“I had a responsibility to make my privilege count for something,” says writer Pip Adam about her reading at the Ockham national book awards. (Photo: Rebecca McMillan)

Novelist Pip Adam took centre stage at the recent Ockham national book awards — not for winning the prize she’d been shortlisted for, but for using her moment on stage to stand as tangata Tiriti.

In front of an audience that included the prime minister, Pip read a pointedly edited extract from her book Audition. Here she is telling Connie Buchanan about the words she read aloud, and why she chose them.

 

Kia ora Pip. Can you tell us a bit about how the action on stage unfolded?

Like everything in my life, this moment came about because of the example and work of people I respect and love. In 2021, I saw Tusiata Avia read her poem 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand at the book awards. I tend to lose my way during awards ceremonies. I start worrying about what I might get, what I might lose. But when Tusiata read that poem, it became very clear to me what writing can do. How very little it has to do with me getting a prize or not. When I’m lost, I often think of that night.

So, leading up to this year’s awards, this excerpt was an idea in my head. I was acutely aware of the absence of Māori writers in the shortlist I was on. I realised I had a responsibility to make my privilege count for something. But this is the thing with being Pākehā in a Pākehā world: I had a choice, right up to the end. I could have done nothing, and no one would have said anything. It‘s very easy as a Pākehā person to do nothing.

It was Emma Wehipeihana who gave me the strength to do it. On the night, I was quite upset wondering what I was doing, and why I bothered writing, if all it leads to is feeling uncomfortable and anxious at award ceremonies. But then Emma spoke. She talked about travelling to the awards after a gruelling hospital shift “while listening to news on the radio that savings would be found in our broken health system without affecting the front line”. And I felt that feeling again. This is what it’s all for. 

Like everyone, I’d watched the violence directed at Tusiata last year from the political party which is now part of the coalition government. I’ve also been in rooms where white people have asked Emma insulting and stupid questions, and she has answered assertively and intelligently. It seemed wrong to me that the people who are being directly affected — actively ground down — by this government and its policies should be the only ones having to say something.

So, this is what I decided to read aloud at the awards:

  • “I am restless,” Drew says.
  • “We can feel it,” Alba says. “Anyone, anywhere in the ship Audition can feel it. It happens, I will tell the story of it — so we aren’t silent. Our bodies get restless — like there is a buzzing inside all our muscles — or maybe just our legs, or an arm — and we will try and move. Just a little bit at first. Then sometimes roughly, then sometimes we will rock back and forward and the ship will shift slightly in the air.”
  • “We were taught to go a long way away,” Stanley says. “But there is no advised destination. We were adventurers. Setting out.”
  • Like Cook,” Drew says. “A teacher said it in the classroom. It didn’t go down well.”
  • “Cook’s a cunt,” says Stanley.
  • “Nobody wants to be compared to Cook,” says Drew. “One of us, right at the back of the room where the ‘Like Cook comment was made, let out an audible, ‘Ew!’ and a few of us giggled. We were big. Nothing we said was quiet. Even when we spoke under our breath to ourselves, it came out audible. Nothing we did was private. We were big and strong.”
  • “We weren’t as strong as we thought we were,” Alba says. “The story is, we are not as strong as we think we are.”
  • “And we are stupid so any strength is of no use at all.”
  • “Like Cook,” Drew says.
  • “Don’t bother,” Alba says. “We’re all tired.”
  • “Hang on,” says Alba. “This is a story from before the classroom but it is the right shape, I am sure of it: We lived in a time of war.”

  • “Genocide,” Drew says.
  • “What?” says Alba.
  • “When we kill children it stops being war,” says Drew.
  • “Landback,” says Stanley.
  • “Landlord,” says Alba. “They prefer landlord.”
  • “Warm food,” says Alba.
  • “Landlord,” Stanley says.
  • “Gentle,” says Alba.
  • “Tough,” Drew says. “Tough on crime.”
  • “600 more beds. 200 more beds. 800 more beds,” Stanley says. “It’s not clear.”
  • “Toitū te Tiriti,” says Alba.
  • “Toitū te Tiriti.”

Why did you rewrite the extract that way, and from what places did it emerge?

This government is acting ruthlessly and fast. Just today I’m thinking about the repeal of section 7AA and the announcements around Kāinga Ora. But there is also the trail of destruction from last week and the week before. The rapid-fire attacks means I’m forgetting things, and when they’re “re-served” in different language, in spin, I question what I thought I knew.

So, I started using the voices of the characters from my books to capture some of the events as they happen. This section has always had the line about Cook in it. Audition is a first-contact novel and therefore I needed to think about my role in colonisation in order to write it. I think that’s why I chose this section and the rewrites from it.

It’s also a novel grounded in the abolition of prisons, so the lines in response to the announcement of the mega-prison seemed right. Prevention of crime is such a wide-reaching activity and I think it often starts with a warm meal at school, so I wanted to include that as well.

How did you feel delivering it, and have you reflected much on it?

As I went up the stairs, I saw Emma Wehipeihana, so I was still thinking of her, and also Tīhema Baker, Emma Hislop and Jared Davidson, plus a lot of other people who I respect and love. I don’t think I was speaking to the prime minister at all. I think I was speaking to the communities I’m part of — to the people I see doing the work.

Now the criticism has started rolling in. As people start subtly avoiding me, and as opportunities for work are politely withdrawn, I do feel a bit frightened. But I just keep thinking: What is the use of political action that doesn’t come with some personal sacrifice?

What does “Toitū Te Tiriti” mean to you?

Apart from the political call of “Toitū Te Tiriti” — against the racist agenda of the coalition government — I think it’s a personal reminder of my part in colonisation.

It reminds me that everything I do is either living up to my personal responsibilities under Te Tiriti, or it’s doing more colonial harm. We’re all living in a colonial capitalist society, and that leaves all of us powerless in many ways. But as a Pākehā, I need to look at the actions I do have control over. Toitū Te Tiriti is a helpful guide.

The wealth of the richest white people in this country comes almost completely from the profit made off stolen land. I think that explains almost everything about the current political attack on Te Tiriti. It also explains why it’s so important for me to step outside my private, comfortable life and say “Toitū Te Tiriti” any time I have a public chance to do that.

It’s really the bare minimum I can do at this political moment.

 

Pip Adam is the author of Audition (2023), which was shortlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction; Nothing to See (2020), also shortlisted for the Acorn Foundation Prize for Fiction; The New Animals (2017), which won the Acorn Foundation Prize for Fiction; I’m Working on a Building (2013); and the short story collection Everything We Hoped For (2010), which won the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction in 2011. Pip makes the Better off Read podcast.

Made possible through the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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