Selina Tusitala Marsh is a celebrated poet-scholar.
She was the first PI to graduate with a PhD in English from Auckland University, where she’s now an associate professor lecturing in creative writing and Pacific literature.
As she tells Dale in this interview, that can be a lonely path to walk.
Talofa, Selina. Now, I understand that you grew up in Avondale, which is a very urban, very multicultural community now. But your mum and dad actually met in Samoa — and it seems there was a sink bench involved in their courtship. Can we talk about that for a moment?
Absolutely. I’m Avondale through and through. But my mum, Sailigi (Lina) Tusitala, met my dad, James Trevor Crosbie, in Samoa — at a place called Emilio’s Bar on Beach Road in Apia, where she was working at the time.
He was a stainless-steel manufacturer. And he courted her by bringing her village — Elise Fou, which is quite close to Apia — their first stainless steel sink-bench and shower tray. It was the first in the whole village, and it was celebrated.
So, yeah, that’s how my Pālagi-English-French father won over my Samoan-Tuvalu mother’s heart. They got married on Beach Road, at the church with the over-sized stone Bible outside it — and then they moved to New Zealand.
I’m sure your dad was struck by your mum’s beauty. And she, too, would have been taken by his bench-top.
Well, he didn’t have the benefit of communication because Mum spoke very little English. So my mum’s little sister and her cousin acted as translators. I’m sure appearance and body language came into it!
Mum’s lack of English is nothing to be ashamed of, though — her youngest siblings managed to complete their education largely because Mum and a couple of the older siblings left school early to work to pay for their school fees.
For Mum, like many Pacific parents, it was all about education. And because she didn’t have that luxury, she knew it was a key. She knew that the kids born and raised in New Zealand needed education in order to succeed. She taught herself English by watching Days of Our Lives and Selwyn Toogood’s It’s in the Bag — and socialising at the Avondale RSA!
I remember one day I was so busy at uni trying to finish a chapter on my doctoral thesis. And Mum rings me up to tell me to come, catch the bus to Avondale, because she had a couple of Social Welfare forms that needed filling out.
And I was so over it. I was like: “Mum! C’mon. You’ve just gotta fill out your name and the address.” And then I was immediately filled with shame.
Because the fact that she wasn’t literate, in a roundabout way, was what had enabled me to be so very literate. I sat on the bus, and I was crying all the way there, feeling so embarrassed that I’d felt that way.
Obviously, there’s a humility factor from your mum, but what about the old man? How did he impact your personality?
Just to go back to the humility thing. That’s just me. Because my mum lorded it over her younger brothers and sisters, reminding them at every opportunity — during family meetings and family arguments, too — of the sacrifices she’d made for them.
She made all this happen: our aiga here in Niu Sila was because of her. All the family who came over from Samoa stayed with us. Our house in Avondale was THE house. My dad — who was really a lovely, gentle alco and workaholic — gave them jobs. Supported them. Got them on their feet.
When I go back to the village — even now, even last year — relatives come up to me and say: “We loved your dad.” He died a few years ago. They talk about the time in the late ‘60s when he was courting my mum, and he sent this massive wooden crate to Elise Fou. It was Christmas time. And when they opened it up, there were presents for all the kids in the village. And each present was labelled with each kid’s name.
And this was a very odd thing, because usually the gifts go to the oldest — those who hold the authority — and then they choose how they’re distributed.
My cousins were so moved to see their own names on a present — on a ping-pong set or a cricket set or a doll. It was one of the few things they really owned. Dad told us that when he returned to the village a year later, he saw a little girl walking along the dirt path. As she got closer he realised she was carrying the doll that he’d bought her the Christmas before. It was still in its plastic wrapper.
That reflects the gentle thoughtfulness of my dad. He was well loved by the village, and well loved by our aiga for his generosity and his humility.
Beautiful. I get the impression that you were surrounded by books in your Avondale whare, some of them Bibles. This love of words — is that down to a house full of books and encouragement to use them?
Not really! We had a set of Encyclopedia Britannicas — I remember mum buying them from a travelling salesman. And we had the Bible, but Mum was the black sheep of the family, so it wasn’t opened very much.
That’s one of the reasons I’m not bilingual — although I did get an A-plus when I studied Samoan language here at Auckland University. We weren’t raised in a traditional, conventional Samoan way. Partly because Mum rejected the church. She felt that for the most part, it was a hypocritical institution, and she had very little to do with it. Much to the chagrin of her siblings and other family members.
Mum’s father, Vaelei Tusitala, was a church minister. But Mum said her dad was a different kind of minister — he was the only skinny Samoan minister around. And she equated that with other things — other values associated with church ministers.
So we weren’t part of the Samoan church. But she had her own little temples, including the Salvation Army and op shops. We were avid op-shoppers. Everything in our house came from secondhand stores.
And she would give me 50 cents or a dollar and I’d be able to fill up a box with books that I scored from the Salvation Army or the Avondale Spiders or St Vincent de Pauls. So, while I wasn’t surrounded by books to begin with, Mum always gave me the opportunity to get whatever books I wanted.
That’s where my eclectic reading tastes come from. Basically the two bottom shelves at the Sallies filled my weekly cardboard box. I'd cart them home and read everything from cooking books to English fiction to boys’ annuals to Pam Ayres and Robert Louis Stevenson’s illustrated Treasure Island.
Mum and Dad divorced when I was 8. Mum was always “there”, but she and Dad weren’t guilty of over-parenting, as perhaps I am now.
So we kind of raised ourselves in terms of our education. And luckily, I was naturally a nerd, so Mum pretty much left me alone to study and read. My siblings complain that I got away with not doing as many chores.
Back in the day, university was just what you did if you were passing exams. Because there were no fees, it wasn’t the huge decision it is today. So, I just rolled into everything. Eyes, ears, and hands wide open. Always having been taught two basic things from my older brother Luka, who took on the role of father figure for me and my sister Samantha. And that was to open every door that’s ajar. And to always finish what you start.
And those two things led to me going to university. I was a very hardworking B-student when I got here. I only got As in English. But I got better and better as I went from doing a BA and then an MA. And then I was invited to do a PhD by my professors at the time: Maualaivao Albert Wendt and Witi Ihimaera.
Couple of sharp-shooters. I’ve been lucky enough to speak with both. Humble men, but also very mindful that they received some mentoring and then provided that to others. Being Samoan, it must have been particularly gratifying for you to be mentored by Albert Wendt.
I enjoy a close relationship with Al (and his partner Reina) today — but it wasn't an easy relationship at the start. Albert being a first-generation Samoan. And me being ‘afakasi, born here.
But Albert absolutely, unequivocally believed in my ability to do a PhD. Whenever I’d air my doubts, he would look at me, as if to say: “Why are you wasting my time? You’re already doing it.”
He had little tolerance for getting too caught up with my emotional angst and feelings of alienation in a predominantly white institution. He listened, but his unwavering belief in my ability to complete my PhD really helped me get through it.
As did Witi. He was a lovely listener, but he was more: “This is expected.” And, “someone’s got to take our place”.
I remember Albert saying to me: “Look behind you — do you see anyone else?” I’m like: “No.” And he goes: “Well, then, it’s got to be you.”
They’re both fascinating men and I’m glad they saw your potential and fostered it. I know we rate humility, but to be a Pasifika woman with a PhD in English, and being the first at Auckland University, must be very satisfying.
You know, you’re so busy doing the work, you don’t realise until a lot later what that achievement means.
But — and I’m not disparaging my own efforts and work — what does it mean if there’s not people following after me?
I totally get what Witi and Albert were doing now. You know, they were a little bit bossy with me. They wouldn’t let my doubts overcome my decision to do it — and now I can see why. We don’t have the luxury to doubt and be full of angst and let this place diminish us and feel like we don’t belong here. That’s just not an option.
And I despair at times, because, while there are people in my field across Oceania — here in this department, I’m still looking for a brown mass to rise up.
There are a few people. Michele Johansson, a talented and hardworking Tongan student graduated on Friday with her PhD in Creative Practice. She’s half-drama, half-literature. She’s incredible. She graduated with her daughter, ‘Iunisi Bailey, who graduated with her BA.
Those kind of things nourish me. Because, suddenly, they’re looking at me, going: “If you can do it, I can do it.”
But I’m dissatisfied that there’s not more out there. And I guess that dissatisfaction is a good thing because it keeps you striving and it keeps you looking and it keeps you pushing.
Māori are effectively Pasifika peoples, aren’t they? And we’re seeing more of a merging of Māori and PI now, but it wasn’t always the way. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s they were almost at war. But we seem to have grown up a little bit and feel comfortable in each other’s company.
I absolutely agree. I teach a course called Pacific Literature and I explain that Māori, and New Zealand, are part of the Pacific. There are very definite Māori connections to Oceania. My colleague Alice Te Punga Somerville wrote a book called Once Were Pacific about that very idea.
So it’s about breaking down those colonial demarcations of our identity — and coming together. But always with the acknowledgement that Māori are tangata whenua here, and we are tauiwi — tangata tiriti and Pasifika.
If you were writing a poem, or a piece about the relationship between Pasifika and Māori —what would spring to mind?
A few years ago, I was asked to take part in a national televised debate. The moot was that New Zealand is the lucky country as opposed to Australia being the lucky country. And I partly responded with poetry. The first verse goes:
New Zealand’s the lucky country.
Aotearoa, land of divine poetry where Papatuānuku and Rangi,
lovers of land, sky and sea
are progenitors of Māori — yes, New Zealand’s a lucky country.
And then it talks about how we’re “lucky”, in inverted commas, because we have a first story that feeds into our cultural identity and national imagination.
I’m impressed that you’re able to recollect that piece off the top of your head.
The reason that I know it so well is that I begin my first lectures with that poem. So, whatever it is I’m doing — whether I’m running a creative writing course or whether I’m teaching Pacific Literature — I begin with that story.
Because it’s an oral reminder to students about where they are. It’s like: “Hello. Open your eyes. Take a look around us. These are the first stories. These are the stories which can grow us in this place.”
And it’s basically one of the few unique things that they, as students, as writers, as literary scholars, can offer the rest of the world when they speak from this place. It’s not by ignoring our first stories. It’s by embracing them and finding their place within them.
Can we talk about poetry here? Because often there’s a cringe factor with poetry for the uninitiated — and I’ll probably include myself here. Poetry can make some people’s eyes glaze over or roll. What do your cuzzies think of your poetry and the fact that you’re a poet?
Well, it’s more: what do my sons think? They simply don’t read it!
But I feel that a lot of my poetry is accessible by the masses — especially when I perform it. I wouldn’t call myself a spoken word poet. But certainly I’m a performance poet who brings energy and drama and intrigue into my delivery. So it’s not just reading words off the page in a monotone voice, it’s embodying the words.
And that, as we know, stems from thousands of years of oral tradition and a continuous vibrant oral culture today.
I want to go back to the question that Linda Tuhiwai Smith asks: How is my research saving lives?
In my world, giving voice and enabling people to identify with what I’m saying — and challenging them to write their own stories — is a really important part of what I do.
So, for example, my signature poem Fast Talking PI, which took on cult status throughout New Zealand schools — tells my story.
That poem came from me waking up one morning and seeing a New Zealand Herald headline, saying something like: “PI New Zealand’s brown underclass draining the economy dry.” Based on a so-called academic’s report. I don’t know if you remember that whole fiasco. But it was yet another way the media let on board these negative stereotypes about my people.
So I wrote Fast Talking PI — and the first stanza is:
I’m a fast-talking PI
I’m a power walking PI
I’m a demographic, hieroglyphic, fact-sheetin’ PI
I’m a theorising PI
I’m a strategising PI
I’m a published in a peer-reviewed journal PI
And it goes on and on for 14 minutes. It’s claiming not just my identity, but the ones that I see around me — both positive and negative.
People embraced it. I have an active presence in schools. I sit on the New Zealand Book Council. I’m one of their writers, and I’d go in to schools and share that poem. And kids would be hooting and screaming and clapping.
And then they started challenging me: “What about: I’m the uniformed PI. I’m a street-kid PI. I’m a rapping PI.” And I’d say: “Well, come on. Extend the chant. It’s not just mine, it’s ours. Let’s make it bigger. Longer. Faster. Brighter.” And then they’d add and add and add, and it just became a movement on its own.
So, for me, poetry has to reach out. It has to be performative, but at the same time, if it’s a published poem, it’s got to work on the page as well.
I sense I’m a fast-talking PI as well.
I’m a long-talking PI.
I note that you performed a piece for the Queen at Westminster Abbey last year. A bit harrowing coming up with the right formula — you’re on a big stage in front of a global figure. But I guess it throws up some questions of imperialism and colonisation. You performed for the Queen: is she your queen?
She’s a queen. In my next collection, Tightrope, I’ve included The Queen’s Sequence, riffing off of some queens I’ve met. I start off with the first queen in my field, Ngāhuia Te Awekotuku, and I link it with the Māori Queen. And then after her is Queen Elizabeth II. After her is Oprah. After her is Alice Walker. I’ve had relations to varying degrees with all these different queens.
So she’s a queen. I accepted the invitation, even given its parameters, because it was an opportunity to represent Pasifika on the global stage. But it was also daunting, feeling like I had this one chance to represent “everyone”. It got easier when I realised that I just had to do me. To be me and my ancestors.
So, I brought Vaelei Tusitala, my grandfather, with me. I brought Tuvalu with me. I brought global climate change and the impact on my grandfather’s island, the threat of its disappearance, with me, through story, on that global stage. That was primarily the reason I accepted that invitation.
I only got flak from one colleague who jokingly called me a sellout. I was a bit shocked, because one of my rules for engagement is to always be kind. That felt a bit mean.
When I shared it with a Māori colleague of mine, she goes: “He’s just jealous.” She pointed out that this same person had been the recipient of a prestigious British scholarship for six years of study — and if that ain't suckling at the teat of the British Empire, then what is?
You’re really living up to your name, aren’t you? Tusitala is a teller of tales. The name given to Robert Louis Stevenson. Your grandad would be very pleased, wouldn’t you think?
I think so. He passed away when I was young. He struck me, and through my mother’s tales of him, as a humble and justice-focused kind of person, someone who did what he thought was right no matter what anyone else thought. I hope to manifest some of that in my own work.
But he gave me Tusitala — and it holds so much richness as I go deep into it and mine it for a way of approaching Pacific literature. It really does define me.
A few years ago, I realised that nestled in the word “tusitala” was the Polynesian word “ala”. I was visiting some indigenous Taiwanese tribes in Taiwan, and a woman from one of the tribes said: “Ala is our word, too. It means pathway.”
I’ve latched on to that, because I think: That’s what I am. That’s what I do. I’m a storyteller. But, also, I’m a path. I’m a bridge.
And, as I’ve written elsewhere, sometimes you get walked on, but that’s what you need to do in order to connect people and communities, and to enable conversation.
And, of course, the Māori word is “ara”. What do you sense is in the future for you, Selina?
I realise that, as my three sons Javan, Micah and Davey grow older, they actually need me more rather than less. I thought once they were out of nappies, out of primary school, I’d have more freedom to be able to work whatever hours I wanted.
But actually, my mahi is my aiga — my family, driven by those three boys and building them into honourable Pasifika men.
So, I’m trying to be more strategic with my time and energy. While I don’t go into schools as much as I used to, I can sit on the New Zealand Book Council and connect more Māori and Pasifika writers to schools with a high Māori-Pasifika demographic. I can be a puppeteer a little bit more.