WORD Christchurch 2023: Tusiata has spoken

The last stop on my weekend of Pasifika voices at WORD Christchurch 2023 was Tusiata Speaks.

An audience with the renowned, Ockham award winning poet Tusiata Avia, in conversation with John Campbell.

I mentioned earlier I was scared to read her acclaimed work The Savage Coloniser Book and as someone who doesn’t usually read poetry, in truth it was more the fear of it all going over my head.

I slip into the theatre, to the back and look down over the crowd. We’re a mixed bunch, older but that’s not surprising, and a few familiar poets in the mix.

Tusiata is seated on stage, in the crimson and greens of a tropical garden, sneakers, all accessorised with a badass black moonboot. She looks like your cool tinā, a hint of rebel but nothing of “hate fuelled” like certain politicians like to say she is.

John Campbell and Tusiata Avia, WORD Christchurch 2023
John Campbell on stage with Tusiata Avia, WORD Christchurch 2023.

John Campbell is at the lectern giving, as Tusiata later proclaims, the best introduction she’s ever had.

He speaks to the thrill and audacity of poetry. The infinite ways we can use upu, words. When acknowledging one of Tusiata’s most talked about poems, 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand, he stresses context is everything.

“That moment was the beginning of loss for so many. Loss of life, loss of land, loss of agency”

Then settling down, he opens the conversation by asking Tusiata how she became a writer.

“Because brown girls like me from Aranui didn’t become writers.”

Tusiata treats us to a reading. It’s a passage from the poem Massacre, and by the end we understand a little more that “there was nothing good about being a brown girl in Christchurch in the 80s” and the self-censoring she had to do to fit in.

Bringing us to a more recent past, John asks Tusiata to recount the controversy around The Savage Coloniser Book, particularly 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand. She serves it in a peanut shell - media, politicians, hate mail, complaints to the Human Rights Commission, death threats, all over a poem.

“Just freaky” is how she would describe that time. There was anger, fears for her family’s safety and no platform for reply.

John has been champing at the bit to read some of the poem, and he does “Hey James…”  he begins to loud cheers.

In reply, Tusiata shares for the first time to a large audience, a poem from her upcoming book Big Fat Brown Bitch due out in November.

It’s clever, a tongue and cheek response to the hate mail she’d received, using quotes straight from the hate. She reads, the sibilance in her words like a controlled pressure release.

Looking around the room there is laughter and a sense of collective awe that we have all just been privy to something special.

She reveals how an injury and subsequent stay at a nursing home became a forced writers retreat of sorts.

 “Don’t end up in a nursing home, John!” she cracks. “Steady on John” someone yells from the front row and we all crack up together.

It was during this “retreat” that Big Fat Brown Bitch was created.

Naturally, the conversation turns to the creation process.

Tusiata says it is intuitive but not spontaneous, assuring us she knows what she is doing. “The best poems feel channelled.” John asked if there were any works she would revise – a swift sigh “oh god, yes!”.

On the realities of poet as a profession, Tusiata reflects that it is not easy. She’s “pissed off it doesn’t pay the rent” but what makes her most angry is being a writer with something to say but still feeling silenced.  

John interjects “you say angry, I say brave. We are f’d without brave! Where does the brave come from? “Age is her simple answer.

Wrapping up with thoughts on “narrowly prescribed perspectives” and being grateful to now know the alternatives, John turns and addresses Tusiata perfectly -

“Thank you! What a gift! What a brilliance!”

The audience gives her a well-deserved standing ovation.

John Campbell and Tusiata Avia, WORD Christchurch 2023
Tusiata Avia receives a standing ovation, WORD Christchurch 2023

Queuing in the signing den afterward, I think, what was I worried about?

Listening to an author speak, read a piece, and be able to share context is invaluable.

I get it now.

This poetry isn’t meant to make me feel uncomfortable.

The sharpness in context is healing, like literary acupuncture. I get it now, because I was one of those underestimated little brown girls from the east, to whom she gives voice.

Hey Tusiata

Yeah, you


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