Head and shoulders photograph of poet Ben Brown
Ben Brown (Photo: supplied; design work: Tina Tiller)

How could you not have a story?

At the National Library on Wednesday, Lyttelton poet Ben Brown delivered the 2020 Read NZ Te Pou Muramura Pānui. He spoke powerfully about Aotearoa’s incarceration of young people, and the extraordinary book he edited last summer as part of a writing workshop at Rolleston’s Oranga Tamariki youth justice residence, Te Puna Wai ō Tuhinapo. 

This is an abridged version of the full lecture, which you can find here

You’re a male, which is not the simple definition it used to be, but let’s allow that’s what you are. You’re a thief, a drug dealer, a bank robber, a murderer. You’re a gangsta, staunch as, notorious. You’re a lone wolf on the prowl looking for the lambs. You’re a screwed up teenage suicidal maniac. You are the lost cause. You are the found. You’re the kid that broke the mould and paved the way. There’s a monument out there somewhere got your name on it. Maybe it’s true you don’t know why you did it. Maybe it’s true you don’t give a damn why you did, beyond the fact that you got caught in the process.

Statistically of course, tēnā koe e tama, you’re more than likely Māori. You’re more than likely poor. Ironically, you’ve probably been the victim of violent crime in your short life. There’s a good chance you’ve been abused, assaulted, neglected or abandoned. Gangs and family dysfunction will be common themes for you. So I wouldn’t mind at all if you called me Matua, or Uncle even, like “Uncle, put away the thumb,” if I casually flicked you the shaka sign, forgetting it’s the Mob salute and realising by your raised fist that you fight for the other side.

You know already the dark side of addiction, the sinister allure and the spiral to destruction. Anger, fear, helplessness, and anxiety are emotions familiar to you. They are deep. They are visceral. They speak to the animal in you. Suspicion comes easier than trust. Paranoia follows. You require medication just to keep your head straight and go to sleep at night. You hate the world.

The state picked you up from kindergarten when you were four years old and took you to a stranger’s house to live. You have a sister somewhere. You wonder what she looks like now. You are hardcore, resolute in your defiance, determined to walk an unrepentant path, for it is there you earn your scars. You think you’re dead already and that’s a crying shame because it makes you doubly dangerous. You are bigger than your father. You are sweet 16 and adamant that vengeance will be done. You are young, you want your mother. You are hard, you want a war. You are 17 and a father who has yet to see his son. You are 15 and you’d kill your mother’s boyfriend in a heartbeat. You like to train, it keeps you ready. You practice MMA – mixed martial arts. You might be small but as they say, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight …” Anyway, shit gets outta hand, you just stab him in the neck with scissors. You struggled at school with literacy. Numbers don’t make sense to you. Teachers didn’t give a shit. You don’t think that’s fair. You’d like to be a builder or an artist or a soldier in the army.

You’re the lucky young fool and you’re happy to admit it. You think you got here by accident: made dumb decisions with consequences you hadn’t really thought about, go left instead of right, go fast instead of slow, go out instead of stay home. And yet, when the debris of your dumb decisions are cleared away and the dust has finally settled, somehow, you still feel lucky. And so you should. You caught a break. You’re still alive. If your luck holds along with your humility, you might just find an inner strength you never knew you had. You might develop character. And who knows, maybe one day you’ll be wiser than you are now.

You are smart and you write well. How could you not have a story? How could we not be interested in what that story says?

Nō reira, mihi mai koutou ki te pānui nei …

Mēnā kāore he tangata e whakarongo ana, kāore he tangata e mōhio ana.

If nobody listens, then no one will know.

*

Over four consecutive days in early January this year, I delivered a writing workshop at Te Puna Wai ō Tuhinapo, the Oranga Tamariki youth justice residence at Rolleston just outside Christchurch.

The workshop was part of the Writers in Youth Justice programme; a Read NZ Te Pou Muramura initiative conducted in cooperation with Oranga Tamariki. Its immediate intent is fairly straightforward: take creative writing into the youth justice residence arena, encourage participation, generate work, produce a literary object of merit, meaning and worth, maybe a testament to troubling times, maybe a monument to folly.

*

I want to imagine that what we are trying to achieve here is a small change for the better in a tiny and intimately personal part of the world, this part of the world that exists within the tumultuous spirit of a kid behind bars. I want to believe the intractable young criminal who sat across the table from me for two days giving me nothing but a hard look of suspicion, sparked with an occasional sardonic smile, understands and appreciates both the irony and the truth of his eventual offering:

I make no statement, I speak no words. They are too valuable to gift.

*

The programme began on Monday, 6 January 2020 and ran every day till Thursday, 9 January. There were 28 YPs [young people] in residence on the Monday, 29 on the Thursday, with a transfer down from Te Aurere in the Manawatū on Wednesday night – accounting for the extra head. Numbers were spread relatively evenly between units. Every day there were one or two absentees, a sickie or a couple of them locked up in secure for kicking off, but over the four days every YP got at least two sessions in. Most managed all four. Sessions were one hour per unit, per day, compulsory.

Matua, you say words can change the world, are they magic words like spells, prayers, amen, are they orders, are they threats, are they war words, love words, swear words … one word, Matua, changed my world … guilty.

At this point it might be useful to remind ourselves that writing is not natural. We are none of us born the literate scribe, whatever aptitude we might display. Writing is a pretence and an invention – our greatest invention even. But it requires tools and training. It’s a trick we have to learn. Writing is a craft, it improves with practice, atrophies with disuse. It is magical and mundane and mighty. Yesterday’s news. Tonight’s recipe for dinner. Tomorrow’s great enlightenment. As writers, we conjure. As readers, we are spellbound and engaged. As subjects, we are given meaning. In summary, we are nothing but a gathering of words. Somewhere between Darwin’s ape and the secret name of God we made a mark and began the record of our existence. We are, each of us, the stories that follow us through life, and even death, and elaborate our journey step by glorious step, letter by letter, word by word, imbued with such potency that when placed in a particular order, a scrawl of symbols can change the world for better or for worse, in whole or in part.

There’s only so much that even the best of us can achieve in four writing hours, whatever the conditions. You will understand of course, that here we were faced with certain extremes of circumstance. Some of our young writers are actually illiterate. By the way, that’s not an oxymoron, that’s a paradox, but it gives you an out if you make the mistake of presuming that literacy equates to intelligence. Several of them are on Ritalin or some such equivalent treatment, a few are on powerful antipsychotics such as Quetiapine, which, I can tell you, is a slammer. Emotional states run the gamut from darkness to light. Attention spans ranged from about 10 minutes to an optimum 45, and that was on a good day. Virtually all of the YPs are likely to have a problem with anything approaching a formal type of learning situation. The phrase “push back” springs to mind. No point going in there thinking I was going to teach them how to be creative writers. I had a better idea than that. I went in assuming that they already were creative writers, they just didn’t know it yet.

The course commenced with an A4 ream (500 pages) and a new box of biros. Each session began with a kōrero, a conversation on the kaupapa as I saw it, the question at hand, “How the fuck did I get here?”, being the catalyst. More often than not, the talk would lead to other questions, other themes, other topics of exploration. The emphasis was on getting something down on paper. 

Can’t spell, doesn’t matter, I’m the editor, that’s my job. Can’t write, don’t sweat it, the staff will take dictation for you. Can’t read, so what, it’s not what I’m asking you to do. Can’t think of anything to write about, yeah you can, just answer the question, think the thought, describe it using whatever language comes to you in the moment. And so on and so forth.

I wanted a book at the end of this project and told them as much. No, actually, I expected a book. A proper book. A real book. A book that would not look out of place among other books or better yet, a book that might be read instead of other books. But most of all, a book about a world, a lifestyle, a day-to-day existence that 99% of their peers, and the vast majority of those of us who call ourselves adults, have absolutely no idea about. That’s the book I wanted. I took it as a matter of fact that I’d get it.

By the end of the programme, 420-some pages had something scrawled on them and somehow, in spite of strict oversight by staff and myself, two biros had gone missing into the bargain. I believe I know what happened to one of them:

This pen has no ink and I’m getting pissed off, I feel like breaking this pen right now and putting this pen in the rubbish. I hate being in lock-ups because I have to behave and get a good report for the Judge, which is not easy when this pen is Shit.

*

Matua, can I write about my hood, can I write about my girlfriend, can I write about my crew, I got a baby, I tried to kill my neighbour, I hate the system, I got a dream, I might get early release next Thursday, gonna go home and get wasted …

I recall a conversation with a staff member one lunchtime, he’d been a soldier 20 years, you could see that in the way he carried himself. Quite a few staff are ex-military. They call them “staff” in youth justice, not screws or guards or officers. He told me, “Army saved me bro. I coulda been one of those kids. Most of them don’t see anything out there for them except what they know. What they know’s not pretty, eh.” I said, “So what did you know that made you join the army?” He said, “I looked around me one day, at the shit I was doing and I worked it out, that I was better than that.” I had to ask him, “Did you work it out yourself?” He said, “I had an uncle told me, ‘Open your bloody eyes, boy.’ I try to tell them that, eh.” He shrugged, with a look on his face halfway between a little bit sad and a little bit hopeful. Gotta be hard being everyone’s uncle.

Pasted up in YJ doin my time gee, telling them punk police that I ain’t guilty. Rolling up to court cases getting opposed bail gee. Homie I don’t give 2 fucks do I make myself clear. My dream was to follow my dad’s foot step, become a black power two fist on my face but now it ain’t about that shit it’s about succeeding in life, get a job and get paid and especially get laid.

Whatever else you think of that, a kid’s gotta have his dreams. Maybe the soldier does have some effect with his kōrero. And maybe some random writer telling young offenders that what they have to say is worth recording will go some small way towards a more positive outcome. And maybe we’ll all wake up one day in the land of milk and money to find ourselves the perfect parents and guardians of sweet little well-adjusted angels, and oh what a Wonderful World of Disney it will be.

I never thought I could sit down with the killer of a 10-year-old child and feel anything but loathing. I’m a father of two, both my kids made it through what I consider the danger years unscathed, and I’m so grateful for that. I can’t even begin to imagine the grief, the pain, the despair, the sheer rage of that child’s mother, father, whānau. And then I find myself sitting beside a 15-year-old kid, big for his age, you might say overweight, a wan smile, clearly bewildered but somehow still eager to please, and I know what he’s done … and he’s asking me for guidance … because a blank sheet of paper is scary as hell and the question was too in his face. So instead, I asked him if he knew about mana. He said, “A little bit, not much.” So that’s what we talked about for a little while. “Now write about that,” I said. He gave me seven lines, six of them deliberately worthless but made insightful by the last:

My mana is lost.

And I could feel no loathing.

 

How the fuck did I get here?: Soliloquies of youth, edited by Ben Brown, was originally published by Read NZ Te Pou Muramura in collaboration with Oranga Tamariki as part of the Writers in Youth Justice programme. The first edition of this book was published in a limited run and made available to the staff and young people of Te Puna Wai ō Tuhinapo. The Cuba Press has now republished it as How Did I Get Here?.

 




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