Michalia Arathimos, a Greek-New Zealand writer, on how “ethnic” writers are still othered and exoticised, even when they’re Aotearoa-born.
After many years have slipped by, the leaders of the Greeks,
opposed by the Fates, and damaged by the war,
build a horse of mountainous size, through Pallas’s divine art …
They secretly hide a picked body of men, chosen by lot
there, in the dark body, filling the belly and the huge
cavernous insides with armed warriors.
—Virgil’s Aeneid, Book II
In the story of the Trojan Horse, after a ten-year siege, the Greeks pretend to sail away and leave a “gift” of a wooden horse on the doorstep of the city of Troy. The Trojans pull the horse into their city. But, under the cover of night, a select force of men creep out of it, torching the city, and thus winning the war for the Greeks.
I am a Greek-New Zealand writer and I am building a horse like this — or, more accurately, I’m allowing it to build itself.
But, in this story, the Trojan Horse is a non-fiction book that I’m writing about the media in Aotearoa — and the warriors are writers. Māori writers, Pasifika writers, French and Chinese and “other” writers. Any writers that haven’t been identified by the press as part of a Pākehā mainstream.
And the city of Troy is Pākehā culture, which I envisage in this book as a walled fortress. In front of this fortress, the horse is taking shape. There are voices clamouring inside it, about to be let out.
The voices belong to some of Aotearoa’s foremost writers: Tusiata Avia, Tina Makereti, Chris Tse, Paula Morris, and Karlo Mila, among many others, who I’ve interviewed for my upcoming book, The Outliers: Who do we want to be?
My interest in the way these writers are portrayed in the media began when I started a PhD in creative writing at Victoria University, in 2009. I realised that even though some of them were challenging ethnic stereotypes with their work, they were often completely exoticised in the media around them.
So I decided to study six authors: Witi Ihimaera, Keri Hulme, Tusiata Avia, Karlo Mila, Kapka Kassabova, and Cliff Fell.
I discovered that — contrary to what I’d expected — in the 40 years since the publication of Witi Ihimaera’s first book, the mainstream media’s representation of these authors has not become more nuanced, or less racist. Instead, the racism has gone underground, coming out as a kind of simplistic “celebration”, and keeping all such authors firmly on the outside: nice, exotic additions to “New Zealand Literature”.
My own journey as a creative writer has been uncannily similar to that of some of these writers.
From that early flush of uncomplicated emotion: “I want to be a writer!”, to “But wait, people are responding to my ‘Greek stories’ differently!”, to “Does this mean I’m a writer? Or a Greek writer?”, to “This means I represent my community”, to “But I don’t only write about culture!”
And so on, into the fraught landscape inhabited by non-Pākehā writers.
But I am Pākehā. I also like the term “off-white tauiwi”.
The “off-white” is borrowed from Australia, and designates a branch of immigrants (Italian, Greek, Lebanese, Syrian, and so on) who were once not considered “white enough”.
In Aotearoa now, I am white enough to pass, where my mother’s generation was not.
Greek immigration to New Zealand was heavily restricted. In the 1950s, Greeks were beaten for not being able to speak English at school. We had different accents, different food, a different religion. No one ate pasta yet, or olive oil, and garlic was a secretly traded commodity. “Work hard, keep your head down, and learn their language,” my grandfather taught my uncle. “But remember, at home, you’re Greek.”
Outwardly cooperative, but deeply traditional, Greeks set out to become a model minority.
But, by the time I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was white enough.
Perhaps because a strict diet of meat and three veg and an affection for the Queen were ultimately not very sustaining, New Zealanders had begun to eat pasta, and something called the Māori Renaissance had happened, and we’d discovered we liked being anti-apartheid and bicultural and nuclear free.
My inheritance, though, has all the markers of the cultural “other”. Which makes me the secret agent in the room.
As a bearer of an invisible ethnicity, I was also allowed to slide under the radar for most of my life. But when I began to share my work, in my creative writing master’s class in 2006, that changed. I was presenting short stories to a workshop group. There were “the Greek stories”, and then there were the “normal” ones, the ones in which the ethnicity of the characters was invisible to the Pākehā reader.
When I presented material that was about my minority background, I was told that I was “brave” and “courageous”, that I was “telling important stories”, that I was “educating” my readers, that I was sharing a “needed” point of view.
I was urged to research the Greek classics so that I could reference them in my stories. One editor implied that I was referencing Greek myths — which was flattering, but I hadn’t been referencing anything! Suddenly my “Greek material” was at odds with my other material. This part of me, which had been integrated before, suddenly appeared to be the most important part of me, or the part that the audience wanted.
I interviewed Chris Tse, a poet who was born in Lower Hutt, for Outliers. He told me that when he began writing publicly, he actively resisted writing about his cultural background, as he thought it was “too obvious”. He was proud of his origins, but he didn’t want to “just be seen as a Chinese-New Zealand writer,” he said.
As someone who might be received as a Greek writer, I felt fear and obligation and anxiety, all of which added to the usual insecurities felt by the apprentice writer.
I was proud of being Greek, but I didn’t just want to be read as Greek. I’m Greek, but also, through my sixth-generation Kiwi father, a mixture of Irish and Scottish and Welsh. And although I was raised Greek and used to be fluent, now my language skills aren’t great. Would the Greek community see me as an imposter? If I applied for a grant, I could fit my work into an “ethnically other” slot. But this felt all too much like playing a culture-specific card.
In response to the pressure to represent, I shut down my own writing, at a time when stories from a non-mainstream point of view are more important than ever. Tina Makereti has described the literature of Aotearoa as a wharenui. This kaupapa whare, a whare for all of us, should do the work of connecting the writers and readers of New Zealand.
But Tina Makereti showed that this wharenui, in its current state, is beautiful but exclusive, a house that not many of us can afford to live in. Māori, Pasifika, and “other” voices aren’t heard in this house, at least, not in proportion to our actual population.
In their introduction to Black Marks on the White Page, Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti wrote:
—still the page is white, and still the marks we make upon it are radical acts of transgression, of forcing others to see us in all our complexity and wonder.
They describe their book as a talanoa, a conversation where “the stories do the talking”. In the white space of New Zealand literature, it’s clear that more conversations like this need to happen.
Outliers is about the writers themselves, and how they’ve felt exoticised and limited by the press. Even as Selina Tusitala Marsh breaks new ground as Aotearoa’s Poet Laureate, this is still happening. Even if these authors are blurring the edges of what a Pacific or Oceanic literature could look like, the media scene they’re writing into hasn’t got the memo that an “ethnic” author might, for example, write about more than one thing.
In my PhD research, I looked at how many times the six authors I studied had been labelled by their ethnicity in media articles about them, in a broad sample period. That’s right: I counted.
How many times were Witi Ihimaera and Keri Hulme labelled Māori? One hundred percent of the time. The control subject in my study was Cliff Fell, who was born in London and moved to Aotearoa when he was 43. He is a migrant to Aotearoa, but, crucially, he is a Pākehā English migrant. He hails from “home”, the home of the primary colonising culture.
Unlike Witi Ihimaera, Keri Hulme, and more recent authors like Karlo Mila (who was labelled in 97 percent of articles), Cliff Fell’s ethnicity was mentioned only 11 percent of the time.
This is because Cliff Fell’s ethnicity is invisible to the white national “self”. Within five years of the publication of his first book, and within about ten years of arriving in New Zealand, Cliff Fell’s migrant label becomes secondary, and largely absent. His ethnicity becomes so invisible that he’s described in the mainstream media as “from here”, “firmly of this place”, and “our local poet”.
In fact, in 60 percent of articles overall, he’s described as “a Kiwi local”. This contrasts dramatically with how Witi Ihimaera, Keri Hulme, Kapka Kassabova (a Bulgarian-born writer who immigrated to New Zealand in the 1990s), Tusiata Avia, and Karlo Mila are described — even though four of them were born in Aotearoa.
. . .
But describing ourselves by ethnicity is also important. This is an issue with many layers. One of these is that, as authors, we might be proudly representing our communities, and writing for them, in which case it’s important that we’re known as “a Greek writer” or a “Pasifika writer”, for example, especially if we’re under-represented.
Secondly, there’s a distinction between mainstream publications (which is what I studied) and publications like E-Tangata. We can’t exoticise our own people, and the question of “where/who are you from?” is central to our cultures.
Another issue is that if writers are addressing culture in their writing, then we need to know where they’re from to contextualise their work. We need to know Karlo Mila is Tongan-Pālangi, for example, in order to understand her. So the labelling is not wrong, it’s necessary.
The problem comes about when the mainstream press takes these identifications and parrots them with little awareness of positioning or context — and the label becomes a selling point, or, worse, the only interesting thing about that writer. Then the writer becomes a part of what we can call “the postcolonial exotic” — an identified market in the writing world. And writers are asked to speak only about, and to, this one thing. That’s reductive and racist.
There are so many common aspects in how such writers are received. They are horribly easy to summarise. “Ethnic” writers are often tokenised. As Brannavan Gnanalingam wrote in The Spinoff:
Frequently, whenever anyone of any colour speaks at Writers Events, they’re marketed as “an Other” or speak to “immigrant voices” or “culture clashes”. Difference is marketed first, followed by the writing. It’s as if the festivals are saying, “Hey look at our event. We like tokens! We’ve made an event about tokens and marketed them as tokens! Tokens for everybody!”
“Ethnic” writers are often grouped in the same basket with other “ethnic” writers. Tusiata Avia spoke about this in The Pantograph Punch:
The most recent review of my most recent book Fale Aitu/Spirit House was titled “Young, Gifted and Brown.” The review was nice enough, but I was reviewed with two other Pacific writers (Courtney Sina Meredith and Simone Kaho) who are both superb writers, BUT, why do we have to be reviewed together? Because, of course, we are brown.
When I spoke to poet and E-Tangata writer Simone Kaho about Tusiata’s quote, we tried to come up with similar headlines for a group of Pākehā poets. What would they call a collective review in The New Zealand Listener of three poets who happened to be Pākehā? Not “Young, Gifted and Brown”. Maybe “Old, Privileged and White?”
Pākehā often assume “ethnic” writers are in a privileged position. Sarah Jane Barnett used Janis Freegard’s stats in The Pantograph Punch to show that Pākehā writers are four and a half times more likely than a Māori writer, three and a half times more likely than an Asian writer, and eight and a half times more likely than a Pasifika writer, to get published.
But, despite these poor figures, the writers I spoke to often faced assumptions that their ethnicity got them special treatment from publishers. As Simone Kaho wrote in E-Tangata:
A fellow student (Pākehā, male) says to me: “You’ll get published because publishers love you PI writers.” And then he adds: “You’ll have to learn to write, though.”
So the “ethnic” writer has to deal not only with being under-represented in New Zealand literature, challenged in terms of social demographics, and subject to racism, but also with the assumption that their skin colour gives them an advantage over other authors.
All of this talk about representation and positioning can seem a bit theoretical, right? Racism is easy to understand when it’s in your face: when you’re subjected to racial slurs or punished for not speaking English.
But now we have a language for being exoticised or stereotyped or being told something that doesn’t make us feel quite right. We call these “microagressions”.
Except that there’s nothing micro about such aggressions. In 2007, my partner Ira Bailey was arrested in the “Terror Raids”. He was on trial for nearly five years. In all, four of my whānau were involved in the trial — Ira’s sister and her partner, and Ira’s twin brother. Ira was acquitted a few months after the birth of our first child, in 2011.
During the early years of their trial, I was thrust into a world of prisons inhabited disproportionally by Māori, and courtrooms full of Māori defendants. Nothing can make the real state of race relations in Aotearoa clearer to you than sitting in a courtroom where brown defendants are being tried by the Crown — and the further you look towards the front, the whiter the occupants are.
In the first week after the arrests, attempts were made to get Ira and my whānau out on bail. At the same time, there was a media furore in which the defendants were portrayed as radical terrorists. I won’t repeat any of the headlines, as I believe Tūhoe, and anyone connected to the trial, have been hurt enough.
But the furore was persuasive. Even Helen Clark, the prime minister at the time, called the defendants “terrorists” in a statement, thus prejudicing any potential jury against them. Freaked out by the media, my Greek working-class family asked me: “But why would they say these Māori are a threat, if they aren’t?” It was a version of a question people would continue to ask me for ten years.
In that first week, we all expected everyone who’d been arrested to get out on bail, but they didn’t. The force of media speculation was so strong that it influenced the course of justice, if you believe in such a thing.
That experience taught me that representations of ethnic groups matter. The roar of the media kept my whānau in jail, and caused divisions that are still being felt all over Aotearoa.
It’s charming that the media wants to celebrate Māori and Pasifika writers, but that celebration of the “other” can turn so quickly into fear.
We want recognition and visibility for writers who aren’t part of a Pākehā mainstream. We want these writers to be celebrated, to be invited to festivals, and to get attention.
But it’s time to complicate the conversation.
It’s not enough for Pākehā readers and publishers to “love” Pasifika or Māori or “other” writers, while barely giving them space in print. It’s time for them to realise that they’re the gatekeepers of a certain world. As long as they continue to qualify all of these writers only by their ethnicity, they maintain their place as the controllers of that world.
The Wharenui of Literature of Aotearoa remains a gated community, a fortress whose walls might be breached, but only if you’re carrying the right sort of flag.
But some of the authors I’ve mentioned in this story are talking, inside the belly of this horse that we’re building. I’ll leave this horse on the doorstep of Pākehā culture. Inside it, the voices are whispering to each other, saying things we’ve not dared to voice, for fear of seeming ungrateful.
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