A collection of poems that challenge the convention of being a ‘good Pacific Island woman’ takes centre stage in A-wake-(e)nd.
Audrey Brown-Pereira describes herself as a “word player”. Her latest collection of poems, A-wake-(e)nd, certainly plays into that description. “The word awakened is such a beautiful word and so I wanted to spread it out, so that there is no end to the word,” she says on a video call from her home in Sāmoa.
A lot of Brown-Pereira’s poetry in the collection talks about putting women first, as many Pacific women tend to do the opposite and serve their loved ones first before themselves. The poems highlight different perspectives from being a Pacific woman to a Pacific mother or a Pacific wife or being a Cook Islands and Sāmoan woman living in a conservative nation such as Sāmoa; the many hats Brown-Pereira wears every day and all at once. “I would hope that when someone reads these poems, they can say, oh, yes, I get it. Often Pacific women are in the background and so I want these words to inspire them to put themselves first,” she says.
Empowering women is important for Brown-Pereira, who has two daughters aged 14 and 20. She uses her own life experiences as examples for other Pacific women to learn from. Lessons she says she and many others didn’t get themselves. “We didn’t get this advice from our mothers or aunties, so these poems are a gift to the next generation. I want them to be free to do what they want and not be held back by others. I want them to feel a sense of belonging.”
A particular focus for Brown-Pereira is sensuality, particularly in cultures where women often learn to downplay their bodies. She celebrates the female body and who we are as women. “I wanted to bring an element of mystery and intrigue to the poems that talk about women’s sensuality, celebrating our different body shapes. For example, women after having children sometimes lose a connection with their body.”
Brown-Pereira wants to connect mothers of the Pacific with themselves. “Pacific women are always serving others whether it’s their husband, their children, their extended families, their workplace and so I want to wake our women up to come out of the shadows and see themselves again, to not be scared of themselves, but to embrace their physical bodies and their souls within.”
When Brown-Pereira is not writing poetry, she is dealing with connected but very different work. As the secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP), she spends her days discussing plastic pollution, ocean acidification and global warming. Their mandate for the Pacific region is focused on the environment, sustainable development including priority areas of the climate crisis, resilience, waste management, pollution control, island and ocean ecosystems and environmental monitoring and governance. “By virtue of the place I work at, I was always going to bring those themes into my poetry work, especially as I am based in the islands and these topics relate to Pacific people,” she says.
Brown-Pereira was born in the Cook Islands before migrating to Tāmaki Makaurau as a baby. She says the first poem of the book, which starts off with the questions, “who are you? Where do you come from? Where have you been your whole life?” is a piece of work that stands out for her as a way to reconnect with Aotearoa, where she grew up. “The poem is a response to the beautiful artwork on the cover of A-wake-(e)nd by Serene Hodgman as it reminded me of my upbringing in South Auckland.” Brown-Pereira attended Papatoetoe West Primary School, Kedgley Intermediate and Aorere College before moving to Epsom Girls Grammar School. She says her family still resides in Papatoetoe to this day. “This poem takes me back to my childhood, about my parents and my sisters growing up together, but it also connects me to my future,” she says.
who are you, where you come from, where you been your ( )hole life?
we grow different under artificial light
heaters in the winter we’re not allowed to use
only hot water bottles
and velvet blanket with lions and tigers
and duvets and continentals with gardens of flowers
covering us to keep us warm in this cold
not in our blood only eyes and skin
descendants of shift workers
7 am to 4 pm
4 pm to 12 am
check-out and again and again and again
lines of production for
biscuits to drive and cars to eat at takeaways with beer in crates and fish and chips
in newspapers no one reads except for the horses on the radio for the am and
the fm eating meat pies and sausage rolls with tomato sauce and pig heads and
fish heads with blue tin labelled from sāmoa of fresh coconut cream to cover the
banana and pumpkin poke and sides of mainese and chop suey and fried flounder
and crayfish with raro doughnuts buttered with marmite drinking sachets of
villages of suburbs with buses and factories
and farmland eaten
for cemeteries and highways
and airports and all her expansions
against a changing sky and sea where the land
no work redundancies
and benefits your worldview
but huge with clear eyes
south auckland land of māori and pacific people
here and there
and people on the tv
in that other world
another new zealand
foreign and out of
muldoon, lange, palmer, moore, bolger, shipley, and clark
kiwi names in your living room with access to your remote control
look nothing like mum and dad
2022 in transit to depart for europe
looking from inside
the sitting room of your childhood
knowing your own children
don’t get you
don’t get it
don’t want to as no need too
being daughters of the i(s)lands fully sovereign
2022 in transit to return from europe
bare feet on the chinese mat
neatly covering the carpet
below the sofa
of embroidered cushions and family portraits
wall papered with shell ulas
and church hats
with scent of tiare maori and fejoa
return to sender
you gently fold the tivaevae
you will take home with you
You can listen to the audio version of this poem on Poetry Shelf, here.
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.