māori poet, that sometimes you’re having to educate the editors. And that can feel a little hōha. But it sounds like you didn’t feel compromised?

No. And I think I’m lucky because I obviously have other friends who write and it can be kind of demoralising. You’re trying to put out this thing into the world that’s like your little child. And then people are coming at you from every angle about it.

I didn’t have to experience any of that. It’s been only a positive experience. And I think partially that’s due to the fact that I met this publisher who I only knew through his writing. I never had to submit a manuscript. He heard two of my poems and wanted to publish my book. So, right from the beginning, he liked my writing for what it was, and he didn’t have other agendas.

I’ve been super aware of how colonised the whole writing space still is. But the closest people I had to work with on this — the publisher, the editor, and the publicist — were on my team.

We did a tour last year, and at no point did I feel like they would put me in a compromising position. And I wonder if that’s maybe also part of the benefit of working with a small independent publisher. Especially when you look at how colonial universities can be — and then our biggest presses are university presses.

To support the publication of Talia and Dead Bird Books’ other debut titles, Neither by Kāi Tahu writer Liam Jacobson, you, Dominic and Liam took to the road from Ōtepoti (Dunedin) to Tāmaki Makaurau. You’re not as well known in Tāmaki Makaurau as Dominic and Liam, so how was that for you?

It was so welcoming, and so not competitive or judgy or weird. To me, it says a lot when you go to an event that’s part of a community, as an outsider or someone who doesn’t live there, and you’re welcomed so warmly. It just seemed really authentic all the way through.

You mentioned competitiveness. Do you think that’s an issue for wāhine Māori poets?

It’s really weird. In general, I’m not a competitive person. I’ve never liked sports or anything competitive. And, also, writing is so interpretable and everyone’s work is different. But I do feel like we’re kind of pitched against each other. And that feels so unnatural. Because in so many other spaces, especially with wāhine Māori or just Māori in general, it’s like we’re lifting each other up.

I find it so intense. So I just say “thank you” for the cool things that have come my way. But I hate the idea that there would be some wāhine Māori out there who don’t want to write because they feel that it’s more about competition than community and supporting one another.

Fika writers, Isla’s aunties, among them celebrated writer and performer Tusiata Avia (back row, centre). “They’re real writers, and they’re fearless about what they write.”

Tell me about Fika.

My aunty Danielle O’Halloran-Thyne had a group of friends who did theatre and writing and things. And they decided to form Fika, a collective of artists and writers in Ōtautahi (Christchurch). All these wāhine, just getting together and writing for years. And, at some point, maybe 10-ish years ago, when I was a teenager, I went along with my aunty, and then I just kept on going.

And they’d always be like: “Oh, you’re our honorary pēpi,” because I was by far the youngest, by like 20 years. They’re all Pasifika. I’m the only Māori. I mentioned them in Talia because it was so formative to be hanging out with all your aunties. They’re real writers, and they’re fearless about what they write.

I feel so lucky to have been a part of that, and to still be a part of that, because it’s unofficial mentoring really. They weren’t sitting there being like: “Isla, this is how you construct a sentence.” It was just about being in that environment, where we’d just get together and write.

On a few occasions, we’d do performances and things. Sometimes galleries would have a Māori or Pasifika show or exhibition, and they’d bring us in and we’d write and then perform it. And if the aunties of Fika didn’t like it, they’d say so.

Ōtautahi can be a challenging city for Māori and minorities. How do you manage that?

The main thing that I hold on to about Ōtautahi is that, because there’s this weird wairua there, it means that, when you find your communities of people, they’re real. Whereas in other cities, it feels like, on a surface level, everyone seems interesting and cool and like-minded. But deep down, maybe they’re not.

At least, here on the east side, everyone is brown. But, man, these stereotypes, these whakaaro, are so embedded in this city. Like, if I tell people I teach at Avonside Girls, I still get, “Oh, that must be hard.”

Island her dad, Leigh.

Isla (second from right) with her mother, Zoe, and her sisters Nelly and Lucia.

Isla and Rata, her brother.

Did you grow up in Christchurch?

Āe. My mum, Zoe, has lived here since she was six or seven. She met my dad, Leigh, here, when she was a teenager. They split up. So my dad and my brother Rata have always lived in Tāmaki, and my mum and my sisters Nelly and Lucia have always been here.

So I’ve kind of to-ed and fro-ed between them which was nice. It was healthy for me as a kid to have a Tāmaki life and have these two experiences of the world.

I never thought that I’d stay here after high school. I did move to Tāmaki for a while, but I’m a very whānau-oriented person and being around my lovely māmā and my sisters is mainly what keeps me here.

The most racist place I’ve ever been is Christchurch. There’s a kind of deep-seated hatred here that I’ve never encountered anywhere else in the world.

No, it’s crazy. I remember when I was teacher-aiding, and I was sitting in the staff room one day and one of the teacher aides asked me why I was quitting my job and going to uni. I told her I was going to do a degree in te reo, and she proceeded to loudly go on and on in the staff room about what a waste of time Māori is, and how English is this country’s first language and she shouldn’t have to learn any “fucking Māori words”. It was just disgusting. I was 19, and I was so taken aback.

My mum worked in the same kura as a school librarian, and she marched across that school and told the principal what had just happened.

Another time, I was accused of stealing some perfume at a pharmacy and they chased me down the mall, screaming at me. I’ve been accused of shoplifting so many times — and only ever in Ōtautahi.

Anyway, Mum called them up and gave them hell. I thought: “Go you, Zoe.” She’s the best Pākehā ally mum, ever.

That feels like the title of a poem! Best Pākehā ally mum called Zoe.

Do you find as a writer, you have to be yourself in all spaces whether it’s as a poet, wahine, daughter, and in your job as a kaiako?

Yeah, although I’ve always kept my writing world and my teaching world quite separate. I will write and run workshops and do things with kids, but often what I write about aren’t the things that I’d normally have conversations about with my kids.

I think kids need role models who are real and fully themselves, but just putting that into practice can be hard. In reality, 90 percent of my kids couldn’t care less about reading my book. I always try to remind myself though, that if you’re a Māori kaiako or a dean in a school, but then you only want to present yourself in this “perfect” beautiful way, you’re not really being authentic.

No, because you’re presenting yourself and your wholeness. And that may mean that you’re not exactly all together. But what I like hearing from you is that you’re really mindful of that. You’re aware of what it is to be a kaiako in a school, where our choices can seem very limited when, in fact, they’re quite huge, in spite of the world being quite limiting towards us.

I teach te reo and then I’m a dean the rest of the time. But I haven’t really had a way to share my writing because I’m in a te reo space more than a writing space.

Avonside Girls is a mainstream school, not kura kaupapa, but I think we must have the most Māori students for a non-kura kaupapa in Christchurch. Our roll is about a third Māori, a third Pasifika, and a third Pākehā and other tauiwi.

When I first started, the girls would look at me, like, really? Are you really a teacher? I’m 26 but I look like a 12-year-old which is really unhelpful when you’re teaching high school. I’ve been asked to leave the staff room so many times because people have looked at me and thought I was a student.

As a reo Māori teacher and dean, so much of what I see my mahi to be is just to make our girls feel that, even if they learn no te reo at all, they are Māori, and they can be Māori in any space. I want them to think of this place as a safe space to be Māori. And also to know that you can be Māori and do this or do that, because there’s no one way to be Māori.

At mahi, we talk a lot about how media present Māori in an obviously negative way. But even when it’s not negative, it’s like, “This is what Māori are and what it means to be Māori.”

I write poetry, I don’t play sport, and I’m vegan. There’s all this stuff about me that isn’t what they expect. My colleague who also teaches here is super into sports and all of the stuff I’m not. So by being here together, we show a much wider version of wāhine Māori.

I hope that Talia will help rangatahi Māori who can write, so they’re not like, “Oh, writing’s lame.” Or, “Writing is a Pākehā thing to do.”

I’m constantly telling them that our tīpuna were storytellers — they just did it through their mouths. But the girls have the idea that some things are Māori things to do and some things are Pākehā, so we have to keep reminding them that this is what our people have been doing forever, and that they’ve all got amazing stories to tell.

Hopefully, I’m broadening their whakaaro on what is to be wāhine Māori.

A lot of them are 13 or 14 years old, and they’re just figuring out who they are. They’re working through all of those negative whakaaro about the area they live in or what their parents do or all the stupid stuff that we know is coming from a colonial mindset. And we’re trying to flip that.

I love that about teaching. But it’s still a very big system that’s not always . . .

. . . healthy to participate in? Because it generally tends to be anti-Māori and that applies to everything, whether it’s the health system, the justice system, publishing, or writing books.

Āe, it’s all the same. I got my degree in te reo and then did my teaching degree at Canterbury, rather than doing a teaching degree to teach te reo. And I did it that way because I didn’t think I’d want to teach forever, or even for that long. It’s just what I’m interested in right now.

And, hopefully, te reo, Indigenous studies and te ao Māori can take me to other areas as well. Because people who spend a long time in big institutions and systems, defending Māori and trying to fight the good fight every day, just become so worn down by it all.

And I think the benefit that my book has had for those of my girls who’ve read it, is that they can feel from the book that it’s a shared experience. We all kind of have that. But we grow into our understanding of who we are by having the tika situation and having mentors, and hopefully I’m doing the same thing for them.

I want the students here to feel that I totally get them, that we both feel the same in this big, big system. You might be the student and I might be the teacher, but we’re both working against something that’s not inherently made for us.

 

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

Isla Huia was born and raised in Christchurch where she’s a musician and reo Māori teacher and dean at Avonside Girls’ High School. She’s of Te Āti Haunui a-Pāpārangi and Ngāti Uenuku whakapapa, and her poetry can be found in journals such as Catalyst, Awa Wāhine, Pūhia and Takahē. Isla, 26, is an active member of FIKA, a collective of Christchurch-based writers and artists, and Ōtautahi Kaituhi Māori. Her debut book of poetry Talia, published by Dead Bird Books, was a finalist in the 2024 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Maraea Rakuraku is a poet, short-story writer and award-winning playwright, of Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu whakapapa.

© E-Tangata, 2024

 

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