Lucy Revill’s The Residents is a blog about daily life in Wellington that has morphed into a stylish, low-key coffee-table book featuring interviews and photographic portraits of 38 Wellingtonians. In this extract, Revill profiles Eboni Waitere, owner and executive director of Huia Publishers.
The Residents features names like Monique Fiso and Jacinda Ardern, a bunch of artists and musos, a cobbler, a professor, a parliamentary services co-ordinator, and a Unity Books legend (Tilly Lloyd). Lucy Revill has been running the blog for five years and it shows in her collection of profiles: she’s got the mix exactly right, and her writing and photography both carry a reassuring tone of ease. A book to potter about in. Appropriately, it was crowdfunded.
In this extract, Revill profiles Eboni Waitere, owner and executive director of Huia Publishers. A strong advocate for Māori medium education and co-chair of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Whanganui-ā-Tara, she loves reading and books. While she still considers the Wairarapa home, she has lived in Wellington for over 20 years. They met over tea and home-made scones at Waitere’s Island Bay home.
– Catherine Woulfe
“Robyn came back to me and asked why I hadn’t gone forward. I explained that I was pregnant. ‘So what?’ she said.”
Eboni Waitere was born in Masterton in 1979. “My mum was a teenager – 18 when she had me. When I was younger, she did social work and then later became a counsellor and worked in special education services. She bought a house in Masterton where she raised other people’s children. I think she raised at least 56 kids.” Eboni’s mother, Sharon Waitere, who passed away at the age of 45, never adopted children but was a stable person with whom parents placed their kids if they needed a break. “Some stayed for a few months, some stayed for many years.”
Eboni’s father is Pākehā and left New Zealand for Australia not long after Eboni was born. “His family were Catholic, so many of those cultural things were quite challenging for them in the 1970s. He was just 21.” Nevertheless, she is now close to his family. She says she never felt discriminated against by others for having “no father”, although she knows her mother experienced some discrimination for being a single mum.
Eboni remembers Masterton as a strong, thriving community. “We had a big family. Even though it was just me and my mum, I had lots of cousins, aunties and uncles. I went to a Māori medium school, so I was one of the first students of Kōhanga Reo and kura kaupapa Māori, which gave an extended sense of community.” Eboni was also very connected with stories of the land. “Stories of taniwha and the rivers were a normal part of our education. It’s hard to measure just how much confidence that instills in a person, when they know their culture and identity.”
She learned how to read Māori because dedicated kaiako would salvage books that were about to be discarded and translate them, placing stickers over the English and writing the Māori text over the sticker. “The only book for children in Māori that I can recall was Kei Hea a Spot? Of course, there were other titles and the bible in Māori, but nothing geared for early readers. What does that tell you as a young person about your place in society, when the material you read is books to be thrown on the rubbish tip?”
Eboni remembers using her weekly pocket money to buy chocolate and books. “It’s still probably how I spend my money,” she jokes. When she was about 12, she saw an interview with Robyn Bargh, who founded Huia. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, she’s amazing, but I’ll never be able to work in a place like that, because I’m not a writer.’ I didn’t know that there were many different career options in the publishing industry.”
Growing up, Eboni was passionate about basketball. “That’s what I loved during high school, but the opportunities to be a basketballer in Masterton weren’t the same as Auckland or Wellington. My mother made a bargain with me. If I applied myself academically, she’d send me to America one way or another. I ended up going on an AFS scholarship. I was lucky enough to have my host family live in Chapel Hill, which is where Michael Jordan went to college, in North Carolina, a well-known basketball state.” Eboni admits it was hard to leave her mother. “But the opportunities I had were beyond what I ever could have imagined. I lived with a family, we went to church and socialised with neighbours, and I became part of their family. My American mom, Beth McArthur, was a reading specialist teacher in an elementary school, and she introduced me to new genres and book clubs.”
Chapel Hill High was a very large, affluent public school. “It had all the cliques you can imagine: jocks, cheerleaders, emos, artists, foreigners and nerds. I remember reading a lot during my lunch break for the first few weeks, before I made friends. As it happened, some of my first friends were aspiring rappers who studied dictionaries, thesauruses and phonics books in the library, also at lunchtime. On Fridays they would transform the courtyard or amphitheatre into a concert. Culturally, they really impressed me with their intellect and discipline. If I hadn’t been into basketball, I probably would have become an American literature expert from all that time in the library.”
Eboni found a teacher, Mrs Barnes, who encouraged her reading. “I didn’t realise what an avid reader I was until she told me. We were going through, chapter by chapter, and I was already far ahead. English became my favourite subject. Even though my education to that point had been in Māori, I wasn’t that far behind, if at all.” Eboni hadn’t seriously considered going to university until her AFS experience. “It helped my independence and gave me a sense of self-reliance.”
It also gave her some early insight into how race and literature overlapped. “I would read these books written by Black authors, and I remember their story arc would always spiral down. In addition, I was living in the South, a place which has a history of segregation and slavery. I was reading about many Black experiences and witnessing it all at the same time.” She remembers asking her English teacher about her experience of teaching. “She told me that she got many complaints: ‘Who gave her the right to teach English, given that she was Black?’”
When Eboni returned to New Zealand, her mother sat her down. “What are you going to do, kid?” she asked. They decided she would go to Victoria University of Wellington so that she could travel back to Masterton easily by train. But university was a culture shock. “I really struggled my first year, like many others. My mum arranged my uncle to come and get me during the Christmas holidays. At the time, he was a Treaty negotiator. He put me in the car to be his driver, and, over that break, he gave me all the tools I needed to inspire me. He said, ‘It’s okay if you’ve failed at uni. Just quit.’ And that was all the motivation I needed to succeed.”
Eboni studied an undergraduate degree in education and Māori. “Eventually, I decided not to finish my master’s, which I’d started, because I was ready to go and get life experience. My mum had sacrificed a lot for me to study, and it was time to move on.” She was already working at IRD as a debt and return collector. “Because I spoke Māori, they allowed me to work part-time while I was studying. I was really lucky. I’d demonstrated an ability to communicate with organisations that they found it difficult to settle debts from. I realised that language could be used as a tool to break down barriers and build relationships.”
Eventually, Eboni became an auditor at IRD. “I learned lots about accounting, and I went on to be a Māori advisor while I was there.” She was then enticed to join a new company specialising in Māori executive recruitment. “That was good, because I was interested in meeting and learning about people. So, from then, I added HR and accounting to my kete of competencies.”
After Eboni did some recruiting for Huia, Robyn Bargh suggested she herself apply to be the publisher’s chief operating officer, because of her background in education, recruitment and accounting. But an unexpected turn meant Eboni almost didn’t pursue her dream job. “Robyn came back to me and asked why I hadn’t gone forward. I explained that I was pregnant. ‘So what?’ she said. I ended up working through two pregnancies. How delightful to have a boss who didn’t discriminate against me because I was having a child.”
Now at the helm of Huia, since becoming an executive director in 2014 with her business partner Brian Morris, Eboni is passionate about the local book scene. “Lots of the new booksellers are activists and do more than just sell a product. They’ve got coffee shops, they’re creative, they’re thriving. We’re all part of the ecosystem, and we all work together. My only wish is that in New Zealand we had a stronger literacy culture, to encourage kids and adults alike to read and have a stamina for reading. We need to explain that movies start with the word. The cliffhangers on your Netflix show? Someone needs to write that!”
She was reminded of the power books can have when, pre-Covid, a group from America visited the office. “One woman in the group was transgendered. We did a normal welcome, like we always do at Huia, with a little whakatau. When we were introducing ourselves, she stood up and said that she’d never been welcomed anywhere before. It was incredible for us to hear that, as all people should enjoy the experience of love and acceptance.” They showed the group an upcoming Huia title called The Bomb, by Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan, about a boy discovering his identity while trying to achieve the perfect bomb. “It’s all done really cleverly. This international group really appreciated the subtle yet powerful message. We take culture and identity for granted a bit, I think. Possibly because we proudly live with a Māori world view every day. For us, it’s normal, but for them, meeting us and seeing a thoughtful book like this, it’s huge.”
Now, Eboni enjoys working with her talented team at Huia. “The team at Huia is very experienced and exceptionally talented. Looking back, I probably knew when being formally interviewed for the job all those years ago that it was the place I wanted to build my career. The work done at Huia aligned with my values. I knew from my own experiences that there was, and still is, a need for great original works in Māori. Now my children, Amokura and Whaiao, get to read well-written books that reflect their lived experiences. Not only can they read it in Māori, but the characters look like people they know. My hope is that they never doubt their value in society, which is the same privilege other New Zealanders experience.”