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The Sunday EssayJuly 23, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Imposter on the beach


An essay on growing up gay, brown and pretentious in Northland.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho.

I grew up in Whangārei, which I couldn’t really see at the time, blinkered with adolescent caginess about small towns. All the media I nourished myself with said things only happened in cities, that the proper backdrop for meaningful experience was urban.  

For the first time in my life I’m living further south than Auckland (Wellington, precisely). Hilarity ensues when you try describing Northland to anyone who thinks Matakana is part of the package. The irony is, Whangārei locals barely consider themselves Northland, deeming it a threshold place just beyond the Brynderwyns; a sort of last port of call before the true north just yonder. I’ve retrospectively surmised that this is a cryptic segregation of civilisation and its drop off (read: Pākehā, and then a Ngāpuhi wilderness).  

Cartography of the north is a murky concept to anyone who grew up around black or stony beaches. The Hawaii-adjacent grandeur of a Northland beach is a fantasy to these people; a touristic confabulation. Honestly, if all I knew was the gothic menace of a south coast beach, or the seething brutality of the west, I wouldn’t believe it either.   

Allies are important. Provincial New Zealand is a horror show that’s two parts economic decimation and one part meth, give or take. In the absence of a southern hemisphere equivalent of New England dark academia, a close friend and I took it upon ourselves to cobble together our own version of cultural enlightenment, striking a pose of elitism and proxy-superiority. It was a program of self-defence and social triumphalism, turning outsider statuses into affected cool. If either of us had been slightly more athletic we probably should have taken up skateboarding, which would have had a similar effect, just maybe with less prospects down the line.

What this involved was cleaving to literary sensibilities, as well as the glory of discovering obscure musicians, an accolade it’s harder to achieve in the streaming era where obscure media can be conjured with a finger. Markers of our cultural enlightenment included early-bird commitment to the post-punk revival, the films of Gus Van Sant, Paul Thomas Anderson and Lars Von Trier, obnoxious signalling of our disdain for charting artists, token fealty to 90s grunge and an indefatigable contempt for just about everything. The underlying logic was “everyone is dumb and deserves to die, except me.” 

And we were convincing. We really sold ourselves on this as a fact, decided it was endearing rather than alienating (somehow), and became local, deluded symbols of holier-than-thou aspiration. In this way we formed a crew, a shaky alliance between queerish indie scumbags and metalhead bogans with a throughline of pretentiousness. It was my first taste of community, and to this day maybe the most genuine incarnation I have ever experienced. 

There were no agendas outside survival, and yet our performances of ourselves were not abject survivalist ones. They were pure flourish: unfiltered fantasy clarifying every word and line, our wills extending in their purest form against the realities of a world we’d barely felt yet. Your typical adolescence, really. And in all this I was only vaguely aware of being Māori. For starters me and mine were mostly as poor as each other, so socioeconomic factors weren’t as glaring then as they are now. We just didn’t care. We were essentially pre-political. What mattered was our relationship with popular culture, because unlike Te Reo we could see it was a universal language. Still is.  

Growing up, libraries and the internet were absolute saving graces, and I can’t even imagine how much more true that’s become for teenagers everywhere since lockdown (of the internet, I mean, sadly not of libraries). A sense of elsewhere is crucial, I think. Not just for kids growing up in provincial hovels like Whangārei (cough), but even for city kids who suffer chronically from metropolitan envy, normalizing a loathing of Auckland as a pale imitation of bigger, better cities overseas (London, Paris, New York, fucking Berlin). I get it. No fish bowl is ever big enough when you’re young and hungry and slowly realising the limits of your local experience are exhilaratingly porous. There are vast countries out there waiting to be explored, conquered, luxuriated in. 

Big world, fixed amount of time in which to enjoy it. Especially now under duress of climate shift and the existential gear-change of AI. Now it’s not just lifetimes with clear expiration dates but the world as we know it, and so wanting to see it before it transforms into an uninhabitable morass of smouldering (or drowned) continents requires the time and resources to do so, like, yesterday. Chaos gives pipe dreams a cracked-out accelerant. The alternative is despair. And I don’t exfoliate and moisturise to hide my face under a veil. 

Cultural difference was experienced within my cohort not so much in terms of Māori and un-Māori but rather the underlying statuses of teenaged social organisation, and our respective strategies for negotiating these. Certainly my family unit—Māori father, Pākehā mother, mixed sister—had a closer proximity to a marae (usually tangi) than most of my Pākehā friends. That said, the presence of Māori is pretty strong up north compared to the rest of the country, a fact I was blissfully unaware of until my mid-20s when I finally saw more of the southland and its rocky, blustery, sparsely-populated charm (double cough). 

And so, everybody in my hometown had a relative proximity to Māori by sheer numbers. As just mentioned, tangi were regular occurrences growing up, for whatever statistically-insidious reason, and being a committed binge eater from a very young age they were always something I looked forward to. In fact, I would gorge myself until I vomited only to make another go of it, which was very Roman Empire of me, before puberty had me pivot to fasting for cock (which is very Greek of me). 

Obviously this was early aughts, and so by age 14 the pop-cultural emblems we worshipped were all fashionably underweight, so binge eating segued into binge thinning and a restrictive diet of coffee and secret cigarettes. It’s safe to say my eating was disordered, but growing up gay in a small town is hard enough without pathologising myself after the fact, so I’ll just say a certain silhouette was perceived as empowering and I was willing to do whatever to get it. She made choices. 

In terms of idols, all of mine were musicians and fictive characters. Karen O, frontwoman for post-punk outfit the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, was the patron saint for every one of my hormone-enraged anti-stances. Alison Mosshart, frontwoman for lo-fi rock duo The Kills, was 33.3% of the reason I started smoking, with Marla Singer and Margot Tenenbaum making up the other respective percentages. Diva worship is a common ritual in gay circles, but I took particular pride in embracing iterations beyond the kiln of glam-pop and musicals, like I was some sort of antithetical genius citing value against the grain (in hindsight this was probably internalised homophobia, lol). 

I’ve thought a lot about what exactly was stopping me from having a more active interest in myself as Māori growing up, whether having a European mother put us on a sort of whenua margin (through no design of my mother’s of course; she’s never been remotely interested in white men, and in this regard her romantic history is pure). More curious is the question of what this kind of engagement might have looked like, or even just what it is I’d have been expected to embody as a socially and politically-engaged Māori. Is every living Māori person not so much an individual in their own right but merely a symptom of intergenerational trauma, with a coercive byline of avowing this trauma at any and every pulpit? If they’re lacking open lines with family and heritage sites (their marae, their urupa) is this a lack they (read: we) should take personal responsibility for? Who does it serve, and who does it rub? 

Furthermore, is every Māori public figure not performing Māoriness in the preferred way just some self-hating, melanin-rich imposter? I don’t have a consummate answer, but I will say I’ve got issues with the masculinist vibe of mana, which then as now has popular chutzpah—like basic reo greetings and catch-phrases, ie mana wahine girl-bossing—drifting across intersectional lines in a cache of brown-flavoured bytes. Mana as it’s popularly deployed, and its residual maleness, always smacked of bro-adjacent hokum to me, and in the early-aughts, pre-takatāpui climate I didn’t see anything in opening whenua lines that could serve a young gay boy with upwardly mobile aspirations. In today’s raucous liberal virtue signalling, I see even less. 

I’m incredibly grateful for everyone that came before me, especially with Māori having agencies in late-capitalist, post-empire, neoliberal contexts rarely afforded First Nations around the world. But I certainly don’t have the temperament for upholding a political profile, and I doubt anyone would want me representing their cause anyway (seriously, I’m a PR nightmare). But that’s just me. 

That said, I do feel a low-level rage at all times, an affect of violence aligned with Deleuze and Guattari’s refusals, lines of flight, deterritorialisations and becomings. Sure, Deleuze and Guattari take flack for some of their more wilfully esoteric theorising—and they don’t have many feminist fans, see becoming-woman—but refusal and becoming stay with me as gestures of resistance, a resistance that’s embodied by violence aimed at disrupting unbearable conditions. I can’t help but recognise violence and rage as the spiritual affects of any people subject to systematic (and systemic) cruelties. So if I feel Māori at all, it’s in this way.  

Pardon my cynicism. But when I made the unequivocal decision not to have kids around age 14, it was mostly from a dismay with the world around me that is yet to abate, and which I can’t imagine lifting anytime soon. I take consolation where I can, mostly of the dick variety. If anyone has the stamina to envision and action world change then I applaud them. But that’s not me. I write horny fiction, for fuck’s sake.

Keep going!