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Image: Tina Tiller
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BooksJanuary 27, 2022

Reading Imagining Decolonisation, the slim book that invites us to dream big

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Imagining Decolonisation came out two years ago and is still one of the bestselling books in the country – it topped the charts at Unity Books Wellington last year. Anahera Gildea responds. 

When we first moved in, the house across the road was being renovated. We met the father-son builders who were on the job from seven every morning until about seven at night, most days a week. We watched as the small 1950s bungalow was stripped down to a shell, its innards gutted, the foundations repiled, new interior walls erected, a second storey constructed, and so on, accompanied by diggers and weatherboards and skill saws and sanders, painters with sunhats on sturdy ladders, and the inaudible babble of the national programme on the radio all day. The father-son were helping each other out and though they called it renovation it was really a total rebuild. The house that arose on the land where the old one used to be bore absolutely no resemblance to its predecessor. 

Before the summer finished, they built a deck, a new set of stairs, and had the grounds landscaped – the hyacinths uprooted and the native flax, phormium Dark Delight, splayed liberally around its collar. An aluminium shed was delivered, and then a second one for around the back. New concrete was poured for their cars to park on, a dispute settled about the boundaries and the rates with the neighbours up the hill, and a strip of “council” land left to demarcate the space between them. 

On re-reading Imagining Decolonisation, by Bianca Elkington, Moana Jackson, Rebecca Kiddle, Ocean Ripeka Mercier, Mike Ross, Jennie Smeaton, and Amanda Thomas, I was struck again by Jackson’s analogy of two houses that do the same job of providing shelter for people but have each been constructed on different foundations. The pou of the settler-style whare may not have been retrieved from Huiteananui, their kōwhaiwhai patterns can be unrecognisable if not illegible, and their kawa does not set the eye of the ancestor toward the sun. The ideologies that built the houses of the coloniser have often been theorised as predatory, consumerist, and based on irredeemable beliefs that all things belong to them.

Seven people photographed together in a bookstore, happy
Mike Ross, Ocean Mercier, Jennie Smeaton, Rebecca Kiddle, Moana Jackson, Amanda Thomas, Bianca Elkington (Photo: Supplied)

The title of this book implies the possibility of an Indigenous utopian future, but does not presuppose a dystopian settler one. There are no suggestions of “privilege” calculators that tax descendents of colonisers who continue to benefit from the unlawful, historical, acquisition of land. There are no expectations for home owners to bequeath their land back to iwi and hapū on their deathbeds, no fantastical narratives of the settler population storming the Beehive in protest over lack of diversity, and there are no assimilationist policies to pepperpot Pākehā into Māori communities across the motu in order to redistribute wealth and re-socialise them. There was none of that kind of imagining. That would be sedition. Instead, the seven contributors have been generous with their own stories, their knowledge, and their goodwill. They have written a collaborative text that takes as common ground an agreed upon history of the process of colonisation. The complexities we collectively face in our efforts to transform our society are laid down as the groundwork for a broad readership to understand the structures of the colonial context in which we live.

The word “decolonisation” has been around since the 1930s and, as Ocean Mercier explains, “In the Aotearoa context … decolonising does not mean the removal or withdrawal of colonial occupiers so much as a fundamental shift in the ideas, knowledges and value sets that underpin the systems which shape our country.” 

Decolonisation seeks to address and reverse the effects of colonisation, and though it is a slippery concept and unlikely to furnish us with a handy to-do list, the authors do a staggeringly good job at unpacking it for us so that we, the marea, can have a go at the imagining part.

Photo of a book standing upright on a table of books laid flat.
One little book to benevolently rule them all (Photo: Unity Wellington)

Mike Ross’s essay opens the book and invites us to experience the mid-ocean maelstrom that is the Throat of Parata, the chaos and unmanageability of that colossal whirlpool a visceral reminder of the tumult that colonisation wrought at the time of encounter. But in order to de-construct anything, we must first understand what it is. 

The reader is then guided through an overview of colonisation that is restrained but does not equivocate. Moana Jackson’s useful analogy of two houses is engaged, each developed according to its own systems and traditions, and the rākau is passed smoothly to Ocean Mercier, who maintains the analogy and invites us to observe ourselves critically as we try to fathom the two structures: their foundations, their norms, their kawa. The juxtaposition of these two houses alone may deliver revelations for some readers but for many of us, the continual process of colonisation and the seeming unfeasibility of being able to resist it, undermine it, decentre it, will still be the takeaway. Audre Lorde’s provocative and much quoted dictum, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” feels crucial to this conversation.

Most days I write in my She’d. This is a dilapidated structure in our back yard that I (she) resurrected enough to store things in and keep them mostly dry. It’s 3x2m, has neither glass in the windows nor a functional door but for all intents and purposes, is a shed. There is only one corner that is sufficiently dry for me to sit in and type but the view is lush, the birds are noisy, and there is no wifi. 

We have been on this street for years now and I have watched as the renovation frenzy has, one by one, overtaken in upgrades, subdivisions, and remodeling. We stumbled into home ownership before the current crisis, before the average house price in Aotearoa was around the $1 million mark, when it still felt possible for first home buyers to save for a deposit and live. In 2018 the Māori home ownership rate was 31% compared to 52% across the population and now with Covid exacerbating almost every economic and power imbalance, it seems the boundaries of our “properties” continue to be clearly demarcated by fence and road, by saw and hammer, and by the sweat of those who are paid to maintain them. 

It is true, the word decolonisation is problematic. It continues to address colonisation as the central issue, keeps the structures and scaffolding of our asylum in plain view, and therefore is in danger of obscuring our true desire for recovery, rangatiratanga, and as Moana Jackson puts it, “an ethic of restoration”. That is not the only difficulty with the word. In familiar colonising fashion, language that might have once been a productive call to arms, or a snag in the mind of the settler, has been absorbed into the rhetoric of the woke revolution (which I am undoubtedly part of), and risks losing its ability to transform, to create real social change rather than paying passionate lip service. The authors of Imagining Decolonisation do not shy away from these challenges but nor do they belabour the semantics. Each essay addresses the term “decolonisation” and its varied usefulness without getting stuck in lexical bunkers, preferring to keep the reader focused on the work to be done rather than the word itself. 

Rebecca Kiddle and Amanda Thomas interrogate the identity of Pākehā as descendants of settler-colonisers, as recipients of white privilege, and as co-victims of the effects of colonisation. The discussion of intergenerational trauma was challenging to read and left me musing on the barely perceptible line between keeping the reader on the page and circling fragility.

Nevertheless, one of the persistent drivers of the book is that colonisation is here to stay and that any rebuild we engage in, whether it be of our minds or the colonial machinery, should be done in concert with each other. We cannot disaggregate life, we are interdependent – our stories tell us that. Of how “our ancestors crossed Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa”, how they survived the Throat of Parata, and how we might too. Jackson’s discussion of restoring justice, and values, and balance, goes far beyond decolonisation. It is the hopeful future based on a whakapapa paradigm, on the ecology of relationships, and on the action of relinquishing of power and authority.

Two older people, a man and a woman, hugging in a bookstore
Moana Jackson at Unity Wellington’s celebration for the book, last year (Photo: Unity Wellington via Facebook)

My grandfather was a builder. He built his own house, houses for other people, businesses, and numerous other structures. He also built a series of huge corrugated iron sheds out the back of his rural property to keep his things in. Though they all had doors, only some of them were locked, and inside at least one of these monstrous barns was an emporium of detritus – metres of net for fishing, a tractor and trailer, thick ropes slung on big hooks, hoses coiled on the ground, an inflatable dinghy, giant gumboots, old oars, orange and yellow life jackets stacked on their backs and slumped in corners, and the constant smell of the sea. Once you acclimatised to the tang and the dark and the cavernous size, the number of spiders that were probably watching you, and arranged the life jackets into an adequate sofa, making sure all the buckles were tucked in, you could hide in there for ages and dream. 

That is what Imagining Decolonisation asks every New Zealander to do. It’s not a decolonisation handbook, it’s an invitation to understand, to self-educate, to investigate our complicity, our resistance, our privilege; and to interrogate the structures of power that maintain the status quo. It is a book aimed at even the most skittish reader of decolonisation discourse. An ethic of restoration isn’t a refurbishment, or colonial upgrade, or makeover. There is no correct wallpaper that will hide the blemishes, no carpet that will even out the sloping floor, and no volume of sheds that can mitigate invasion. To restore something is to heal it. 




I am the maiden native born

who dug her toes in the wet sand

whose seashell collections filled her hand

and the breeze blew her inky hair

down her back without a care

before there was a house that Jack built.


I am the maiden native born

who married a man making his way

though the elders frowned on it back in the day

they signed on paper and made friends with the crown

creating the house that Jack built.


I am the maiden all forlorn

who marched and picketed in front of her accusers

with legs that buckle and a back that bruises

so all the children I might bear

can walk head high without fear

to navigate the house that Jack built.


I am the maiden all forlorn

who hears the phrases seventh generations say

like “I’m not responsible for things back in the day.

Those bloody Māoris get handouts cos they’re brown.”

so in the name of safekeeping it’s all owned by the crown

here in the house that Jack built.


I am the maiden all forlorn

raised and educated in our civilised nation

who got a degree in politicisation

from the blankets and muskets repeatedly thrown

as clever accusations by a colonial clone

knocking at the house that Jack built.


I am the maiden NZ born

who walks through Tāmaki seeing eyes in faces

of hundreds of people of all colours and races

whose mother taught her not to be racist

while her friends call her cell to tell her the latest:

they’re dismantling the house that Jack built.

Imagining Decolonisation by Rebecca Kiddle, Bianca Elkington, Moana Jackson, Ocean Ripeka Mercier, Mike Ross, Jennie Smeaton and Amanda Thomas (Bridget Williams Books, $15) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

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