Tusiata Avia began her teaching career in Otara 25 years ago. In the years since, she’s travelled the world, performing her one-woman poetry show Wild Dogs Under My Skirt in the most far-flung of places — and establishing herself as a leading Pacific poet, performer and writer, with two books of poetry, children’s books, and a number of writers’ fellowships and awards to her name. She’s now back in South Auckland, teaching creative writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology, just down the road from where she started. Here, she talks to Dale about the (sometimes painful) path she’s taken from an uncomfortable childhood in Christchurch to South Auckland.
Talofa lava, Tusiata. You’ve got a lovely name, Tusiata Avia. Can you tell us any more about it?
I was named after my great-aunt Tusiata. The word in Samoan means artist so it’s a very fortunate name.
Growing up in Christchurch in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was not a name that I wanted to use because, for a teenager and a kid as I was then, to be a brown person was not cool at all. So I used my other name, Donna.
I used to feel thankful as a kid that I didn’t have to use Tusiata because I knew that I would be mercilessly teased. It wasn’t until a bit later in my life that I started using it. It’s a beautiful name with a beautiful meaning so it’s nice to be able to grow into that name and feel like it’s been sitting there waiting for me all this time, and waiting for me to fulfill some kind of destiny that was there for me.
Tell us about your mum and dad, please.
My mum, Sylvia, is Palagi and she’s from Christchurch. Her father was John Senior, an Englishman from Yorkshire who came to Christchurch when he was about 14. Her mum, May, was of English and Scottish heritage.
My mum’s 81, so she’s been on the earth for quite a long time. She is an artistic person herself. She never got a chance to do it out in the world but has always had that artistic sensibility, so that’s been important for me.
My dad, Namulauulu Mikaio Avia, is Samoan. His mother, Tolise, was from Iva, and his father, Le Mamea Simanu’a Avia Esera, was from Lefaga. My father came here in 1952 when he was in his early 20s. That was the first wave of Samoan migration to New Zealand. In fact, when he arrived in Christchurch, I think there were seven Samoans. He stayed in Christchurch for 50 years, and about 10 years ago decided to return to Samoa.
Maybe you could describe your childhood.
It was kind of a strange childhood, although normal from the outside. I was conscious from a really young age that I wasn’t happy in Christchurch. I didn’t like it. I was a child in the ‘70s and a teenager in the ‘80s and it was not a welcoming time to be a young, brown person in Christchurch. I mean, Christchurch has always had serious problems with racism but it was at a peak at that time.
I grew up with Muldoon as the prime minister, with dawn raids in the background, and the Springbok tour protests on the streets when I was 14. That filtered down into the attitudes of people.
So I grew up getting the message loud and clear that there was something quite wrong about being brown. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I was able to start undoing some of that stuff for myself. I think it was compounded by the fact that my parents split up when I was 13, and that kind of split us away from the Samoan community, which we had grown up with. So there was that sense of isolation as well.
You really need, especially in your teens when you’re coming to terms with identity, and particularly when you’re a person of mixed race — you really need something solid, and I didn’t have that.
Although it was painful at the time, it’s been important for me as a person who has always wrestled with issues of identity — being a mixed-race person with one foot in each camp but also kind of standing outside of both of them. These have been the things that I’ve really explored in my art as well. So, it was painful, but I’m thankful for it.
You’ve described the situation very well and it resonates with me, too. Thank you. I’ve got a Pākehā dad and a Māori mum myself. … This might have influenced the type of person you are and the things you write. Has it?
Absolutely. I think that so many of us are kind of writing our identity, in one way or another. So much of our art is trying to figure out who we are, those of us who come from mixed backgrounds. There are a lot of issues there that we all have to traverse. It’s rich material.
Where did you develop your love for words?
I had a mother who was a big reader. She’s a quiet person so she was never preachy or pushy about it, but she was a big reader and so were her family. So I grew up reading.
When I was in intermediate school I discovered that I could write. I would be writing poems all the time, and stories — they’d just be coming out of my ears.
Then I shut it down when I was about 15. It was that whole situation that I described before. I thought: Girls like me don’t get to be writers. I stopped. I consciously stopped writing and lowered my expectations. For probably the next 15 years, I hardly wrote at all. I read a lot. I found it really painful trying to suppress something that really wanted expression.
It wasn’t until I was in my 30s. I’d been overseas for quite some time travelling and then living abroad. I came back to New Zealand for a visit in ’99, and it was then that my cousin Victor Rodger, who’s a playwright, introduced me to a number of other Pacific and Māori writers and film-makers and actors and artists. Because I’d been away from New Zealand for a long time, I had missed that whole flowering of the Pacific and Māori arts in the ’90s. I didn’t even know it had happened. I got here and I was just amazed. The big thing for me was meeting these people and seeing: “Oh my God, they’re like me. If they can do it, maybe I can do it, too.” So I decided to come back to New Zealand to write. I was living in London at that time.
Did you have any formal training or did you just sort of put pen to paper?
I decided that I had to have a plan. I couldn’t just come back and sit in my bedroom and write. I moved to Wellington and I did a writing course at Whitireia, and then a year after that I did the Masters in Creative Writing course at Victoria University with Bill Manhire. That’s what I needed. I needed those structured and supportive spaces in which to really become a writer.
What do you regard as your first success as a writer?
Well, strangely enough, I never considered performing. It was when I was at Whitireia and we had a tutor who came in for a very short time to do some performance with us. And she took me aside and she said: “You should be performing.” Which was a complete revelation to me. It never crossed my mind. From that, I recognised that I had this facility for performing.
So I started performing some of my own poetry, and very quickly I put together a one-woman show, which is called Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. I went on to do that show for eight years, off and on. I did it all over New Zealand and all over the world in some really far-flung places like Moscow and Morocco and Jerusalem, as well as the more usual venues. So I would probably see that as my first really big and unexpected success.
It’s an interesting title. Can you tell us more about it?
Wild Dogs Under My Skirt started as a one-woman performance poetry show. There are six characters and, of course, I play them all. It’s all poetry, but the poems are also monologues spoken by different characters.
As I was developing the show, I was also developing it in book form. And a couple of years later it was published. I was lucky because it got a lot of attention and critical acclaim. That’s my book where I really look at issues around identity. I investigate some of the aspects of the Samoan culture that I felt had been swept under the carpet. Things like the prevalence of violence towards children, the unhealthy actions of the church, that kind of stuff. I was pretty uncompromising. I looked at that stuff with quite an unflinching gaze. Luckily I didn’t get run out of town, which is a good thing.
Some people find safety behind the typewriter or the pen, but it’s quite different to take your stuff out and perform up on stage to an audience. When you deliver your work to a live audience, Tusiata, what do you concentrate on?
Remembering the words! That’s pretty important. Even after all these years of performing, nearly 15 years, I still find it really difficult to memorise. So that’s kind of number one.
But, once you’ve got those mechanics down, it’s really about connecting with something bigger than yourself. I’ve had some pretty transcendent experiences performing. It’s that ability to connect with the audience through the work — to some of the really big things that my work is about, and the way that it speaks to people.
I’ve performed a lot of this stuff in countries that have no knowledge of Samoan culture and it doesn’t matter because the issues at the heart of these poems are universal. It’s about being a human being and the things that we all struggle with.
Since then, of course, you’ve published another poetry book, plus a couple of children’s books, and you’ve held a number of writers’ fellowships and awards including the Fulbright-Creative NZ Pacific Writer in Residence in Hawai’i. And now you’re back here in Otara teaching creative writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology. And this is the second time you’ve taught in Otara?
I taught at Hillary College (now Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate) in 1990. I loved South Auckland at the time. It was great to be in the thick of all things Poly. I always felt as if I didn’t belong in Christchurch and was highly aware of the racial and class tensions there. Teaching in a school in Otara, where half the staff were Maori and PI and the vast majority of the kids were too, was actually very comforting for me. It felt like a big family.
So, to find myself here at MIT, right in the heart of Otara teaching creative writing … When I saw this job advertised and then when I got it, it had that feeling that it was really meant to be. It’s a really demanding job, but it’s a really important thing for me to be doing as well.
To be taught by practising artists is important for creative arts students. And to be taught by a Pacific artist, I think that’s important too. We need to become the norm, not the exotic exception.
I’ve always counted the connection between teacher and students as important as the actual subject matter being transmitted. One of the keys to creativity is learning how to access self. I hope I help inspire students to do this.
What causes are you most supportive of? Have you got something that fires you up?
There are a lot of them, but probably at the top of my consciousness at the moment is the Palestinian situation. And the situation with Syrian refugees. I’ve spent some time in the Middle East so it’s something that is quite close to my heart, and I do tend to write about it a lot.
Could we elaborate a little on that? Most of us haven’t visited the Middle East but obviously it’s left its mark.
Like a lot of New Zealanders, I left the country with a backpack on my back and travelled for three years without stopping. I spent most of that time in Africa and the Middle East – and I was particularly drawn to the Middle East. This was pre-9/11, so it was quite a different world.
The Middle East that I know is not the one that is demonised as being a place crawling with terrorists, as portrayed by media and by politicians. Arabic cultures have a huge tradition of hospitality to strangers and to travellers in particular. They really see travellers as a blessing — that’s a kind of tenet of their religion as well. I felt very at home there. I found it quite similar to Samoan and Polynesian cultures in that hospitality for strangers. People were incredibly kind to me.
I spent a year in Egypt, just because once I got there I didn’t really want to leave. I spent time in Gaza and in the occupied territories and in Syria, and made good friends in those places. So to me it’s very real. It’s not just a news clip.
What’s it been like coming back to South Auckland after 25 years?
On a personal level, it’s been a very different experience this time. Strangely, much harder. I went back to Christchurch in 2007 to have my baby, and I’ve spent the last eight years in the bosom of my family. So, leaving and moving here to Auckland, taking on a demanding job and parenting on my own for the first time — it’s been quite intense. Quite lonely, too.
I’m here with a very different eye now. I’m not the idealistic 22-year-old I was when I last lived here.
I’m particularly struck by — despite how multicultural Auckland is — how it feels, to a certain extent, segregated, too. Perhaps segregated is too strong a word, but just travelling from one suburb to another, I am always surprised. Devonport is a different country! Perhaps it’s always been this way. Perhaps I didn’t notice it so much when I was younger.
But I’m sure there has been a lot of progress in 25 years, too. One of the things that is most obvious to me, here in South Auckland and in New Zealand as a whole, is the huge flowering of Pacific and Māori arts. It is quite extraordinary, and I believe it has a huge transformative power. The arts has been one of the most positive ways that things Pasifika has penetrated the fabric of this country.
Do you feel hopeful?
I do feel hopeful. We have come a long way since my father arrived in New Zealand from Samoa in 1952. But that is tempered by my awareness of the inequalities that still exist. We need, as artists and human beings, to be bringing attention to these inequalities and to creatively address how to redress the balance.
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