The 36 Questions Project is a new series in which Meg Williams takes a politician on a date and asks them the 36 Questions, a series of conversation-starters designed to make two people fall in love. In this episode, Williams dates Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox.
Previously on the 36 Questions Project: Act Party leader David Seymour, and the 36 Questions in full
Before going on this date I already knew I’d like Marama Fox, co-leader of the Māori Party. From what I’d seen of her at university-hosted political debates and on television, she seemed like someone’s kooky aunt who stands in the corner making snarky remarks and doesn’t take shit from anyone. She was always entertaining, always charming, always with an attitude, never letting people speak over her. I suspected she wouldn’t shy away from my unusual request, so I sent her a message on Facebook asking her to take part in an experiment to see if we would be able to make each other fall in love with one another by using a set of 36 questions.
“Sure, why not?” she replied. “I’ll talk to David to see how he liked it.” By “David” she was, of course, referring to ACT Party leader David Seymour who, I assured her, walked away from our date alive and unscathed.
“Isn’t she married?” my friends asked me.
I nodded. “With nine kids.” But I didn’t let that stop me from attempting to steal her heart.
Marama told me to meet her after a debate in which she was participating at the University of Auckland, which I skipped, having been to too many debates in the past few months. As the event wound up, I snuck into the back of the lecture theatre and waited until it was over. Marama greeted me with an excited “Meg!” as though we were friends already. She gathered her people – a third and fourth wheel would be joining us: notable characters Jevan Goulter and Mika Haka (who has recently announced he will be running in the Auckland Central electorate as a candidate for Gareth Morgan’s The Opportunities Party).
We took a taxi to Carmen Jones on K’Rd, a place Marama had wanted to revisit because of the eclectic decor, the food, and the fireplace. We ordered spaghetti and meatballs, seafood paella, and an assortment of different tapas. I explained the premise of the date with Marama again so that she knew what she was getting herself into.
“So you’re trying to get me to fall in love with you?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Does this mean I’m going to be labelled bisexual or something now?” I assured her I wouldn’t be ascribing any sexual identities onto her, and we began the questions.
Marama is a story-teller. A question would often lead to a story that would reveal to me something new about her (unfortunately in the end this meant not being able to finish the questions because we were taking too long and Marama wanted to go do some karaoke). Question nine (“Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common”) got us talking about our shared love of K’Rd and she told me about a time in high school when her class went on a trip to the theatre there. As the curtain went up she had snuck out to meet some friends at a nearby cafe, and then snuck back in just before the curtain came back down.
“I came here with Church College when I was in year 12 to see Romeo and Juliet at the theatre over here, somewhere down on K’Rd,” she said. “But I didn’t really do well at Church College, and I had a difference of philosophy. Church College was a Mormon school, and while I love my church, I didn’t understand the culture of the clothing and the sort of way people expected you to be. I was never that. But I still went to church and still loved it. So when I got there, my hair was shaved, I was in my punk-rock revolution, I wore Doc Martens and stovepipe jeans, and I wore my makeup out to the side of my head, and all sorts of stuff. I still loved church, but they didn’t get my ‘thang’.”
Marama grew up in Christchurch and was raised by her mother. In response to question 23 (“How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?”), she described her childhood as being riddled with happiness, tragedy and complications.
“But I always had a sister or a brother,” she said. “At any one time there was always someone. I was never alone. It wasn’t, you know, two parents and two kids and a dog and a puppy and a kitten. It was just life, but we didn’t know any less or any better, so I never regret my childhood.” Part of the reason Marama never regrets her childhood is because of her mother. In response to question 10 (“For what in your life do you feel most grateful?”), Marama told me that the thing she’s most grateful for in her life is her mother, who raised Marama herself after her dad left when she was four.
“I am privileged actually,” she said. “But my privilege has been being born to a mother who taught me I can do anything, and I literally believe I can do anything. Anything. Like I’ll watch videos of surgery because it’s interesting, and if I know someone’s having surgery I’ll look it up on YouTube and watch it, and I’ll go, ‘Oh, I could do that! I just need to study and I’ll be fine!’ My second privilege is being born to a mother who taught me never let yourself be treated less than you deserve. And I get that because she always stood up for us. If you know you’ve been treated unfairly, say something, do something. Don’t allow it, it’s not right. And my third privilege is being born to a mother who taught me to be better than my best, because she said, ‘Marama, you’re Māori, you’re a woman, you’re going to be at the bottom of every disparaging statistic in this country, so if you want to rise above that and not have the prejudices hurt you, you have to do your best, then you have to figure out what you did wrong, and how you can improve it, and do better next time.’”
One thing about Marama that I absolutely fell in love with was her complete unconditional love for her whānau (which is something she’d have to have, given that her house is home to 19 people: her and her husband, their nine kids and their spouses). When she told me about her mother, I told her about my own mother, and how we worked together at North Shore Hospital and she would offer her lunch to me when I was too poor to have my own at work.
“Of course!” Marama said. “She’s your mum! You know, our kids don’t understand sometimes how much we love them, how much we would just die for them. They just don’t get it, you know. And why wouldn’t we? The scars of my love are etched across my stomach forever. Everything I do I do for them.” I started to well up, until she added: “But now they’re adults so get the hell out of my house!”
I found her answer to question 13 interesting. The question asks, “If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?” Marama told me that she would want greater resilience.
“Really?” I asked. “You seem like you’re a very resilient person.”
“People don’t understand how much their words hurt,” she said. She recounted some stories about being hurt by MPs related to her saying they aim to “destroy the Māori Party,” and even worse stories about some of the anonymous letters she has received at her office. “Ninety-five percent of things that people post on my (Facebook) page are positive. Five percent are the ones that I remember. I thought that I was rock, stone solid. I thought I was. And I realised actually those things grate on me more than I thought they would. So if I could [change], I would be a little bit stronger.”
The restaurant was suddenly empty, apart from us. Jevan was getting antsy; Marama had asked the wait staff to play ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ and was now singing along at the top of her lungs. I suggested we make a move, and Marama suggested we go to a karaoke bar.
Perhaps the thing I loved the most about Marama was the way in which she completely enjoys people. She watches people who are clearly dancing to the beat of their own drum and you can see in her eyes that she just loves them for it. Walking from the restaurant along K’Rd, Marama’s appreciation of people was evident. She pointed out people’s funky outfits, she told passers-by that their makeup looked great, she stopped to ask a man if he was hungry and then gave him our leftovers.
We got to Saloon Bar, a small, western-themed karaoke bar right beside Auckland’s popular gay club, Family Bar. Marama requested ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ again. They didn’t have it, so she did ‘Proud Mary’, the whole bar singing along. We sang along to Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’ together, she hopped up on stage to dance and pulled me up on there with her. She watched in awe as people danced in interesting ways. She leaned towards me and said in a flirtatious manner, “Did you hear the line about the menage à trois?” when singing along to Katy Perry’s ‘Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)’. We went down to the downstairs part of Family Bar and danced to ‘No Scrubs’. This was not how I imagined the night would end up. But then again, I wasn’t very surprised – it was Marama Fox, of course we would end up singing karaoke and dancing at Family Bar.
As for the experiment, I felt that the questions and answers did foster closeness between us, such that if I were to bump into her I would stop to give her a hug and ask her how life is, and wish her a good day and really mean it. Marama took the exercise quite seriously, and opened up to me in a way that I didn’t expect her to. I came away feeling like I had made a new friend. Though I’m really not sure if that’s a result of doing the 36 questions with her, or whether it’s just because she’s such a genuinely lovely person.
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