Like hundreds of thousands of others, Nadine Anne Hura’s brother couldn’t see the point in participating in a system that didn’t make space for him, much less represent him.
Content warning: This piece includes discussion of suicide
I used to think that the most important things we say to the people we love are wordless. I used to think that actions speak louder than poetry. Lately I have begun to question.
What wordless things did my brother say that I didn’t hear? What did I miss in those wide-open silences that sometimes lingered between us? Every morning I wake up feeling the weight of all the unspoken words and stories I’ll never hear. I lie in bed listening to birdsong lift my room from darkness. He doesn’t visit my dreams and I’m not surprised. It would be out of character for him to show up just because I want him to.
On Saturday night I broke four and a half years of sobriety with a bottle of Ngatarawa Stables Sauvignon Blanc. What a waste. I could have drunk the Kingfisher beer he loved so much. I sat on a hill at the back of the house and drank alone. Perhaps I thought I could purge the words from my throat. I watched the sun bleed from the sky behind the place he took his final breaths, wondering why I never drank with him. How come I was so hard-arsed?
My daughter found me in the garage clutching his bag of tools to my chest. It was solid and heavy, tucked under my chin like the curve of a shoulder. I kept saying it smelled like him, but really it just smelled like all men who work with their hands: wet canvas and metal, hard work and diesel. I sucked in deep breaths and exhaled hūpē.
Recently my brother had begun to complain about aches in his elbows and knees. His body was giving out after decades of accumulated lifting and carrying and climbing and crawling. He was 47. I used to come home from work and say I’d had a hard day and he’d tilt his bottle in my direction and say “Yeah? Did you get wet? Were you on your feet all day? Have you got blisters?”
He was hard-arsed, too.
Maybe the reason we stopped talking was because he was bitter, and I was hopeful. If not hopeful, at least I believed that the system wouldn’t change unless I agreed to participate in it. He, on the other hand, like hundreds of thousands of others, couldn’t see the point in participating in a system that didn’t make space for him, much less represent him.
Who was right? I don’t know, but one thing I do know is that there is an election this weekend and I’ll vote and he definitely can’t. How many other voices won’t be heard? Parliament doesn’t have to listen to people who have given up on words.
It makes me wonder if the most insidious, ongoing impact of colonisation is the violence indigenous people wield against ourselves. Rates of suicide for Māori are 100% higher than the national average. One hundred percent.
I hate that this country has made a statistic of my brother. I hate that he can’t tell his own story. But most of all I hate that into the cavity of his silence others will pour their words, including me.
Emma Espiner gave a talk at the National Library recently about story sovereignty. She said that if we don’t tell our own stories, then others will. What is the price we pay when someone else tells our story?
In my brother’s eulogy, I wrote that he could mend or make anything out of physical materials. Wood, metal, cloth, steel, even plastic – he could turn his hand to anything. The packed auditorium chuckled with recognition. Among his many inventions, the pneumatic beer-bottling machine is the one people will still be talking about in 50 years. Since he died, the word I’ve most often heard to describe him is “clever”. On the lid of his casket my daughter wrote in careful print: “Uncle Dazza, you are the smartest person I will ever know.”
This is the same guy who, as a seven-year-old, was described by his Pākehā school teacher as “unteachable” and “backward”. My mother told me this a few days after I picked her up from the airport. By the time she was released from quarantine he’d been gone two weeks and a day. Mum said she always knew her boy was smart. As in, genius-smart, but the primary school teacher saw only what she wanted to see: brown kid, backward. My mother fought and lobbied to get him into the “posh school” on the other side of town – where he learned to read within weeks.
I think how it must feel to hear yourself described over and over again by someone else in their words and their language. How hard-arsed do you have to be to survive an education system, a health system, a justice system, a political system, that has already decided who you are and how your story goes?
There will be people who’ll argue it isn’t possible to draw a line from the pronouncement that my brother was “unteachable” to the words written on the lid of his casket 40 years later, but I can and I will because this is story sovereignty. I get to decide the order in which I lay down the words and thus ascribe meaning.
Which is to say: I don’t think my family should be left alone to sift through reasons and think about responsibility. The personal is political. My brother is just one of countless Māori who will not vote this weekend. Are people listening to that silence?
This time three years ago I managed to get my brother all the way to the polling station. He stood on the footpath watching the people surge around him and join the queue. “What’s the point, Nadine,” he said, backing away. “I’m not even enrolled.”
Afterwards we went to the pub and I ordered a Sprite and he had a beer. “Cheers to your government,” he said, raising his glass.
“It’ll be your government too,” I said. “Whether you voted or not.”
He shook his head and took a swig. “Not my government.”
Moana Jackson says that the history of colonisation damages the soul because it makes us lose faith in ourselves – “faith in our right to once again govern ourselves, to determine our own destinies, and to tell our own stories”.
Statistics are just stories without faces. Rates of suicide, rates of incarceration, rates of non-voters. We need poetry to make people feel something about that silence.
My brother could fly. He could drift, he could base-jump, he could fall. He could stop the spinning blade of a skill-saw with the side of his finger. It’s not that he was fearless, it’s that he was truth-seeking. He was funny, he was clever. He could see things no one else could see. He played the drums so loud he roused his ancestors. He loved his kids, he hated the system. My brother was a lot of things. And not nearly as hard-arsed as he made himself out to be.
Yesterday my mum cast her vote. When she came out of the voting booth her face was wet with tears. “He was wrong to think his voice didn’t count,” she said. “It did.”
In the mornings I cling to Moana’s words and try to be less hard-arsed. The reason I quit drinking is because I needed to believe that the future will be different to the past. I vote for those coming after me, as much as those who have gone. Silence can be so loud, but like Moana says, so long as we have our stories and continue to tell them in our own words, we can break the silence and reclaim our faith in ourselves. More powerful than parliament, more enduring than colonial governments, perhaps poetry can lift us from darkness?
Where to get help
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Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Healthline – 0800 611 116
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
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