Alice Te Punga Somerville’s first book of poetry Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised is out on September 8. Here she is, from Vancouver, Canada, where she’s now teaching at the University of British Columbia, on the heels of National Poetry Day, explaining why she wrote the book and her feelings about writing — in general and in English.
To write is to cite.
Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised is not a book about someone’s life. This poetry does not describe all that I am as a person. And yet, and yet. So much of me is in here: this is partly because colonialism insidiously inserts itself into every part of one’s life — and partly because writing does this too.
I am here, on every page. I am here, struggling against structures of power that are represented and metaphorised in conventions of writing. I am here, in every decision about footnotes, about the language in which a thing is written. I am here, knowing the world is shaped by the decisions we make (and unmake) about when to italicise.
Kupu rere kē
- My friend was advised to italicise all the foreign words in her poems.
- This advice came from a well-meaning woman
- with NZ poetry on her business card
- and an English accent in her mouth.
- I have been thinking about this advice.
- The publishing convention of italicising words from other languages
- clarifies that some words are imported:
- it ensures readers can tell the difference between a foreign language
- and the language of home.
- I have been thinking about this advice.
- Marking the foreign words is also a kindness:
- Every potential reader is reassured
- that although obviously you’re expected to understand the rest of the text,
- it’s fine to consult a dictionary or native speaker for help with the italics.
- I have been thinking about this advice.
- Because I am a contrary person, at first I was outraged —
- but after a while I could see she had a point:
- When the foreign words are camouflaged in plain type
- you can forget how they came to be there, out of place, in the first place.
- I have been thinking about this advice
- and I have decided to follow it.
- Now all of my readers will be able to remember
- which words truly belong in Aotearoa and which do not.
To write is to cite. I am here, writing this short essay, stretched between two poles of academia as I know it: commitments and observations of brilliant anti-colonial redistributions of power (in the classrooms, in the theses, in the libraries and archives, in the conferences, in the tearooms, occasionally in the meeting-rooms and paperwork); and (two decades so far of) crushing disappointment, disillusionment, rejection and exhaustion.
I am literally writing this sentence with the laptop balanced on a plastic container of crackers while I reheat leftovers and try to ignore my four-year-old who wants my attention. The distance between liberation and violence in the academy is some days exhilarating and some days exhausting. Many days, the “some days” are the same days.
This conundrum is addressed in published research, conference discussions, blogs, journalism, social media posts, and whispered conversations over cups of tea and glasses of wine/ beer/ gin. This book renders at least some of this in poetry, and the response of so many Indigenous academics (and public servants, and journalists, and others working in mainstream environments) to some of these poems has been both heartwarming and sad.
To write is to cite. The very act of writing is a direct reference to, and demonstration of, the colonial project. Every written word, every written paragraph, every written poem cites the past 500 years. The inextricability of writing from historical and ongoing violence is a predicament — sometimes paralysingly so — and we can’t sidestep this, as much as we may wish to try. And yet. This does not require us to decide that every act of Indigenous writing is a colonial act or proof of not being Indigenous.
One of the pervasive myths about Māori people (which we have taken to enthusiastically telling ourselves) is that “we don’t write” despite literally millions of pages filled with words penned (or typed) by our own people — by ourselves — in published texts, manuscripts, and personal writing.
Something happens when we as Indigenous writers position ourselves as inheritors and transmitters of a legacy of Indigenous written expression. When we hold the pen, writing can be an infinitely colonial and infinitely freeing — and connecting — act. Haunani-Kay Trask describes Hawaiian writing as part of a “resisting and reconstructing process” and asserts: “Consciously anti-colonial, my work is also consciously Indigenous.”
To write is to cite. We make use of the technology of writing, but also the specific colonial language of English, for our own purposes. Back in 1981, Acoma writer and thinker Simon Ortiz argued that Indigenous peoples have made these colonial languages our own. “I know English was brought my white men to our country,” admits Loa Niumeitolu, as she both uses and accuses the language in which she writes the poem “When we Tell,” but by the end of the same poem she claims the language for herself and her community: “We’ve got to have a Tongan way of doing it.”
Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen poet Deborah Miranda writes: “You never thought we could/ wield these letters for ourselves,/ write our humanity, make new songs,/ become lawyers or poets — redefine words/ like warrior or strategy.”
Menominee poet Chrystos ends her poem “I have not signed a Treaty with the Unites States government” with a challenge — “Take this language back with you” — which, if accepted, would of course take away the very language in which she has expression. And yet she, like generations of Indigenous writers all over the world, has made use of English for her own purposes.
But every citation — every act of writing — in English reinforces the power of the language that arrived in these islands in 1769 with Cook, and although that may connect me with others who have their own Cooks (or indeed the same Cook), I cannot write in English without being painfully — painfully — aware of the language which doesn’t sit easily in my mouth and sits nowhere near my hands as they hover over a pen or laptop.
I respond to Chrystos’s challenge: in this book, following the “advice” mentioned in the opening poem “Kupu rere kē,” I have made use of conventions of writing that use italics to clearly mark which words are foreign (and okay to not know) and which are from here (and are assumed to be familiar). That most of the words in this book — including these ones — are in italics is an attempt to make something explicit that in a settler colony can feel as invisible as the air we breathe.
To write is to cite — according to Barthes, every text is a “tissue of quotations” — language is not ours alone to control — everything we say has already been said before.
Many of the poems in this collection gesture towards things that have been said (verbally or in writing) and I cannot write without thinking about how I speak back in the same language that was used by those others. (Maybe this is a comment about the use of English; maybe it is a comment about writing; maybe it is a comment about language in its broadest sense.)
And yet. Citation need not be understood only as foreclosure (in which we are literally unable to say anything original) or as mimicry (in which we cannot help but endlessly produce copies of forgeries or fakes).
Things can feel less constrained, and more grounded, if our thinking about citation starts with whakapapa. Indeed, Taranaki poet JC Sturm affirms: “what is more/ there is nothing that has not been before/ the new repeats the old/ we are simply variations on original themes/ why are you dismayed?/ we carry history in our genes/ like messages in bottles.”
To write is to cite. Each of the four sections of the collection opens with a cluster of quotations about the section to follow but also, if we think about citation in relation to recitation and in particular the recitation of whakapapa, each of the cited writers here is a name to follow to other work; their thinking has influenced my own work.
I cite them, these writers and these/ their knowledge traditions: Apirana Taylor, a whakatauki, Hirini Melbourne on my relationship with language; Haunani-Kay Trask, Taika Waititi, Chelsea Watego (Bond) on racism; Jacinta Ruru, Joanna Kidman and Cheri Chu, Epeli Hau‘ofa and Teresia Teaiwa on my work in the academy; and, finally, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and Te Rangihiroa on the acknowledgment that can be articulated through goodbyes.
(Re)citation is an opportunity to position one’s own thinking. It’s an opportunity to gesture towards — to produce — a broader net(work) of thinkers and writers. There are other names, other people, other networks cited in this book — many of the poems are dedicated to particular people or groups who inspired them.
(Re)citation is also about the combination of names; the “who is there” collectively as well as the “who is there” individually. Of course, there are so many more names — it is always tempting to trace in all directions and not fail to mention certain names and the work and networks those names represent.
But, whakapapa are always collectively held and multi-dimensional; the idea that one could — let alone should — name everyone is a conceit. We name the ones we name, and leave those names to lead to others. As Patricia Grace’s character Linda in Mutuwhenua puts it, “every branch reaches out . . . touches every other.”
I hope that, as with any (re)citation of whakapapa, names and words here will pique your curiosity and lead you to other words, other thinkers, other connections.
These others: the words, the thinkers, the connections. These are how we know that writing while colonised is not the limit of what is going on here.
We also write while anti-colonial, we write while intersectional, we write while revolutionary, we write while sitting with the breadths and depths and gaps and possibilities of who we are. We write while Indigenous.
Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Āti Awa, Taranaki) is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures and the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. She studied at the University of Auckland, earned a PhD at Cornell University, is a Fulbright scholar and Marsden recipient and has held academic appointments in New Zealand, Canada, Hawai‘i and Australia. Her first book Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) won Best First Book from the Native American & Indigenous Studies Association. Her most recent book is Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook (BWB, 2020).
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