Aimee Milne, a writer and activist, writes about the time she discovered she wasn’t who she thought she was.
The only whakapapa I know starts with the colonisation of another. Half of me doesn’t belong to any people or whenua, or even any yesterday. It is a void which bleeds into the known. Like an old lady’s lipstick, it seeps into the contours as I age, exposing droops and deficits.
To compartmentalise is to draw lipliner around the edges of the vermillion border to separate the parts that I show, and the parts I don’t know. The line remains defined for a while, and I always re-apply, but the void leeches into the lines, despite my best attempts.
I am an unfinished story.
Perhaps this is why, when I read Ruby Solly’s writing about whakapapa, I am envious. At such an early age, she already seems to know herself and knows she is part of this land.
It stirs in me a longing to know myself, too.
When I signed up for a graduate diploma in creative non-fiction, my brain, which likes to place things in order, found the whole concept paradoxical. I mean, if it’s non-fiction, it’s true, or it happened. When we get creative about facts, they begin to verge into fiction, I think. Are events written truthfully from different perspectives not the same story? Neither of them is fiction. But where does the actual truth lie? Is it somewhere in the middle?
Ruby Solly writes of colonisation and the story of her tīpuna. When her ancestors met my ancestors, it was mine who talked over the top of everyone else, deleting the stories of Ruby’s people. Creative non-fiction is truth with a narrative. Ruby uses beautiful imagery to expose an identifiable theme that I feel at an emotional level as a deep, gentle ache.
In her opening paragraph of “The red fleck in her hair”, Ruby says that in her dark hair there is a red fleck.
“Like Tiger’s Eye stone, you see it run when the light hits it. The red fleck of totoweka, the blood in the stone. My hair is precious to me, and genetically it ties me to my Māori ancestors. It shows people that my DNA refuses to be colonised, and it shows that no matter how much they tried to breed us out, they haven’t succeeded because in my hair, there is a red fleck.”
Mana permeates her narrative like breath. It can’t be contained. Her stories are intimate and speak of generational hardships overcome, and an infallible human spirit. A kaikaranga of words, Ruby weaves insight into the stories passed down by her tīpuna. Although there is no dialogue, I can hear whispers in the background. The oral history of her people. Her connection to the whenua is palpable within the first scene — and the red fleck metaphor, woven through the piece with well-timed repetition, symbolises her ancestors and constructs a theme. To me, that theme is survival.
I wish I had a red fleck in my hair. Something exotic and unbeatable.
But all I have is a name. My birth father didn’t reply when I tried to connect. I can see only one photo on his profile, but it’s too distant for details. He has my colouring, blonde and easily sunburnt, but he has glasses on, so it’s hard to tell. He has big ears like me.
All I have is a name.
My maternal side is your standard Pākehā of the British colonies, who sailed across oceans to inhabit Aotearoa. I’m not English, though. I take pride in my Scottish ancestry because we weren’t the OG of colonisers. I am mostly Scottish.
He Kōtimana ahau.
My birth father has an English name, but that doesn’t mean I’m English. I never felt connected to England as a homeland. My perspective of England was formed during my OE, on scabies-ridden couches made from burgundy polyester where the sweaty fabric exacerbated the itch. We took turns dossing with friends and lived on cans of baked beans. We all worked in bars named with any variation of Toad, Hog, Horse, or Stag.
I visited Scotland while I was on that side of the world, and there were tingles of familiarity or recognition in the culture as I engaged with the locals and visited cold, stone castles.
But it wasn’t until I went to Ireland that I had a faint sense of something I couldn’t explain. Something romantic in a way, like daydreams. Green, dramatic and lush. I felt something. Irish people are humorous and music loving. They tell a good story, and I like a good story. As far as English-speaking countries go, it is unique, and doesn’t feel as colonised as others. The Irish are survivors.
For a while, I fantasised that my other half was Irish. It could be true. I have green eyes, freckles, and mousy blonde hair. I love Irish music, so maybe I’m Irish.
Ruby’s description in Pantograph Punch, “Finding Yourself in the Whakapapa: A Year Reading Kaituhi Māori”, gave me pause to reflect. She writes:
“This whole time I was somehow on two journeys at once; one that assured me of who I was, and one that reminded me of all the things I didn’t get to be a part of.”
In that sentence, I am there with Ruby in the gaps between the known and unknown, the vermillion border of whakapapa, imagining things I’ve missed out on.
“There must be a streak of colour,” I say. “You can see it in my dance moves.”
“If we’re judging by dance moves, then you’re definitely white.” We both laugh because he’s right.
But I have grown up with Māori. Lived with, worked with, and built friendships with Māori. I connect with that inclusive culture, although there is a hint of being attached to something that’s not mine. I’m adamant that my results will show that I have an exotic streak of colour in the threads of my DNA. I hold my breath and look at the results.
81 percent English,
19 percent Irish, Scottish, Welsh mongrel, with no specifics.
A heavy lump of disappointment forms in my throat and moves down my body. Boring, dull English coloniser. This is especially hard to swallow because I’ve been actively involved in anti-racism work. I am tangata Tiriti. I am part of an attempt to offset the ongoing damage of colonisation.
But, like Ruby Solly, who went back to find her other half in Te Wai Pounamu for the first time at age 20, instead of finding answers, I find only more questions.
As Ruby does in her stories, I map out my ancestors. Then it gets even stranger. I’m Australian. My ancestors were convicts. I take a moment to settle my breath, then I start a Google marathon which lasts until the wee hours of the morning.
Susannah Holmes and Henry Kable, the first convicts to step on to Australian soil in Sydney on January 6, 1788, Australia Day, are my ancestors. There are places in Sydney named after them. On stolen land.
Their arrival at Djubuguli (Sydney’s original name), made the local Aboriginal Gadigal tribe’s peaceful way of life a nightmare of war, dispossession, displacement, social upheaval and disease.
Just as Ruby Solly comes from a long line of “proud, peaceful Waitaha and Kāi Tahu people who survived in te ao hou, this new world”, I imagine the Gadigal tribe were peaceful, too. And they are survivors.
My ancestors, Susannah and Henry, were poor — petty thieves sentenced to hang in their hometown of Norfolk, England. Appeals for mercy due to their youth were upheld, and they were imprisoned for three years in appalling conditions.
It is a love story, and too much to tell in in a short frame; a story for another time. I can tell you, however, that they made a treacherous journey through iceberg-infested waters, to Australia. Many convicts died, but my ancestors lived. Each time they escaped death, I existed. They were reluctant pioneers who, through swings of luck, removed themselves from an oppressive class system to have a new chance in a new world.
If Gadigal were narrating this story, it would be nonfiction about the same story, the same happening, the same event. Yet it wouldn’t be the same story. It is the perspective of the narrator that writes a story. The oppressor’s narrative writes history.
There is shame in what I feel, and I’m still processing this new knowledge. I want to learn more about the Gadigal people of Sydney. I want to hear their story because my ancestors wrote over the top of theirs.
There are no photos of Susannah and Henry, but I find a snippet of information about their appearance online, and a pleasurable warmth fills my chest. Henry is thought to have had red hair.
I have a fleck of red in my genes.
Amid the shame, I have a fleck of pride in the knowledge that my ancestors survived. We are the survivors of the First Fleet. Like the Gadigal and Ruby’s iwi, we are survivors. By living my life, I am writing a story for my grandchildren, hopefully a better one. And so, the last word goes to Ruby Solly.
“We are the stories we tell, and we each use what we have been given to add the next chapters. You too get to decide what you honour and what you add.”
Aimee Milne is a former registered nurse turned activist and writer who lives in Tairawhiti with her husband, teenager, cats, dogs and chooks. She is completing a post graduate diploma in creative writing through Massey University and is known for her anti-misinformation/anti-racism mahi. Aimee’s writing has been published in Newsroom, Stuff, The Gisborne Herald and online literary magazines.
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