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BooksNovember 5, 2023

Reigniting the flame


In this excerpt from monumental new book Pacific Arts Aotearoa, edited by Lana Lopesi, poet Tusiata Avia shares her pathway to becoming an artist, and the people who helped her along the way.

I spent a lot of my life escaping. When I was seven, I decided I was going to leave Christchurch — my birthplace, the place my father immigrated to from Sāmoa in 1953. I was going to travel the world. At 10, I drew up a plan (and I quote): “I would like to go to Africa, Europe, India, America, Spain, Hawai‘i, Sāmoa.” I gave myself 10 years. I did eventually leave — not precisely to my timeframe, but once I flew away, I was quite sure it was forever.

I stayed away from New Zealand for more than a decade and, in that time, unbeknown to me, the Pacific arts were flourishing. It wasn’t until the end of 1999 that I returned for a holiday and was gobsmacked to discover the new state of things here. My cousin, playwright Victor Rodger, was my entrée into the arts world. I was astonished by the people I met — brown girls like me who were doing the things I realised I desperately wanted to do but didn’t dare.

I knew Mishelle Muagututi‘a and Pos Mavaega (our fathers were friends) but didn’t know about Pacific Underground until then. I met a whole community of Pacific artists in Wellington; the Urale sisters were particularly supportive and took me under their wing. I had given up on my short-lived dream of being a writer when I was 15. That tiny, almost extinguished flame burst back to life and I made the decision: I would one day return to New Zealand permanently and become a writer.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt has had a long, slow life.

The portrait of Tusiata Avia included in Pacific Arts Aotearoa. Photo by Peter Meecham.

It began in 2001 as a 10-minute performance poem at an open mic in Newtown, Wellington. By 2002, it was a 40-minute one-woman show at the Dunedin Fringe Festival. For the next seven years, I performed and developed it further with a number of directors (including Mishelle Muagututi‘a, Tanea Heke and Rachael House) and toured all over the place, from Jerusalem to London to Moscow. It was an amazing ride but I did it on no budget and, for the most part, alone.

By 2009, I was a single mother and touring the show with a toddler on my hip had become impossible, so, like many women in the arts with children and not enough support, I let it go.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt died until 2015, when Victor and his production entity revived it.

I rewrote it for six different actresses as a 75-minute show; the brilliant Anapela Polata‘ivao directed, Victor produced and, under this dream team, it rose up like a Pacific phoenix (fruit bat?) from the ashes.

Most of my career has been as a poet and performer. I’ve also tried my hand at, and enjoyed, writing in a number of other genres, including children’s fiction, short film, radio documentary, creative non-fiction and a novel (still in progress). A writer’s life is an odd one and it certainly doesn’t pay much. Nearly all of us have to do other things to make ends meet. Single motherhood brought me back to Christchurch.

When I was pregnant, I came back to my family, thinking, This’ll take me about four months, to get used to the motherhood thing, and then I’ll continue with my life unchanged, baby strapped to my back. Ha! Here I am, 13 years later. I’ve grown fond of this city. Since my return, Christchurch and I have been through earthquakes and massacres — there is nothing like watching a city fall to its knees to find compassion in your heart for it. I’ve also found good friends here, many of whom are also mothers, particularly among FIKA, a group of Christchurch Pasifika poets. I live with my 87-year-old mother and my 13-year-old daughter in my childhood house; the same one I decided I needed to escape from all those years ago.

Uncontrolled epilepsy has given me a new kind of life. Late in 2016, I lost my beloved father, and then my epilepsy, which had always been controlled by medication, decided to assert itself. I’m learning to negotiate life with it. How do I travel to writers’ festivals and gigs? How do I perform on stage? How do I visit schools, or even have a coffee meeting when I might have a seizure at any moment and give myself yet another head injury? This has become a major consideration in my life and often limits what I am able to do.

As well as those I mentioned earlier, there are sistas I need to acknowledge as a part of this story. Actually, I’m going to include the men here, too. Sitting in a dank London flat, late in the 1990s, I put down a copy of Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel and stared into the distance with my mouth hanging open in wonder. Oh my god, this is possible?

It blew my world apart, just as Albert Wendt’s Sons for the Return Home had taken my breath away in the mid-1980s. Sia sprouted the seed in me that day, which would blossom soon after.

Bernadette Hall found me in a weekend poetry workshop. She took me aside and told me, “You can write.” She published my first poem in 2000, and has remained a dear and trusted mentor. Jamie Bull found me at Whitireia in 2001. She also took me aside and told me, “You can perform.” She gave me the pep talks I sorely needed when I was taking my first shaky steps as a performer.

Bill Manhire made space for me in the literary world when I was a new graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters creative writing programme in 2002.

I’m going to repeat Victor Rodger’s name here because he has been my champion, opening doors for me, and my eyelids to what I’m allowed to do. Selina Tusitala Marsh, my bestie, who walks the daily path with me as we negotiate the writing life, figure out another email from the person who wants me to perform for free, discuss the meaning of our lives and talk about how to get our kids to go to school/stop their dramas/put some clothes on.

My extraordinary mother, Sylvia Avia, who told me with a quiet kind of rapture, “I would’ve been proud of you whatever you did, but to be in the arts! Oh, the arts!”

My beloved father, Naumalau‘ulu Mikaio Avia, who — like so many Pacific immigrants — wanted a better life for me. I don’t think he read my books but he carried a copy around in his bag because he was proud of me.

The last word goes to the English teacher at Tangaroa College in Ōtara, who teaches my poetry to her students: “Our students love your poetry and have had success in NCEA exams using Wild Dogs Under My Skirt.” For me, this is better than any book review, any award.

This is how I know I am doing what I came here to do.

Pacific Arts Aotearoa edited by Lana Lopesi (Penguin NZ, $65) can be purchased at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland. Tusiata Avia’s latest poetry collection, Big Fat Brown Bitch (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30) will be celebrated at Verb Readers & Writers Festival on Friday 10 November. Information and tickets here.

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