Tusiata Avia has won many plaudits as a poet, writer and performer. Yet in this piece (first published in her new blog) she shows that even a writer as acclaimed and celebrated as she is — and as famous for her unapologetic skewering of colonial ideology — can struggle to break free of the limiting ideas that come from being a brown girl raised in Christchurch in the 1970s.
I’m perched on the edge of my bed, one foot up on my mum’s walker, balancing my laptop on a stack of pillows on my knee. I’m here in my childhood house. My 16-year-old daughter is in her room on my right, making loud plans with one of her mates. My 90-year-old mother is in her room on my left, making mad and marvellous plans for her next project. She has so many projects.
I’m here in my childhood home in Aranui (aka A-town) original home of creative luminaries: Ladi 6, Scribe and — a million years ago when she went to Aranui High School — Keri Hulme. (I’m choosing today to paint an artistic picture of A-town). Here I am writing to you.
Why (at 57 years of age and after a 23-year writing career) do I live in my childhood house with my mum? Because this is my dream life? Nope. Because it’s the only way I can keep our bodies and souls together. I have been dreaming about renting a place for my daughter and me for the seven years we’ve back been here, but, on the money I make as a writer — impossible.
Emily Writes has been stopping me whenever we see each other at writers’ festivals and trying to convince me to join Substack. For two years. Two years!
And finally, a week ago, at the Verb writers’ festival in Wellington, the penny dropped.
Emily cornered me again (thank you, Emily, I needed to be cornered) — in her sexy pink dress and 1950s hairdo. She cornered me and talked to me. Again. She told me that this is the way she makes her income as a writer and I could too. I should too. She knows I scrape to get by.
Some of the things I do to get by are, umm, not entirely above board. I don’t sell drugs or my 90-year-old mother, or run dog fights. Or ram raid. But they are options. Emily has convinced me that Substack is a better option.
Why the heck did it take me two years to consider this? I went back to my hotel after talking to Emily and sat myself down.
“Tusiata, what is going on with you?” I said to myself. “Why did you feel like climbing under a table, when Emily was talking about Substack? Why did you want to run far, far away like a frightened four-legged creature?”
“You know why,” I answered myself. “Think back, think back to the last time you felt like this.”
It was 2001. The very beginning of my writing career. I have just moved back to Aotearoa after 10 years away and I am determined to BE A WRITER. I am doing a one-year creative writing course at Whitireia. We have just completed a five-day performance module, and the tutor, Jamie Bull, has called me over to her house.
She is talking to me and telling me that I can be a performer. That I have talent. She is outlining a future for me as a writer-performer. She is comparing me to creatives who have actual careers.
I am sitting in a chair in her lounge. The Wellington sun is shining in to the lounge in one of those God-is-speaking shafts of light and I am gripping the chair-arms very tightly. My head is spinning. I’m not sure where I am in space. I feel like I might pass out.
For the year before my return to Aotearoa, I worked hard on talking myself into being a writer. I read The Artists Way by Julia Cameron and did the exercises over a number of months. I did the Morning Pages (three pages of free writing) every day.
I have unearthed the fact that I gave up on my dream of being a writer when I was 15 years old. I suddenly became aware that a brown girl — growing up in Christchurch during the Dawn Raids/ Muldoon/ Springbok tour era — could not aspire to be a writer. That was for “flash” people (I didn’t know the words “white privilege” then).
I realised that I would have to build a sense of entitlement for myself. I would have to give myself permission to do what I loved and what I was good at. I blu-tacked permission notes to my mirror and read them aloud to myself every day.
But, performer? What? How could I aspire to that?
After some intense nausea and more quotes on my mirror, Jamie supported me for the next five years, and the one-woman show version of Wild Dogs Under My Skirt was born and I began performing it around the world.
“Aha!” I said to Tusiata in that Wellington hotel room at 2am. “Here we are again.”
Later that morning, I had brunch with Simone Kaho, the beautifully brave and talented poet. The poet whose book, Heal! I ate as soon as I got my hands on it. Cover to cover, without stopping.
I broke my 2am thoughts down for Simone. And for myself (aren’t we always talking to ourselves when we have these conversations?). I explained how I had built a sense of entitlement to be a poet and to be a performer, but the permission was compartmentalised.
That sense of permission did not count for all the aspects of my life. My sense of permission hadn’t extended to making a living wage from my work. I was still labouring under the belief that I had to be doing something else. Wait for it . . . I had to be doing REAL work, to be allowed to earn a living.
There it was.
There it is.
For the last seven years, my epilepsy conspired to not allowing me to have a REAL job. So, year after year, I wrote and performed and did the astonishing amount of admin it requires. And stayed broke.
I perform at festivals and win awards and look fab in sparkling red dresses at the openings of my plays. And stay broke.
I receive my six-monthly book sales statements and can afford to buy a couple of pairs of nice shoes. I receive my show royalties for Wild Dogs Under My Skirt and The Savage Coloniser Show and can pay Mum back for months of unpaid bills.
I do a little ducking and diving to keep my family afloat and lie in bed at night and worry about when I’m going to get in trouble. I assure you I’m not ram-raiding, but it’s a good idea for a poem: Award Winning Poet Ram-raids to Move out of her Mum’s.
Simone sent me a message last night:
“It seems unfair that your book fills other people’s cups, but does not provide for you. I think this is where Substack can create a balance — allow people to let energy (subscription) flow back to you.”
I held my breath when I read that because David Seymour was looking over my shoulder and his breath ain’t sweet. I’ve got as far as setting up Substack but still feel like I have to write a masterpiece every day to be “worthy” of financial support. That’s 15-year-old Tusiata and Muldoon and Dawn Raids and David Seymour speaking.
Today’s Tusiata is training herself to give herself permission.
Tusiata Avia (Sāmoan-Pālagi) is an acclaimed poet, performer and children’s writer who lives in Christchurch. Her poetry collection The Savage Coloniser Book won the 2021 Ockham book award for poetry. It was also staged as a theatre show, like her previous poetry collectios Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (2004, which was staged around the world and most recently Off-Broadway, winning the 2019 outstanding production of the year), Bloodclot (2009) and the Ockham-shortlisted Fale Aitu / Spirit House (2016). Tusiata held the Fulbright Pacific Writer’s Fellowship at the University of Hawai‘i in 2005 and the Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence at the University of Canterbury in 2010. She was the 2013 recipient of the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award, and in 2020 was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry and the arts.
This piece was first published here on Tusiata’s Substack blog and is republished with permission.
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