Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksMay 23, 2023

‘A multiverse karanga to Māori medical students’: A review of There’s a cure for this by Emma Espiner

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Final year med student Chloe Fergusson-Tibble finds both familiar struggles and a pathway forward in Emma Espiner’s new memoir about being a wahine Māori in medicine.

It feels logical to start with a mihi to Colleen. As the focus of an early chapter, Emma’s mother anchors her story and she’s a delight to read about. A Pākehā lesbian with her rescue remedy, cartoon character driving skills, and a love for her daughter that is as tangible and enduring as Papatūānuku herself. One of the most striking things about this book is that Emma’s wildly successful trajectory functions to magnify Colleen’s qualities. The book reads as a collection of reflective essays but each one contributes to a very special love letter from a daughter to her mother.

In te ao Māori it’s customary to lift women up and Emma’s whānau Māori will undoubtedly appreciate the book being written in a way that acknowledges her mother, aunties and grandmothers so wholly. Snippets of Pākehā and Māori grandmothers swapping recipes, gossiping and plotting the course of their children’s lives rings so true. It’s not surprising that Emma dreams about these women before having them etched into her own skin. Mana wāhine vibes reverberate throughout the text and when a group of women gather to bury a uterus ceremoniously, I didn’t feel the slightest bit surprised.

This is in contrast to her father who teeters the line of “fun uncle”. As a child the ability to “manipulate” her dad into buying her a book and McDonalds during their much lamented travels is entertaining. But it is nothing short of heartbreaking when she reveals that this is not always what’s needed, and you realise that fun uncles are OK as long as you have a dad too. My heart squeezed tightly for the small Emma, in the car with her dad every other weekend, only to be cleverly released when he turns into a beloved koro. 

Despite an undercurrent of loneliness cured partly by books, Emma’s early life is nurtured by an incredibly supportive whānau. But as a young woman, she quickly discovers that she is “a brown raisin amongst a packet of milk bottles.” Being Māori in her earlier memories involved cherished visits to kaumatua and whānau and being supported by a Pākehā mother who understood the importance of belonging in her culture. This is in stark contrast to her university, parliament and medical school life. 

Surrounded in these institutions by different varieties of mostly white “high achievers,” it’s clear that Emma is addicted to winning. Even at university she was determined to be the very best drinker. Apart from being deliriously entertaining, Emma’s knack for university drinking quickly spews into other more agonising themes in the book. Notably, Emma shows us how Māori have to be better than the best in order to receive the same hype as our non-Māori counterparts. 

There are a number of times where it feels like everything might fall apart but these moments are balanced by equal amounts of mental clarity, organised pros and cons lists, and Emma’s constant level headed, cutting decisiveness and witty prose. During her time as a new mother, she shares her deepest anxieties and fears. The toxic one-liners that only mothers who have realised it takes longer than 40 weeks to prepare yourself for the intensity of bringing your baby into the outside world can appreciate. Later Emma transforms her fears into purpose when she acknowledges that going to medical school is first and foremost so that her daughter will be proud of her.

She deep dives not only into medical school but also into writing, podcasting, political commentary and anything else to keep her hands busy until she can hold a scalpel. At every step she makes herself vulnerable by sounding out her aspirations with the people she loves and then just bloody going for it. 

Māori medical students will feel valued in these pages as she calls out the micro aggressions we experience from our peers, and the efforts of New Zealand’s racist underbelly to halt the transformative equity strategies such as the MAPAS (Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme). It was invigorating and deeply moving to read something that truly underscores our value. Emma also shares the experiences of many Māori medical students alongside her own. Mine, too, even, as we unpacked together the simple yet powerful understanding that tikanga does exist in surgery after feeling achingly culturally alienated throughout my medical training. 

She doesn’t just do this in her book, though. I’m reminded of a time that Emma took as many MAPAS students as she could find along to visit South Auckland to inspire students into surgery, or how she has hooked up those of us that love to write with contacts so we can flood the media with our stories. This woman, who clearly owns a version of Hermione’s time turner, finds time after working horrible surgical shifts to mentor us all as we trudge through medical school after her. She’s speaking our names, modelling and encouraging us to use our voices in places that are otherwise blindingly white. Her book is a multiverse karanga to Māori medical students, present and future. It’s both inspiring and terrifying and she is simply unwavering in her resolve that we are the future of healthcare. 

Papaarangi Reid, Moana Jackson and various other Māori superstars are mentioned in the book, as Emma enacts “one of the most expansive forms of activism” by “speak[ing] each other’s names in places where they might not be heard.” Heroes listed are mentioned and their accolades and effects of her own story examined with precision, always with a sense of aroha toward those who inspire her most.

She also acknowledges the Māori organisations she’s worked in, such as Ki A Ora Ngātiwai, who are healing Māori communities through common sense and tikanga-based models while simultaneously grappling with higher levels of auditing, fixed term contracts and less resourcing. My husband and I call this insidious devaluation of Māori health organisations rape aroha, but we say rape with Māori pronunciation, so it sounds less obscene when we are within earshot of people who can’t bear to hear that the government is pillaging the aroha of Māori by undervaluing our health organisations. 

Design: Archi Banal

At the point where she chooses surgery, in indisputable Emma fashion, you’re buckled in watching this unfold and wondering if she will ever stop and also simultaneously understanding that she will never stop. She is on a mad woman’s train toward equity and transformational change for whānau Māori and you’re either in or you’re out. I felt sick when I read about how difficult the prerequisite surgical exam was, only to reverse snort Lady Grey tea from my nostrils, as I imagined having to “learn to juggle while riding naked on horseback” to gain entry to a surgical training pathway. All things seem huge in medicine until you’ve done them. I have the once-dreaded “training intern long case” soon, which pales in comparison to prerequisite training scheme exams, but it’s all relative in medicine, and we all go relatively mad preparing for each and every big thing. Until it’s over and we move on to the next big thing.

I sat with clenched teeth as I considered the pervasiveness of racism and poverty in Aotearoa. I particularly enjoyed the simplicity of the chapter about the poor roading in Emma’s ancestral home of Kuku, Horowhenua. It underlines the persistent devaluing of our most treasured places. There are over 700 marae in Aotearoa and a significant proportion of these have the deathtrap-like road access that Emma describes. I’m reminded of the road to Taharora Marae in Waipiro Bay and how I almost plunged to my death after hitting a pothole the size of a coffee table on the way to my own wedding. It won’t be lost on readers that those who visit these places the most religiously are already dying earlier than non-Māori. Just as it’s clear that even “privileged Māori” like Emma and I have far more skin in the game. 

As someone who has no idea how to write anything mildly funny, I cackled frequently at Emma’s humour, scribbling asterisks and underlining comedic phrases. At times though I felt uneasy, wondering if she was using humour to deflect from her personal power. I could never be sure if the tactic was a thinly veiled vulnerability or just another joke. For example, I pursed my lips when Emma mentally deflects a compliment from a senior surgical colleague – who describes the ease that Māori patients show in Emma’s presence – by telling herself that it’s probably that her hair is distracting. 

I can’t decide whether I reacted that way because this is the reality we face as brown women in the medical system – always searching for the answers to why we are so bloody amazing – or whether it was because I’m holding her to an extra standard as a powerhouse for our Māori medical workforce, which is of course something she reflects on also. This idea that we have to be better than the best in order to make it through medical school intact. Sometimes I wonder if the extra interview we undergo as MAPAS students is in part a test of whether we will crack under the additional pressure. These confronting moments made for a very visceral experience of Emma’s examination of the problems we face as wāhine Māori in medicine, and I loved her writing more for it.

Reading There’s a cure for this I’m reminded of essays by New Zealand author Lana Lopesi, author of Bloody Woman, a book about indigenous female wisdom. And as Emma dissects the whakapapa of medicine, I’m transported to Zadie Smith’s essays, which I find deeply intellectual, obscuring and darkly funny. Mostly, though, I’m reminded that there is a place for me in medicine and that everything is going to be OK.

If it isn’t enough that this book is written by New Zealand’s junior doctor of the year I’ll remind you that Emma’s writing has previously cut through the colonial noise of mainstream media. She is an award-winning writer and podcaster and this speaks volumes about what kinds of stories and opinions matter in Aotearoa. The Don Brash contingent is smaller than it seems and the wave of people who are forging our indigenised future is swelling. It’d be foolish not to buy a copy for yourself immediately. 

There’s a cure for this: a memoir by Emma Espiner (Penguin NZ, $35) can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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