Books editor Claire Mabey weeps her way through the year’s biggest book.
CW: This review includes mention of suicide. Please take care.
Ruby Tui wasn’t initially keen to publish a book. She was approached by Jenny Hellen at Allen & Unwin NZ, one of New Zealand’s most experienced and gifted publishers, who saw Ruby being interviewed by the BBC after she and the Black Ferns won gold at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. As Tui writes in the book: “This book almost didn’t happen. I was hesitant, I was nervous, I was uncomfortable.”
What changed was the realisation that there are hardly any autobiographies of women in sport in Aotearoa: “I went to my local bookshop to check out other books on female sportspeople, in particular women’s rugby players. […] I stood in the sports section, and I searched and searched. I pulled out book after book, but there wasn’t a single biography on a Kiwi female athlete in the whole section. […] I pictured a young brown female sportsperson walking in there and seeing herself nowhere, not belonging in the book world. My eyes welled up right there in the bookshop.”
I wonder if Hellen knew the depths of what she was going to get once Tui did say yes. I did not. Straight up: I’m not much of a rugby fan. I went to games as a kid and as a student at Otago, I was even a member of the All Blacks Club once, but I was really only there for the hot chips with that particular kind of stadium tomato sauce. The patriarchy turned me off rugby in a big way – as a regular at Gardies pub in Dunedin I more than once witnessed the toxic aftermath of the post-match piss up. These days my idea of team sports is sustained silent reading, and at a push, a round of bowls accompanied by cheap bowling club beverages. So it was with the spectre of men’s rugby culture on my mind that I opened the first pages of Ruby Tui’s story. I didn’t at all expect what was coming. To be honest, I thought I’d get a bit bored.
My copy of Straight Up now looks like it’s snapped its way through a ticker tape parade, there are so many post-its hanging out of it. I marked the pages that made me well up, that triggered my fight or flight response, that worked my heart up into my mouth, that made me want to punch the air in triumph, that tucked a nugget of wisdom into my sport-shy little heart. Reading Tui’s life story is like joining a boot camp for life, with a steady and capable coach to guide you through its sweeping emotional landscape.
The book begins where everyone begins: with childhood and the profound ways that our early years shape who we are. Tui’s early life shifts between her large and loving Sāmoan family (on her dad’s side) and her more isolated palagi one (her mum’s). That she was loved is a fact often affirmed: Tui’s perspective throughout the book is frank and without blame, without bitterness or even regret. Very gently, with a tone of patience and an acceptance that becomes the undercurrent of the entire book, Tui describes a childhood made unstable by alcoholism, drug abuse and psychological and physical violence.
The most difficult chapters describe how 11-year-old Tui witnesses the death of a woman from a crack overdose and how the event plays upon her state of mind so profoundly that she takes a kitchen knife and contemplates suicide. The scene is narrated in a devastatingly close present tense (“That’s where I go now with my knife.”) which pulls the reader into the depths of a child’s despair. It is terrible to read but we’re deftly manoeuvred through and then past it. One of the ways in which this book is successful is that careful and honest way it treats traumatic events. The present tense switches out very quickly and reminds us that adult Ruby Tui is right there with us, surveying her life with clear and open appraisal. “Suicidal thoughts,” writes Tui, “are a lot more common in minors than we would all like to think.” It is an unbearable truth but one offered to the reader with the voice of experience and the safe scaffolding of the knowledge that our protagonist is going to be OK. The intimate and moving first half of Straight Up ensures that we know trauma is a big part of Ruby Tui’s story, but also that it is not the whole – not by a long shot.
The structure and pace of Tui’s life story has been expertly handled. The chapters are tight and flow effortlessly from one episode to the next, with each one wrapping up with a segment in bold called Ruby’s Training Bag: a quote from within the chapter that reflects Tui’s approach to life as a continuous opportunity to learn. The clarity and strength of pace is likely down to Margie Thomson, who is one of New Zealand’s most experienced ghost writers. Her titles include All Blacks Don’t Cry and Stand By Me (both with John Kirwan), Impossible: My Story (with Stan Walker), and The Resilient Farmer (with Doug Avery). In her acknowledgements, Tui writes: “To Margie, thank you for the hours upon hours of connection that brought this book to life.” It’s a curious task, to help someone mine the details of their intimate memories and craft them so that others can get close. In the documentary film The Ground We Won (2015) about Reparoa’s local rugby team, the intertwining of daily farm life and rugby is almost beautiful. We never see or hear the filmmakers Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith but the care of their subjects is obvious. I started to think of Margie Thomson in the same way: it is clear that hiding behind this book is a masterful, respectful relationship with the subject in order to get to the truth.
The second half of the book is all about rugby and the intense intertwining of team and personal life. All of Tui’s efforts feed her determination to become a good player and a good person. At university she worked a gruelling schedule of multiple jobs to pay her way through; she describes selling sausages and massage sticks to fundraise the cash for international Sevens tournaments; and the endless training to get bigger, faster, stronger.
Alongside the physical work is an ever-present question of money: how to afford to be an athlete. It’s a fact universally acknowledged (these days, thanks to the activism of the players themselves and their allies) that women have gotten a hell of a lot less than the men. In 2014, Tui explains, the first ever women’s semi-professional squad was contracted: “There would be at least four ‘tier one’ contracts of $30,000; and at least four ‘tier two’ of $25,000; and others on $20,000 and $15,000.” At the time, Tui was stoked – she went from getting $2,000 to $25,000: “It seemed an incredible dream to me.” But, as Tui says in the book, the history of low pay meant that some had to drop out of contention well before this hike in 2014, as the demands of juggling family, work and training was impossible.
I finished reading Straight Up in Greymouth. I was there to visit the now iconic pink church, Gloria, created by artist Sam Duckor-Jones. The West Coast is a beautiful part of Aotearoa, but remote: dense bush on one side and a wild surf on the other. Tui grew up there, in Blackball and in Greymouth. Some of her hardest times happened there. I wandered around the town and noticed Tui everywhere I went: in the local newspaper that reported that Tui was the star of the Christmas Parade the day before; posters of the book in the window of a pub; at the gift shop in Punakaiki where her book was proudly displayed, the only book not about wildlife on offer. Brave people make a difference in communities like this. Duckor-Jones is changing lives with his beautiful pink church and life as an artist. And it is clear that Tui, too, is a treasured member of the community: a young, brown, woman athlete.
Tui’s publisher told me that “sales of Ruby’s book are extraordinary”, and that there are urgent reprints while the book sells out in bookstores across the country. This is unsurprising at this point, of course, given the dramatic and spectacular success of the Black Ferns this year. But what interests me is the way the book is set up as more than the story of a rugby icon. The cover is minimalist and shows Tui not mid-rugby game or in uniform, but in plain clothes, fixing the barrel of the lens with an open and relaxed gaze, the glimmer of a smile on her lips. The silver sheen on the title and the black T-shirt, and the white name is a nod to the black jersey and the trifecta of hues that make up our national sporting identities, but it’s subtle compared to, say, books about Richie McCaw (dark covers, staunch expressions, often shots from the field). What Tui’s cover indicates is that it’s a whole person that makes up a player, not just the sport bits. And this is reflected throughout the book: there are conversations about love, about the ways the women had to change their own game and stand up to inequities in the system, about a huge shift in the team culture that led to their ultimate successes personally and on the field. It is a story of personal and systemic metamorphosis, which has ultimately led us to a new, women-led era for sport at large in Aotearoa.
I cried a lot while reading this book, but there’s a passage early on in Straight Up about reading and the value of books, that gets me every time: “Every single night [Mum] buried herself in a book when she got into bed, and it made me look up to reading, and that’s the reason I am still a reader. I got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone one Christmas, and it was just the best to have my very own novel to read.” I can imagine many a lonely child, adults too, thinking of Tui’s’ book in the same way. What a gift.